The New Farm
April 12, 2007
By Zachary D. Lyons
Local food is the rage these days. Everyone says they want it. Farmers' markets are growing exponentially. Restaurants featuring it are sexy. But many farmers and chefs still seem to struggle to find each other and work together.
"To drive to Madison or Milwaukee, by the time you get there, you only get to meet three or four chefs," said John Pavelski, who raises chickens at Sonday Farm in Amherst Junction, Wisconsin. "Most chefs are only available between 9 to 10:30 a.m., or 2 to 3:30 p.m. Otherwise, they are busy."
"I can make many phone calls and visit many farmers' markets to meet farmers, but that takes a tremendous amount of time," said Charlie Durham, executive chef at Seattle's Sand Point Grill.
How can communities make it easier for them? One answer is the "Farmer-Chef Connection" conference-like approach.
These food-focused meet-ups are the brainchild of Debra Sohm-Lawson and the Portland, Oregon chapter (www.portlandcc.org) of the Chefs Collaborative (www.chefscollaborative.org), a national coalition of food professionals committed to promoting the sustainability aspects of food. "The idea for the Farmer-Chef Connection germinated in the fall of 2000, when JJ Haapala of Heron's Nest Farm in Junction City, Oregon, gave a presentation to the Portland Chapter of the Chefs Collaborative," explained Sohm-Lawson.
"He mentioned that the farmers he worked with wanted to sell to restaurants but did not know how. This planted a question in my mind: 'How could we facilitate and strengthen links between farmers and chefs?' The obvious answer was, 'Let's plan a conference.'" In March 2001, the first Farmer-Chef Connection was held at a vineyard in the fertile Willamette Valley of Oregon, just outside Portland.
Farmer-Chef Connections bring together farmers, fishers, ranchers and foragers with chefs, institutional food service buyers and culinary school instructors for panel discussions, networking and great food. The goal is simple: Connect the producer and the buyer in a relaxed, fun setting, and let them work together to figure out how to do business with each other directly.
The results have been impressive, as has been the growth in the popularity of these events. One hundred producers and buyers attended the first such event in 2001. In 2007, more than 300 attended the Farmer-Chef Connection in Portland, 250 in Seattle, and hundreds more at similar events in Eugene and Ashland, Oregon, and southeast Wisconsin, with another event in the works for the San Francisco Bay area as this story went to press.
"You need to get the chefs and farmers together in one place," said Jack Kaestner, executive chef of the Oconomowoc Lake Club, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. "You need to sit them together around a dinner table and let them get to know each other." Kaestner organized a Farmer-Chef Connection in January 2007, as one of the monthly American Culinary Federation (ACF) meetings in southeast Wisconsin.
"Usually these meetings feature some large purveyor pimping their products. The host restaurant hits their suppliers up for freebies," said Kaestner.
Instead, he invited 14 farmers to join the 60 or so chefs and culinary students attending the ACF meeting he hosted. After the chefs and students spent an hour and a half grazing their way around a room full of samples presented by the farmers, they all sat down to a gourmet dinner made from local ingredients supplied by the farmers. Kaestner made sure every table had two farmers paired with eight chefs, so they had plenty of time to get to know each other.
"Dinner at the [Oconomowoc Lake] Club gave me a chance to experience the reaction of chefs to our cheese for the first time," said Burt Paris of Edielweiss Growers Cooperative Creamery in Belleville, Wisconsin.
Paris said he recognized he was in the presence of people with educated palates, who really took the time to assess the quality of his product. "It was fun to watch chefs truly taste the cheese, then look up and ask, 'Who are these guys?' I watched one guy walk away and then drag back a friend to try it."
Paris has already heard from several chefs with new orders since the event, and he says he would love to participate in more of them. "I like that the chefs take an interest in how our cheese is produced and where it is from," said Paris. "They want to know our story so that they can tell it."
In Portland, the Farmer-Chef Connection was an all-day affair. It began with a keynote speech explaining how the 2007 Farm Bill could affect chefs. Various panels of chefs, farmers and industry experts discussed a number of topics, such as the basics of farmers and chefs dealing directly, like contracts, quality, pricing, etc. A session called "Certification: Claims, Verification, Multiple Truths" ventured to help chefs understand what organic certification means, and why many farmers doing direct marketing have foregone certification. There was even a session on how to butcher a pig.
Participants praise fast-paced encounters
A gourmet lunch prepared by local chefs included ingredients from local farms. But to talk to farmers and chefs in attendance, the real star of the Portland event was the networking session modeled after speed dating. During this 105-minute session, buyers and sellers were paired up with likely business matches—ranchers with chefs looking for grass-fed beef, for instance—to allow them to get to know each other. After a period of time, the chefs all moved to another group of farmers.
"Farmer-Chef Connections are business-to-business programs," explained Sohm-Lawson. "They are about making direct market connections."
"I like that the Farmer-Chef Connection put me easily in touch with potential customers," said Andy Westlund of Harmony J.A.C.K. Farms in Scio, Oregon. Westlund attended the 2007 Portland event. "To hear your competitors, customers and peers is very educational. After all, you do not know what you do not know. I learned a lot."
Westlund was fascinated, for example, to learn the views chefs had about frozen versus fresh beef. "Some chefs had real distain for frozen," he said. "But others could appreciate the difference between our beef, which might be a '100' on a scale of 1-100 when it is fresh, but might drop to an '89' when frozen, as compared to fresh conventional beef, which might rate a '50.'"
"You may have a chef who says, 'I want tenderloins,' but they also want to know how the animal is raised, and if it is nutritious and local," Westlund pondered. "What do they expect me to do with the rest of the animal?" But through the networking session, Westlund was able to match up with two chefs—-one who needed mostly prime cuts of beef like tenderloins, New York steaks and rib-eyes, and one who needed mostly ground beef—-to go in on a whole beef together, splitting it between them.
Making good deals better
Westlund’s experience was by no means unique. In fact, at the 2007 Seattle event a month earlier, Chef Wayne Johnson from Seattle's Andaluca restaurant and Chef Charlie Durham from Seattle's Sand Point Grill found themselves talking with their beef supplier, DeAnne Clune, from Williamson Farms in George, Washington. As it turns out, both chefs had been purchasing whole beef from Clune, but Durham used mostly ground beef, and Johnson used mostly prime cuts. Like in Portland, these chefs worked out a deal with Clune to split the animal between them, meaning everyone would get their needs met.
Seattle also featured the "speed-dating" styled networking session.
"The speed dating was great," said Will O'Donnell of Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend, Washington. "The first couple of matches didn’t work, but then I hooked up with City Caterers and Bon Appetit, and things got going. We had completely overlooked caterers as a market for our cheese, and our distributor did not service them. The caterers we met at Farmer-Chef gave us the names of their distributors, and in the two months since the meeting, we have established relationships with those distributors. Now sales to those distributors account for 10-15 percent of our sales."
Farmer-Chef Connections not only help farmers and chefs establish relationships, they help them reinforce them. And Farmer-Chef Connections help the culinary community reinforce and expand its commitment to working with local farmers.
"It is an opportunity to get face to face with my existing customers and get to know who's new," said David Hoyle of Creative Grower, in Noti, Oregon. "I don't do the deliveries for our farm, so I don't get to see them that often."
"It reaffirms what we do as a company," said Chef Mark Harris, who manages Bon Appetit food service's Reed College account in Portland. "Not only do I get to meet other local chefs who are looking to buy direct, but I get to meet the farmers I usually only talk to on the phone or via email, and I get to make connections with new farmers. With our purchasing volume, we have the power to make for the success of a farmer."
"I can establish and re-establish connections with farmers after winter," said Chef Troy MacLarty of Lovely Hula Hands restaurant in Portland. "I can talk with farmers about what they plan to grow this year, and I can maybe even influence them."
"I don't live in Seattle," cheese maker O'Donnell said. "So I got to meet a lot of the chefs who were already buying our cheese, but [whom] I had only spoken to on the phone before."
Ecotrust offers assistance
Portland-based Ecotrust has played a prominent role in the developing of the Farmer-Chef Connection concept in the Pacific Northwest, as well as in Wisconsin. It has just released a toolkit for would-be Farmer-Chef Connection organizers called, "Building Local Food Networks: The Farmer-Chef Connection and the Guide to Local and Seasonal Products."
While the culinary community in Portland and Seattle initiated the Farmer-Chef Connections in those cities, there is no reason why farmers cannot initiate them as well, and the format is simple and adaptable enough to suit any community. The toolkit is a good starting point for anyone who wishes to create a similar event in his or her region.
"Farmer-Chef Connections set up the connections for down the road," said Chef Wayne Johnson of Seattle's Andaluca restaurant. "More contacts create more contacts. Maybe a chef begins at the start of one year sourcing 10 percent of their ingredients direct from local farmers. By the end of that year, it might be up to 50 percent, then maybe 70 percent to 80 percent. As more and more chefs start doing this, eventually we will see a snowball effect."