Green Acres

The Swank family's blooming produce business attracts caravans of big-city cars carrying foodies who shell out big bucks for the fruits of the land

When Jodi and Darrin Swank met 24 years ago, they were both in completely different professional fields.

When Jodi and Darrin Swank met 24 years ago, they were both in completely different professional fields.

Jodi and Darrin Swank’s romance sparked in the way of many big-city love stories: They met at a club in Boca Raton.

Jodi was a travel agent; Darrin had a landscaping business.

That was 24 years and a farm ago. Today, their story plays out amid okra blossoms and baby cilantro. They have three school-age children, a blooming produce business and a soaring new barn where they now host a stream of events.

In an era when the term “farm-to-table” is widely abused, the Swanks are not only living a true farm-to-table existence – they’re celebrating the reverse. They are at the forefront of a table-to-farm trend. That soaring barn? It has been put to grand use during multicourse farm feasts whipped up by visiting star chefs during the October-to-June growing season.

Swank Farm's bounty includes herbs, vegetables, and microgreens.

Swank Farm's bounty includes herbs, vegetables, and microgreens.

Perched on 20 acres of farmland on a Loxahatchee Groves dirt road, Swank Farm not only reflects the last name and labor of its farmers it also lives up to the glamorous visions the very word connotes. The farm’s “Swank Table” events bring in caravans of big-city cars carrying foodies in farm-chic wear.

Between wine toasts and sips of locally brewed craft beer, they feast on refined dishes prepared with freshly harvested ingredients as an acoustic band plays in the background. Yes, it’s a culinary dream — and it’s one for which guests pay $160 per person.

This past season, the Swanks hosted eight such feasts on the farm within five months. At season’s end, they also hosted the international Devour! Food Film Festival, screening a series of film shorts accompanied by chef-finessed dishes.

“We’re in a changing phase right now. We’re going more from a production side to more of an educational, entertainment, tourism side.”

Darrin Swank harvests hydroponic romaine lettuce under a Florida sky.

Darrin Swank harvests hydroponic romaine lettuce under a Florida sky.

But before you think the farming couple has gone Hollywood, you should know there are a couple of ulterior motives to opening up the farm for such events. One, of course, is to support the family, which shares a small modular home. The farmers broke ground this summer on a larger family home to be built on the property.

But there’s an informational motive as well, says Swank. In a county that leads the state in agricultural production, he wants to teach the community about “slow” foods — or the opposite of fast food.

“Our idea is to keep bringing more and more folks here to educate them about the values of using local produce,” he says.

Produce is a vastly expanding topic at Swank Farm. What began as a modest harvest of greens on less than an acre has grown dramatically to a diverse harvest scattered across some 7 acres.

The Swanks supply produce for star chefs Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio, among others.

The Swanks supply produce for star chefs Daniel Boulud and Tom Colicchio, among others.

“We started with arugula, basil and single lettuces. And from that to now, we’re up to 350 varieties of produce,” says Darrin. That includes tomatoes, heirloom root vegetables, premium greens such as micro herbs, golden purslane, and upland cress, and even edible flowers.

It’s a far cry from the Swanks’ humble beginnings in rural life. Darrin recalls the farm was “more an underground thing” at first.

“When we first started, there was nobody doing it,” he says. “We were selling to chefs, so nobody knew — we didn’t even have a sign on the property.”

But gradually the Swank name began popping up on upscale menus across South Florida, piquing the curiosity of local gastronomes. They wanted to buy those delicious greens they had devoured at the Four Seasons Palm Beach or at Café Boulud Palm Beach or at Michael’s Genuine in Miami or at a batch of other temples of good grub.

Soon enough there would be a Swank kiosk at the popular West Palm Beach GreenMarket during growing season. And there would be a CSA, a community-sponsored agriculture program in which local residents can purchase shares of fresh-picked produce from the farm.

The community response has been resounding, as Jodi’s GreenMarket kiosk picks up new customers each year.

“This season, the GreenMarket season was the utmost best,” says Jodi, who never fails to give the market a plug during her Swank Table events.

Hydroponically grown greens at Swank Specialty Produce. (Allen Eyestone \/ The Palm Beach Post)

Hydroponically grown greens at Swank Specialty Produce. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Cookbook author and farm aficionado Judith Olney reaches for Swank-grown rosella hibiscus and celtuce (also known as celery lettuce) in building stunning salads. And she loves “frilly mustard greens and Asian lettuces, which can flourish in noodle bowls and hot pots.”

But she remembers the Palm Beach County days before there was a boutique farm like Swank. A former Washington Times restaurant reviewer, she found “a dearth of fresh local produce, farmers markets and lively restaurants.

”Her observations were driven home when she visited acclaimed chef Charlie Palmer (of New York’s Aureole fame) at his newly opened Palm Beach restaurant, Aquaterra, in the late 1990s.

“He lamented that there was no good produce here, ingredients were impossible to find, he had to import everything … then closed six months later and decamped to California,” says Olney, who brought the Devour film fest to the farm this year. “If he’d had Swank produce, the story might have ended differently.

”Olney is so smitten with the farm she produced a film titled “Swank Farm” last year, offering a look at a year in the life of the farm. The Swanks, she says, “were the first to master growing temperate products in a tropical clime — no small feat given Florida’s challenging growing conditions.

”It’s particularly challenging to do so without chemicals. But Darrin Swank attempted to defy those challenges by taking the soil-less route. Intrigued by hydroponic farming since he first learned of it as a teenager on a visit to Epcot, he set up a full hydroponic operation in a 23,000-square-foot shade house. That was in 2002.

Greens at Swank Specialty Produce. (Allen Eyestone \/ The Palm Beach Post)

Greens at Swank Specialty Produce. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

He and Jodi had bought the 20-acre Loxahatchee Groves land for $293,000 in the same year they married, 1999. It was seven years after they met at that Boca nightclub.

“Darrin did two years’ worth of Internet research on the project,” Jodi recalls.That first year, the couple farmed on just a half-acre. At harvest time, they had a bounty of remarkably flavorful arugula, basil and lettuces.

“We didn’t know what to do with it,” recalls Jodi, now 51.

She called one of South Florida’s largest produce distributors, introduced herself and offered her greens.

“They paid us pennies,” she says.

So that summer, she reached out to local chefs, hoping to spread the word about the farm.

One Jupiter chef put the farm’s zesty greens to delicious use in a dish he served to a prominent fellow chef, Hubert des Marais, then head chef of the Four Seasons Palm Beach. The resort chef was so impressed he became a Swank customer. (Still today, nearly 10 years after the chef moved on, the Four Seasons uses the farm’s produce.)

“We thought, ‘Wow, if the chefs like it, maybe I should go knock on some restaurant back doors with samples,” says Jodi, who now supplies the South Florida restaurants of such star chefs as Tom Colicchio, Andrew Carmellini and Daniel Boulud.

And that’s how it took off.

“Our whole business has been through word of mouth,” she says.

The start of Swank Farm was made all the more challenging by the fact that the couple commuted to the farm from their Coconut Creek home until the summer of 2007. Plus, they had started a family. Baby Isabelle was just 2 and Liam was on his way when they opened the farm. Two years later came Sophie.

Just as the family grew and prospered, so did the farm and its relevance on the county’s agricultural landscape. The small farm took its place in a county that yields an estimated $1.41 billion in total agricultural sales, according to Palm Beach County figures. It’s a county that produces the most fresh sweet corn, sweet bell peppers and sugar cane in the nation, and the most rice, radishes, Chinese veggies, lettuce, specialty leaf greens and celery in the state.

“The county itself is tremendous — huge in agriculture for the wintertime vegetable production … We’re just a very small part of it,” says Darrin.

But most of the state’s mega-farms transport their produce out of the area. What is different about the county’s boutique farms such as Swank and Indiantown’s Kai-Kai Farm (established a year after Swank opened) is that they can achieve the farm-to-table practice more directly to their local customers. Green market customers can consume a salad of local greens just hours after they were picked at the farms.

That’s true “farm-to-table,” says Darrin, who believes the label should be used with restraint. If the farm in question is within a five-hour drive to said “table,” then the label is appropriate. If it’s much farther, it no longer qualifies as local.

Farm-to-table, he says, “should mean they are preparing ingredients from the local (farming) community.”

As for the community that supports Swank Farm, Jodi Swank tries to gauge local interest by the GreenMarket success as well as the response to her farm events. A jovial woman, she seems most at home chatting up her Swank Table guests.

“I think the Swank Table events have brought the community closer together,” says Jodi, who estimates about 75 percent of her event guests are from Palm Beach County. “That tells me the community is interested in the farm, the farm-to-table, the farm at the GreenMarket. If I don’t have the community, I don’t have a business.”