Is the Farm-to-Table Movement Good For Local Farmers and Food Businesses?
Modern farmers must take alternative routes to survive and thrive in today’s locavore culture.
Classes on canning, fermenting and making syrup are part of the offerings at Pound Ridge Organics in Pound Ridge.
Everyone knows it’s hard to make a living as a farmer. That’s one constant among the food industry’s roller coaster of trends — Cauliflower is the new kale! Hop onto unicorn food! Coal ash is cool!
Despite the popular farm-to-table ethos, many traditional agriculture businesses and family farms have taken hits. In 2018, net farm income is expected to drop by 6.7 percent, down to its lowest level since 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Yet, at the same time, the demand for healthy, locally grown food is rising steadily. At least half the top-10 food-concept trends of 2018 are related to locally sourced food, such as hyper-local food, environmental sustainability, and farm-/estate-branded items, according to The National Restaurant Association.
“As long as I promise the demand, [farmers will] get me the supply. It’s about forming even closer relationships with our sources.”
—Stephen Mancini, Restaurant North and Market North
“The overall growth of the ‘food movement’ is certainly a double-edged sword for small-scale vegetable growers,” says Austin Jones, whose father, Guy Jones, started Blooming Hill Farm in Orange County. Their farm supplies Westchester restaurants such as Restaurant North, L’inizio, Tarry Lodge, The Cookery, and The Parlor, along with such well-known Manhattan spots as Prune and Union Square Café.
Meeting this customer demand isn’t easy for local and regional suppliers and the restaurants that try to buy from them. Modern farmers must take alternative routes to survive and thrive in today’s locavore culture.
The root of the matter
The farm-to-table movement dove into the mainstream in the early 2000s, exposing diners to fresher, tastier food sourced locally and regionally. Also called farm-to-fork, the movement has branched into nose-to-tail and root-to-stem philosophies, calling for sustainably minded chefs and home cooks to use as much of the animal or plant as possible, thereby reducing food waste.
Nice as that may sound, many small, local farms aren’t able to provide the consistent supply that these increasingly aware customers demand at restaurants. One solution has been restaurant-supported agriculture (RSA). It’s the restaurant version of CSA, or community-supported agriculture, in which buyers commit to purchasing a share of crops before the growing season so that the farmer has not only the necessary funds to plant certain crops, but also the guaranteed customers to consume them. The RSA model tends to work largely because of close, time-tested relationships built between a farmer and a chef.
Executive Chef Jay Lippin worked at Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua between 1990 and 1993 and then returned in 2013, so he’s witnessed how the farm-to-
table movement has affected a place that sourced locally before it became “cool.” In the early ’90s, a maximum of five percent of Kittle House’s produce came from local farms; these days, that figure is 80 percent in peak season.
Now, Lippin works with 40 different farmers across New York State to get his ingredients. “We sit with seed catalogues in the fall. I’ve learned a lot of what’s going on and what it takes,” Lippin says.
Unlike the contemporary arrangements and agreements between businesses, the SOP here is often more atavistic in construction. “Through my relationships with farmers, they know I’m true to my word if I say I’ll buy a certain amount of a product from them,” Lippin asserts. “Any farm I do business with, I’ve visited. It’s trust on both parts.”
Restaurant North and Market North in Armonk also have those farmer conversations over seed catalogues, says Stephen Mancini, founding partner. Mancini follows the RSA model with winemakers, too. He can mix proportions of different barrels of wine varietals to create a proprietary blend that he commits to purchasing 60 cases of once it’s aged properly.
“We have the ability to customize what products are coming to us,” Mancini says. “As long as I promise the demand, they’ll get me the supply. It’s about forming even closer relationships with our sources.”
The spike in RSAs has leveled out in recent years, however. With the demand being so high, chefs can’t always get from small farms what they need — when they need it — as easily as they can with major food purveyors.
Mix it up
To survive, small farmers have to diversify their product, as well as the way they do business. They’ve turned to other channels in addition to restaurants and farmers’ markets, such as food boxes, artisanal food shops, and local grocery chains.
Donna Simons at Pound Ridge Organics Farm & Food Co-op supplies her adult cooking school with herbs, eggs, and produce from her own farm and works with partner farms year-round. For several years, she’s offered homesteading classes on canning, fermenting, and making maple syrup. She has “therapy chickens” for people to hold, and she does heritage breeding of livestock — some for sale to other local farms, some for educational purposes — and hosts an increasing roster of tastings and events.
Blooming Hill Farm regularly supplies such upscale Westchester eateries as Restaurant North, L’inizio, and Tarry Lodge. Photo by Shannon Sturgis
“What has changed is an appreciation, interest, and demand for heirloom and heritage foods — the foods our grandparents ate,” says Simons. “We have to stay current in food trends while always looking back to garner all that was good from the past, as well as remind ourselves about the mistakes that should never be made again.”
Educating consumers helps the co-op thrive because members are more likely to try these special foods when they’re more familiar. To meet that need, Simons is continually evolving what she has to offer. These days, Simons estimates, upwards of 15 percent of her gross annual revenue comes from nontraditional farming operations, a proportion that she intends to expand to at least 25 percent within the next year.
Other farmers are taking the same route.
“We’ve found that a high amount of diversification works best,” notes Jones, one of three siblings who run Blooming Hill Farm.
In the past few years, he notes, business has shifted somewhat from wholesale at restaurants to retail at farmers’ markets and CSA. The shift has decreased the overall quantity of what Blooming Hill grows but spiked the specialization and diversity of crops in smaller batches.
Unlike a traditional CSA, Blooming Hill’s program allows members to pick and choose what they like from their farm store. The value of what they take each week is debited off their store account, which can be used until their credit runs out and they can opt to renew.
“We’ve found that a high amount of diversification works best.”
—Austin Jones, Blooming Hill Farm
“Our customers like this model a lot better than the traditional CSA because it allows them to take as little, or as much, produce as they want each week while allowing them to be more selective,” Jones says.
Meanwhile, in the current landscape, nonprofits also have a role to play.
The nonprofit Cabbage Hill Farm in Mount Kisco is dedicated to preserving historic breeds of farm animals and the small farm, teaching about sustainable agriculture and using aquaponics.
Cabbage Hill sells at John Jay Homestead farmers’ market in Katonah and supplies Mount Kisco Seafood with produce, as well as a few restaurants, such as Peter Pratt’s Inn in
Yorktown Heights and TRUCK restaurant in Bedford. It also does a winter meat box, which people on their email list can decide to buy and pick up at the farm.
Grocery stores try local, too
Overseeing much of the buying, Joe DeCicco Jr. runs seven DeCicco & Sons grocery stores in Westchester and beyond with his two cousins, John DeCicco Jr. and Chris DeCicco. The stores’ meat and apples can come from the New York region when it’s the right season, DeCicco says. But most of what they stock can’t come from small, local farms because they need a large, constant supply of product with consistent quality. Also, supermarkets require more stringent USDA labeling and insurance regulation than restaurants have to worry about, he adds.
However, the DeCicco craft-beer program that complements their in-store bars meets the demand for better-quality, locally sourced product. “Our tap list is very local-based, so it’s really brewery-to-table in a sense,” he says. “Freshness is important for craft beer, so being local is a huge advantage.”
Local products also line shelves whenever possible at Balducci’s Food Lover’s Market, which has two locations in Westchester. The store partners with New York State farms for grass-fed beef and seasonal apples, says Donna Mastellone, VP of produce and floral, who adds that “local sourcing is a growing area of business at Balducci’s.”
Bring them back to the farm
Another mechanism farmers use not only to generate interest and revenue but also to differentiate themselves from grocery stores is the authentic “farm experience,” which some local proprietors are offering in the form of on-site events, embedded restaurants, farm stores, and you-pick sections.
Blooming Hill Farm caters weddings and other events it hosts on the farm, and they added a restaurant café on the premises, in addition to the CSA store, in just the last few years.
“We’ve found that people want to come to the farm as more of an experience rather than just a trip to get their groceries,” says Travis Jones, Austin’s brother. “If they can come and eat a breakfast that features some of the produce we grow and also shop for their vegetables for the week, we find they are more likely to make the trip.”
Amy Sowder is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her work has been published in Bon Appétit, Women’s Health, Upworthy, Chowhound, and USA Today, among other outlets.