Drink & Eat

There was no lion in northern Michigan's March this year, but a lamb on both ends – and pretty much the whole way through. The traditional March gloom, replaced by long stretches of sunny days and mild temps, was all it took to invigorate area farms. Soon there will be morels, with asparagus not far behind. Let's take a look at what's on the table for our prime growing season:

Fresh from the Farm

It's officially sign-up season if you're looking to get more local food on your plate. The number of area farms that operate CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs has steadily grown right along with the local food movement. In addition to farmers markets, they are a great way to establish a relationship with a local farmer.

Unfamiliar? A CSA works like this: You buy a "share" to support a farm operation and in return you get a weekly bounty that ranges from vegetables and fruit to meat, bread, eggs, herbs and flowers, depending on the farm. Check out csafarms.org or localdifference.org for listings of local CSAs and details about what they are offering in 2010.

Jenny Tutlis operates Meadowlark Farm in Lake Leelanau with her husband Jon Watts. They are one of the few farms that offer share programs year-round. Their spring share started at the end of March and goes through May (all sold out!). The couple started their CSA operation in 1998. That year, it provided shares to 40 customers. Last year, the Meadowlark CSA had 183 summer share members and this year they hope to hit 200 for the season, which runs from the first of June into October.

Their garden acreage has grown from 2 acres to 7. They hire 13 people ranging in age from 13 to 73 years old to help with the planting, tending and harvesting, says Tutlis. A prized crop? Garlic. They've been growing their own variety, Meadowlark Red, for 16 years, saving the seed from year to year.

"We plant and harvest 21,000 heads of garlic each year," says Tutlis.

Another impressive number: Tutlis and crew plant approximately 1,000 pounds of potatoes annually and harvest more than twice that.

At Dollar Lake Farm southeast of Traverse City, Patti and Brad Link are gearing up for year two of their CSA business. Last year they had 20 members and will launch this year's 16-week summer share season with 30. When I talked to them last week, they still had room for a few more. They farm 35 varieties of fruits and vegetables on an acre of land. Patti says they are definitely seeing increased interest from customers who want to keep their food and money local and "eat in season."

New name, new attitude

Bowers Harbor Inn on Old Mission Peninsula closed down in mid-February to begin its transformation into Mission Table. Purchased in 2006 by Jon Carlson and Greg Lobdell of 2Mission Design and Development, the historic site is getting a major overhaul in look, taste and feel.

Gone will be the tablecloths and other symbols of the Inn's fine dining past. The space's new focal point will be an 18-foot community table made of 120-year-old reclaimed wood.

Chef Paul Olson is leading the new iteration of the restaurant, which is slated to reopen May 17. The menu will emphasize local produce and proteins, including asparagus from Empire, greens from Buckley and fish from Leland. A five-course tasting menu for small plate dining will be a star of the new cuisine, which will also include a few appetizers, salads and entrée options.

Olson says one of the main goals with the restaurant redesign is to get away from its "special occasion only" reputation. "Fine dining is dying," says Olson. "It's been dying for years."

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