Feeding Cape May's appetite for local food

Curtis Bashaw at his Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May. His farm experience dates to helping a grandfather on a farm in Cherry Hill. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)

People in Cape May know that real estate developer Curtis Bashaw, 55, launched his Jersey Shore hotel and restaurant business in the early 1990s, with a boost from the legacy of his grandfather the Rev. Carl McIntire. The fiery pastor's Cape May hotel was a forerunner of Bashaw's partnership, Cape Resorts, which employs 650 in coldest winter and twice that in busy midsummer.

But Bashaw's other grandfather, Burchell J. Bashaw, also left a business legacy: He was one of the last working farmers in Cherry Hill, growing tomatoes for the old Campbell Soup factory in Camden at his place on Marlkress Road.

As a kid, "I had to help there on weekends," Bashaw told me. "I hated it. But I learned a lot."

Now he, too, has become a farmer. Eight years ago, he bought 62 sandy loam acres he calls Beach Plum Farm, a mile and a half by bicycle west of Cape Resorts' flagship Congress Hotel. He's moved the pigs to a second, 11-acre location and plans to add 80 acres nearby next year.

The former Les Rea lima bean farm - it supplied Pennsylvania-based Hanover Foods until the 1990s, back when West Cape May called itself the "Lima Bean Capital of the World" - has been converted by Bashaw's capital and an army of largely immigrant managers and workers into what he calls "a traditional small working farm." It supplies all of the pork and eggs and more or less than half (depending on the season) of the greens, roots, fruits, and herbs for Cape Resorts' Blue Pig Tavern at Congress Hall, Ebbitt Room at the Virginia, the Rusty Nail at the Beach Shack, and at Louisa's, the restaurant run by Bashaw's domestic partner Will Riccio, this summer.

Beach Plum feeds 300 Berkshire pigs (fresh or cured into ham, bacon, scrapple, "everything but the oink," Bashaw says) and hundreds of Ameraucana hens (for their blue-shell eggs, not meat). It also raises crops: mint, oregano, lavender, lemon verbena and rosemary; salad-bowl vegetables; berries and melons; sweet Japanese turnips and sweet potatoes; and more.

Tourists buy Bashaw's produce from his farmstand, and line up for pig roasts and the other special events that keep suburban and resort farms in business and fill hotel beds on spring and fall weekends.

"This whole resurgence in artisanal foods and the locavore [local eating] movement, I didn't realize at first that I was in the cutting edge," Bashaw said, laughing, during a visit to his farm during last fall's harvest.

It takes an optimist, he says, to start a farm. It takes a realist to keep farming in the face of drought, late-season cold that set back this year's planting two weeks, and pests of many sizes. "Who knew there was an asparagus beetle? I understand now why farmers are so religious: All you can do is pray."

And work. "This isn't a Disney farm," Bashaw says. When more tomatoes than expected crowded vines in 2013, he recalled his father's old favorite, a Jersey tomato/white bread/mayonnaise sandwich. "We upgraded it with avocado, onion, whole wheat, and our-own-eggs mayo," he says, smiling. "We sold a lot."

The farm pays for itself, and it's competitive, if you compare input costs to the expense of buying from organic wholesalers, Bashaw says. He's gotten fall guests to harvest sweet potatoes, for the experience.

All this is catnip in Cape May, where residents as well as the summer crowd (predominantly from New York) and day-trippers (many from the preppier pockets in the Princeton-Wilmington corridor) value the notion of "maintaining authenticity in the face of growth."

Many of Bashaw's farm staff - such as farm manager Ali Mousalli, a former philosophy student now managing spreadsheets that time restaurant vegetable deliveries to row-by-row ripening schedules, or John Chiarella, last year's pig keeper - first came here on student or work visas.

McIntire operated a Beach Plum Restaurant and preached a sermon, "The Glory of the Land," using the hardy fruit as a metaphor. Bashaw sells local beach plum jam, plus honey from his 12 pollinator hives.

Bashaw says he's invited friends from his Wharton School MBA Class of 1990 to banquet on his produce. He says his peers get what he's doing with sandy mud on his boots: Beyond CEO titles and corporate jets, "in the Wharton zeitgeist there's a recognition that there's more to leaving a legacy than dollars and cents."

He has nieces and nephews he'd like to see extend the legacy of Cape Resorts some day.

"But you can't force those things," he adds. "You have to let it bubble up."


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