Sept. 16, 2001 – The dining room table boasts a sea of greens. Bok choy glisten invitingly under an olive oil glaze. Fragrant garlic chives enliven the appearance and flavor of scalloped potatoes, while basil and oregano perk up a perfectly roasted breast of duck.
But the piece de resistance is the centerpiece: nine different leafy greens lusciously tossed into a signature Salade Josephine.
This picture-perfect wholesome menu is everyday fare for Hugo and Josephine Roller, who own Coral Bay Organic Gardens on St. John and wholesale organic produce to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Virgin Islands.
Nuts and bolts of organic farming
In a serene verdant valley in Coral Bay, the Rollers' two planted fields will soon expand to three, bringing the total number of acres under cultivation to five. "We grow over 30 different types of greens and 98 items total," Josephine Roller explains, "including herbs, vegetables like tomatoes and hot peppers, and tropical fruits such as papaya."
The variety and success of the couple's efforts has come through hard work that dates to 1984, when Hugo Roller purchased the land.
"The soil survey, rainfall and price of the land — those were the three key ingredients," he says in explaining how he decided on that particular site for farming. The Rollers both have backgrounds in agriculture — he in New England, she in Viet Nam — and they built their business slowly.
"We first had an experimental garden right outside the house," Josephine Roller explains. "We grew yard beans, okra, papaya — all the crops that grow well locally. Then we looked at what variety of each species did the best."
As commercial farmers, rather than subsistence growers or hobbyists, the duo also had to determine the economic viability of the crops. With high-value land, "it's important to plan strategically," Hugo Roller says. For example, "Gourmet greens command a price of $6 per pound or more. That's why we selected them over a crop that grows equally well but sells 6 pounds for 50 cents."
At that, many customers view the price of the produce as a bargain. "Greens are highly perishable," he notes. "We deliver them fresh, and there's no freight and other charges, as there is for imported foods."
And "you can't duplicate the flavor of an organic tomato," his wife says.
As the farming business grew, infrastructural improvements — roads, bigger gardens, two solar-powered wells for irrigation, and a refrigeration facility — were added. Every step was based on the ecologically sound, sustainable farming philosophy of permaculture. "Every element is deliberately integrated," Hugo Roller explains. "For example, a garden that we have to visit three times a day is closer to the house than one we have to visit only once."
Crops are planted in a companion style so as to ward off pests naturally. Even the source of rich organic fertilizer is carefully planned into the scheme. Horses are boarded on farmland in exchange for manure.
"Organic produce is now the fastest-growing food sector in U.S. agriculture," Hugo Roller, a member of the National Organic Farmers Association, says. And, indeed, the taste and health benefits of the Rollers' organic produce are finding a ready market in the Virgin Islands that keeps them and their farm employees working the fields — hand seeding, weeding, picking and packing — seven days a week, year-round.
On a typical day, Josephine starts harvesting the day's crops at 5:30 a.m., then is back in the fields at 4 p.m. for a second harvest. Hugo's shift is during the day. The fresh-picked crops are taken to a staging area where each variety is sorted and packaged.
Restaurants and resort kitchens such as those at Caneel Bay, the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott Frenchman's Reef get their produce bagged in bulk form. Crops destined for retail groceries such as Marina Market (St. John and St. Thomas) , Gourmet Gallery (St. Thomas) and Star Fish Market (St. John) are put in plastic clamshell containers. The bags and containers are stored in a refrigeration facility prior to delivery, which is five days a week on St. John and once a week to St. Thomas.
"Each week, I fax out a list of what will be available, then the chefs and stores place their orders," Josephine Roller explains.
Gourmet greens today, tilapia tomorrow
Among the bountiful produce of the Coral Bay Organic Garden, the greens are among the most sought after. "At first, I didn't care for the sharp taste of the greens, but now I find lettuce like romaine has no taste at all," Hugo Roller says of his own conversion to the gourmet greenery. "We add greens to soups and pasta, stir-fry them with meats, and use different types of dressing over them raw," his wife says. "I've even made arugula ice cream!"
The family's favorite veggie recipe — even enjoyed by 11-year-old son Hugo and 10-year-old daughter Mimi — is Salade Josephine, a verdant mix that includes arugula, red mustard greens, curly kale, red and local spinach, kyona (Japanese spinach), bok choy, tatsoi and yukina savoy.
The Rollers also operate the Coral Bay Garden Center. There, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, planting soil, peat moss, organic fertilizer and plastic and clay pots are sold. But it is the consumer-sized bags of greens in the shop refrigerators that most entice locals and visitors alike.
On the horizon lies further expansion, in a new direction. The Rollers' farm has been selected as one in the territory to test the commercial profitability of aquaculture by farming tilapia fish.
Tilapia has been farmed for years by the University of the Virgin Islands Agricultural Experiment Station on St. Croix, but not commercially. The sweet, mild whitefish has been marketed successfully on the mainland, where supermarkets today carry fresh tilapia filets from such places as Jamaica and Costa Rica.
"We'll be building a 50-foot diameter concrete tank designed to produce 1,700 pounds of fish in six months," Hugo Roller explains. The effluent from the tank will provide natural fertilizer for the fields, too, thus helping to reduce costs, increase field production and return nutrients to the soil.
And he has "already had inquiries from restaurateurs willing to pay $6 per pound."
The Coral Bay Organic Farm is so uniquely successful that the Rollers have given many a tour to visiting farmers from all over the globe and chefs from prestigious culinary organizations. "In the future, we may consider agri-tourism," Josephine Roller muses. "That's where people pay to come work on a farm in exchange for the experiences they gain. But right now, we're focusing on developing the farm."
And most days, that's enough. She notes: "There's always something new, always something to learn. Success comes from a lot of trial and error."
Salade Josephine
1 cup arugula
1 cup red mustard greens
1 cup curly kale
1 cup red spinach
1 cup local spinach
1 cup kyona (Japanese spinach)
1 cup bok choy
1 cup tatsoi
1 cup yukina savoy
1 cup olive oil
1 cup balsamic vinegar
Juice of 4 limes
1 head garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Wash greens well, pat dry and place on a large serving platter. Combine oil, vinegar, lime juice, garlic, tarragon, basil, salt and pepper in a large shaker bottle. Shake well. Pour desired amount of dressing over salad.
Makes 6 servings. Per serving (with 1 tablespoon dressing): 90 calories, 7 gms fat (71 percent fat calories), no cholesterol, 182 mg sodium.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here