After 32 years, Branch Creek Farm owners Mark and Judy Dornstreich sow a change

Posted: March 24, 2011

MARK and Judy Dornstreich have been farming since before it was cool.

Before the likes of Blue Hill uberchef Dan Barber and seminal food writer Michael Pollan jump-started the national eat-local, farm-to-table revolution, Mark and Judy were growing their own quiet revolution at Branch Creek Farm, their bucolic organic acreage that straddles the Perkiomen creek in Perkasie, Bucks County. For the past 32 years, this striking couple have been working in the dirt, leading by example and educating a generation of farmers and chefs about how food should be grown and what it should taste like.

At 69 and 68, respectively, Mark and Judy have slowed down a little, making some changes to their business structure as they look to the next chapter in their lives.

"It's hard to completely stop a business that's been good," said Judy. "Chefs still want what we do. But we'd like to enable our employees to take over, start taking vacations and doing things that normal people do. You can't not see what needs doing around the farm. It's constant. Every single person who has a small business goes through this process."

To say that chefs "still want what we do" is like saying that early peas appreciate chilly days and hard spring sunshine. For the fortunate chefs in Branch Creek's inner circle, the vegetables and micro greens from the farm are vital to creating the kind of food that really matters.

"They don't distribute anything unless it's perfect," said chef Michael Solomonov, who owns Zahav, Xochitl and Percy Street Barbecue with partner Steven Cook. "Here's the thing about their stuff. You know how powerful a taste memory can be? The memory of the first time you ate something amazing is always the best it's ever tasted. Every single time I eat anything they make, it's like the first time I've had it."

Solomonov first met the couple a decade ago when he was working under chef Terrence Feury, another loyal customer, at Striped Bass. Feury continues to work with Branch Creek as executive chef at Fork, in Old City.

"They're not 'just' farmers," said Solomonov. "They're pioneers, intellectuals. They have an incredible spirituality about them. I have to say they're among the nicest, most generous people I've ever known."

When Mark and Judy bought their 21-acre farm in 1978, their respective parents "thought we were nuts," said Judy. "They helped us, because they saw this was our dream. But it wasn't the life they'd have chosen for us."

Dropping out, tuning in

Really, how did a couple of Ivy League-educated Jewish intellectuals wind up in one of the hardest jobs on the planet?

It started as a college romance.

The pair met in their final year at the University of Pennsylvania and moved to New York to finish their advanced degrees at Columbia: a Ph.D. in anthropology for Mark; a master's from the Teachers College for Judy. Their dual careers took shape, with Mark teaching at Rutgers and Judy practicing as a counseling psychologist.

Then a year's sabbatical to travel and study philosophy and meditative yoga in India under Swami Chinmayananda turned their world upside down. As Judy remembers it, Mark turned to her one day in their budget Bombay room and said that he didn't want to teach anymore. "He said he wanted to grow vegetables," she recalled. Despite the ramifications of this declaration, Judy was onboard. "It was yet another adventure."

An earlier adventure that had connected the couple directly to the land was a two-year stint in New Guinea, where they lived while Mark was doing his doctoral fieldwork documenting the food intake of an isolated indigenous tribe. While there, both Mark and Judy saw with clarity how the physical can intersect with the intellectual, a way of living they wanted for themselves.

"The physical component of doing this is really important for both of us," said Judy. "That's why Mark left anthropology and teaching. He wasn't interested in having a secondary experience. We both feel that farming is good for the body and good for the mind. It takes us out of our intellectual center, shifts the focus to our bodies and keeps us in balance."

Now, even with thoughts of slowing down, there's no way that her husband is going to sit back and just tell other people what to do, she said. "If he's here, he will work."

The pair apprenticed at a farm in York, then moved to England to study agriculture at Emerson College, a biodynamic training center in East Sussex. They had their first child and spent another summer in India.

Branch Creek Farm became a reality with their parents' help, and 1979 was its first growing season. Because the farm is on a flood plain, it was relatively affordable.

It proved a good base for their family, which grew to include four children - Elijah, 35, Sophia, 32, Jesse, 30, and Eva, 23. "We have great kids," said Judy. "But they don't want to be farmers. It really isn't a life for everyone."

'The most beautiful basil'

Committed to organic and sustainable growing techniques, Mark and Judy cultivate six of the 21 acres and grow pristine vegetables, micro greens and edible flowers year-round in greenhouses and hoop houses. Over the years, Branch Creek has supplied a litany of Philadelphia's most influential chefs. But Mark and Judy have scaled down some in the last year or two.

No, besides Solomonov, they supply: Terrence's brother, Patrick Feury, of Nectar, in Berwyn; Sean Weinberg, Restaurant Alba, in Malvern; Susanna Foo, Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen, in Radnor; Adam DeLosso, Garces Trading Company; Rafael Gonzalez, executive chef, Philadelphia Four Seasons; Marty Grimm's White Dog Cafe, Wayne and Philadelphia; chef Peter Dunmire, North Third; and Leo and Josephine Leone's San Marco Ristorante, in Ambler.

"One of the beautiful things for us is that we talk directly to the chefs," said Judy. "Our son Jesse, who's now doing a lot of the deliveries for us, has been in those kitchens since he was a little kid. We have personal relationships with these people. That matters. It makes a huge difference when you're out in the field picking basil and your back is hurting. You know they're waiting for the best, most beautiful basil you can give them, so you just keep going."

Patrick Feury has known Mark and Judy for 11 years.

"These are people who are passionate about what they do. They didn't do this for monetary gain. Instead, the philosophy is: Do the best job we can, be the best people we can be and the money will come," said Feury.

"They are just so smart. To Terrence and I, they're like family. They know my kids, I know their kids. It's really nice."

Feury admitted to a little friendly sibling rivalry with his brother, a sense of, "You got to that first from Judy? I wanted that." Which might be why Judy named her two pet snapping turtles Terrence and Patrick in their honor.

"Mark is so dedicated to the soil, to growing things right," said Patrick Feury. "I've had other farmers give me microgreens that look exactly the same, but when you taste them, they didn't taste like anything. There was no separation of flavors.

"Whatever you eat from Branch Creek, there's no disconnect. Everything tastes the way you'd imagine it tasting, but even better."

New growth

The reality of farming, the backbreaking labor, the never-ending vigilance and dedication, isn't easy for two people staring at 70.

"If you want to shoot like [NBA star] Nate Robinson, you have to do something over and over again," said Judy. "Powering through the numbing repetitiveness that comes with this territory gets harder the older you get." She's hopeful that there are young farmers as intent on getting it right as she and Mark were when they started.

They've mentored scores of apprentices - Tom Murtha and Tricia Borneman, of Blooming Glen, in Perkasie; Jeffrey Frank and Kristin Illick, of Liberty Gardens, in Coopersburg; and Greg York, who lives and farms in upstate New York.

What Judy and Mark are going to do in the next phase of their life is something they've been mulling for some time now.

"It's a very difficult question," said Mark. "What happens is, you engage in this interior war with yourself. On the one hand, I'm thinking, 'Let's be practical. I'm not physically the person I used to be, but I'm enough of a person to do all kinds of interesting things that I've wanted to do my whole life but didn't get around to.'

"On the other hand, I'm sitting here and still thinking about what I'm going to plant this spring, what new products I can develop, how to tweak marketing. I've been doing that every single spring for so many years I almost can't not do it."

A recent trip to see friends in Tucson, Ariz., was the first time the couple had ever left the farm in early spring. "This year we'll definitely be spending more time away from the farm," Mark said. "That's radically different for us. And it's feeling really nice." Although even when they travel, what Mark called "the absolutely magnetic pull of growing things" is impossible to resist.

"We spend a lot of time squatting on the ground looking at wildflowers and visiting horticulture centers. Our range of interest stays the same. What's different is it becomes more observational than active."

Mark and Judy's future plans are a subject that the whole family has discussed, said their oldest son, Elijah Dornstreich, founder of the dynamic nonprofit arts collaborative Fourth Wall Arts Salon.

The way Elijah sees it, the fact that the rest of world seems finally to be catching up with the way his parents have been living their life since the late '70s is no coincidence.

"My parents have always been ahead of their time," he said, "whether you're talking about recycling and composting or sourcing food locally. They both have an incredible amount of knowledge to give back."

Added Jesse Dornstreich: "My father is always coming up with new ideas, new ways of doing things. This time of year he is always excited to get started. Come July, all the work starts to really add up. It's cyclical.

"Sometimes I think it would be great if he could just sit back and read The New York Times, not work so hard."

Elijah sees his parents, his father especially, giving back by teaching other farmers the best practices that have sustained him, as much as they have Branch Creek Farm.

"What they've been about is more than just something that's coming into fashion now," Elijah said.

"It's a societal imperative. We can't survive without changing some of the things my parents decided to change a generation ago. . . . I think - I hope - that what my dad spends the next 10, 20 years doing may actually look significantly different from what he's been doing.

"I know how much they care, about people and about their country. Whatever they end up doing, they're going to keep making a difference."

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