Tom Spicer Starts Another Local Produce Fight

Who could possibly find fault with an urban farm designed to teach entrepreneurial skills to college students and provide fresh, healthy food to low-income eaters? On a slow day, Tom Spicer, who says he was compelled by a mixture of boredom and outrage to call out the management of Paul Quinn College's organic farm in an e-newsletter sent last Friday.

"It's a warm, fuzzy program that's doomed if they don't get some real expertise in this... um, excuse me again, in this 'field'," writes specialty produce guru Spicer, who's never been shy about going after fellow distributors and local farmers.

According to Spicer, his chef friends have been disappointed by the prices and packaging offered by the Food For Good Farm, which this year replaced the troubled school's former football field. While he acknowledges the program can't profit off collards and potatoes, he believes students need the guidance of someone with knowledge of arugula and micro-greens if they wish to succeed in the upscale farm-to-fork market.

"It requires experience," Spicer says when reached by phone. "I have people coming to my alley taking pictures, but pictures do not experience get you."

Spicer, who recently lost a major account with the closure of York Street, insists he's not bothered by the prospect of potential competition -- or angling for a consulting job.

"I can't help what idiots think," he says

Spicer took up the same point in a follow-up e-mail he sent after our phone conversation: "Ya know, I can see that people would prefer to drive out of their way to pay more for dirty, over priced produce than brave their way to my neighborhood...or even over us delivering it to them because it's a school and the students are are more important or something idiotic like that."

In his original e-mail, Spicer references Jeff Patton, a Christmas tree farmer who was formerly associated with Paul Quinn College. But Andrea Bithell of Oak Cliff Organics has served as the school's farm manager since September; she vehemently defends the program and its produce.

"It looks like a first-year farm should look," says Bithell, a lifelong grower. "It's growing delicious, nutritious, organic produce."

Bithell referred specific questions about management, pricing, packaging and product selection to service learning director Elizabeth Wattley, who refused to respond to Spicer's allegations because she hadn't been privy to his phone call with the Observer. She suggested contacting Bolsa for a testimonial instead.

"I did have a problem with how the greens showed up," chef Graham Dodds confirms. "They were muddy and packed in Ziploc bags. And they did ask too much. We can't afford that much."

But, Dodds adds, "It's a learning curve. Of course they're not going to have it dialed in." He's since shown Paul Quinn representatives how other farmers package their product, and explained his restaurant's needs to them.

Dodds doesn't have any complaints about the quality of the product.

"The spinach was spectacular," he says. "It was some of the best spinach I've had this season."

Dodds is pleased to have a farm nearby in his neighborhood, and says he hopes others in the food community will support rather than condemn their efforts.

"I'm delighted with the program," he says. "To have something like this at our backdoor is incredible. More people should be doing this. All we want to do is support and promote them."