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Chef Dale Hawkins

Chef is part of growing farm-to-kitchen movement

By CYNTHIA McCLOUD For The State Journal

ROCK CAVE — For chef and farmer Dale Hawkins, success is organic.

Hawkins wasn't trying to make a statement when he moved back to the family farm in Rock Cave to grow and sell vegetables. He was just looking for a reliable source of fresh produce.

"If you can't get it, you might as well grow it," he said.

But his work with agritourism, the local food movement, more efficient farming techniques and sustainability has earned him an award. In January, the West Virginia Environmental Council named him its Green Entrepreneur of the Year.

"I didn't really have a grand plan, it just was all organic," Hawkins said. "It just naturally happened."

Agriculture proponents in this state are looking for ways to keep family farms viable and to attract young people to continue working the farm after high school graduation.

Hawkins has returned to his family's 67-acre farm in Upshur County and started multiple revenue-producing activities that support what he really wants to do: cook.

"We're a green business trying to do things with organic principles," Hawkins said. "We really think outside of the box as far as farming and getting farm products to consumers." 

The enterprise is called Fish Hawk Acres. 

Hawkins started with community-supported agriculture about seven years ago. Customers buy a share, and Hawkins ships part of the harvest to them every week. The shipment might include Red Oak leaf and Baby Romaine Lettuce, pea shoots, spinach, Easter Egg radishes, baby carrots, fresh mint and granola, honey or maple syrup.
A community-supported kitchen was developed from the community-supported agriculture initiative. Consumers can order a week's worth of prepared food at a time. 

"What we found out early on is the American consumer has changed a lot from 40 years ago," said Hawkins, 43. "They don't want to cook, they don't have time to cook and in a lot of cases they don't know how to cook. We thought if we could tap into that market, if we took vegetables and aggregated local products, we could prepare ready-made meals for them. 

"It's good and it's fresh. It's not frozen. All you have to do is reheat it."

The 15-page seasonally changing menu features fresh whole foods such as vegetables and fruits, as well as prepared dishes such as soups. It includes sausage ground by Glen Hawkins, Jeff's Breads of Renick, Ramp-a-Roni rolls (caramelized ramps, pepperoni and mozzarella baked in pizza dough), filet mignon, crab cakes, grits, baked ham, lasagna, morels and granola.

But Hawkins's farm isn't the only one supplying the food. Roughly 14 farms in a 100-mile radius of Rock Cave have partnered in the effort with him. 

"Fish Hawk Acres is a brand," Hawkins said. "We purchase shiitake mushrooms from Hidden Acres Farms, chicken from Gardener Farms in Waverly and beef from the Doddridge County beef cooperative (Mountain State Natural). It's not just our products but products from other growers."

When Hawkins was growing up 14 miles south of Buckhannon, his parents raised vegetables, cattle and rabbits for the family's own consumption. They had other jobs. Now the farm is a source of income. And it goes beyond the community-supported kitchen and agriculture.

"It's the same concept of don't put all your eggs in one basket," Hawkins said.

Not only can schools bring children to the farm for field trips, but Fish Hawk Acres opens to the public for several regular events. The farm hosted a ramp dinner in May and a lavender fair in June. There's a hootenanny set for July and a Hillbilly Clambake for August.

"It's all about getting people on the farm to have a farm experience," Hawkins said.

The farm also is a classroom for other farmers and agriculture students. Hawkins and other experts teach workshops in efficient growing methods, such as high and low tunnels and drip irrigation, and new kinds of produce at the New Appalachian Farm and  Research Center he founded.

He also does catering, including booking private events at the farm.

Hawkins studied at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh and went to work for Victoria & Albert's, Disney's five-diamond restaurant and other resorts and fine dining restaurants.

"I still get to be a chef," Hawkins said. "I get to do it on my terms. I don't have to have a restaurant open."

And he isn't doing it alone. His parents, Joann and Glen Hawkins, are involved. Hawkins has a business partner, Teresa Lipps. His brother, Wes, raises goats and sheep. Also in the core group are Loupe and Patti Espinoza, who "make everything happen on the farm."

For  information, visit www.wvfishhawkacres.com, email chefhawkins@gmail.com or call 304-704-2535.