March 23, 2007
By Patty Mamula
Matchmaking reigned at a recent Farmer-Chef Connection at the Clackamas County (Ore.) Fairgounds. Eligible farmers paired up with interested food buyers, while more-established partners offered relationship advice.
Meetings were informal, but a "speed dating" session was set up where producers and buyers met at tables and conversed for 15 minutes until a bell rang. They did this three times.
The event, sponsored by the Chefs Collaborative in Portland and Ecotrust, attracted more than 300 participants this year. "Our old method of one-on-one conversations needed reworking," Andrew Haden of Ecotrust said. "The new method allowed for up to 21 connections to be made per person."
Lunch was another paired event and a visual feast. Highlights were Braised Chehalem Mountain Farms Lamb, presented by Hot Lips Pizza; Sudan Farm Lamb and Black Olive Stew, presented by Nostrana Restaurant; and Wild Rice and Ladd Hill Orchard Chestnut Pilaf, presented by New Seasons Market at Mountain Park.
Deborah Kane, vice president for food and farms for Ecotrust, said, "The first year our participants — about 50 — were evenly divided between small farmers and restaurateurs. Now we attract a wide variety of food buyers, from chefs to public school districts to retail food buyers."
Buyers included representatives from Portland, Beaverton and Bend-LaPine school districts, private schools, the Oregon Department of Education, Food Services of America, Organically Grown Co., Bon Appetit, New Seasons, Pasta Works, Oregon Health Sciences University and numerous restaurant chefs. Sellers included meat, dairy, fruit/vegetable and specialty producers.
Kane said, "Several grass seed farmers from the Willamette with large, 400- to 1,000-acre farms attended. They were interested in selling fresh vegetables to schools and hospitals, so they were matched with the appropriate buyers located nearest to them."
In addition to networking activities, several breakout sessions were offered. The farm bill was the topic of both the opening speech by Daniel Imhoff and one of the sessions.
Moderator Shari Sirkin of Deep Roots Farm led this session, with questions directed at the panel of three farmers and three buyers.
For many small farmers and restaurant chefs, handshakes and personal relationships take the place of formal, written contracts.
Jeff Falen of Persephone Farm sells to Hot Lips Pizza. He said, "We have an informal agreement. We usually review our sales to Hot Lips over the winter and come up with ideas for adjustments."
Sheldon Marcuvitz, owner of Your Kitchen Garden, sells to 21 restaurants. "We base our agreement on past history," he said. "We hope people will be able to buy what they did in the past. We give new people an idea of how we work, but it's all verbal, totally unsigned."
The panel agreed that payment terms should also be kept simple.
Anthony Boutard, owner of Ayers Creek Farm, said, "However somebody wants to pay is fine. With restaurants, we usually get paid within two to three weeks. If a restaurant doesn't pay, I don't work with them."
At New Seasons, produce buyer Chris Harris asks growers to submit an invoice, and payment is within two weeks.
Buyers agreed that the farmer should receive a fair price for their product. But establishing that price was trickier.
Vito Dillulo, owner of Ciao Vito restaurant in northeast Portland, buys organic exclusively. He said, "I never negotiate price with the farmer. The quality is what we negotiate, not the price."
Cathy Whims, chef at Nostrana restaurant, admitted to having sticker shock at the price of some fresh produce. "But it was always fantastic quality, and so we priced it accordingly and it was never a problem."
Harris, who was hired by New Seasons to work with local growers, said, "I want to deal with the grower who has the best quality product. We work back from the retail cost. What does the farmer need to be competitive? If we can work it out, we shake hands. We look long-term. How can we help our partners be successful?"
He said the key components of a successful relationship between farmers and growers were communication, consistency and commitment.
Fallen, who farms 13 sustainable acres in Washington, said, "If you short restaurant chefs, stores or buyers, they have to scrounge. If we don't know in time that they will need product, we have to scrounge." He felt that communication and mutual respect were crucial.
Dillulo of Ciao Vito said, "For most of us restaurant people, it's a hard job. But most of us wouldn't trade to be a farmer. If it rains, people still come to the restaurant. It's different for the farmer."
Sirkin asked if there was a scale of operation that farmers shouldn't go below. Answers ranged from $60,000 gross sales to $200,000, to about $15,000 an acre.
All the small farmers agreed that time management was a problem. " I think you simply have to resign yourself to doing the work of three or four people," Marcuvitz said.