loco locavore: a day with dan scharf, mad shopper

Dan Scharf could be Cleveland's prototypical locavore. And as such, he has a lot in common with the early-20th century immigrants who built this city. He smokes meat in his garage and cures ham in his basement. He grows vegetables, raises chickens, and worries about the health of his peach trees.

A likable guy with a wry sense of humor, Scharf glides easily between worlds, conversing with beef ranchers, fishmongers, four-star chefs, tree-huggers and, presumably, the bureaucrat types he works with as attorney for the U.S. Department of Education. His patchwork community makes for some stellar pig roasts, and it also says a lot about Cleveland's local-food scene: That it's pretty weird and wild and fun.

About three years ago Scharf launched the blog Cage-Free Tomato as an informal way of tracking his moves, while promoting others who are also part of the local-food fabric. "If something can be grown and done here well," he says. "I'll make every effort to buy it locally and only eat it when it's in season. I think it tastes better, and the money stays in the right place and it's helping small businesses."

Of course, to eat like this takes effort. On Saturday mornings, Scharf goes to three or four places for groceries, none of which is an actual grocery store. It's all very Zen-like – laid-back yet purposeful. First stop: The backyard of his Detroit Shoreway home, a modest wood-frame cottage with a scraggly front yard. Out back, beyond an unexpected mini-grove of peach trees, chickens happily cluck as they scratch around for snacks. Mashed up with the hip-hop blasting from across the street, it's like Foghorn Leghorn crashing a gangsta party.

Scharf purchased the house two years ago, mainly for the peach trees, he says, which were planted by a former owner/butcher/canner from Bulgaria. He was less excited about the chicken coop. "I was like, I do not want chickens. But this wasn't very easy to tear down," he adds, gesturing to the coop. "So I said, All right." He bought four Rhode Island Reds from a co-worker who had a few too many. "One was sick from day one," he says. "She finally passed. But these three, they look good. They're laying an egg every day."

His neighbors could not care less. "This is a pretty progressive street. A couple houses down, there's a beautiful chicken coop." At least two homeowners keep bees.

We take a peek in Scharf's garage, which currently is filled to the rafters with freshly harvested garlic. A farming friend from Peninsula uses it as a temporary storehouse because it's close to the Gordon Square Farmers Market where he sells it.

Second stop of the morning is the community-garden-gone-wild at W. 45th and Franklin, where Scharf digs up a few of his potatoes. "This place is a mess," he laments amid monster weeds. "I don't know what happened this year, but it's really unfortunate. We grow pretty decent stuff here when people are paying attention." Last year, Scharf was garden co-leader but was quickly demoted because "I was terrible at it."

Next up is the North Union Farmers Market at Shaker Square. The ride uptown along Woodland is so routine, so habitual, Scharf says, "that I really feel like I could go to sleep on Saturday morning and this car would find its way." Market stops include some of his favorite stands, like New Creation Farm, Firefly Farms, and Muddy Fork Farm, where the gooseberries, still coddled in their papery husks, taste wild, nutty and like nothing else.

Scharf used to sell his own smoked wild Alaskan salmon at the market, a skill he picked up while living in rural Oregon, where he worked for AmeriCorps. He says he gave up the side gig owing to the hours, which kept him awake smoking fish until 4 a.m., even during the week.

Heading home, Scharf makes a pit stop at the West Side Market for some sustainably fished seafood from Kate's Fish. Along with citrus, olive oil, and some other global goods, the fish is one of his few non-local indulgences. Then it's off to the Market at the Fig for a roast beef sandwich (grass-fed Ohio beef from Miller Farms) and some lively debate with local-before-it-was-cool chef Karen Small over proper pig-roasting technique.

Small and Scharf struck up an unlikely friendship over food. Small admits to rarely reading her friend's blog, though, because she favors printed food mags. But she likes that he's a "shoot-from-the-hip type of guy" who knows what he wants. "He'll try anything," Small says. "And he'll think about how it could be improved. That's important in a food community."

If all this sounds like too much trouble, that is likely because unlike this writer, you didn't tag along for the ride. Scharf doesn't just schlep from shop to shop; he visits friends who happen to sell things he needs. There's Monica from Muddy Fork, who holds a PhD in biochemistry. Joan, a former nurse, specializes in root vegetables at Blissful Acres Farm. Tod Mogren, the "libertarian gun enthusiast" who runs Millgate Farm Beef, invited Scharf over for a day of skeet shooting on the ranch.

Scharfs swears he only spends about two hours a week shopping for food, which leaves more time for cooking, smoking, blogging and inviting friends over for, say, elk-meat tacos from Bonnie Brae Farm, cauliflower from Covered Bridge Gardens, and lettuce from Firefly Farm, his favorite greens vendor at the Shaker farmers market.

"I don't think any of this is brain surgery," Scharf says. "We clean up the yard. We have a party back here. It's good."

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Photography by  Bob Perkoski
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