A “Mother Hen” Tends to Fleur de Lys
by Destiny Van Kooten
There is a local gem in Kutztown, along the shortcut between Allentown and Reading where Eagle Point intersects with Hottenstein road. Fleur de Lys farm is marked by a periwinkle and yellow sign conveniently advertising offerings, such as garlic, greens, squash, honey, range eggs, and potatoes. Owned and tended for by Paul and Laurie Lynch, Fleur de Lys offers a “piece of France” as you travel along the scenic route.
As Laurie and I weave our way through the herbs and flowers, we end up in a shaded clearing the family appropriately deemed “Stonehenge,” for the rock slabs encircling a fire pit underneath the large shade trees. I choose one of the cool rocks to sit on and take in the beautiful surroundings of the farm. I begin to regret never visiting here before since I’ve passed it countless times on my commute to Kutztown. I realize I even have pictures of myself here in front of the carriage barn with my college friends because we found such beauty in the rustic structure. So often things do come around “full-circle”, as they say.
Laurie has the aura of a quintessential gardener. Her dusted knees and beaded brow illustrate her day began much earlier than my arrival. On a typical day, Laurie rises with the sun and feeds the livestock, collects eggs, and makes local deliveries of the fresh egg cartons. The stalls and coop must be cleaned and the field must be tended. It didn’t matter that this July afternoon was on the brink of 100 degrees or not, the farm must go on.
She brushes her hand along her forehead moving her short brown hair from her eyes and begins at the name. Fleur de Lys was selected for a
few reasons, including the reminder of their family roots. Laurie’s father-in-law was born in France and right before purchasing the farm, Laurie and Paul traveled abroad and fell love with Provence. So ideally, the name would be French-inspired. Ultimately, the land itself also proved to be great inspiration. “We decided on Fleur de Lys because we have this stream running down here (gestures behind me) and Fleur de Lys means ‘flower of the Lilly.’ But it’s actually a water iris they take the design from and we have those growing in the stream, a pretty yellow flower.” So while the name conjures memories of their family’s descendants, the flowers literally line the stream that babbles through their farmland.
The farm was purchased thirteen years ago and Fleur de Lys has been in business since 2002 and is best known for their fresh eggs, garlic, and their “Easter Peep” program. Laurie says, “…it’s the nice thing about this farm. It’s very small, we have 8 acres and I’ve tried almost everything. I have not tried peanuts here, but I’ve tried in Coplay and was not successful [laughs].” Learning the land takes years to master because, “After awhile, you know what grows best, where…but I’m always learning.” Laurie tried planting celery root for the first time this year and only after experimentation and research did she discover where it liked to grow best. Turns out, celery root prefers the moist soil and so Laurie relocated it to the wet meadow garden where it thrives.
One thing Fleur de Lys is certainly not lacking is the unusual varieties covering the color spectrum, “..because [the farm] is so small, I have to plant unusual things. Like this year we have Green Zebra tomatoes. We have a tomato called Egg yolk…one called Carbon, that’s black…You know, I used a lot of different colors. Our beans are everything from purple, yellow, to green. Small amounts, but a lot of different things.”
Knowing that they grow heirloom varieties, I asked Laurie to shed some light upon what that actually means. “An heirloom variety is basically an old-fashioned variety. I don’t know if it’s antique if it’s 50 years or older. I get seeds that’ll say, ‘An old heirloom from France, dating back to the 1700’s.’ The actual seed isn’t, but that seed saved over the years. When you have things like that it not only has good flavor but it has historical impact.” If you are interested in growing your own heirloom varieties for your garden, Laurie recommends her favorite catalogue, Baker Creek. Baker Creek offers 1,400 heirloom varieties and promises their seeds are “pure, natural, and non-GMO” (Genetically Modified Organisms). Laurie says you can also just swap and share, as she does with local friends and her sister in Peru.
While Fleur de Lys is not certified organic, they are natural. Laurie defines the process of organic farming as a great deal of record keeping in order to become, and remain, certified. There are strict requirements of the record keeping process outlined on Penn State’s Agricultural Marketing website. Although she does keep some records, it can be tedious work. “My whole philosophy was that I’m growing food for my family; to sell to friends, neighbors and customers. So what I feed my daughter and son, I don’t want pesticides on that, so I’m not gonna put pesticides on anything.” Laurie confirms my recent realizations that, “Basically, a lot of the plants and vegetables are bred for shipping and storage and not for taste,” though she does recognize that with more education that is changing in the chain supermarkets.
It must be said that Laurie does not fear the practice of pesticides as she has been professionally trained in the process and she even encourages it for the right farmer, in the right circumstances. Fleur de Lys is unique in that the wide variety of things grown there prevents much of the need to spray. “If Flea Beetles come in and eat my eggplants I know they’ll leave the garlic alone. I’m not growing eggplants this year because of those Flea Beetles; I’ve banned it from the garden [laughing]!” So in the end, it’s a little give-and-take.
Without the use of pesticides, local farmers have to become creative in their weed and pest prevention tactics. Laurie lines the seed-paths with newspaper clippings, though she says cardboard is best, but you use what you have. For their main garden, she uses black plastic mulch and Paul mows the grassy paths between to minimize weed growth. To promote growth, they compost the manure right from their own livestock. Lastly, but certainly not least, is the hand pulling. Laurie provided some humor as she declares, “Before we got the farm, I used to love to weed; it was one of my favorite things. I thought I could never get enough weeding. But now I know that I could get enough weeding [laughing].” I notice she isn’t kidding as we pass her asparagus patch with weeds taller than both of us.
As far as fruits are concerned, they are another matter regarding the pesticides. “Fruits are a hard way,” Laurie says, “I’ve specifically not grown certain fruits because you need to spray them,” such as apples, which often become worm-eaten. So rather than apples, Laurie offers Asian pears and a variety of wild berries. Laurie admits, “I choose things that don’t need a spray schedule and that comes from a lot of research.”
One of my favorite elements of this farm is their involvement with children. When children visit Fleur de Lys leave knowing many new things. Laurie teaches them the green bean “t-shirt test.” All you do is slap a green bean against your t-shirt and if it doesn’t fall off, it’s fresh! Little hairs on the beans act like Velcro, keeping it attached to the shirt. “We [also] have what I call ‘fairy berries’, they’re Alpine Strawberries, they’re that big [makes a circle with finger], and they are just morsels of ‘melt-in-your-mouth’ goodness. There’s no way I could sell or ship them; as soon as you pick one you put it in your mouth and they’re great. Well, kids love to pick the fairy berries and that’s one way of getting them into the garden and excited about food.” I ventured over to the stone wishing-well where the “fairy berries” grow, snapped a quick photo, then popped one of them into my mouth. The shot of sweetness along my jaw-line experienced only with the sweetest of delicacies confirmed Laurie’s rave review.
The most influential program for children offered at Fleur de Lys is their “Easter Peep” program. It seems only natural for the farm to raise hens as Laurie remembers, “My nickname from my family growing up was ‘mother hen’ because I had four younger sisters and I was always kinda the bossy one.” As a child, Laurie could go to the Five and Dime and get a colored Easter Peep, and thus her farm’s tradition was born. This annual program allows families to rent two chicks for only $40.00 and they get to keep them for two weeks. They are provided with a water bottle, feed, bedding, box, and the instructions. After two weeks they return their chicks to the farm to be pasture-raised, soak up endless sunshine and roam the acreage. Children learn more about farming while simultaneously bonding with their family.
Laurie also notices the program seems to improve the temperaments of the roosters who are cared for and played with for their first two weeks of life. This program leads to a cyclical notion that is quite endearing because “…if the kids can come back one day and see their little chicks grow up and lay eggs they’re gonna love those eggs,” which encourages them to become local buyers themselves. And these children do come back, she says, and as they call out “cupcake” or “brownie” at the fence, hopefully Fleur de Lys has inspired a lifelong respect for what our local farmers do.
Besides the increasing passion to educate myself more on this lifestyle, I realize it has to start early-on. Seeing what my student’s eat for lunch every day at the school where I teach makes me understand why children’s diets are a growing concern. I wanted to know Laurie’s thoughts on how we can better educate children in our society about the right way to eat. Even if they are too young to make those decisions now, perhaps guiding them toward the right path for when they can make independent food choices later. Laurie begins with laughter, saying her two children are now both adults and have never been to Disney world, “So I don’t know that I’m a normal parent.” However, Laurie offers that children need to have access to the fresh markets and farms and should have the knowledge about where and how food becomes part of our daily routines. As a mother herself, she says she found much inspiration from Sharon Lovejoy’s books on getting children involved in gardening. She gazes out into her farm remembering a moment when her daughter was young and would pop a green tomato right in her mouth and eat them. “I want to engage kids in the garden and I have a quote somewhere here, ‘You don’t teach children about gardening, they catch it,’ or something like that.”
Looking around at what seems to be a relatively smaller farm, I’m just beginning to understand the magnitude of work involved in keeping Fleur de Lys alive and thriving. Between the weeding, egg-collecting, mowing, planting, and the like—yes, Laurie even has time to research. She has a huge library of books on plants and there are many guest speakers and trainings in our area for the interested. This research has a deep foundation, however, in Laurie’s inherent passion for nature and gardening. “When I was growing up I liked to garden. But it’s been a consuming passion [for] the past 20 years. When my daughter was two weeks old I started the Penn State Master Gardener Program.” Laurie served Lehigh and Northampton Counties as the former Master Coordinator and she remains involved part-time for Lehigh County. For more information on this program visit the Penn State Gardener’s Program’s website .
If you are also an amateur embarking on a local food-quest, Laurie provides some useful tips. “Know what your passion is and follow it. It’s such a neat world out there, different ingredients, try new things.” While the best thing to do, she says, is just get a pack of seeds and try it, there are some practical things we can start doing right away. Laurie says there is so much information provided to the curious, so she recommends, “When you Google [because] you want to learn how to grow beans, type in “beans” and then “cooperative extension.” Then you will get research-based information, whether it’s from Penn State, Rutgers, Cornell, or UCLA. You’re not gonna get some anecdote…you need the basics to start with.” This is incredibly powerful advice for the amateur gardener seeking the fundamentals.
We also need to make this passion a priority in our homes if we want to be successful. Laurie says, “I love to cook, I love to eat. Some of my fondest memories are from different recipes my mother or my grandmother made. I’ve passed down a lot to my daughter and it seems like we’re always talking about food in some way.” The Lynch family practiced food traditions when their two children, Marina and Richard, were young. Paul was the leader of their Friday night pizzas. Marina and Richard were involved in the cooking-process and used to say they were, “washing their hands in dough.” It’s a sweet image to conjure of two children spending time with their family elbow deep in fresh, home-made pizza dough.
What led me to Fleur de Lys farm in the first place were the passionate reactions I had after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (here), several Michal Pollan interviews, and famous Chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution(here). Oliver is overly passionate and borderline cruel about the truths of American cuisine habits (his episode on over-sized caskets becoming a booming industry is highly enlightening).
I grew up in a household where our food primarily came out of a can, box, bag, or freezer that could be prepared relatively quickly, without fuss. I began reflecting on how I was raised concerning the dinner table and discovered I knew very little about food itself, let alone where it actually came from. Even as Laurie was discussing the various tomato varieties to me earlier I was puzzled, “There are tomato varieties other than just, red tomatoes?!” I have much to learn.
As I prepare to get married in a few months and start a home of my own, I discovered I don’t want the same things on my dinner table that I grew up eating. While I feel envious of individuals who were raised in an environment of fresh foods and the talent of real cooking, I know I can begin making changes now. I have vowed to make daily changes in my eating and food preparation lifestyle after reading the truth about where our food really comes from.
After spending the afternoon at Fleur de Lys it is easy to see that the farm thrives because there is almost a tangible love that emanates from Laurie as she interacts with her farm. The way she’ll brush the leaf of a plant, her interactions with their horse Griffey, and the nuances in her voice as she remembers her favorite rooster, “His name was James Bond. He was so sweet. I don’t name most of my chickens, but I named him.” When asked about her favorite recipe from her farm she shares an anecdote that is just good for the soul. “When I make Pesto and my daughter would come home from school, she walks into the house and she says, ‘It smells like love,’ so that would always be my favorite dish, that’s her favorite dish.” I don’t think that it’s just the Pesto that smells like love here, but every element. What we have in our midst is a local farm that is rooted in the French style that shares their passion and bounty with their community. With a warm laugh Laurie adds, “I try to grow a lot of French varieties just because…we’re French! So, we have a little piece of France here in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.”