Dragonfly Farms

by Bonnie North

Can two urban business-women on the cusp of their middle years head out to the Appalachian Mountains and turn 80 acres of forest into a diversified and profitable farming business? Never—ever, say “Never.”

Claudia Nami and her husband had a successful custom silk screening business in College Park. Sue Lewis had a thriving computer sales business in Philadelphia. “Actually, my husband and I bought our computer systems from Sue,” Claudia recalls.

Claudia’s husband passed away and Sue lost her sister at nearly the same time. Claudia wanted to raise her youngest daughter in a more rural community and both women had a deep love for the natural world—and a longing to immerse themselves within it. The friends were ready to take a chance on a new venture.

As Claudia tells it: “My grandparents and aunt had farms. I’ve always gardened and I wanted to try my hand at a farm.”

In 2002, they jointly purchased 80 some acres of hilly land outside of Mt. Airy. They did a lot of research and finally decided to start with a focus on wine grapes, expecting that to be profitable. “But we got so boxed in with the alcohol permits and regulations that we went for specialty vinegars instead of wine.” Claudia explains.
Dragonfly’s vintage vinegars are now probably among the very finest in the world—an incredible testament to the patience, diligence, care, and the massive amount of labor they have put into an endeavor that started only seven years ago!

In fact, visiting Dragonfly Farm you can scarcely believe that just seven years ago this was land lying fallow and forested. The vineyards and flowerbeds are orderly and stretch wide like a lovely tablecloth down the cleared hillside framed by the Appalachian Mountains in the distance. Green and vibrant on a cloudy September day, it was beautiful and truly impressive.

Over an amazing lunch that Claudia prepared, I learned about the complex process of making vintage vinegars.
“Our vinegar is definitely ahead of its time; at least here in this area. In California, in Europe, they appreciate a product like ours.” Claudia laments, “It’s a Finishing Vinegar. You put it in after you’ve completed your cooking and it adds an incredible amount of flavor and complexity to your dish.”

Sue goes into the delicate and lengthy process involved in creating such a specialty product: “It takes two years to make each vintage. The sugar in the grape ferments to create wine, to create alcohol. Then we ferment it again to turn the alcohol into acetic acid…”

To make a fine vinegar, you have to scientifically work with it, control it, introduce what they call an acetobacter—a genus of acetic acid bacteria characterized by the ability to convert alcohol to acetic acid. Sue explains that “We use our black currants to make what is called ‘The Mother,’—the yeast type acetobacter that does that second fermentation. In fact we offer fermentation services to the local wineries. If a batch of wine goes bad we can ferment it into good vinegar for them. Or, if they would like to have their own house vinegar we can do that for them.”

This year they are selling what they call their Black Vinegars: their signature Dragonfly Vinegar made entirely from the black currants growing in the lower fields, their Black Merlot, a Black Cabernet and a Black Syrah. They bottle them right there on the farm in handsome bottles—tall, slender and deep pummeled they make for splendid gift-giving. All the vinegars are made from their own barrel-aged wines, slow fermented a second time with the black currant mother. There are no artificial preservatives, no sulfites, no flavorings, no colorings, and no water is added—this is truly authentic wine vinegar.

A Black Gewurztraminer is still in its second fermentation and also coming on is a “Green Vinegar,” made from grapes that are picked green before they have ripened. “We’re always trying new things,” Sue laughs, “We’re experimenting with a tomato vinegar too. We’ve had to expand and evolve to pay the bills!”

That willingness to experiment has Dragonfly going strong. They have expanded and now grow traditional produce and exotic flowers. They have also launched an unusual CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) venture. Dragonfly’s CSA offers the usual produce share and also what they call a 'Premium Plan'. Premium shareholders not only enjoy the benefits of Dragonfly’s vegetables but also local fruits, pesticide-free flowers, artisanal bread, cheese, honey, jam or jelly, fresh roasted gourmet coffee, Dragonfly’s wine vinegars, mushrooms, and farm fresh eggs. Rather like a Locavore shopping service, they work cooperatively with other farmers and artisans to bring their customers a full mixed basket of delicious and healthy foodstuffs.

“We’re kinda moving laterally business-wise. One thing led to another and now we are a CSA. We sell what we grow and we work with other farmers. If you’re gonna plunk down hundreds of dollars in advance, we feel that we’re beholden to you to make sure that you’re gonna get your money’s worth. So we work with farmers that we know, that we think are reputable—and we bring people what they want.” Claudia insists,” We go to Northern Virginia and we go to downtown D.C.. We bring it to them…”

All that they grow is pesticide free and they honor their land with good stewardship practices. A massive system of huge rain barrels collects water from the roof of the bottling building where it travels down the hillside to irrigate the currant fields. “We do have a philosophy that we try to adhere to.” Claudia says with pride—and the beauty and bounty of Dragonfly Farm is a living testament to the worth of that philosophy.

You can look for Claudia and Sue at the Great Falls Farm Market and at the Falls Church Market, both in Northern Virginia. You can sign up for the 2010 CSA through their website. Dragonfly vinegars are carried at Whole Foods in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C., and can be ordered on-line direct from the farm.

Dragonfly Farms
P.O. Box 10
Mt. Airy, MD 21771

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