Do you care where your food comes from? Would you mind paying more if you knew the food you were eating came from a local farm? Do you want to help the local economy? Welcome to the world of farm-to-table eating.
The five biggest benefits to the farm-to-table movement include the consumption of healthier food, environmental sustainability, the positive impact it has on local farmers, improved animal welfare, and better business for restaurants.
But like many things that cost more than mass-produced, out-of-state or other imported foods, there’s a learning curve. Although more people are eating out and spending more money, they still feel the sting of the recession. Cost still has a huge impact on what we buy.
While far stronger in other parts of the country, the farm-to-table movement in Massachusetts is now catching up and now stands fifth, nationally, in direct sales from farms to consumers according to Kendra Murray, Program and Marketing Director for the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership (SEMAP).
“People are waking up to realizing where their food is coming from. When it comes from local farms, they like it,” said Murray.
“Farm-to-table helps to reduce the carbon footprint and is good for the local economy because the food is not coming from a chain or warehouse where you don’t know where the food was grown or shipped from. You are supporting the farmer behind the restaurant.”
Murray understands that the up-front cost of eating farm-to-table scare some consumer off, but she goes back to one of her favorite sayings: “you can either pay the farmer now or pay your doctor later.”
“It’s about where you want to invest your money. Buying your food locally is better for you, the local economy, and the environment,” Murray said.
“Yes, it’s a slow process and there are still plenty of people who don’t know where their food comes from or don’t care. But it’s easier now, more than ever, to know where your food is coming from. There is a growing demand for it.”
Murray said local farmers are producing mostly the vegetables going to your restaurant,
followed by fruits and meats. Murray pointed to a number of local restaurants sourcing their food from South Coast farms, including How on Earth in Mattapoisett, NB Burgers in New Bedford, Flour Girls in Fairhaven and Mattapoisett, Matt's Blackboard in Rochester, Ten Cousins Brick Oven and Bittersweet Farms, both in Westport, and others, for a total of thirteen restaurants so far. For the full list and more information, visit semaponline.org.
Waste not, Want not
Amy Thornton, Assistant General Manager of Mattapoisett’s How on Earth, said businesses should encourage that “know your source mentality” by practicing it. She says that in the mind of the consumer, “farm-to-table” means “local.”
“When someone shops or dines with this in mind they are expecting a wholesome, healthy, and ethical product. There certainly is no lack of good agriculture around our area. We should leverage that here in the South Coast,” said Thornton. “I challenge the farm-to-table community to practice closing the loop, meaning that we proactively facilitate feeding our community using local farms. We can do it!”
“These days, businesses can claim they’re serving up farm-fresh food. But is it local? Or did they waste resources to ship it in from the other side of the country? Trust me – it’s not an easy feat to always source local. But if we’re concerned about the future of food, which we should be, then it’s crucial for us to invest in our local sources today,” urges Thornton.
“This is where our local businesses come in. We must get creative and make farm-to-table more accessible. Oftentimes it’s easy for business owners to get caught up with the bottom line. But in the farm-to-table industry it’s about much more than just money.”
When How on Earth began, they were a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) distribution site. Today, in addition to providing a local CSA, they serve up breakfast and lunch, with dinners to come soon. Every dish is made with local ingredients.
“As a restaurant and local grocer, we are uniquely positioned to bring all sorts of local products to our customers,” Thornton said.
“Whole Foods can’t have all the fun! We do this because we want to help people stay healthy, we want our farmers to be happy, and we want our local community to thrive. With all of our awesome local artisans and harvesters, how could we not?”
Thornton admitted that there are challenges with operating farm-to-table.
For one thing, it can be costly. Local farms are not industrial giants – they plant, nurture, and harvest everything by hand. Production can take time, though customers notice a huge difference in quality and taste of the local product.
“Healthy food is perishable. When there aren’t nasty preservatives and stabilizers, food doesn’t last as long,” Thornton said. Their retail produce can be tricky because they get it straight from the farm.
“If it’s not purchased within a couple of days, we have to get creative in the kitchen and figure out how to make use out of it before it goes to waste. And we hate to see things go to waste! We use vegetable peels, carrot tops, onions peels, and more to make some delicious soup stocks,” Thornton said.
When it comes to growing the farm-to-table movement, Thornton said there is power in numbers. Having more businesses exposed to the movement can increase its strength, regardless of whether they are intrinsically motivated or intrigued by potential profits, she said.
“Businesses are already realizing that these are profitable markets to be tapped into. In addition to that, local, sustainable agriculture is good for the earth,” Thornton said.
“If we care about our businesses being around for years to come, then it only makes sense to be concerned about the ground on which it sits. Take care of the earth and it will take care of you. If that’s not enough incentive, then customers need to march into their favorite stores and demand local products!”
Here are some farms How on Earth works with: Round the Bend, Heart Beets, Weatherlow, Eva’s Garden, Peacock Farms, Skinny Dip, Ivory Silo, Nest and Song, Agraria, and many more. Learn more at howonearth.net.
A Better Brunch
Over in Bristol, the Beehive Café is one of many restaurants promoting the farm-to-table movement. Though their website admits that the phrase “farm-to-table” has been used to the point that it has started to lose meaning, they take the practice seriously.
Beehive Café owner Jen Cavallaro said they basically have two menus at the Beehive: a printed menu that stays the same for half a year or so which is priced and sourced for the season, and then daily and dinner specials which reflect their cooks' efforts to source locally in the moment.
Cavallaro noted the “amazing taste in a product produced in small quantities that has not travelled and can be on your plate within a short period of time.”
“Eating farm-to-table supports your local community. It is good for the environment in terms of not trucking food all over the country and in terms of encouraging farming in general,” Cavallaro said.
“It makes people think about what they eat and where it comes from. It challenges the hegemony of corporate control of our food system.”
Cavallaro said that this takes an awful lot of time and only happens when you have made a commitment to the principle of farm-to-table living for ethical, environmental, and/or taste reasons.
She said she’s heard all the cynicism about how every restaurant is farm-to-table now and that it is "old hat."
“As a marketing tool it might have been overused but it is definitely not over and should not be! Culturally, the notion of being aware of what you eat has taken hold,” Cavallaro said.
“I hope that farm-to-table restaurants can continue to help the trend spread more widely. Critical to that idea will be pricing. Wealthy people will always have access to amazing ingredients. The Beehive attempts to bring good local ingredients into the mix affordably, but with rising pay rates, it is a challenge.”
She added that the Beehive does as much farm-to-table as they can afford, but that it is not easy.
“For us and most restaurateurs, the limiting factors are both price and availability. For instance, we use all local beef and chicken but there is no way to get the volume of bacon we need for our breakfast and brunch service,” Cavallaro said.
“The price would be staggering even if consistency of availability was not an issue. Margins in a restaurant are so slim that you need to plan a menu based on known sourcing prices and consistency.”
Cavallaro encourages consumers to understand the economics of farm-to-table living. For more information, she suggests a post by Chef James from Food by North at foodbynorth.com/costs. For more on the Beehive, visit thebeehivecafe.com.
There are certainly challenges to buying more product locally, but the advantages far outweigh any increase in price. It costs more, but all that money supports local farmers and the local economy – it finds its way back to you.
The next time you are out to eat, thank the restaurant for buying local products and go there often. If you go someplace where they are not offering farm-fresh products, ask why. Encourage them to change. We can all eat happier and healthier by working together. Don’t let it be a cliché. Let it be a lifestyle.