Patty Gentry: The Chef with the Recipe for Soil
Patty Gentry was a chef who one day discovered the amazing flavor of locally and sustainably grown ingredients. She fell in love—and that love led to an amazing journey from culinary recipes to the recipe for healthy, living soil in which to grow the produce she had come to savor.
“Because I was a cook, I saw that the soil has a recipe just like a meal has recipes,” Gentry told Calmful Living. “I was very curious about the ingredients that went into the soil.”
It all began for Gentry when she had her initial encounter with unusually well-flavored produce. “I was running a restaurant in SoHo, Manhattan,” Gentry related. “I joined the Parkville Food Co-op in Brooklyn, which provided us with all locally grown produce—and it was delicious. It had so much vitality and had such amazing flavor, and it made me feel better.
“It really changed my mind about the way I eat and the way I cook; as a chef I very much wanted to serve those things to other people. It turned out my business partners weren’t as interested as I was in utilizing these types of products on the menu, though; so I sold my shares back to them.” Her new freedom and passion became the commencement of a journey. “With that money I treated myself to an education in farming. I worked as an intern for one year at a farm in East Hampton on Long Island called EECO Farm, and that’s where I got my start farming.”
Gentry ended up moving to Long Island—her original home—and continued farming part time while still being a chef in a local private school. “I began farming in the summers; I had summers off because it was a school. I practiced it for a few years while I kept my other job cooking, until I matched my salary with what I made in the summer growing vegetables.” Then she took the plunge. “I just decided I wanted to try farming full time. I was a little afraid, but I think it’s good to do the things that scare you a little bit.” She obviously has never looked back—today Gentry is heading into her fourth season on her Early Girl Farm. She now sells her produce to numerous restaurants, as well as to consumers through her popular farmstand.
Deep in the Ground
A few seasons after she began farming, Gentry made the discovery she had been seeking all along. “I learned a lot of natural methods while I was interning,” Gentry said. “But I was always curious and wanted to learn more about what went into the soil. I didn’t really understand my soil test—I would look at the graph portion of it and go, ‘Oh, calcium,’ but I couldn’t quantify exactly how many pounds I needed. So I wanted to take a class to educate myself. Through the Cornell extension here on Long Island I read about Dan Kittredge, founder of the Bionutrient Food Association, who was coming to Long Island for two classes. I signed up right away.”
It was Kittredge who really opened Gentry’s eyes to the science of growing crops for their purest nutrient value rather than just quantity. “At the time I didn’t exactly know why it would work,” Gentry recalled. “I’d read about what magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and all of those things do. But after I met Dan Kittredge, he really took it to the next level. He was able to talk about the quantities of these things and how their proportions should exist in the top six inches of soil to promote optimum plant health.
“He took the chemistry and the atomic weight of certain properties, certain minerals. I was intimidated by that language, but Dan really makes it possible to figure out a formula that you can apply. He makes it something that you can actually work with, that you’re curious about and not intimidated by.”
The results Gentry attained by applying Kittredge’s methods went beyond her wildest dreams. “I met him last fall,” she said. “I applied everything I learned that winter toward this past season. I just filled out a questionnaire from Cornell University; they were asking things like how much bug pressure did I have, how many crop diseases did I have, and they went down the list of diseases. I had little to no problems last year. It was unbelievable how the plants responded to everything that I had learned. It’s really fulfilling to naturally bring plants back to health.”
The education Gentry has garnered from Kittredge has taken her quite literally into the wondrous microcosm of soil-plant interaction. “I learned how to read a soil test,” said Gentry. “Also how to do the math to convert parts per million into actually pounds per acre of each of the minerals that I need to apply. I learned how to understand soil conductivity, which tells you the best time to start planting. The soil has almost an electrical charge—its ability to carry minerals. It has to be a certain temperature for this ability to stimulate root growth. If you start too early and the soil is cold, it’s not conducting minerals and it doesn’t have that charge.”
Depth of Flavor
The final proof of these changes came in flavor and nutrient levels of produce. “Dan’s methods have made my produce sweeter, richer, with an intense depth of flavor,” Gentry reported. “In some instances, like the greens, it tastes as if they have been seasoned with a touch of sea salt that plays off their spicy sweetness right from the ground. A good measure of nutrient density is improved brix readings* and shiny, healthy leaves on the plants, which I have experienced as well.”
Gentry has learned—and continues to learn—far more. But in doing so, she has come full circle from her days as a chef, when she wanted to feed her patrons with the most flavorful and nutritious ingredients possible. “My mission as a farmer is to keep bringing the soil back to its optimum health,” Gentry concluded. “I want the plants to be put into soil that is going to really take care of them. I want to produce the healthiest produce I can with the highest amount of minerals available for the people who eat it.”
*Brix is a method of measuring levels of sugars and dissolved solids within a plant.