It’s not a sentence everyone can relate to. As Chef Jamie Lynch stood in the chicken coop on the six acres of Gaston County land where he recently opened his new farm, he had to yell over the squawking fowl, “The chickens are mad at me today.”
Lynch was hooking up the ends of a tarp to drape below the three rafters that the chickens roost on in order to catch their droppings and eventually add them to the compost pile. Afterwards, he petted and shushed a nesting chicken despite its soft audible protests.
We didn’t know why the chickens were upset, maybe because Harlem the blue heeler cattle dog kept walking into the coop and disturbing them while they were trying to lay eggs.
I was on Chef Jamie’s Farm, a modest plot of land tucked away near the state border that Lynch and his girlfriend, business partner and farm manager, Corey McGovern, moved to in October 2018. Over the past nine months, they’ve worked tirelessly to cultivate the land and harvest food to be used at his restaurant 5Church, where he once served as executive chef but now supplies with food at its Charlotte and Charleston locations.
Each week, Chef Jamie’s Farm delivers about 100 pounds of produce to each location. The cucumbers and squash alone account for about 30 pounds of that due to the plant’s high productivity.
As we walked the six acres, Lynch and McGovern showed me the fruits of their labor.
From the small seedlings that start out in a shed under artificial lights to the direct-seeded plants that flourish in one of four plots they carved out, everything is a learning experience and a crash course in how to farm food for the award-winning chef who’s now trying his hand at growing the food rather than cooking it.
“This is all experimenting,” Lynch said as we meandered through the rows of plants on a hot Monday morning. Some vegetables were harvested a few days prior to my arrival and would be ready to be harvested again in a few more days. “We don’t know what we’re doing. If I didn’t have the restaurants, this dream wouldn’t be a reality. I’d have all this stuff, and I don’t have time to go to the market every week. I don’t have those kind of connections.”
So far, the pair have noticed that plants they start in the shed under controlled lighting then transplant into the plots don’t do as well as plants they’ve seeded directly into the soil. It’s their first season, and they’re still learning.
At least once a week, they spend half a day on a friend’s farm in Waxhaw, learning the ins and outs of their crops and how to properly manage the harvests.
“Because we’re in the season together, we’re growing a lot of the same crops and he’s a little bit ahead of us, so everything that we’re doing, we can apply it in real-time here, and it’s saved us on so many things,” Lynch said.
“We would’ve fallen on our faces had we not apprenticed under him,” McGovern added.
Among the three varieties of potatoes, baby arugula, three heirloom tomato varieties, kabocha squash, butternut squash, two types of green beans, cabbage and a slew of other produce, the farm sports rows of flowers supported by a “just-for-fun” garden of zinnia, amaranthus, lavender, lemongrass and verbena. These plants attract bees and other pollinators to their field from the neighboring land of clovers to help the ecology of their farm.
Lynch and McGovern treat their land with respect. The 13 hens and two roosters are free-range, roaming about the property under the watchful eye of Harlem, who protects them from hawks and nearby foxes. The soil is fed with compost made from chicken waste and compostable food scraps from 5Church, while the land itself is cross-cropped and rested when needed. On a small scale, it’s worked for the chef and his farm manager to carefully plan crops and use organic materials to boost plant life and preserve the productivity of the land.
“[Some farmers] are not doing some of these practices that we are like cover cropping, and we’re resting plots and we’re not growing constantly,” Lynch explained. “We’re adding compost instead of chemicals to fertilize, which is good for the soil.”
In the bigger picture, practices like theirs could ease the strain that commercial food production has on fertile land and break the reliance on chemicals and pesticides in growing food.
“I think our commercial food system is in trouble. We are decimating the Midwest with monocropping and chemical fertilizing to grow all these mass quantities of food to feed the ever-growing population,” Lynch said. “The problem is that the people that are growing it aren’t taking care of the soil and the land that they’re doing it on and they’re killing it, which means they need more chemicals to grow because they don’t have the rich soil, because they’re depleting it.”
For the winter, Lynch and McGovern have dedicated the most recently tilled plot to be covered and rested for the season. Currently, it’s been planted with field peas as a cover crop to manage soil erosion, water quality and microorganism biodiversity, but once the crops mature the plot will be mowed, tilled, then covered with a tarp to prevent weeds from growing.
Come the first sign of spring, they’ll plant seasonal vegetables and fruits. Another plot will be dedicated to plants that grow over the colder months: barley, cabbage, cauliflower and other sturdy crops.
If Chef Jamie wasn’t working his own land, he would probably be back in the kitchen, slightly directionless and bored, he said.
“For me, this is an evolution of my career. I got to the point where I was uninspired, because I’m the leader, always teaching,” he said. “Being on the farm, we’re learning everyday; we’re learning about nature, we’re learning about agriculture, we’re learning about these microorganisms in the soil that make all this happen.”
That isn’t to say that he’s no longer directly involved with 5Church. Lynch still spends five days a week in his restaurants, mentoring the staff and working on menu development.
Lynch started as a dishwasher in Marblehead, Massachusetts, when he was 15. After roaming about the country for a few years, his professional career officially started in San Francisco before moving to New York City to study under top-level chefs.
“That’s where I cut my teeth. I worked for some hotshots [in New York City],” he said with a laugh.
Working with the plants has also changed his approach in the kitchen. It’s no longer about churning out the coolest dishes with obscure ingredients. He’s scaled back the pomp and circumstance to highlight honest ingredients.
“My cooking style has changed a lot since being out here,” Lynch explained as he leaned down to pull up carrots. “It’s become a lot less fluff, fancy techniques and stuff like that and more relying on the purity of the ingredients and showing ways to showcase them instead of fancy them up. My career was kind of built on that, like, ‘How do you make the coolest tasting whatever?’”
The crowd-favorite tomato salad features big, juicy heirloom tomatoes, now straight from Chef Jamie’s Farm while the chicken eggs are used for brunch specialty dishes like the brunch steak burger and the croque madame. Even though the chickens produce about 12 dozen eggs a week, the restaurant supplements their weekly supply with about 360 eggs from Harmony Ridge Farms near Winston-Salem.
Even some of his flowers, like the amaranthus, are put to use for garnishing dishes, sprucing up drinks and tying together flower arrangements for Sophia’s Lounge, located in the Ivey Hotel next to 5Church. McGovern puts her background in leatherworking and tattooing to use vase arrangements for each table in the cocktail bar and social lounge.
The work on their farm is far from over. Even after setting up four plots, planting a garden, herding chickens, starting and planting seedlings, plumbing a well and harvesting food every week, the pair have a lot of hours of homesteading ahead of them.
Future plans include installing a greenhouse, establishing a colony of bees, setting up a more advanced irrigation system, getting a portable chicken coop to help with fertilization and possibly getting a John Deere tractor to turn compost.
The latter could take some load off of Lynch’s shoulders when he steps up to the compost pile with a pitchfork to manually turn the giant mound of decomposing food and waste while it breaks down.
But from compost pile to soil to harvest to kitchen to table, Lynch has his hand in every step, creating a cycle with virtually no waste.
“The idea is that we have a complete food system. Between the restaurant and the farm, we’re growing here, using it at the restaurant, the waste is coming back to the farm, turning into compost that’s feeding the soil,” Lynch said. “There’s nobody else doing that, not in Charlotte.”
It’s honest work for honest food.