The New Farmer

Photo by Laura Chase McGehee

With a jump start from Montgomery County’s New Farmer Project, Tanya Doka-Spandhla is growing vegetables for African dishes on a farm in Gaithersburg. Launched in 2012, the county project has provided training and mentoring to rookie farmers, and matched them with landowners looking to lease agricultural space.  

Doka-Spandhla, who was part of the 2014 class of farmers, has developed a word-of-mouth following at her Passion to Seed Gardening farm, and customers drop by on weekends to buy horned melons, spider flower leaves, pumpkin leaves and other vegetables. When she’s not farming, Zimbabwe-born Doka-Spandhla works for an IT company in Rockville. 

4920 Griffith Road, Gaithersburg |

The Chef Farmer

Photo by Laura Chase McGehee

The row of arugula sprouting from the hoop house dirt at Chocolates and Tomatoes Farm in Poolesville already has a final destination: Kensington’s Frankly…Pizza! Farm owner Mark Mills dedicates a portion of his 5-acre farm to growing greens for the restaurant, and he customizes vegetable plantings for Ricciuti’s in Olney, The Turn House in Columbia, Vasili’s Kitchen in Gaithersburg and Bassett’s in Poolesville. And along with three other area farmers, Mills grows produce for Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, which is dedicated to eliminating hunger in the county.

Mills has a distinct advantage in this endeavor. A former caterer who worked at numerous restaurants in his home state of North Carolina, he later served as kitchen manager and corporate trainer for Ted’s Montana Grill in Arlington, Virginia. In 2013, he received a pastry degree from L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. He worked as a pastry chef at the Blue Duck Tavern in the District’s Park Hyatt Hotel. In 2014, he started the farm, which is now certified organic. 

“I’ve spent over a quarter of a century in restaurants,” Mills says. “I know the mind-set of the chef and purchasing manager. It’s easy for me to walk into a kitchen.”


He isn’t just growing 100 varieties of vegetables (including about 30 different heirloom tomatoes). He’s also getting his hands dirty in chocolate, making handcrafted candies that often incorporate his farm produce. Think yellow tomato jam enrobed in dark chocolate, carrot caramels, even chocolates filled with hops-infused ganache. Mills says they taste like an IPA in chocolate form.   

Produce and chocolates are sold at the Olney Farmers & Artists Market, and Mills’ chocolates can be special ordered. CSA memberships are available.