Dining director Mike Scheff has long wanted to give residents of Covenant Woods a true farm-to-table dining experience, and with the help of a Master Gardener, that wish has been granted.
Since joining the team at the Mechanicsville, Va., continuing care retirement community three years ago, farm manager Jen Alexander has led a crew of resident volunteers in transforming the 5,000 sq ft farm, planting more crops and growing the footprint to some 10,000 sq ft.
Alexander is a Master Gardener, as are several members of her volunteer team. Nine core volunteers help with seeding and cultivating on a rotating schedule, but other residents have done their part in different ways. Some have donated materials for an onsite compost bin, such as coffee grounds and banana peels. One resident supplied carpentry muscle, building tables, the compost bin and shelving for the farm’s shed. Crocheters fabricated faux wasp nests and floral design hobbyists assembled arrangements from the flower crop to spruce up campus buildings.
Scheff says the farm, thanks to Alexander, has bolstered a sense of community and given many residents purpose. He also praises the manager’s green thumb and ability to maximize the yield.
“It’s surprised me how much the farm grows every year and how Jen does such a good job pivoting with Mother Nature and adjusting to soil and rain conditions,” Scheff says.
Photo credit: Covenant Woods
Photo: Last year, the harvest at the Covenant Woods farm totaled 4,700 pounds.
Covenant Woods’s farm produces tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, Chinese broccoli, lettuce, carrots, radishes, zucchini, flowers and more. During 2021, about 4,300 pounds of produce were harvested. The variety isn’t random: Alexander regularly meets with the culinary staff to discuss their wish lists.
Scheff says the yield supplies about 20 percent of the produce needs for one of the facility’s restaurants, which altogether serve about 21,500 meals per month. When the farm’s product does appear on a salad bar or buffet, the dining staff posts signs to let residents know about it.
The bounty has other uses as well. When the kitchens face a bumper crop that exceeds their capacity, the excess is donated to a local church. In addition, this year the retirement community launched a farmers’ market that sells to residents who crave fresh produce for their own cooking.
Tomatoes—the region is known for the Hanover variety—are the top crop among residents and represent more than half of the farm’s output by weight. A glut of ripe tomatoes challenges the chefs’ creativity, but allows them to spotlight a regional favorite, tomato pie.
“We make tons of tomato pie and bloody Mary mix, and use them in salads and sandwiches and as garnishes,” Scheff says. He adds that many residents are perfectly content eating simple preparations such as sliced tomatoes with olive oil, salt and pepper.
Alexander has been expanding beyond the confines of the farm and experimenting with additional crops—“using every bit of earth she can,” Scheff says. Most recently she planted pumpkins and watermelons.
Mounting such an effort is a complicated matter, he admits, but several steps have helped make it a success. Hiring Alexander was a key factor. The retirement community forged a partnership with a local university to analyze soil samples. And organizing volunteer efforts has been essential, especially when it comes to planting.
“Preparing the ground is backbreaking work,” he observes.
Scheff sees multiple benefits to the onsite farm. “Our cooks get to use the freshest produce possible, we have our own farm-to-table program and the residents get all the vitamins and health benefits,” he notes.