New Ways to Grow the Farmer-Chef Connection
Agua Gorda, a worker-owned farm that’s part of Shared Ground, grows tomatillos, cucumbers, squash and melons, and sells to restaurants such as La Loma Tamales.
If a farmer picks a pepper and no one buys it, does the farmer still make money? It’s not quite the philosophical thought experiment as the falling tree version but the answer is much simpler: no.
“It doesn’t matter how good your products are, if you don’t have buyers, you’re done,” said Rodrigo Cala, who with brother Juan Carlos owns Cala Farms in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin where they grow certified organic vegetables. “The reality is, the only way for a small farmer to survive is to have another job.”
Data from the USDA backs up Cala’s statement: small family farms, those with less than $350,000 in gross sales, earn only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, with the rest coming from an off-farm source. Though city and neighborhood farmers markets are one outlet for these smaller-scale farms and organic startups, the growers are harvesting for an unknown customer, with uncontrollable factors such as weather playing into just who will show up to buy.
Doug Harvey’s Fireside Orchards is one supplier from which restaurants can buy through his Farm2ChefDirect.com portal.
Chefs and restaurant buyers offer some stability, however, and with an increasing and sustained interested from consumers who want their food to come from local sources, the connection between farmer and foodservice is vital to the business success of both. Helping to make that connection is St. Paul-based Shared Ground, a farmer-owned cooperative of five urban and rural farms, including Cala’s, that aims to make environmentally sustainable farming a true living wage job in part by offering a consistent source of local produce to area restaurants and other wholesale buyers.
“It’s a very important part of my operation, working with Shared Ground,” said Cala, who explained that while it’s crucial for small-scale farms to have relationships with restaurant buyers, those relationships are difficult to develop for farmers who focus so much time and energy on growing their crops that they’re unable to cultivate a market for their produce. And Cala, who emigrated from Mexico, pointed out, it’s difficult “not just for Latinos, but any small farmer, no matter the color.”
“Most farms don’t have a website, so who do you contact” if you’re a chef looking to source local ingredients, said Rebecca Jackson, Shared Ground’s co-op manager. “We’re able to offer our buyers a huge variety and volume, and take some of the leg work out of it for the restaurants and for the farmers.” Shared Ground’s focus is minority, immigrant and beginning farmers, who Jackson said often face additional language and cultural barriers.
It’s a learning curve as well for chefs and restaurant buyers as they adjust to creating seasonal menus that in turn can utilize local produce—produce that’s often not uniform in size and shape, and comes at a higher price than the commodity market.
For Arie Peisert, chef and owner at Northern Fires Pizza, it’s a mindset shift that puts quality above cost and recognizes the importance of supporting local growers while encouraging the same from customers.
Shared Ground’s Rebecca Jackson with peppers from the co-op’s farms.
“I feel confident that no matter what I charge, if the pizza is really good, I’m not going to get complaints,” said Peisert, who buys from Shared Ground. “My approach is very simple and to let the ingredients shine and show the hard work of the farmers.”
Jackson said Shared Ground works to stay competitive in pricing but isn’t going match larger broadline distributors. “But in all honesty that’s not what we’re here for,” she added. “We’re here to create a sustainable market for our farmers. We sell really good produce. Our reputation is based on having good sales and good relationships with restaurants.”
Online ordering for chefs
Recognizing that chefs often want to buy local but aren’t sure where to start, Doug Harvey launched Farm2ChefDirect.com in August. Farmers list their products on the searchable web portal and chefs can place their orders directly, then set a pickup time or arrange delivery.
Harvey, a board member for the Minneapolis Farmers Market who also owns Fireside Orchard in Northfield, said Farm2ChefDirect.com fulfills a need both for restaurants and farmers, who are each “just so busy they don't have the time to do this on their own.”
“The feedback that we’re getting is that this is long overdue. Other people have tried similar things, and there’s always some hitch in the giddy up to make it happen,” Harvey said.
He’s focused on neighboring counties for the first year, with plans to expand operations. “Next year we will expand to outstate Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. At the end of next year our plan is to go national,” Harvey said.