In the early morning dark behind his Spokane Valley home, Dan Jackson is already at work.
With only the small burst of light from a headlamp, he harvests heirloom tomatoes, Romano beans and dark opal basil.
Or perhaps he gathers baby squash with the blossom attached, white currant cherry tomatoes and Japanese eggplant. Or maybe pumpkins, purple potatoes and chocolate bell peppers.
By the time the morning light arrives, he’s bagging and weighing the produce in a scale on the back porch. He plans the route he’ll take to his day job as a KREM television news photographer according to the orders he has for the day, dropping deliveries at local restaurant kitchens and stores on the way.
For almost a decade, this is how Jackson’s day has begun during the growing season. The sunrise and the fruit and vegetables gathered depend on the season. During the winter months, he savors seed catalogs, meets with chefs and readies his greenhouse for planting.
The garden behind the Jackson house is just 2.2 acres, but he and his wife Bridget sell the produce to 11 local restaurants and three retail stores. On a recent morning Jackson delivered 200 pounds of produce, making three stops before arriving at the KREM newsroom.
Walking among the ripening Georgia Streak, Tigerella and Brandywine tomatoes recently, he says, “I have orders for 65 pounds of tomatoes tomorrow. I’ll make that easy.”
Jackson didn’t grow up on a farm. He started dreaming of a garden after reading several books about growing back yard produce. He remembers reading a newspaper article about a Spokane restaurant that had closed its doors, saying they couldn’t find anyone who could deliver great local produce to them.
“That just kind of hung with me,” Jackson says. “I kept it in the back of my mind.”
He started with a few raised beds in his back yard.
“That was the first thing I ever grew, peppers, tomatoes and flowers for our wedding. I figured that was the way to find out if I could grow anything,” he says.
Intent on more, the Jacksons bought a house with a few acres in the Spokane Valley and planted a small garden. In 1999 and 2000, they sold produce at the farmers’ market and to Dan’s colleagues at KREM.
Although they did pretty well at the market, Jackson says they realized quickly that it meant they had to give up their weekends.
Then he answered a classified ad in the newspaper, asking for anyone with fresh, local organic produce to call. It was Marcia Bond, owner of Luna.
Jackson worked with then-chef Shilo Pierce to provide the restaurant with his herbs and vegetables. Guided by the model of Chez Panisse and chef Alice Waters, the Bonds were always looking for seasonal, local offerings to add to the menu.
“What worked for us is he just literally planted what we said we needed,” says Pierce, now the chef at Rocket Market. Things the restaurant was paying to have shipped from Seattle – heirloom tomatoes, baby squash with their blossoms and specialty basil.
“He has the most beautiful heirloom tomatoes and he took great pride in his product,” Pierce says.
He says one of his favorite dishes to make from Jackson’s produce is a summer squash salad. Use a mandoline to thinly slice summer squash, and dress it with splash of lemon juice and olive oil.
“You don’t even need herbs,” Pierce says. He uses one part lemon juice to two parts olive oil and adds just a pinch of salt and pepper.
Jackson also came with seed catalogs in the off-season to talk to the chef about what to plant next. Jackson says he just kind of let the demand guide him.
Word of mouth and personal contacts allowed the Jacksons to keep growing and expanding the garden in the years since.
Jackson Farm produce is now on the menu at places well-known for a commitment to using local produce – Luna, Mizuna, Wild Sage Bistro, Santé and Latah Bistro – and at some places that might surprise people, such as Tomato Street, Sweet Grass Café at the Coeur d’Alene Casino, and Albertsons.
Alexa Wilson, chef at Wild Sage, says Jackson lets her know a few weeks out what she can expect to be coming from the garden.
“We have worked together for three years now and what I have learned as the chef is that having an expectation that Dan’s garden is going to grow the way Sysco stocks their warehouse is a completely unrealistic expectation,” she says.
But she gets things from Jackson that could never survive shipping and packaging, such as his delicate clusters of white currant tomatoes on salads and with the gnocchi. She’s also using heirloom melon from Jackson right now.
“The watermelon is like candy,” Wilson says. “It is absolutely amazing.”
The restaurant will feature some Jackson Farm produce at a “community table” dinner on Sunday.
Wilson likes to use Jackson’s Romano beans in salads and side dishes. They’re bigger and heartier than green beans, but still tender and stringless.
One of her favorite ways to prepare them is to sauté the beans in a spicy honey oyster sauce. She blanches the beans for about three minutes, then tosses them into the sauté pan with equal parts honey, oyster sauce (choose one without MSG) and just a bit of sambal paste, to taste. Sauté just 15 to 20 seconds and serve.
At Maggie’s South Hill Grill, owner Maggie Watkins uses the Romano beans as the main vegetable on dinner plates and tells anyone who will listen that it’s locally grown.
“I want people to know that it comes from a farm that is practically around the corner,” Watkins says. “And they love it.”
There’s a flower bed overflowing with nasturtiums in front of the Jackson house. Walk around the corner and the garden stretches out before you, sunflowers reaching high above the rows and rows of tomatoes, eggplant, herbs, cucumber, winter squash, pumpkins and more.
Chickens provide the background music, as well as eggs and meat for the Jackson family.
I’m meeting Jackson and Davenport Hotel and Tower executive chef Bryan Franz. The men are already in the garden picking the Davenport’s order for the week when I arrive.
Franz is wearing his chef’s whites and signature chef’s hat, called a toque. He’s stooped over in the garden gathering pineapple ground cherries from the low bushes.
Jackson searches for a perfectly ripe one and Franz savors the explosion of flavor. It’s the first time he’s tasted a ground cherry, a small orange fruit covered in a papery husk. They are the size and shape of a cherry tomato and taste of pineapple and tomato.
“Wow. It makes you want to do a back flip,” Franz says.
Davenport chefs use Jackson Farm produce for some of the signature dishes on their Sunday brunch menu. Franz makes his way through the garden exclaiming as he picks Romano beans, munching as he harvests.
“Shazam,” he says, pulling back the leaves to find heavy heirloom tomatoes.
Jackson shows him how to tell if a certain variety is ripe and together they find a Georgia Streak so big that it fills two hands. The chef brings the yellow heirloom with a red center to his nose and inhales deeply.
Franz also cuts a handful of okra from some experimental plants for the hotel’s gumbo. Franz showcased Jackson Farm produce in a Caprese salad garnished with dark opal basil. He used purple potatoes as a platform for a seared chicken breast with a cherry demi glace and fried leeks. The ground cherries provided a burst of color and flavor in a vegetable salad and atop bruschetta.
Jackson says he’s heartened by recent trends that have heightened consumer awareness of where food is grown. It wasn’t that way when he started. He hopes his garden and business might serve as a model to encourage others to try growing.
He’d love to collaborate more with local universities and extension services to show how he runs the garden with drip-line irrigation, mulching and cover crops. Those techniques and other tricks he’s learned along the way keep the garden manageable for just himself and his wife.
“You can’t beat local produce at the peak of ripeness,” Jackson says. “A lot of things I provide can’t be shipped … and I grow things you can’t find anywhere else. It allows my customers to stand out with a local product that is unique and good to eat.”
He’ll let the trends and demands guide the farm business, but he’s hopeful that the collective commitment to nurturing local food has a foothold.
“I think it has given us a chance to step back and look at it from a broader perspective and really consider what we’re putting into our bodies,” he says.
From Dan Jackson, Jackson Farms
3 to 5 pounds of different varieties of tomatoes
2 or 3 garlic cloves, more or less to taste
Sliced onion (optional)
1/3 cup olive oil, or to taste
Salt, to taste
Cut tomatoes into various sizes. Mince the garlic and mix in with tomatoes in large bowl. Pour oil over the top, sprinkle with salt and mix. Let sit for 30 minutes to a couple of hours, stirring occasionally. The mixture will juice up as it sits.
Serve over pasta on a hot day or in a bowl with crusty bread.
Grilled Summer Squash and Eggplant
From Dan Jackson, Jackson Farms
Several medium-sized squash and eggplant
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
Slice squash and eggplant into 1/4-inch slices. Place vegetables in a container, add the liquids and basil then cover and shake container. Let marinate for at least 30 minutes. Place marinated vegetables on hot barbecue and grill 2 to 3 minutes per side.
From executive chef Bryan Franz, The Davenport Hotel and Tower
Variety of local heirloom tomatoes, sliced
2 ounces dark opal basil
1 ounce olive oil
1/2 ounce water
1/4 ounce fresh Parmesan cheese
Pinch sea salt and white ground pepper
Layer tomato slices on a plate. Whirl basil and remaining ingredients for about 20 seconds or until it is to your likeness, saving a few basil leaves for garnish. Drizzle tomatoes with pesto, garnishing with remaining basil leaves.
From Chef Bryan Franz, executive chef, The Davenport Hotel and Tower
Davenport French Bread (see note)
1/2 pound butter
3 cloves chopped garlic
Pinch sea salt
1 package Boursin herbed cheese
4 ounces cream cheese
1 ounce 40 percent ultra-pasteurized heavy cream
Ground cherries or cherry tomatoes
Granny Smith apple, julienne slices
1 ounce aji mirin sweet cooking wine
Prosciutto, thinly sliced
Prepare Davenport Bread according to package instructions, rolling loaf into baguette shape. Bake and let cool 30 minutes. Cut into slices about 1/8-inch thick.
Make a garlic-infused butter by combining chopped garlic and a pinch of salt with butter and bringing to a slight simmer until ready to use.
Brush bread with garlic butter, place on a baking sheet and bake at 325 degrees for just a few minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from oven and cool.
To make the herb spread, combine Boursin cheese, cream cheese and cream. Mix in a mixing bowl until smooth. Place in a piping bag with a small star tip and pipe a rose in the middle of each piece of bread.
Slice ground cherries or cherry tomatoes in half. Julienne apple and soak in mirin.
Top bread and cheese with 1/2 sliced ground cherry or tomato and thin slices of apple and a thin slice of prosciutto. Garnish with a sprig of fresh dill.
Note: The Davenport Hotel sells bread mix in a kit that includes flour grown within 50 miles of the hotel and oil from Coeur d’Alene Olive Oil. Cooks need only add water, mix, knead and bake. The kit is $9.95 and is sold at the gift store at the Davenport, 10 S. Post St.