On the edge of a field on Tower Road in Missoula, a small roadside farm stand does a brisk business. Display coolers keep herbs, greens and other sensitive veggies properly chilled, as tomatoes, potatoes, onions and other room-temperature produce sit looking pretty in crates. The policies and electronic payment information are posted on the wall above a table laden with homemade soap and bags of lemon balm cookies.
Two shoppers from the same car enter the farm stand and self-serve. They quickly depart, leaving the stand to a masked man waiting at a safe distance for his turn to shop. The couple pays by Venmo from their car.
Tasha Slotinck, 20, stands in the parking lot holding an armful of just-harvested rainbow chard, waiting for an opportunity to replenish the veggie cooler. She’d returned home from college when the pandemic hit, to study remotely and help run the family farm stand as a side gig.
Tasha’s mom, farm boss Kim Murchison, began selling lemon balm cookies last spring as a draw when produce was still sparse. In those uncertain times, Kim figured anything that got customers in the door could help. It turns out that shoppers couldn’t get enough starts, as they prepared to homestead in their backyards until the pandemic passed. They bought herb cookies, too. Lots of them.
The farm stand is doing about four times the business it did last year, thanks mostly to the virus, she assumes. This summer, with restaurant and market sales down, Kim credits that stand with “getting them through.” Overhearing the exchange, Kim’s tractor guy added that without the farm stand, they'd be in trouble
Farm stands are an old idea whose time had come back, even before COVID-19 bonked the food system. To customers, self-serve produce on the way home offers farmers market-level freshness without a special trip. To the farmer, it’s an easy way to market surplus. Or at least that’s how it usually is. This year, with farmers markets under pressure and restaurant business slowed, farm stands are increasingly load-bearing pillars of the local food economy infrastructure.
While they bring more people near to the farm, they can help reduce traffic onto the farm by functioning as drop-off locations, where customer can receive a special order and pay for it themselves. Keeping strangers off the farm is extra-useful during COVID, and will undoubtedly continue far beyond it because it’s nice for privacy. Someday, surely, almost every farm will have a farm stand. There are too many reasons to do so, and not enough reasons not to.
Last spring, amid uncertainty about what this summer would hold, many farmers around Montana invested in their farm stands. Some farms, including Clark Fork Organics, did so with the help of the Montana Department of Agriculture’s COVID Emergency Relief grant program. Murchison added size, refrigeration and display materials, along with some special tactics to get people to pull over. Special cookie tactics. They are minimally baked and crumbly, making a lovely coffee sponge, with a satisfying bite of lemon and a swirl of bright herbal aromas. If you can’t get lemon balm, both mint and basil work too, she told me — herbs that go well with sweetness, not to be confused with sage, or oregano.
When the stand was empty last spring, Kim’s herb cookies were dragging people into the stand by their salivary glands, where they may have been reminded that summer was coming, and perhaps they left with some baby plants for the garden. The herb cookie samples also caught the attention of a certain local kid, who wasn’t frequenting the stand for the tomato starts.
Alas, unattended farm stands do come with risk, some worse than missing cookie samples. Every farm stand has to respond differently to the challenges of the honor system. Some farmers in my area have installed motion-tripped wildlife cameras, while others accept a bit of loss as the price of not living in fear. One stand even has an unlocked change box with small bills.
Today, in the season where everything is coming on, the tomatoes and sweet corn and peppers are helping the Clark Fork Organics farm stand break its own sales records almost daily, Kim says above the roar of tractor guy getting back to work, and the “ding” of her smartphone registering another payment.
Lemon balm can be hard to find. At the Missoula farmers market you might find it in spring as a bedding plant, but nobody is bringing the fresh herb in summer unless you ask the right person. I got my plant at the North Higgins Market from Tom Robinson of Camas Gardens. Clark Fork Organics, at the same market, can get it, too.
If you can’t get lemon balm, both mint and basil or mint — as well as mint and basil together — make great cookies.
½ cup butter
½ cup coconut oil
1 tablespoon lemon zest
six heaping teaspoons lemon balm, basil and/or mint)
4 teaspoons lemon juice
2 2/3 cups white all-purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoons salt
Leave out the butter and coconut oil to soften. Combine In a medium-sized bowl — the mixer bowl if you have an electric mixer. Add zest and chopped herbs and stir vigorously.
Mix the flour, sugar and salt a separate bowl.
Add the lemon juice and eggs to the butter mixture and beat to combine. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix again. It will take about a minute in the mixer. If you don’t have a cake mixer then use your hands for five minutes, squeezing the ingredients together so they squeeze out between your fingers until thoroughly mixed with no remaining dry flour.
Roll the cookie dough into a burrito-shaped log, about 2 inches in diameter and 9 inches long, and wrap it tightly in plastic. Refrigerate overnight.
When you are ready to bake them, cut the logs into ½-inch slices and lay them on a cookie sheet, leaving an inch of space between cookies. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 until the edges start to brown. Cool and eat.
Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he “always writes about Montana. Usually.”
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