Rolling Thunder

Scott Weaner manages the Rolling Thunder Vegetable Preserve, growing produce for local businesses, the farmers market and the dinners he creates each night.

By Mallory Bracken and Tara Mayle | 05/04/2011

Scott Weaner’s alarm sounds at 5:30 a.m., each day of the week. Less than an hour later, he is outside tending to his sheep, chickens and horses before getting started on his day, which could involve anything from putting up fencing, to cleaning out the chicken coop, to planting seeds and everything in between. He works nonstop until roughly 5:30 p.m. when he goes inside to begin what he describes as “the real entertainment.”

The Rolling Thunder Vegetable Preserve in Montrose, West Virginia is a largely organic farm, where Weaner grows between 50 and 60 vegetables, around 20 herbs, various flowers and livestock. The produce from the farm is sold at farmers markets, local restaurants, and directly to customers, but for Weaner, growing his own vegetables, herbs, flowers and livestock from seed to plant and egg to chicken, is one way to be sure that the elaborate, ethnic dinners he creates contain only the purest ingredients. The lamb he pulls from the freezer to make marinated, grilled lamb loin strips, comes from an animal that he raised himself. The Burhan’s Onion-Parsley Salad and Celeriac in Olive Oil contain celeriac that had been maturing for months in his root cellar and parsley harvested from one of his two self-built greenhouses.

Every meal is what he describes as organic in that it is not grown with toxic pesticides or oil-based, manufactured fertilizer. His farm is not certified organic, though, because that label requires more paperwork than Weaner, as a one-man grower, has time for. He developed his interest in food and the intricacies around it while in a nutrition class at Penn State University, where he alternately pursued multiple courses of study including pre-medical, biology, fine arts and agriculture from 1971 to 1974. Exploring food labels, he was shocked to discover the unnecessary ingredients and chemicals that were included in so many products. He was particularly disturbed when he discovered dried animal bone used in sugar as an added ingredient to supplement its white color. “You don’t necessarily need chemicals and industry in every part of your life. You don’t need them in every piece of food you eat,” Weaner says. He adds that he’s only interested in organic and whether or not he is certified, he wants to live organically as much as possible.

Weaner and his wife, Barbara, moved to West Virginia in 1976, when they bought 60 acres of land, on which they restored a dilapidated cabin for their home. The land is surrounded by the Monongahela National Forest. Roughly forty acres are wooded and on a steep mountain, but the other twenty, which include a pond, are a mix of pastures and gardens. The earth on the Weaners’ fairly small farming project is largely composed of rocks and clay, but through reading and learning about organic culture, Weaner has learned to build soil. “You take what you have and improve it,” he says.

Weaner raises three kinds of livestock, feeding them twice daily and keeping their shelters up. He plants, reaps and sows his vegetables and herbs; prunes fruit trees, spending hours on ladders between branches; manually turns his own compost and spends the rest of his valuable time doing other odds and ends that must be done to keep his business going, from repairing fences to building cabinets and doors.

From May to October, Weaner sells produce Saturday mornings at the Elkins Farmers’ Market in Elkins Town Square. He is encouraged by his belief that due to a growing availability of information about local eating, the farmers’ market community is seeing more interest.

According to Tom McConnell, the West Virginia University Extension Specialist in Farm Management, the reason for the growing interest in local food has much to do with food safety. People like to know and trust those they buy their food from, and local farmers serve that purpose well, he says. “When you look that guy right in the eye, you buy the food, they hand it to you. . .You know it’s had extra care.”

Another reason for the interest in local food is that buying locally keeps money in the community. In 2009, Americans spent $3,930 per person on food, according to McConnell. There were 1.8 million West Virginians at the time, so that means that approximately $7.2 million dollars was spent on food in the state, he says. Those are huge figures, he adds, and this is something that could strengthen communities if it was directed toward local growers.

Though caring for his farm accounts for most of his time, Weaner’s sales provide only a portion of his family’s income, and his wife, Barbara’s work as a family nurse practitioner helps to support their organic endeavor.

Ida Murphy, an Elkins local, has been purchasing fruits and vegetables from Weaner for three years. Growing up in Michigan with her own fruit and vegetable garden, Murphy appreciates fresh food from places like Rolling Thunder Vegetable Preserve. “[The products are] much more tasty and much more healthy,” she says. “If you can find a place that grows them fresh, and they’re picked, and you buy them fresh. . .that is top quality. . . Getting fresh vegetables and fruits and flowers is one-hundred percent better than me going into the super market and picking up frozen vegetables.”

Weaner’s flowers and homegrown produce have been featured on the tables and in the cuisines at the Cheat River Inn, the Star Cafe, the Stonewall Jackson Resort and Graceland Inn.

Because Weaner grows produce year round, weather is one of the biggest challenges. Living in West Virginia where the temperatures can drop to below freezing and snow regularly falls, he must adapt his methods to satisfy the climate. During the winter months, he grows produce only for personal consumption rather than for business and turns his attention to other endeavors. In the two greenhouses that Weaner built, he is able to rear lettuce, spinach, kale, collards and parsley. This past winter, Weaner spent time putting up fences, building cabinets, cutting firewood and pruning fruit trees.

As Weaner works, he is constantly mindful of the dinner hour. Every morning, he takes a number of recipe books down from a packed bookshelf and begins his day with a steaming mug of fair trade, organic coffee at his dining table, plotting out that evening’s menu. He is then able to collect the necessary ingredients throughout the day. His favorite meals are inspired by cuisine from Northern Italy, Southern India, Turkey and Thailand, but he enjoys exploring all different cultures. “It’s kind of a way for me to visit the world and still stay home,” Weaner says.

Understanding how and why cultures prepare food and what it means to them is what drives his passion to create their cuisine.

Weaner has taken his talents in the kitchen to local restaurants as well, serving as a guest chef at the Whitegrass Café in Davis, the Cheat River Inn in Elkins and the Silver Lounge in North Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Although the Weaners’ three children have grown and left home, they still return to help from time to time. With her job as a nurse practitioner demanding most of her time, Barbara Weaner sees the farm as more of a refuge than a business. She spends much of her time on it in the garden and then drying flowers and herbs that she has grown. Their youngest son, Kyle, lends a hand on market day by assisting in harvests in the morning and in sales where it is often busy. He also aids his father with general farm up-keep and projects including inoculating Shitake logs, shearing sheep and clearing brush. When Weaner must be away for days at a time, Kyle fills in for his father by watering plants in the greenhouses and feeding the animals. Being raised in a home that fostered the importance of physical and spiritual health, Kyle continues to hold those same values. He has pursued his own ambitions studying traditional medicine while hoping to carry on the farming way of life.

“You are what you eat,” Weaner says. “Your outlook on life has a lot to do with what you consume. It becomes an interest and a hobby to raise, preserve, cook and eat.” He has taken his personal philosophies and applied them to the ways in which he lives. “We believe in all kinds of recycling,” he says. Their objective is to have as mild an impact on the earth as possible.

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