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'Farm to table' helps restaurants, but not farmers




Free-range chickens feed in a pasture on an organic farm in Illinois.
Free-range chickens feed in a pasture on an organic farm in Illinois.
Seth Perlman/AP

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"Farm to table" may be a phrase that entices foodies, but small farmers rarely reap the benefits.

It's a term more restaurants around the country use on their menus: it evokes the idea that the food on your plate comes directly from a small, local farmer who's collaborated with the chef to bring you something fresh and tasty.

However some farmers say that that relationship is mostly one-sided.

Establishments can charge a premium for food sold this way, but growers, themselves, might still be struggling to get by.

Rebecca Thistlethwaite is a small farmer in Oregon and she consults for other small farms all across the country.

"Chefs pay a lot of lip service to the idea of 'farm to table,'" she says, "but most restaurants aren't willing to make a commitment and buy all that a farm produces through the good times and bad."

Blue Hill Chef and respected slow food advocate Dan Barber also spoke out about farm to table at LA CityLab recently, saying it "does not really work" because chefs pick a small percentage of what they want from a farm and do not take crop rotation into account.

Thistlethwaite adds that there's a big mark-up at the dining table for the ingredients that chefs use, but farmers are still kept to very slim profit margins that help them stay afloat. She shared more on the trend and its effects.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS 

 

The National Restaurant Association has said farm to table has been the number one trend in restaurants the past five years. It sounds so good on paper and most diners feel like they're helping out the small farmer by cutting out the middle men. What's going on?

I think a more apt description should be warehouse to table because truthfully if a restaurant is buying less than 10 percent of their food budget from local farmers and the rest is coming off the Cisco truck it's truly a dro​p in the bucket for local farmers and I see a lot of restaurants using it more as a marketing ploy unfortunately.

Why aren’t restaurants buying more from local smaller farmers instead of the warehouse?

There's a lot of logistical issues. It's a lot easier to call Cisco and put in one order and have $4,000 worth of product show up at your door the next day, whereas if you order direct from farmers you'll probably have to call 10 different people that grow different crops and raise different animals. So it is a lot more effort to do it. I think price and margins definitely come into play. I think restaurants don't have big budgets to work with either so they often have to make financial decisions and that involves buying from the warehouse companies instead of from the farmers. 

What happens when restaurants go to you—what do you sell, how much do you charge and how much do restaurants turn around and sell that product for to their diners?

I sold whole or half pigs to restaurants. We'd deliver maybe one pig every other week to restaurants. But that one pig involves a lot of logistics. I've got to take it to the slaughterhouse and it's got to get slaughtered and cleaned and then delivered to the restaurant. A lot of times it just doesn’t make financial sense for me as a farmer to go out of my way to make that delivery. If you're a vegetable farmer and you sell two boxes of purple cauliflower to a restaurant, that's $40 in your pocket—are you really going to go out of your way to service that restaurant for such a small purchase? So there's a lot of transportation and logistical things that come into play.

Why not, as a farmer, just charge more for your products?

That would be great if they weren't competing with the likes of United Foods and Cisco and the big aggregators but they are so their prices still have to be somewhat in line. Granted the small farmer probably has better quality and better shelf life for their products, so a farmer to really be competitive really has to push that quality and also grow things that aren't available from the big aggregators.

How big of a role are sales to restaurants in terms of the overall businesses of most small farmers these days?

I am consistently finding farms that are dropping their restaurant sales because they find it to be too cumbersome and find chefs to be too finicky. One week it's purple cauliflower, the next week it's black garlic, the next week it's microgreens. The trendiness factor in restaurants doesn't bode well for farmers to do long-term planning so I know a lot of farmers who have stopped delivering to restaurants and they focus more on farmers markets and CSAs, which are community-supported agriculture methods.

And yet, at least in California, I have not seen a decrease in the saying "farm to table." It's popping up on restaurant menus all the time.

They love it. What restaurant wants to say 'Cisco to table' or 'warehouse to table?'

What do restaurant owners have to say about this? Are you getting any empathy from them?

There are a small handful of restaurant owners, a lot of them are very involved in slow food groups or Chef's Collaborative, a national organization that really tries to promote sustainability and helping out farmers. So there are some genuine chefs and restaurateurs that are making a concerted effort to support local and family farmers. But there's not enough of them and those are typically pretty high-end restaurants so that leaves out all the mid-scale and lower-end restaurants in this country people eat at.

Is there a way, as a diner, that I can be sure when I see "farm to table" on a menu to tell if it is genuinely farm to table?

First look at the menu and see if they list their suppliers or if they have a chalkboard that lists the farms they buy from. Ask the waiter, 'Truthfully, where is this beef coming from' or 'where are these eggs coming from?'