Lee Ann Freitas of Indie Growers Grows and Nano-scale Farming
A Tiny Mighty and Independent Farming Dynamo
On a seasonably humid morning, the greenhouse air is redolent with citrus from lemon balm, cukes and verbena, and tangy mint from cotton candy, ginger, Lebanese and Mexican mint plants. Pink eggplant, striped eggplant, alyssum, bright yellow and orange nasturtium flowers, purple borage, Malabar spinach and other riotously colorful and aromatic herbs and flowers fill the beds. Red leaf lettuce, dark green dinosaur kale and broccoli rabe compete for space, and an enormous pineapple sage plant scents the tropical air.
As someone who “plays” at gardening and grows nothing edible other than foolproof tomatoes and basil, I wanted to meet my polar opposite— someone who lives and breathes gardening 24/7. That’s how I met Lee Ann Freitas (pronounced “Freight us”), who launched and grew her own business, Indie Growers, a “nano-scale farm” in Bristol.
With her nonstop, cheerful narrative, Freitas knows her plants the way parents know their children. As I sample a marble-sized turnip, a farm intern meticulously removes bugs and pollen from vibrant fennel and mustard blossoms, which are then packed in plastic clamshells to protect the delicate petals.
Freitas settled on the name “Indie Growers” for three disparate reasons: The year she started the company, 2011, was her year of (post-divorce) independence; Bristol’s Independence Day parade is world-renowned; and her offerings are a “little bit outside the norm,” said Freitas, who is fond of odd yet tasty things.
Indie Growers’ most complex piece of machinery is a pair of scissors, said Freitas, who tells me that everything they do—from seeding and planting to weeding and harvesting—is done by hand.
Freitas grows and sells more than 1,000 chemical-free products—edible flowers, herbs and vegetables—each year on several different Bristol-based properties. Such a large mix is particularly impressive since Indie Growers farms on only about an acre of land. She sells her wares to some of Rhode Island’s best-known chefs and venues: Ben Sukle of Birch, Champe Speidel of Persimmon, Derek Wagner of Nick’s on Broadway, Table, the Weekapaug Inn, Ocean House and Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile. Several Boston area restaurants—including Bondir, Ribelli’s, Mei Mei and Strip-T’s— purchase Indie Growers’ produce too.
During January and February Freitas is busy planting seeds and harvesting summer crops in her greenhouse.
“I’m doing all the things you’d normally do in summer but I’m also planning crops for outside [planting] and seeding those, as well,” says Freitas. Throughout the winter season, she delivers to clients, markets Indie Growers and sells at Mount Hope Farmers Market.
Describing her year-round commitments as “insanity,” she cheerfully adds, “At the end of the day, it’s all good stuff.” In the summer season, larger farms are fierce competitors and the physical labor is more intense, as greenhouse and in-ground crops all must be harvested.
In order to make any money, Freitas must ensure that her plants are multi-purpose.
“I plant my arugula harvest and that will grow. I sell every part of that stinking plant—the arugula, the flowers, the seed pods,” she explains. It’s a vegetarian version of snout-to-tail, as Freitas will compost the plant and keep the seeds for the next growing season.
Indie Growers’ colorful herbs and flowers enliven Birch’s meals and plates. In the late winter months, Sukle purchases carrots, onions, sunchokes and celeriac. Although Sukle may not prominently feature those vegetables on his menus in February and March, he says, “If we have basic foundation vegetables grown by someone we know really well … we build [our menu] from there,” he says. “You have to live and cook and die with what’s available. If we want Rhode Island to flourish as a food scene, that’s absolutely necessary.”
Indie Growers relies on what Freitas calls a magnificent league of volunteers: Nancy Stratton offers business expertise and spiritual guidance; Beth Aldridge provides practical sage advice; and Mary Vilenski serves as farmers’ market CEO. “Those three ladies have been with me from the beginning. I have folks who come and go but they all stay in touch,” says Freitas, explaining that Indie Growers often becomes part of their extended families.
“I’m the crazy lady driving down the road with rakes and hoes and seed packets,” laughs Freitas. “It’s insanity but it’s the ‘new’ farm; we don’t have 200 acres to put together anymore.” Running chaotically everywhere right now for her many chefs and for Farm Fresh Rhode Island is, she admits, “pleasing many—but it’s not pleasing me.”
To address that challenge, she plans to allocate more growing space to Sukle and Speidel. By growing a defined quantity of preferred products for specific chefs, Freitas anticipates reducing her margin of error and increasing her productivity and profit. Growing for just a few chefs, she says, would simplify her life.
“It’s a one-woman road show and it’s hard to manage what I’m doing,” she says.
Sukle, who purchases both grown and foraged products from Indie Growers, says, “It’s my duty to get excited about absolutely everything.” Foraged wild garlic and farm-grown Nepitella (a minty herb) are on Sukle’s mind, as are Indie Growers’ oversized nasturtiums.
“It’s crazy how much food one acre of land can produce,” he says, emphasizing the value of such farmer/chef collaborations.
Indie Growers’ interns regularly volunteer in the Birch kitchen as well, which further strengthens those collaborations.
Speidel is delighted with Indie Growers’ contributions. “Lee Ann grows all these great flowers and she forages for a lot of crazy stuff that I’ve never seen before,” says Speidel. Scarlet peppernel has gorgeous flowers and a spicy backdrop for infusions, elderflowers and elderberries and greens with Asian names are a few of the varied offerings Indie Growers sells to Persimmon.
Committed to buying as much as she can grow, Speidel says, “We don’t need a lot, but I’ll support farmers like her. We do things a bit differently and she’s growing things a bit differently. Calling Freitas a “fireball who’s not going to quit,” Speidel is pleased that he can purchase greenhouse-grown flowers and herbs in mid-January.
Freitas sometimes brings a foraged product to Birch and Permission that she thinks could be horrible. When they do something “amazingly fabulous” with it, Freitas is often incredulous, asking, “Is that the same plant?”
A foraging neophyte, I am delighted when Freitas (who cautions others not to forage without expert knowledge) invites me along on a foraging expedition.
Good foragers, says Freitas, must always pay attention and ask ‘What is that?’ They’ll typically have bruised foreheads from bumping into trees, as their eyes are looking down on the ground for something, she says, laughing.
As she wriggles her way into a bramble-choked and poison ivy infested area, she points out bayberry–good to infuse in oil–wild brassica and wood sorrel.
“I’m still a kid at heart,” says the diminutive Freitas, as she stretches on her tiptoes to reach a remote stem of wild brassica.
Before parting, I thank Freitas, who gives me a warm embrace. On my drive home, I acknowledge to myself that, despite her informal lessons, there won’t be any additional gardening or foraging in my future.
Whether I’m shopping at Mount Hope Farmers’ Market or dining where Indie Growers’ foods are on the menu, Freitas’s commitment to “sharing with people by growing food,” as well as her herbs, flowers and vegetables, will to continue delight my senses, nourish my stomach and enrich my soul.