If you’re running a restaurant, you’re using products that came from a farm. However, products coming from a big-box vendor often lack the quality and sustainability of products you can get if you establish a partnership with the local farms in your area. With 76% of diners reporting they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally-sourced food, now is the time to build partnerships with your local producers, which will provide long-term value to you and your customers.
Tami Lax, chef and owner of The Old Fashioned and Harvest restaurants in downtown Madison, Wisconsin built her first farm partnership 26 years ago with Richard de Wilde of Harmony Valley Farm. “He’s been my renaissance man since the beginning,” she says.
Working under the renowned Odessa Piper at L’Etoile, Lax, who came from a family of farmers in the Green Bay area, was quickly inspired by Piper’s “passion and dedication to the local food shed.”
When Adrian Lipscombe, chef and owner of Uptown Cafe & Bakery in LaCrosse, moved from Texas, she knew she wanted to work with local farmers. Surprisingly, she only found one farm-to-table restaurant in town. Luckily, they were happy to connect her with their sources. “Really good restaurants that are farm-to-table are open about it because they want their farmer to be successful,” explains Lipscombe. “This is not a competition. There’s a lot of people and a lot of food.”
[Editor’s note: Lipscombe is also the founder of 40 Acres & A Mule Project, which seeks to guarantee farm-to-table resources for the food industry and provide an outlet and a safeguard for Black foodways and their legacy.]
Both Lax and Lipscombe made themselves regular features at their local farmers’ markets, talking with farmers about their products and growing their relationships. Lax advises restaurateurs use the market as an opportunity for conversations, but to plan your purchases head of time. “A lot of farmers don't want you to come to the market and buy up 36 quarts of raspberries,” she says. “They would prefer to plan for that, so they can have your 36 quarts for you but also 36 quarts for consumers.”
Working directly with local farmers can pose challenges. You have to be flexible and thoughtful with your menu, since it will be dependent on what the farmers -- who are dependent on environmental circumstances outside of their control--can provide you from week-to-week. “It is a little bit of Russian Roulette,” says Lipscombe. “Things happen. You have to take it in stride.”
But both Lax and Lipscombe agree the benefits far outweigh any challenges. There’s less waste involved, and the product is often better looking and tasting. You get access to unique varieties like heirlooms that you can’t find anywhere else. And Lipscombe notes she has seen zero interruption in her food supply during the pandemic.
“Those farmers really care about their food,” she explains. “Once you create that relationship, they’re going to make sure that food is good for you. You get a box right off of the food truck and you don’t even know what it’s going to look like and then you open it and half of it’s rotten and half of it you can’t use. Here with the farmer, we’re looking at it, we’re touching it, we’re talking about it...They grow different varieties, bigger varieties than what I can get from a food distributor. I can get introduced to new vegetables that I usually don’t see on the market.
Lipscombe, who is creating a Southern-influenced menu in a Midwest town, appreciates farmers’ willingness to grow products unique to the area. She had one farmer grow okra, unbeknownst to her, because he overheard her talking about the ingredient. She drops everything when farmers come into her restaurant because she knows how important their time is and how valuable those relationships are. Lax shares her sentiments.
“It's always been really important to know where my food is coming from and how it’s being grown,” says Lax. “I feel so confident in the quality of the food on our menu. I need to be doing something that feeds my soul and has integrity and making food for people is so intimate and knowing who’s growing it is just one more step in that.”
Want to connect with farmers in your area?
- Go to your area farmers markets regularly and introduce yourself to the farmers, ask them questions about what they raise/grow, how long they’ve farmed for, if they’re willing to work with restaurants, etc...
- Ask local restaurants to share and/or introduce you to their suppliers
- Check in with your local restaurant groups to see if they have connections
- Visit local farms (if they are open to visiting hours) and get to see the farm in action