John Biscoe returned to his childhood home, Glenburnie Farm in Spotsylvania, after owning and running a silk screen business. He grows vegetables, microgreens and peppers to sell at the Spotsylvania Farmer's Market and to area restaurants. (Suzanne Carr Rossi/The Free Lance-Star)
BY KATIE THISDELL
The best way to tour a farm is by taste, says John Biscoe.
How else would you know the blue spice basil has a bubblegum aftertaste?
Or that the lingering June strawberry may be the best you’ve had all year?
And the edible pansies may dress up your plate, but it’s the nasturtiums that carry a peppery bite.
“They taste completely different off the plant than they do the next day,” explained Biscoe, who sells at Spotsylvania County farmers markets.
Micro mustard greens, growing in the greenhouse at Glenburnie Farm.
Biscoe grows organic produce on his family’s 800-acre Glenburnie Farm in western Spotsylvania, including a greenhouse full of tiny vegetable plants called microgreens.
Local chefs rave over Biscoe’s microgreens, which are served in several downtown Fredericksburg restaurants, along with top dining spots in Washington.
“His microgreens are amazing—he has all different varieties,” said Blake Bethem, owner of Bistro Bethem on William Street.
“He’s a small farmer. That’s what chefs are looking for. The small guys support each other.”
Biscoe, 46, grew up swearing he’d never be a farmer.
He spent his childhood on Glenburnie Farm, which has been in his family since at least the late 1850s.
Now, his brothers Bill, 61, and Bruce, 60, keep a herd of 500 cows.
He left the area for a while to study English at Virginia Commonwealth University, and then was a screenprinter for 10 years.
By 2000, he desperately needed a change.
John Biscoe at Glenburnie Farm in Spotsylvania.
“I was sick of what I was doing,” Biscoe said.
A friend proposed an idea: What about growing organic herbs and microgreens? Biscoe was sold.
The two men had a business divorce a few years ago, so now Biscoe runs the farm on his own.
Surrounded by fields of corn grown by his family sits a greenhouse filled with trays and trays of tiny plants.
The 2-inch-tall greens don’t look like all that much, but they anchor Biscoe’s business.
Restaurants and home chefs often use microgreens in salads or as garnishes. Their itty-bitty leaves and thin stems add a crunch and burst of flavor to dishes, such as Bethem’s crab and avocado salad.
“It’s a good little accompaniment to something without having to change the whole dish,” said Bethem, who has bought assorted produce, greens and edible flowers from Biscoe off and on since his restaurant opened in 2004. “And everyone likes something that’s small and petite.”
Among the trays of plants at Glenburnie Farm are arugula, buckwheat, red mustard, pea shoots, purple kohlrabi, cilantro, a few types of basil and more.
The seeds germinate quickly, and the fast-growing greens are cut every two weeks—less frequently for some varieties.
Every few days, Biscoe fills the empty trays with a fine soilless mix that includes peat moss and gypsum, and then sprinkles on the small seeds with a restaurant-style Parmesan cheese shaker.
“This is much more of a factory process than a seasonal vegetable,” Biscoe said.
But he does have other seasonal vegetables—some that he sells, others just for his own use, like the row of ground-hugging strawberry plants.
You’ll also find Yukon gold and Pontiac red potatoes hiding under straw; squash and zucchini of various sizes (Biscoe says the short-shelf-life flowers are the main attraction); assorted heirloom beans; and of course, lots of spring onions and garlic.
Peggy Hyland of Fredericksburg volunteers one day a week at the farm, and blogs about her experiences learning about the farm and where our food comes from.
One morning in late June, Peggy Hyland rhythmically cuts off the dark green tops of the onions and trims off the roots, soil still clinging on.
She and Biscoe joked that working on a farm requires being a “multitasking monkey.”
Hyland, 41, a longtime friend of Biscoe, had back surgery two years ago. Recovering and bored, she asked to help out one day a week. A handful of others also work for Biscoe.
The two credit the popularity of farmers markets and the campaigns for local foods with connecting more consumers with the roots of what they’re eating.
“You’re getting food that’s fresher, and you’re getting food that hasn’t been trucked across the country,” Biscoe said about eating locally.
Celebrity chefs are leading what he describes as a “general rebellion” in the country as more and more people mistrust “big-box anything.”
But Biscoe has no aspirations to sell in bulk. Already, he’s selling nearly everything that he grows, thanks in part to Madison-based Fresh Link, a distributor that connects small farms to chefs in and around Washington.
That’s how his produce makes it into the kitchens of some of the city’s top restaurants.
“Everyone can grow stuff. Being able to sell it and get a fair price for it is challenging,” said Biscoe, who hopes to add one more greenhouse to keep the focus on microgreens.
But he’s also a niche farmer.
His 10-acre section of the farm is host to more than 100 types of hot peppers, along with a handful of sweet Italian and bell peppers.
John Biscoe grows a variety of hot peppers including 'Bishop's Crown.'
“He really is the pepper guy,” Hyland said.
Walking through rows of potted peppers, she points out various names: yellow brain strain shaped like tiny brains; bhut jolokia and naga morich, both known as ghost peppers; datil peppers with a citrusy flavor. She notes that some other names could be mistaken for Italian wine.
Hyland pauses to check the black pearl peppers, which look like olives. Over time, the peppers mature from red to black.
“I love seeing how they’ve changed each week,” Hyland said.
One day, Biscoe may get into the online seed business, selling the seeds from dried peppers.
“The pepper industry has blown up so much recently,” Biscoe said.
When Biscoe started farming, he said he didn’t have a plan. Now, he does.
And after a back injury forced him to a desk job a few years ago, Biscoe is glad to be back to working the earth.
“I don’t see myself doing anything else at this point.”
Read Peggy Hyland’s blog: gofarmtotable.blogspot.com
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975