Building community around food: Visiting Red Fire Farm in Montague and Granby at the height of strawberry season

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 06-20-2023 2:57 PM

Sarah Voiland of Red Fire Farm in Montague is extraordinarily busy right now.

“We are harvesting and packing out food at the same time as planting, at the same time as weeding,” she told me in an interview last week. Voiland, her husband, and their team manage two branches of the farm, one in Montague and one in Granby.

I asked her why they needed two farms.

“There’s not enough farmland that’s contiguous anymore so, in order to have enough land, you have to have farms in multiple places,” she sighed. “We should stop building houses on farmland!”

Despite the hectic pace of this season of the year, she finds time to savor every type of produce that comes her way. Right now, she is enjoying strawberries.

“I think that if you miss out on eating strawberry shortcake in June, then you have to redo your plans,” Voiland laughed. She also enjoys dipping strawberries in chocolate to create delectable confections.

Voiland said she believes that fresh local strawberries are far superior to the year-round, grocery-store version. She was preaching to the converted on that point, but I still asked her to explain why.

“The strawberries that you get that are most close to their picking time are able to be picked at the peak of ripeness when they have the most flavor. They’re such a perishable fruit... The ones that you’re getting here locally don’t have to travel as far and are mainly being snapped right on up,” she said.

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Voiland observed that she and other local farmers tend to plant several varieties of strawberries in order to extend the growing season as much as possible. “We try new ones every year,” she said happily.

Above all, she stated, the land on which the berries are grown is crucial.

“Soil matters. You’re getting what has been put into the soil over time,” she stressed.

I asked Voiland how she became interested in farming.

“I got into farming many years ago now by having a CSA farm share at a farm near my college in New York state,” she recalled. “It was kind of an opening-of-my-eyes and my taste buds. I had never had tomatoes that weren’t red or fresh Brussels sprouts or many other things…

“I was an environmental studies major. I found that connecting to the farm through a CSA share was a solution to many of the problems we have today. You can build the soil and also build a community around food.”

Indeed, building community around food is one of Red Fire Farm’s main missions. The farm offers CSAs and wholesale orders. It also sells its produce at several farmers markets, including the one in Greenfield. (Montague CSA members are welcome to pick up their shares at that market if they wish.)

It also sells produce wholesale to many local businesses and supports nonprofit organizations like the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and Rachel’s Table.

In addition to all this, the Granby farm offers pick-your-own strawberries, although Voiland suggested calling in advance to make sure there are still berries to pick.

Voiland and her colleagues care about feeding people. “Our goal is to try to have a wide diet for our CSA members and our farmers-market customers,” she said. The farm is organic and tries to bolster the environment by enriching the soil naturally.

I asked how strawberry season was going. Voiland noted that this season has been difficult because of the many deep frosts earlier in the year. The farmers tried to cover strawberries as much as possible when a frost was expected, but not all frosts were expected… and one or two were too strong for Red Fire’s measures.

Voiland is hard to repress, however. Although there are fewer strawberries this year than is normal, she observed that their scarcity makes the berries “more precious and to be savored.”

The recipe she prepared, chocolate-covered strawberries, is simple yet elegant. If you’re picking your own strawberries, Voiland recommends picking them gently above the hull with your fingers so that a little stem remains; this facilitates dipping.

She also suggests dipping strawberries that have not yet been refrigerated.

Refrigeration can cause condensation on the outside of the berries, making it difficult for the chocolate to stick.

If you wish to wash your berries (because they are not organic or are a little dirty), be sure to pat them dry before dipping them.

Most recently, as the photos by Paul Franz demonstrate, Sarah Voiland added a little crunch to her berries with chopped cashews. As you can see in the recipe below, however, she has lots of ideas for add-ons.

Red Fire Farm Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

Ingredients:

1 cup chopped chocolate or chocolate chips

(“Use your favorite chocolate,” says Voiland. She used Equal Exchange Bittersweet Chocolate Chips; this company is organic and uses fair-trade practices.)

1/2 to 1 teaspoon coconut oil to make the chocolate a little smoother

fresh local strawberries as needed

add-ons as desired: chopped cashews or other nuts, toasted coconut flakes, sprinkles, crumbled pretzels, large flakes of salt or sugar, etc. (Voiland says some people even use crumbled cooked bacon, although she has not tried it.)

Instructions:

Melt the chocolate with the coconut oil in a double boiler or a stainless-steel bowl over a pot of hot water. Make sure the chocolate and the oil are well blended.

While the chocolate is melting, lay a sheet of parchment paper or wax paper on a flat surface. (The paper will keep the chocolate from sticking to the surface.)

Remove the pot from the water, and gently dip the strawberries in the melted chocolate mixture. If you want an add-on, roll the chocolate in a bowl of your preferred crumbles.

Cool the strawberries in the refrigerator until the chocolate sets, about 15 minutes. Then gorge yourself. Voiland says they may be consumed without refrigeration if one is hosting a strawberry-dipping party, although they will be a little messier.

It’s hard to estimate how many chocolate-covered berries you will end up with; that depends on the size of the berries and how much chocolate you use per berry. Try to eat the berries within 24 hours.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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