Glenn Brendle is riding around his dozen acres on his tractor, showing off the bounty of his farm, Green Meadows, in Gap, Pennsylvania. His favorite things to grow and that have proven successful, he says, are "the unusual, hard-to-get stuff."
There is a kaffir lime tree; you can smell the fresh, bright citrus when standing next the hourglass-shape leaves. There is a hops plant, which shoots its green blossoms into the sky. Glenn grows cipollini onions with deep red flesh; coriander; fire-colored sumac; and white tarbais beans. He grows so many varieties of basil he can't remember all the names. He has a passion fruit tree, its branches studded with incredibly intricate flowers.
"I'm satisfied by all of it, everything I do," he says. But the best part is being able to work with his family. His son labors with him in the fields and makes deliveries to restaurants; his wife answers the phone and organizes orders. They live in a big but cozy house on their farm. "It's a good life," he says.
Glenn grew up on a different kind of farm—his father was a poultry man. His dad grew turkeys for the holiday market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "There was a time when farming was the last thing I wanted to do," he says. "I bet every farm kid feels that way."
So Glenn got his degree in electrical engineering. He specialized in vacuum tubs, which "after five or 10 years became completely redundant." So he landed jobs in printing and advertising. The jobs were decent, but there was something troubling him: "It always came back to office politics and being cooped up all day." It simply wasn't his style.
In the late 1970s, Glenn started gardening as a hobby. He had an Amish neighbor in Lancaster County who was a farmer. The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia was just reawakening as a food hub, and Glenn took his neighbor to the market to sell his produce. Chefs loved the products, but they were unable to schlep large quantities from market to restaurant.
Cue Glenn's lightbulb moment. He started to deliver to three restaurants and then grew from there. Now he grows his own harvest: beets, carrots, kale, magness pears, leeks, heirloom tomatoes, and much more, and delivers to nearly 80 restaurants. He cultivates more than half the produce himself at Green Meadows; the rest he contracts from nearby Amish farms.
And Glenn's fruits and vegetables are seriously good. One reason is that Green Meadows has no storage; the peaches and microgreens are picked to order and delivered the next day. "We don't own coolers, except in our trucks."
Grocery-store produce often sits in storage and on shelves for a frighteningly long time. Glenn's products taste revelatory because they are: apples straight from the tree, potatoes right from the ground. Glenn's favorite product right now is the paw paw. It looks a like a mango and tastes like banana-mango custard.
Glenn pioneered the use of recycled fryer oil to heat his farm. Heating a greenhouse, he says, is a crushing expense. But because Pennsylvania winters are cold, choosing not to run a warm greenhouse means losing customers in the winter. "They forget who you are by spring."
Many small farmers run their greenhouses at a loss, but Glenn was unsatisfied by this plan. One bleak winter day he delivered produce to Monk's Cafe© in Philadelphia. The alley was blocked with jugs of old fryer oil. Monk's was trying to get rid of it, but because of snow, the removal guys weren't picking it up. Monk's asked Glenn to take the oil as a favor, and he obliged.
"I thought, it's oil, it should be able to make heat," he says. So he designed a heater himself and tweaked it until he was satisfied with its performance. Now he heats everything with recycled oil from restaurants: our house, our shop, hot water, the greenhouse, it even runs the tractor."
Glenn never had any training in fruit and vegetable farming. "I was curious. I read everything I could get my hands on, especially turn-of-the century material about farming."
Long before it was in vogue, Glenn was growing everything organically. Part of the reason was selfish. "I didn't want to subject myself to those chemicals," he says. "Or other people." Plus, chemicals are expensive. Glenn employed solutions like spraying with oil-soap emulsions, and companion planting to encourage good bugs and discourage bad ones. "It's nothing new. People farmed for thousands of years without chemicals. We work with what we have, and it works."
Chefs and serious eaters appreciate the integrity of the ingredients they get from Green Meadows, and they appreciate how good the sweet mint, pumpkins and white corn taste.
"You have to love what you're doing," Glenn says, "You've got to be good at it to succeed, and the only way to be good at it is to love it."