Profiles in farming: The garden of Eva

By Deanna Levanti
Posted 11/29/22

Eva Sommaripa’s farm is hidden in South Dartmouth but her name is known all around Westport — and just about every restaurant kitchen in Boston.

Eva’s Garden has attracted many …

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Profiles in farming: The garden of Eva

Posted

Eva Sommaripa’s farm is hidden in South Dartmouth but her name is known all around Westport — and just about every restaurant kitchen in Boston.

Eva’s Garden has attracted many young farmers to the area, many of whom own or manage farming operations in the area today.  She and her farm manager, Honey Bee, talked to a reporter in the office area atop the Pack Shed. As they chatted, the sound of autumn olive berries plinks the air as they are “tweedled” off the branches and drop into a bin.

What do you grow?

HB: We grow annual and perennial herbs, edible and cut flowers, baby greens, mini greens, pea greens.

Eva: It started out being primarily culinary herbs because in the old days, I mean way back in the late 70s, I was driving to and from Cambridge every week and in those days you couldn’t get fresh herbs hardly anywhere — they were being flown in from South America! So it wasn’t really a business yet; I was just growing them and I had extras so I just brought them to some restaurants near where I lived in Cambridge. And then it expanded to include herbs, flowers, and some vegetables, and foraged things, as well vegetables we source from other growers who wholesale to us for resale. 

How many accounts did you have in the first couple or few years?

Eva: Well I did a few restaurants and then I did all the Whole Foods which in those days was Bread and Circus in the Boston area, and I don’t really know the numbers, maybe eight.

Do you still have any of those same customers that you are still working with today?

Eva: A few people are still there, but not many.  Many of my customers I have known for years, just how many years I don’t know. A few years ago I could no longer do Whole Foods. It really changed, it got much bigger and different. We had to form a partnership with Jonathan’s Organics, the same people who were Jonathan’s Sprouts, and we had to package everything in those little clamshells, you know with the stamped-on information and we really weren’t set up to do that and we didn’t want to do it. That was our biggest account and we phased out after decades.

How many acres do you manage?

Eva: It’s roughly three acres under cultivation.

HB: I think it’s five if you include all the greenhouses. We have heated and unheated greenhouse space for winter production plus a propagation greenhouse, and the pack shed and pole barn.

Eva, when you bought the land, you were not envisioning farming it, right?

Eva: Absolutely not. We used to play volleyball out there. The main part of the garden had been under agricultural use before we bought it. And then the people who lived in the little house had some perennials established, peonies and rhubarb, and the old plants are still here doing their thing.

It was totally a home garden to start with, and I was discovering all these wonderful things you could grow and so were other people including Julia Child who was sharing that info with the rest of the world, then market was just suddenly huge. We introduced some things that weren’t around at all, like pea greens, and — people didn’t know what arugula was! Fresh basil, it was all these things became known during the time that we were selling.

One of my favorite things is to introduce people to new foods, and things that people don’t think of as food but that are actually quite edible and delicious. Of most plants, many more parts are edible than are generally known. And as you find out about what people are doing in other countries with some things, it’s exciting and fun!  I mean, that’s the fun part. 

So then how do you sell these things that nobody knows what it is, nobody’s eaten it before?

Eva: Chefs are more experimental than most home cooks, and they are always looking for something new so it’s a good sort of field laboratory.  People are cautious and then it’s just degrees of cautiousness. And then they tell me things too, they say 'Have you tried…?' And I do! 

My neighbor used to spend time in Italy and Greece and she would come back and say 'Whoa Eva, you should grow arugula! It is so great!' So she brought me some seeds and the first time I grew arugula — this was, if you can remember, a day when nobody hardly knew what arugula was in this country — and I just thought it was horrible. I thought it was like eating skunks! The smell, I could not stand! Then a couple years later I could hardly be without it. And the same thing happened with chicory. I would be hard put to be without it now.

I have a long-time friendship with a chef named Didi Emmonds. She and I share many ideas back and forth, and she wrote a book about this farm called Wild Flavors which is still available, which highlights a lot of the plants and plant parts that we offer here on the farm. 

How did you bring other people into the operation to be able to grow the farm?

Eva: Well, as we started doing more and more business, I ended up spending more time here than just weekends, and had to start hiring other people, which I knew nothing about how to do, how to manage crews or anything like that. We just winged it.

And then Honey Bee came in 2010 and was for a while our flower manager, and then she worked out these edible flowers. Her edible flowers are — you open a box of them and it’s just gorgeous, it’s like someone giving you a bouquet. Honey Bee’s an artist and she creates these things with flowers as her medium. It’s just turned out amazing.

Over the years, what you’re selling has changed based on what the market wants, but also based on who’s here, like what your staff is interested in?

Eva: It’s remarkably unplanned!

How much did you produce at the peak?

HB: The max was probably around 2015, and at about that level until COVID.  At the height of the season, we had 12 seasonal full-time employees each year. That’s about what it was in 2019. At that time, we sold to between 18 and 25 restaurants and wholesaled to Jonathan’s (Whole Foods) and Baldor.

How did COVID change the farm?

HB: We basically lost all our customers in one day so we had to find new customers to sell to. We did home delivery in 2020. This year is our first year back to only doing restaurants and wholesale and no direct to consumer. We definitely lost some customers, but I’d say now we do about 15 to 20 restaurants. One example is that we used to be able to sell a lot more pea greens; the demand really dropped off after COVID. We had to lower the price for them. It’s hard to say whether restaurants are getting them elsewhere or if the demand is just not there. Looking on the bright side, it was liberating in a way because it allowed me to shrink the business back and examine it and now we are rebuilding it in a way that works well for me.

How has production changed under your management, Honey Bee?

HB: I’ve learned to do things my own way. I rest on the shoulders of giants though because so many people before me did so much and made little changes along way.  Everything is more streamlined.  I focus on the herbs and flowers because I think they are all around more profitable, and I am most interested in growing herbs right now. In the past there was that insatiable demand for greens but now so many people have that kind of thing dialed in. With the herbs, we can sell more of them and it’s less labor intensive, especially perennial herbs. I am really understanding how to manage perennial herbs. When I came here, the people who were working here were vegetable growers and greens growers, so we grew a lot of them. Eva’s is such a unique farm. But no matter what we grow, at the end of the day she’s going to be excited about it, and she can sell it!

What’s your crew size now?

HB: We have just me and Eva full time, with a handful of part-time seasonal workers and support staff (eg mower and book-keeper). Nobody has to work crazy hours.

Honey Bee, how did you get into farming?

HB: My first farm job was at Red Fire Farm in Granby in 2006. It was kind of accidental, I needed a job and someone suggested a farm position. I liked it a lot. It really opened my eyes. I’m so glad I know how to grow food. It feels like a Superpower to me. I love that you never really figure it out.  It’s always going to be different and you always learn something.

 

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.