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East Aurora farmer looks to put an educational vision into Arden Farm

H. Mark Roelofs was a Naval communications officer during World War II.

Family dinners at his house included lots of vegetables – and no nonsense.

“Very early on, I was told to eat what was put in front of me,” his son, Dan, told those gathered Monday at The Buffalo NewsRoom at Canalside for his talk on healthy eating.

Dan Roelofs did as commanded growing up. It worked out pretty well, too. He expanded his palate, grew a healthy appreciation for food and found his place in the world on a family farm started a century ago by his great-grandfather, Elbert Hubbard, founder of the Roycroft Community arts and crafts movement in East Aurora.

Roelofs has worked off and on at Arden Farm since 1989. That was the year his father, who also was a political science professor at Colgate, Cornell and New York universities, bought the fallow, 65-acre parcel from other family members and decided to return it to its original use.

Lettuces, leafy greens and heirloom tomatoes today are the most popular crops in a mix of more than two dozen fruits and (mostly) vegetables that also include arugula, beets, chard, Inca berries, collard greens, leeks, peas peppers, squash and zucchini.

Five years ago, Dan Roelofs used a grant to build a “high tunnel”: an open-ended greenhouse that he can use to grow produce year round, even during rough Southtowns winters.

Roelofs, 45, holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University at Massachusetts, and worked in the school's fine arts center in the years after he graduated. He helped other family members tend the tract along Billington Road, just north of East Aurora, when he was in town for visits or college breaks.

He returned to Arden Farm in 2007 to help care for his father, who at the time was suffering from Parkinson's disease and who died the following year.

“When you have to be at a farm,” he said, “you start farming.”

Roelofs is in his ninth year of learning the ups and downs of running a modest agricultural business. The family tried its first Community Supported Agricultural venture in 1996 and it proved harder than imagined, Roelofs said. They later allowed Stew and Deb Ritchie, now owners of the Native Offerings farm in the Cattaraugus County town of Otto, to work the land for five years before Roelofs moved to Western New York to help his family and take a crack at operations.

Arden Farm is a certified organic producer but that’s merely where the long-term vision starts for this descendant of another visionary. He looks to turn the farm into a nonprofit educational venture.

“It all comes back to sustainable community agriculture – and a place for kids to come out and be active and learn how to feed themselves,” he said in an interview Monday after his presentation.

Last fall, he entertained 25 visitors in a special dinner inside the rustic barn on the Arden Farm property. There was a yoga class beforehand. A classical guitarist entertained during the repast. Roelofs would like to have more of these dinners in the future – accessible and “family style,” he explained, not of the $125-a-plate variety.

Roelofs has had talks with East Aurora Schools Superintendent Brian D. Russ, whom he described as a kindred spirit, about bringing an agricultural component into the district curriculum. That could mean shuttling students out to the farm to open their minds to local farming – and get their hands dirty.

He also would like to add an agritourism twist to the farm and work with Knox Farm State Park to provide added educational programs there.

Unlike the sandy, salty California soil where many of America’s supermarket crops are grown, Roelofs said the soil on his tract is rich in clay, which pushes more nutrients into what he grows, and keeps them there.

Meanwhile, the farming continues.

He told his audience Monday that  heirloom tomatoes with salt, and maybe a few slices of garlic, are among his go-to foods. He also raved about the benefits of tomato sauce, preferably from more nutritious heirlooms – though he was careful to underline that despite his plant-based knowledge he by no means should be considered a culinary master.

To make good sauce, he suggested, “Find an Italian grandmother and give her tomatoes.”

That said, Roelofs said he sees himself as responsible for those who buy his products from Buffalo-area restaurants, Orchard Fresh in Orchard Park, the Arden Farm CSA and his farm stand.

Good nutrition, he said, “is about balance” and “whole foods you can pick up and eat.”

“Juicing is huge,” he added. “It’s the best way to get all your vitamins.”

He bestowed his approval on spices that can dress up vegetable and other dishes, as well as blueberries, kale and Chinese cabbage as dense superfoods that can provide energy and other health benefits.

“Garlic and onion sweeten up bitter things,” he said.

After the presentation, he said he would like to go home and make a “red salad”: All red salad: red-leaf lettuce, red onion, tomatoes, radishes, topped with cooked, sliced beets “sweet enough to serve as the dressing.” Those with a taste for more traditional dressing can add olive oil and balsamic dressing.

Roelofs said organic produce doesn’t have to be expensive for consumers who cut out boxed and processed foods.

“You’ll also save significantly in medical-wise in the future,” he said. “I’ve had customers kick their diabetes eating a dinner plate full of leafy greens.”


Twitter: @BNrefresh


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