Farm to Table Is Not Just a Label
By Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
Farm to Table on the way out? Not according to experts featured at the Good Food EXPO sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois… Read why chefs and organizations such as James Beard Foundation say you shouldn’t believe the hype!
Farm to table is a fitting description for all of the chefs who did demos on the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois Chefs at Play Stage, a centerpiece of FamilyFarmed’s Good Food EXPO March 22-23 in Chicago. Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe and Marisol was presented with the Good Food Chef of the Year Award for his role as a pioneer in sourcing from local farmers. Dave Miller of Baker Miller, Tony Mantuano of Spiaggia, Erling Wu-Bower of Pacific Standard Time, Sandra Holl of Floriole, and Carolina Diaz of Terzo Piano all prepared dishes that underscore their devotion to using local ingredients.
So farm to table is alive. But is it well?
Concerns about this were stirred by a pair of articles published late last year: one in the Chicago Tribune that highlighted the financial struggle of some local farmers, and another in Chicago Magazine, titled “How Chicago’s Dining Scene Lost Its Mojo,” in which food writer John Kessler said, “I’ve been dismayed by how little cooks here trust seasonal produce to carry a dish,” and quoted one chef saying that he had seldom seen other chefs at the farmers market.
These articles prompted furious pushback from some chefs and other Good Food advocates, who described them as unfair and hyperbolic. But others described the article as a wake-up call about the need to reinvigorate the movement toward local sourcing.
The Good Food EXPO, presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, addressed this issue on March 22 through an address by Mitchell Davis, chief strategy officer of the James Beard Foundation, and a panel titled “Farm to Table: Keeping It Real” that Davis moderated.
Progress, But Far to Go
In his speech, Davis questioned the value of the term farm to table, which he said had become more of a marketing tool than a values statement. “I talk to farmers who go into restaurants and see the name of their farm on menus of people they have never ever seen and never sold a piece of produce to,” Davis said. [A 2016 exposé by the Tampa Bay Times, titled “Farm to Fable,” prompted FamilyFarmed to create its own series, called “Farm to Table: Keeping It Real,” to recognize chefs whose local sourcing claims were authentic.]
Davis humorously described how far America’s food culture has come. “When I was a kid, yogurt was an alternative food, you had to go to a health food store to buy yogurt, or your parents were hippies and had one of those little machines that kept milk rotting on the counter overnight in little glass jars. Now, the yogurt aisles in grocery stores are endless,” Davis said, adding, “On Delta Airlines, I was offered a kale quinoa salad. But then, no one had heard of kale or quinoa. Or maybe even salad.”
But Davis stated (as have a number of observers) that farm to table has become something of a cliché. He described an archetypal microgreen salad with a goat cheese toast and a plate of roasted root vegetables: “I love all those things, don’t get me wrong. But for the farm to table movement to really be a movement, it has to not be about that particular experience of eating for those people who have the money to support that kind of dining experience.”
He continued, “It really needs to be a regionalized food system that brings producers closer to the people, that supports local economies. That isn’t a farm to table restaurant, it’s a taco stand, it’s a Chinese restaurant. It’s a system that produces and consumes its food closer to its source, supporting the people within it better.”
The Shifting Currents of Local Food
Davis later that day conducted a conversation among four strong Chicago region supporters of local sourcing: Casey Cora, media director for Chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Restaurant Group and executive director of its non-profit Frontera Farmer Foundation; Dave Rand, co-founder and chief operating officer of Local Foods Distributor and Grocery; Greg Gunthorp of Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana, a leading advocate for producers of pasture-raised livestock; and farmer Amy Randazzo of Grani’s Acres in Fairbury, Illinois.
The consensus was that the market for local farm products is generally thriving, but that there are challenges. Cora said local sourcing is “everything we do” at the Frontera restaurants, but some younger chefs are putting a higher premium on what they view as culinary authenticity than local sourcing.
“Now a lot of chefs coming up are turning the focus from farm to table or local farms to exotic or foreign ingredients, let’s say Korean spice or chili paste as an example,” Cora said. “They might say I want to cook internationally, so I’m going to go to… buy this stuff, it’s from Korea and it’s the real deal, instead of buying or partnering with a farm to grow those chilies and make that paste.”
Gunthorp’s farm received a huge boost 18 years ago when Bayless dubbed him the main chicken producer (and later main pork producer) for the Frontera restaurants. “We have a very real relationship with them, it’s close to $1 million worth of product each year. And when they start up a new project, they take us along for the ride, which is really, really cool,” said Gunthorp, who conceded that this type of loyalty to farmers “is not typical in the restaurant industry at all though.”
Rand said Local Foods had topped $12 million in sales last year, meaning about $10 million went back to the local economy. “That’s a really marquee moment for us, that’s a watershed moment for our business to say we’ve spent back that much money in this economy,” Rand said.
But he also said his company’s client base is shifting somewhat from restaurants and individuals to larger bulk purchasers: “Our growth is coming from institutions, it’s coming from colleges and universities, hospitals, hotels, and really more are mainstream operations that are following through with commitments… to support sustainable purchasing initiatives.”
Randazzo said that the farmers who are most challenged by shifting market demands are those who rely entirely on direct markets such as farmers markets and CSAs. “Farmers markets don’t work so well for me. It’s a very long day for very little sales,” she said.
Diversification is key, and for Randazzo, this prompted a totally different business model. Grani’s Acres used a $12,000 grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation to buy two commercial-grade dehydrators and is now producing dried vegetables, powders and noodles from products grown on the farm.
Randazzo said that consumer education is crucial to accelerating the growth of local sourcing and making small to medium-sized farms more viable. “When we were at the farmers market, my favorites were ‘Oh, I can get this for a dollar cheaper at Walmart.’ Then that’s where you should go if that’s what’s important to you,” she said. “I am sorry, but that’s not what I’m doing. And I would challenge people to buy a tomato plant and care for it and maintain it and keep the tomato hornworms out of it and pick it all exactly when it’s perfect and and then store it for a couple of days before you take it to your friends.”
She added, “This is not it’s not as easy as you might think it is.”
FamilyFarmed, throughout its history, has worked to help local and sustainable farmers with wholesale and retail buyers. Our work includes a Farmer Training program that has provided workshops for 15,000 farmers in 43 states. With the Chicago region’s growing season upon us, we urge our readers to buy local, which helps support farm entrepreneurs and their families, and has enormous benefits to local economies. Please consider supporting FamilyFarmed’s non-profit work to build a better food system by making a tax-deductible contribution today.