Larry Tse marches off of the gravel road and into a corn field. Dry stalks crunch under his boots. Sporting a black Carhart jacket, jeans, a grubby cap, and thick black glasses, he sidles between the rows and rips off an ear of corn. The husk squeaks as he peels it back, revealing a speckled piece of flint corn.
“Fun fact about corn,” says Tse (pronounced “say”). “Every single silk is attached to a single kernel. So full pollination requires a piece of pollen to enter every piece of silk in order to pollinate all of the kernels.”
It’s crucial to plant corn in a 4×4 row grid for full pollination to take place. Blue dent corn and green flint corn likely shared pollen to produce the rusty hues in this ear. Hard as a rock — or rather, a flint — Tse says this corn will likely be ground down into masa and used to make tortillas at Dig Inn.
The 28-year-old leads a team of seven who together plant and harvest ingredients from Dig Inn’s 14-acre farm at the Chester Agricultural Center. A Boston native, Tse studied Agricultural Policy at George Washington University and, while his classes focused on policy, he also spent time working at farms, gardens, and markets to round out his knowledge. Gradually, he came to prefer the physical work outdoors to sitting at a desk.
After graduation, Tse moved to New York to work as a buyer for Northern Spy, the now-defunct East Village restaurant credited as one of the pioneers of the local food movement. “That was a nice job,” he says. “It was just like riding a bike around the city and going to farmers’ markets. It was very dreamy.”
Dreamy as it was, the position presented little opportunity for growth, and so he eventually took an apprenticeship at a 500-member CSA in Pennsylvania. Within three years he advanced from apprentice to sole manager of the CSA. He was working at another Pennsylvania farm when several acquaintances notified him about the opening at Dig Inn.
Given Tse’s academic background and experience in the field, it’s hard to imagine a more suitable ambassador for the Northeastern restaurant chain. Though far from a CSA, Dig Inn marries trendy, Instagrammable food with progressive agricultural policy on a scale few can rival. From sourcing ingredients inside a 300-mile radius to aiding farmers in their transition to certified organic operations to supporting minority-owned farms, the company’s mission is ambitious.
Because Dig Inn serves nearly six million customers every year, these policies have tangible economic effects. Even though Tse and his team harvested 21,000 pounds of produce last year, this only accounts for 1 percent of the restaurants’ ingredients. The rest comes from over 100 producers and partners. Through long-term contracts, Dig Inn provides small-scale farmers with reliable business and a greater degree of financial security. When things go awry — which is often in the agricultural industry — their menu adapts to the field.
According to Tse, Dig Inn’s effort to reduce food waste might just be their most impactful. In 2017, they served over one million pounds of “cosmetically challenged” produce — items deemed too ugly for retail sale. Earlier this year, Dig Inn chefs salvaged 1,200 pounds of basil that had already gone to flower by turning it into basil oil. All of this becomes an opportunity to educate consumers.
“If you like Dig Inn’s food,” Tse explains, “well, it came from a B-grade product. And we still made it taste good.”
Dig Inn chefs also strive to use whole ingredients. The simplest example of this is the Broccoli Three Ways salad, which incorporates the entire plant: roasted florets, stem, and leaves tossed with shredded red cabbage, all dressed in a ginger vinaigrette and topped with sesame crunch. You have to wonder why anyone throws out broccoli stems in the first place.
As it turns out, broccoli is one of Tse’s favorite things to grow, aside from melons. Although truth be told, there aren’t many plants that don’t elicit enthusiastic commentary on his part.
“Do you know about cardoons?” he asks, pointing to a Jurassic plant.
A cousin of the artichoke, cardoons are biennials, flowering every two years. In cold weather, U.S. farmers expedite this process by letting seedlings vacation outside of the greenhouse for a few weeks, essentially tricking the plant into thinking an entire winter has passed.
Tse “blanches” his cardoons by wrapping their stalks in opaque plastic. This removes any chlorophyll — and in turn, bitterness — from the edible stalks. A staple of traditional Italian cuisine, cardoons are laborious in the kitchen; they must be boiled and peeled prior to cooking. “It’s a whole thing. I actually don’t know what Dig Inn is going to do with them,” he shrugs. “But they’re getting 500 pounds next week.”
Whatever Tse and his team harvest is shipped to Dig Inn’s distribution center in Hunt’s Point. Chefs then receive an inventory notification and place their orders. Leftover produce is divided equally among Dig Inn locations and used to create weekly specials.
Occasionally, when there is a surplus, Tse invites nearby farmers to come pick the extra produce for free. If they are preoccupied with their own fields, he calls Cornell Cooperative Extension’s gleaning program. Gleaners spend a few hours in the field and then transport the fresh produce to emergency food resource providers, such as Food Bank of the Hudson Valley.
The farm isn’t so much about profit as it is “a way to see where our company can help advance this industry.” Tse does free tractor work for their neighbors at the Chester Agricultural Center, a service that usually costs $60 per hour. “We are nothing without these farmers out here,” he says. “And so, this is, in my eyes, a way that Dig Inn can give back.”
Many Orange County farmers have been in the industry longer than Tse’s been alive. There’s undoubtedly a generational gap; he regularly catches flak from conventional farmers for employing organic methods. But once the discussion moves beyond this initial disagreement, the old timers’ wisdom proves invaluable: They understand Black Dirt — how the trenches function, where the water originates and where it flows, what this swath of earth requires to flourish.
What concerns Tse more than the gap in philosophy is the dearth of young farmers. At the last survey, the average age of a U.S. farmer was 58 years old. More alarming are the statistics cited in a recent Highlands Current article: “A third of the farmers in New York state are 65 or older, and one survey found that 90 percent of them have no successor.”
The reasons for this are many: Financially, farming poses an enormous barrier-to-entry. Aside from land, entry level farmers need equipment, their first year of seed, and staff, all of which can easily top $50,000. Even if a beginner is able to get their crops in the ground, profit margins are slim, harvests are unpredictable, and the work itself is physically demanding.
Often portrayed as simplistic, farming pits careful planning against constant improvisation. “My first year as a manager was a disaster,” says Tse. “There are lots of moving parts to a farm that you understand in theory and from watching someone else with a lot of experience executing, but once it falls on you, it comes crashing like a wave and you’re trying to keep your head above water.”
Tse calls Dig Inn’s farm a “soft landing into agriculture.” Since the company supplies land and equipment, apprentices get the chance to farm at a scale well beyond their career stage. Restaurant profits also eliminate some of the pressure on yields.
With this little bit of cushion, Tse can focus his efforts on training apprentices with no previous experience. Currently in development is an incubator program, through which apprentices will learn everything from field rotation to budgeting. After two years, Dig Inn will grant them an acre on which to start their own farm. They’ll maintain access to the company’s equipment, as well as a sales market for their crops. They hope this incentivizes young people to enter the industry. “Who else is going to grow the food?” Tse says.
Doomsayers prophesy this labor trend will lead to a farm crisis, or, in the worst-case-scenario, food shortages. Cue Tse’s policy background: “Whatever we do here in the field, it needs to be complemented by stronger education on how to eat well, stronger childhood education,” he says. “Because there is enough food. There’s tons of food here. There’s tons of food in America…It’s just the infrastructure isn’t there and the knowledge isn’t there. And we need to spread that.”
He speaks about food and agriculture with the cadence of a politician — an odd combination born from his diverse interests. Tse loves farming, but it’s by no means his only passion. “I always wanted to work in government. Still would like to run for some kind of public office eventually,” he says, rubbing his chin. “Or like, maps…that was my other big thing was mapmaking. I really like making maps.”