The Farm-to-Table Connection Comes Undone - Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Farm-to-Table Connection Comes Undone

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Zaid Kurdieh has so many fava beans growing at his farm in upstate New York that he could send 4,000 pounds a week to the best chefs in New York City. In Kentucky, Robert Eversole and Thomas Sargent planted enough winter greens to fill the all the salad bars at the University of Kentucky and still have enough left over to feed fans at the state’s two major spring horse races.

But the coronavirus pandemic has postponed the Kentucky Derby and shut the university. And in New York, chefs who would normally be shelling Mr. Kurdieh’s fava beans for their spring menus have closed their restaurants.

So these small farmers, like many others across the country who spent decades building a local, sustainable agricultural system, are staring at their fields and wondering what to do now that the table has been kicked out from under the modern farm-to-table movement.

“It’s navigation with no compass,” Mr. Kurdieh said. “All of that market is gone, and no one knows what’s going to happen or how people’s behaviors are going to change.”

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Farm-to-table — the term has become a fixture in the culinary lexicon — started in the 1970s, when Chez Panisse and a handful of other restaurants hatched what then seemed like a radical notion: Build menus from food grown by nearby farmers who are thoughtful about everything from the seeds they select and the soil they grow them in to the communities they feed.

That idea grew into a pipeline connecting farmers, ranchers and chefs that in 2019 had generated $12 billion in income for small-scale producers including cheesemakers and vintners. Governments, hospitals and schools have come to see the value in buying locally grown food. No Silicon Valley tech company worth its stock price would dare to design a cafeteria without local food.

Since the pandemic hit, that conduit has shut down. The loss in sales could run as high as $689 million, with much higher costs in jobs and other businesses that make up the farm-to-table economic ecosystem, according to a report compiled in March by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

For the first few weeks, farmers scrambled to find other ways to sell their crops. Some turned to online sales or tapped a renewed interest in community-supported agriculture, or C.S.A.s, in which farmers sell subscriptions for boxes of produce. Others delivered food to restaurants that had turned into pop-up grocers, or doubled down on the farmers’ markets that remained open. Many sent what they could to relief kitchens.

“I was getting calls as soon we went into lockdown,” said Mindy Goldstein, a law professor at Emory University School at Law and the director of the Turner Environmental Law Center, a proponent of urban agriculture that runs a pro bono legal clinic. “The question is how do we get these folks any form of market.”

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For some, it’s been the agricultural equivalent of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Celtuce, microgreens and gooseberries might make for a beautiful restaurant menu, but they aren’t what most stuck-at-home cooks are looking for.

“Most of the seeds were already bought up here, and farmers are already growing for us,” said Dan Barber, the chef who runs Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. “They have started the seedlings based on plans and investments we have been making for months.”

Already, some farmers and producers have closed or altered operations. The Vermont cheesemaker Jasper Hill Farm, a star of the farm-to-table movement whose sales are down by half, had to sell off some of its herd of 45 Ayrshire cows and send others to a neighboring farm this week. The cheesemaker might have to disperse more animals if business continues to drop.

“The train has left the station for farmers,” Mr. Barber said. “Where it goes is the big question. We need to hurry and preserve the outlets for these products. Otherwise, a lot of farmers will go bankrupt quickly.”

For farmers who grow for institutions like schools and corporate cafeterias, volume is an issue.

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“When we plant for salad greens, we are planting thousands of pounds, and that’s way outside what consumers can handle,” said Robert Eversole, who runs Crooked Row Farm in Lexington, Ky., with his husband, Thomas Sargent.

They used to make a living from C.S.A. boxes, but in 2017 switched to wholesale salad greens and cherry tomatoes to feed students at public schools and the University of Kentucky, where administrators work with Aramark, the global food-service company, to ensure that nearly 20 percent of the food is grown in Kentucky. The couple were selling the school 420 pounds of salad greens a week.

For the short term, the men are turning back to home delivery. They joined with other farmers and small-batch food producers to create an online store. Starting in May, shoppers will be able to order a box of food that can be picked up at the 500-acre farm, or delivered anywhere in Lexington for a $5 fee.

The men have changed their crop plan, adding more variety and plants that mature faster. It won’t make up for the $45,000 they’ve lost so far, but it might be enough to sustain them until the fall, when they hope school starts again.

For other farmers and ranchers, the onslaught of interest from home cooks has outstripped their ability to meet demand. Loren and Lisa Poncia run Stemple Creek Ranch in Marin County, Calif., where about 900 cattle and 500 sheep feed on organic-certified pasture.

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Sales to restaurants made up 11 percent of their revenue. They lost most of it. They are still shipping to a handful of butchers and grocers in California, but online orders from home cooks have risen so fast it’s been a scramble to keep up. They spend their days and nights packing meat with dry ice and trying to navigate the strain on their system, which includes overwhelmed processors who cut and wrap their beef.

“It’s one thing to send out a whole 20-pound rib roast to a restaurant, but now it needs to get cut into pound-and-a-half rib-eyes, and they just don’t have the capacity,” Ms. Poncia said.

Some farmers who rely on food hubs or aggregators, which smooth the process of getting food from the field to buyers like grocery stores or corporate cafeterias, lack the money or technical skills to build a website, pack C.S.A. boxes or travel to urban farmers’ markets.

Some are undocumented, and want to keep a low profile. Others, like many Hmong growers in the San Joaquin Valley of California, don’t speak English fluently enough to pivot to direct marketing, said Paul Towers, executive director of the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, which represents 8,000 small farms.

In the Northeast, some farmers are just waiting to see if things pick up in the late summer or the early fall.

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“Lucky for us, this is the slowest time of sales,” said Tyler Dennis, who runs the 50-acre Alewife Farm in Clinton Corners, N.Y. “If this had happened in August, it would be a very different level of urgency for us.”

Others, like Mr. Kurdieh, who runs Norwich Meadows Farm, southeast of Syracuse, aren’t sure what to bet on. Sixty percent of his business came from restaurants. He is hoping to sell what he has in the ground at New York City’s Greenmarkets, through Baldor Specialty Foods, a wholesaler that has started home deliveries, and using trucks he used to dispatch to restaurants to drop off orders at people’s homes.

“My pessimistic view is that this is going to change the behaviors of everybody in terms of how they dine out and how they buy food,” he said. “People are not going to buy a $300 plate of food, and that trickles down to us.”

At other times, he is optimistic and thinks he ought to plant as many tomatoes this year as he always does. “Maybe we’ve got this all wrong.” he said, “and as soon as we open the floodgates we probably won’t have enough stuff people want.”

Others are simply giving up for the spring, and waiting things out.

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“Lots of farmers I work with are just furrowing their crops and turning them into compost,” said Naomi Pomeroy, a chef who has temporarily closed Beast, her restaurant in Portland, Ore., and helped create the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is pressuring Congress to tailor aid specifically for restaurants that aren’t part of big chains.

Waste has become an issue for larger dairies and produce growers, too. Driscoll’s, which produces one-third of the berries sold in North America, is in the midst of a great California strawberry season. But as much as 30 percent of the crop could be lost because institutions and restaurants are closed, and shipping space on planes to global markets is at a premium, said Soren Bjorn, the company’s president.

Food banks or other relief efforts would be a logical place to send the berries, but many are telling the Department of Agriculture that they don’t have the resources to buy them or the space to store them, Mr. Bjorn said.

The farm-to-table set is competing with behemoth growers like Driscoll’s for part of the $9.5 billion in relief money that Congress recently set aside for farmers who grow specialty crops, supply farmers’ markets and raise livestock. But both groups find themselves on the same side when it comes to pushing the agriculture department to use food relief money to help farmers get unsold crops to feeding programs, and to relax federal requirements that stand between farmers and people in need.

In the spirit of the sustainable food movement’s roots, some farmers have decided to go hyperlocal. Randy Stannard runs Root 64 Farm with his partner, Sarah McCamman, on an acre of land in Sacramento. They were planning to sell their early crop of radishes and arugula to local restaurants and at a farmers’ market. The virus put an end to that.

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Instead, last Saturday they opened a little drive-through farm stand in front of their house, and are raising money with others in their community to provide 20 boxes of produce a week through December to needy families whose children attended their neighborhood elementary school.

“We could sell everything to people who are well-off and would drive miles to come here,” he said. “But we want to make sure we get really good, high-quality food to people who need it the most and live nearby.”


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