Deval Patrick talks about farming, gardening,
cooking, eating, and sharing
Don’t be fooled by the natty suit. The 71st governor of Massachusetts, Deval L. Patrick, is a farmer at heart. It wasn’t the cute chicken motif on his tie that gave him away when he lunched with Edible Berkshires at Nudel restaurant in Lenox, but his boundless enthusiasm about helping farmers throughout the state and in the Berkshires where he and wife, Diane, own a second home. In fact, he’s often referred to as “The Agriculture Governor” and proud of it. He even was spotted at a recent lecture about how to raise backyard chickens, though he says his motive was sheer enjoyment rather than to give away eggs to Democratic fundraisers.
After lunching together, we can confirm another moniker: Foodie. He’s eager to eat unusual and different foods, especially those locally grown, and sample what’s on your plate as well as chow down his own choices.
“Is there an understanding that all the dishes at the table are fair game for all of us?” he asks, laughing. We knew he was deadly serious after he ordered split pea and bacon soup with Berkshires produce— Feather Ridge Farm eggs and Raven & Boar whey-fed pork belly tacos—and insisted on tasting our Berle Farm Crowdie cheese with Edible Berkshires publisher Bruce Firger’s mixed berry jam and buttered sourdough, Overmeade Gardens asparagus, smoked pickled trout and penne with High Lawn Farm ricotta. An abridged version of the interview follows:
Barbara Ballinger: You grew up on the urban South Side of Chicago. When did your passion for agriculture and farming begin?
Deval L. Patrick: We lived with my grandparents in a two-bedroom tenement in a tough neighborhood in Chicago. My grandmother and grandfather had moved up from Kentucky when they were teenagers in the ’30s. But there was a little patch of ground out back behind our tenement, and she was an amazing gardener. She grew mostly perennials— peonies were her favorite—and this one climbing rose she had brought from my great-grandfather’s house as a cutting grew all the way up the side of this tenement. My interest in perennial garden ing probably stems from there. We have really nice perennial beds at home in Milton that I put in, but less so out here since for us the whole point of being here is to do as little as possible. Although I have plans for bees, plans for my backyard chickens. I have my whole postgubernatorial life sorted! My grandmother also grew a few vegetables because she loved to cook collard greens, for example. We’d also visit Kentucky, and there were small farms in the family. My interest in agriculture has gotten a lot deeper since I’ve been governor, and I get to visit all kinds of settings.
BB: Did your interest in food come from your grandmother or mother?
DLP: Not my mother; she was a terrible cook! My interest in food really came from this amazing ninth-grade English teacher at Milton Academy when I first came here [to Massachusetts], who was a crusty old WASP with a huge heart and was married to this unbelievably vivacious Texan who was my Spanish teacher. They loved to entertain. They loved food and wine, and they did amazing things to make me feel that it was less like landing on a different planet. In my first book (A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life, Crown Publishing, 2011), I wrote that I think he still is my definition of what it means to show hospitality.
BB: Can you be more specific?
DLP: He introduced me to things like scallops, which I had never tasted before. They had a place on the Cape they used to take me to on weekends. I used to think fish was square, breaded and … but they taught me about fresh fish and corn that was freshly picked. My grandparents had taken us—my sister and me—up to Michigan in the fall for apple picking, and there’s really nothing like seeing where food comes from.
BB: Did the Berkshires house purchase also inspire you?
DLP: We bought the land 10 to 12 years ago and camped on it for a while. There’s a big meadow that’s our land. We built on a little knoll in that meadow. It’s not got great views, but there are apple and pear trees, which we’re trying to bring back gradually.
BB: How much land is devoted to growing and gardening?
DLP: Except for the old apple orchard, none of it. We’re not here enough, but I’ve got plans. It’s also an interesting choice because we’re surrounded by farms and farm stands everywhere. Massachusetts has an explosion of farm stands, and I think there’s a 20% increase in family farms. But my point was that you can get so much locally grown produce and fruit. The reason I want to have a garden is for the satisfaction of working in it, and the way it makes you slow down. And that’s been my experience with perennial gardening.
BB: So, you don’t mind being referred to as the Agriculture Governor?
DLP: I love that, and especially if it comes from people in agriculture. I like that teachers call me the Education Governor, and I like it that people in construction call me the Construction Governor, or others the Job Creation Governor. It’s all part of a whole. We are developing the Boston market downtown as a destination for growers from all around the state. The hope is that it will be functioning in time for next year’s harvest. It’s a lot of space—a big public garage, and the idea is to devote the ground floor to it.
BB: Was it a conscious decision to focus on agriculture before you became Governor—part of your platform—or did it happen once you came into office?
DLP: This is the first office I’ve run for, and I believe philosophically in running from the grassroots and visiting people and moving around the Commonwealth. And it was amazing how often in central and western Massachusetts and down in the south coast and somewhat up north in the Merrimack Valley that people felt governors and state government were focused on Beacon Hill. A little love goes a long way out in these parts of the Commonwealth, and I knew the Berkshires and had visited forever. But I didn’t quite get the political dynamic until campaigning.
I remember being in the Pioneer Valley, Franklin County, at a gathering of Democrats where candidates made their pitches, and a guy came up in a feed cap and said, “Deval, how much do you know about agriculture?” And I said “Not much.” And he said, “Why don’t you come to my town,” and I said, “Where do you live?” And he said, “In a town called Heath, a hill town up on the Vermont line.” And there are probably 1,200 people, and I said “Great, I’d love to come, let’s make a date.” And I said to the campaign office, “I promised this guy I would come to Heath,” and they said, “That’s very nice but you’re not going. There are no voters there, and you don’t have time.” But I said, “I promised, and I have to.”
It took a long time to figure out how to make it work. You have to go to Heath, and you can’t stop by on the way, so one day in the summer of 2006, right after my 50th birthday, we did just that. We did our detour, and we thought the residents would be out working. We start up the hill, and the woods get deeper, and we come to a fork in the road, and there’s a handwritten sign that says, “This way, Deval.” And I turn and keep going and cell phone service is vanishing. And we come to another fork in the road, and there’s another handwritten sign, “This way, Deval,” and eventually [the land] opens up to a pasture and barn. And when we get to the little school, we’re expecting nobody, and there must have been 300 people, all had crowded into the community center waiting for me to do my pitch. They had brought homemade bread, jam and honey and gave me a warm welcome. I got 98% of the vote, almost all. There was a lot of conversation about agriculture and some of the issues and needs and special challenges, including dairy farmers at the time.
BB: What’s the future of farming now in this area and in Massachusetts?
DLP: I think it’s quite bright. There are 7,691 farms. Some are very market focused. People are figuring out what combinations work. The APR [Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program] has contributed a lot to sustainability of family farming (and protected over 800 farms and 67,000 acres). We need to do even more to support extension services, for example.
BB: And other challenges?
DLP: I’m listening to what farmers are telling me they want such as interest in alternative energy so people aren’t as susceptible to gas prices and better access to communications—the issue of accessibility to broadband communications. We’re building full access in the west by the end of the year. It’s not just for convenience but access to markets; the farmers need the same access as any other business.
BB: Anything you’re especially proud of?
DLP: The farm-to-table movement has really come on strong.
BB: That brings us back to your love of cooking. Why do you love it?
DLP: It’s relaxing. I love food, and like the conviviality of mealtime. Having a meal with people is maybe the most social thing people do—and having food that is interesting and local. When the kids were growing up, we had Sunday supper every week with our nuclear family, my sister and her husband and kids live about a mile from us, and my mother lived with us for 20 years, and various people came and went and somewhere between a dozen and 20 people were at the table every single Sunday, and we solved a lot of problems.
BB: Since you’ve announced you’re not running for re-election, what might you do?
DLP: Maybe I’ll be a farmer.