Making a Sotheby’s splash with squash

A few days before his produce is showcased in Sotheby’s Manhattan showroom, Silver Spring farmer Tom Culton is surprisingly relaxed. After a barefoot stroll around his 53-acre farm, sampling raw fennel and garlic, pulling monster beets from the soil and visiting his spitting goats and rafter-dwellling turkey, we head to the kitchen to shell beans.

Not just any beans. Multihued and cute as a speckled puppy, these colorful beans come with their own colorful story: reportedly found in the craw of a wild turkey and dubbed Turkey Craw beans by the hunter who shot it in the 1880s.

It’s the kind of story that excites Culton, who specializes in organic heirloom produce with such colorful pasts. And he hopes it’s the kind of story that pushes bidders to the $1,000 mark when his bean lot is auctioned off.

Culton’s produce is part of Sotheby’s new “Farm to Table: The Art of Farming” auction on Thursday to kick off the city’s GrowNYC’s Eat Drink Local Week. A celebration of edible heirlooms and local foods, the inaugural event benefits GrowNYC New Farmers Development Project, a program to help new immigrant farmers, as well as the Sylvia Center, a program to teach children healthier eating.

Enthusiastic at the prospect of exposing his harvest to so many well-heeled bidders and rock-star chefs, Culton is planning to make a splash with squash: an impressive, 80-pound Long of Naples; a petite, nutty Italian gnocchi-making specialty Marina di Chioggia; and the pretty fairy tale-shaped Rouge vif d’Etampes.

“The way it is set up, people will actually be paying the real cost of food, a real hourly wage for the farmer,” Culton said. “Mother Nature and I worked together for 127 days to produce this crop of beans.”

Culton worked in subsistence farming with his mother until she died when he was just 20.

“The only extras we had were when we’d take the apples to auction and buy dinner with what they’d bring,” he recalled.

Once the farm was his responsibility, he realized he wanted to champion historic farming techniques and heirloom varieties of produce and animals.

“You have to be innovative in the market,” he said. “Unlike some other farmers, I’m willing to put myself out there in front of potential customers and I’m blessed with customers who get what I’m trying to do.”

A farm auction enthusiast since he was a child — collecting everything from Marilyn Monroe posters to seed catalogs to skateboards — Culton expects Sotheby’s to present an entirely different atmosphere than the farmers and neighbors he usually encounters during bidding wars.

“But I think it’s a good philanthropic event to help farmers and to teach others how good local foods in season can taste,” he said.

Supported by leaders in the sustainable food and farming movement, including Martha Stewart, Bette Midler and P. Allen Smith, the event will also include a cocktail reception and dinner with fresh, local, seasonal ingredients prepared by celebrity chefs. Tickets to the reception and auction are $250 and gala dinner tickets are $1,000.

For more information, visit www.artoffarming.org.

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