A Labor of Love: The difficulties, rewards, and truth about farm-to-table
Joe Rodger, executive chef at Shift in Flagstaff, delicately twirls thinly cut squash on a pristine white plate. He then disperses peas across the top, along with an oily dressing. Finally, he tops the dish with edible, orange flowers called nasturtium. The plate is artfully done—almost too pretty to be eaten. He explains where each ingredient was sourced, mentioning the peas and nasturtium are from Sweetwater Farm, roughly a 35-minute drive from the door of Shift.
Joe’s restaurant, which he co-owns with his wife, Dara, is among eateries across the country to be caught in the momentum of the farm-to-table movement. What began as a few West Coast restaurants advertising their local suppliers has become a full-blown food revolution. Soon, chefs of all trades and backgrounds were pointing out the heirloom tomatoes grown on someone’s rooftop garden, the beef from a nearby ranch, the oranges from a family-owned grove to their customers.
While Shift is not completely farm-to-table—they still get some products from large food distributers—there is a noticeable effort made to showcase products sourced locally and from around Arizona.
“I definitely see a changing attitude,” says Joe, who has noticed the growing interest.
Restaurants utilizing local products now dot Flagstaff’s downtown area. Shift, on north San Francisco, opened in April. It accompanied the already well-established restaurants Criollo, Brix and Proper Meats + Provisions among a few others, which source their ingredients from Arizona and the region. Root Public House, which opened in mid-July, has joined this quickly growing list.
“I grew up eating farm-to-table,” David Smith, the co-owner of Root Public House, says. “It wasn’t really a thing then. To me, [farm-to-table] is growing up with a garden, eating what is seasonal and canning at the end of the summer.”
There actually was a time in our country’s history when all food had to be collected from a nearby farm. Then, of course, there were no terms like “locavore” or “farm-to-table,” it was not seen as anything too special—there were not any other options. Older generations (and those of us who are from more rural farming areas) might remember these days when small, family-run farms were common.
Most mainstream American culture moved away from supporting local farms in the latter half of the 20th century in favor of convenience. Instead of eating seasonally, it became normal to see stacks of strawberries and other unlikely produce in the store year-round.Ready-made T.V. dinners became a hallmark in American homes and the farmer behind the food was obscured by big-name labels.
The 21st century then saw a re-emerging interest in where food was coming from. Fast food behemoths and grocery store monopolies began to be scrutinized for their ethical practices, both in labor and sourcing. The popularity of farmers’ markets exploded across the country, rising to 8,284 markets in 2014, from 3,706 in 2004, according to USDA. Simply, people cared more about where their food was coming from, who was growing it and how it got to their plates.
“It stated as a grassroots movement, for people who wanted to know what was going in their bodies,” Smith says. “Restaurants and chefs realized there was a niche market. What we’re paying for now, at a premium price, our grandparents used to get for free. Hopefully these products can become more normalized.”
The goal driving farm-to-table is shrinking the carbon-footprint associated with shipping food long distances to reach the restaurant, and keeping money within the local economy. The system is mutually beneficial—the chef can use the freshest ingredients, and the farmer has a reliable customer. The earth benefits, too. For chefs like the Rodgers and Smith, it’s more than just a trend—it’s a decision made for health, for the environment and the economy.
Higher quality, higher prices
Logically, it would seem that the closer the farm, the cheaper the price—less distance to travel, right? As many farm-to-table operations have shown, there are steeper prices associated with local food; much more labor and time goes into producing a hormone-free chicken egg, than one from Tyson Foods, Inc. On a small-scale, family farm, living, breathing humans are interacting with the plants and livestock—it’s not a factory farm where machines separate the good eggs from the bad.
In order for the farm-to-table model to be successful today, chefs and consumers alike have to sacrifice some money.
“I think we’ve gotten some pushback based on the prices,” Dara says, “But what we’re doing here is using quality ingredients, and that’s key. The processing, the labor, the technical skill takes time, and that’s what the prices reflect.”
Both the Rodgers and Smith agree there is a noticeable difference in the quality of a locally-produced item and an item ordered from a large agricultural corporation, both nutritionally and regarding taste. For some diners, this quality is sometimes enough to justify the higher prices.
Shift’s menu usually ranges anywhere between $11 and $30 for a plate of food; Root Public House’s dishes are marked relatively the same, with a few exceptions. Smith commented that the prices are oftentimes a huge obstacle for restaurants like his, especially in a smaller town like Flagstaff. But he hopes the importance of supporting local farms comes across in the meals and will convince diners to return. Eventually, he hopes to have a chalkboard near the entrance to the restaurant, with all sources listed.
“We believe in [local food],” Smith says. “It would be a lot cheaper if we started buying from only Shamrock or Sysco, but we just don’t believe in that.”
He hopes as the partnership between small-scale farms and restaurants become normalized, meal prices will become more accessible.
Running a farm-to-table restaurant is not without its difficulties. Beyond paying more for ingredients, there is an element of unpredictability. Operating any eatery definitely requires some creativity, but farm-to-table calls for a unique resourcefulness and adaptability. Every day, chefs have to ask themselves what products diners will purchase, how to prepare these products and if there is enough to meet the demand of hungry restaurant-goers.
Joe and Dara change the menu almost once a day at Shift to utilize the products ready for harvest at the farm. Smith at Root Public House expects to change his menu around twice a week.
“The consistency of the product can be a downfall,” Dara says. “You might get one product one week, and get something completely different the next week. You might have to pickle it, or ferment it because it wasn’t what you expected.”
Indeed, there are a number of jars lining the walls of Shift, containing colorful, preserved vegetables.
The labor associated with farm-to-table might be the biggest obstacle for chefs and restaurant staff. Many times, the infrastructure to actually get the food to the restaurant is lacking. While food hubs—businesses responsible for packaging, storing and distributing local food— have started emerging in other states, they are largely lacking in northern Arizona.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve physically driven my car to the farms, loaded it up and drove back to the restaurant. The infrastructure isn’t there a lot of the time for deliveries,” Smith says.
Furthermore, much of the cleaning, organizing and chopping is left to the chefs, tacking hours onto preparation time.
“If you work farm-to-table, it doesn’t come in a pretty box that you can just consolidate in your coolers,” Joe says. “No, you have to break it down, you have to wash the eggs, you have to find room. The hardest part for me is the processing.”
Even so, restaurants like Shift and Root Public House find ways to turn an obstacle into an opportunity.
Dara comments how having a specialized meal, with a limited ingredient from a farm—say, watermelon radishes—creates a personalized experience for the diner. Eating it seems special, because of the amount of work and thought it took to produce what is sitting on the plate.
“[Unpredictability] is in the true roots of cooking,” Joe says. “It keeps you on your toes. If anything, it’s a good problem to have.”
Too good to be true?
According to an exposé by journalist Laura Reilly for the Tampa Bay Times, farm-to-table is often a trendy, superficial title used by restaurants to attract customers—a marketing ploy. While these eateries might proudly proclaim their products are local, a closer look found quite the opposite.
“This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby,” Reilly writes. “More often than not, those things are fairy tales. A long list of Tampa Bay restaurants are willing to capitalize on our hunger for the story.”
In her article, Reilly implies this is a widespread issue. And in some ways, it is. Undoubtedly, restaurants across the country feel pressure to advertise local products, but aren’t willing to put in the extra work or money necessary to actually be sourcing locally.
This discovery has had a slowing effect on the farm-to-table movement, with consumers and chefs alike feeling disillusioned.
“The fact they’re saying local and people are coming in is good, because at least they’re getting the word out,” Smith says, in regard to restaurants that are dishonest with their advertising. “On a personal level, that stuff infuriates me. They’re getting a competitive advantage over people who are actually buying local. When I have to order for the week, [there’s] 17 people I call. If it’s one of those large national purveyors, I could call one person and get my order in the next day.”
Even some chefs are distancing themselves from the term farm-to-table, because of the sometimes unfortunate insincerity associated with it. One of these chefs is Joe, who has difficulties calling Shift a true farm-to-table.
“I’ve seen a lot of places that consider themselves that,” Joe says. “I know that not all of our products are farm-to-table, so I’m not going to call myself that. It’s definitely an overused term and people take advantage of it all the time.”
While not all of the ingredients are local, Shift buys most of its produce from Arizona-based farms.
The farm side of farm-to-table
Pearl Sweetwater Lowe—whose middle name lends to the name of her farm—tends to ducks, chickens, outdoor raised garden beds, two greenhouses and two young children. Her bucolic farm is located in a meadow, surrounded by miles of ponderosa pine forest just north of town.
Even though Sweetwater farm is still a relatively small operation, Lowe sells anything from green beans to the nasturtium used in Joe’s colorful salad. Neighbors regularly stop by to collect vegetables from her garden. Her most popular item is duck eggs.
“The duck eggs have connected me with most of the chefs because they get the eggs and then ask what else I have,” Lowe says.
Joe and Dara regularly buy these eggs from Lowe, and use them for dishes like a cured duck egg, which can take two to three weeks to make. The retail price of a dozen duck eggs from her farm hovers around 10 dollars.
It is obvious the Rodgers have a close partnership with Sweetwater Farm.
“The farm is part of what we do,” Dara says. “Open communication is huge.”
Lowe had similar sentiments, and expressed her gratitude for the patience and willingness Flagstaff restaurants have shown her.
“The Rodgers have been wonderful to work with. They’ve been flexible and responsive,” Lowe says.
Lowe’s growing season usually lasts from April until October, and she uses a number of methods to preserve her harvest during the winter. She makes a trip into town to drop off fresh vegetables—they’re usually delivered on the same day they are picked.
“It’s not about the money, but it’s my passion for sharing healthy food with people,” Lowe says. “It makes me happy to pick these huge bouquets of kale and give them to Joe, who I know is going to make them so beautiful and it’s going to reach so many people.”
Lowe expressed even though the main purpose of running her farm isn’t making a profit, she has been able to make some money. She hopes eventually the farm will pay for itself.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” Lowe says.
David Smith also maintains a close relationship with a farmer. For him, McCLendon’s Select in Peoria has provided 85 percent of the produce used in the dishes at Root Public House. Smith described how the multi-generational farming family has grown to be a primary supplier of local goods in Arizona.
“[McCLendon’s] is a great model to look at; it has grown so big after years of doing what they believe in,” Smith says. “They pick and choose who they sell to, deliver, and beat some of the other price points.”
Living local in Flagstaff
While the movement to localize the ingredients used by eateries has been marked by obstacles, restaurants like Shift, Root Public House and others in Flagstaff are hoping to stay true to their philosophy. With a short growing season and unpredictable mountain weather, food is undeniably hard to grow in Flagstaff.
“It’s not sustainable for a restaurant in Flagstaff to be 100 percent local,” Lowe says. “But it’s important to celebrate when you do have local items on the menu.”
The Rodgers, Smith and Lowe all expressed the primary reason for continuation of farm-to-table is the consumers themselves. Diners have the power to put money where they believe, or as author Michael Pollan coined the phrase, “vote with your fork.”
Flagstaff’s desire for local goods has led to the growth and survival of restaurants and businesses—and that attitude doesn’t show any sign of going away.