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How to Build Better Relationships With Local Farmers

How to Build Better Relationships With Local Farmers

The way famed chef/restaurateur Rick Bayless tells the story, he completely stumbled into farm-to-table cooking—long before it was called that—only because he wanted fresh strawberries on the opening menu at Frontera Grill. That was 30 years ago—in Chicago.

According to Bayless, he shopped at every restaurant depot within city limits, and only encountered pitiful, colorless, flavorless fruit that just wouldn’t do. So, in desperation, he found himself at a tiny farm at the edge of Illinois. He not only discovered some of the best strawberries rivaling those during prime season at this farm, but other fruits and vegetables as well. The farm soon went out of business due to hard times, which was a fate Bayless encountered several times as he struggled to feature the best produce on his menus.

He finally struck a deal with a farmer in Wisconsin: If Bayless were to buy the farmer a long-needed hoop house so he could grow more produce, he’d get as much produce as he needed for free. That’s when a light bulb went off in Bayless’s head. Many of these small farmers were barely holding on because they lacked necessities like a hoop house, delivery vehicles, watering system or a new tractor.

He soon started the Frontera Farmer Foundation, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization that gives grants to small Midwestern family farms. To date, per Bayless, they’ve awarded approximately $2 million in grants. And in 1998, he was given the Humanitarian of the Year award by the James Beard Foundation for his efforts.

“My goal was to simply keep these people on the farms,” said Bayless to an attentive audience during the first-ever Food Tank Summit in Chicago last fall. “If we could just invest, we could create a viable, local agricultural economy, and by doing that, we could enhance the quality of life for everybody.”

Tip 1: Have Patience

No doubt small farmers like Ben Burkett appreciate the generosity of industry leaders like Bayless, but it’s also important for chefs to have patience during harvest season, he says. “Sometimes I get calls from restaurants on a Sunday to deliver produce first thing Monday morning,” he continues. “We simply can’t do that.”

The fourth-generation farmer from Petal, Miss. is director of the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, which is part of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. It represents 12,000 African-American farm families from Texas to North Carolina, and one of its missions is to help partner them with restaurants.

Tip 2: Visit the Farmers' Market

Burkett says that farmers’ markets are great exposure for small farmers wanting to connect with chefs, but for them to make a profit they must have loyal customers. That happens when everyone is on the same page. Many of his restaurant clients, for example, are from New Orleans and they have very specific requests.

“In New Orleans, it’s all about seafood, and they like to pair it with our zucchini or butternut squash,” he says. “(Thus) we grow a lot of that now.”

Tip 3: Treat Them Fairly

Blue Bridge Hospitality’s Tim Kolanko has nurtured relationships with farmers to the point that some see him as an extension of their families. “I’ve literally cooked in the home kitchens of these farmers doing either private dinners or small charity events that directly benefit those farms,” says the San Diego-based restaurateur and chef. “I feel that as chefs we have a responsibility to do that. This is better than just doing it so you can put that farmer’s name on your menu.”

Tip 4: Learn from the Farm-to-Table Vets

In the end, it’s all about getting a foot in the door, and making a strong impression with farmers. Sometimes, says Chicago chef Jared Van Camp of the Element Collective restaurant group, one needs a helping hand from a veteran.

“One of the best pieces of advice I can give to young chefs is to work for a chef/restaurateur who is already passionate about the practice of farm-to-table method,” he says. In that manner, he continues, they can observe firsthand how seasoned chefs interact with farmers as well as build relationships of their own.