By L.M. Archer, Foodable Contributor
What would you do if you ran out of rural farms to source your local produce?
As more and more consumers demand local, farm-to-table food on the menu, Seattle chefs struggle to meet patrons’ needs. Unfortunately, "According to the USDA, the Puget Sound region has lost 60% of its farmland since 1950," reports Sheryl Wiser of Cascade Harvest Coalition. “If this trend continues,” Wiser warns, “the last acre of farmland in the region could be bulldozed or paved over by 2053."
Luckily, Seattle enjoys a flourishing urban farm scene to fill the ‘just-picked’ niche. Here, Foodable WebTV Network gets the dirt on some of the Emerald City's urbanized Edens, and the restaurants using them.
"I think many chefs are more interested than ever in buying food as close to the source as possible. What’s closer than your backyard or community?" asks Chris Iberle, Food Hub Manager for Seattle Tilth Produce.
Seattle Tilth Produce cultivates food on three educational, certified organic farms. The three-year old program includes a Seattle Tilth Farm Works farm incubator program in Auburn, as well as two urban Seattle Youth Garden Works job training program farms.
"Chefs know that the quality, freshness and variety of produce makes a huge impact on the quality of their dishes,” adds Iberle. "Consumers are also more educated and passionate than ever about where their food comes from. They are demanding local and organic, and asking chefs the right questions about who grew their food and how, and chefs follow their lead.”
Seattle Tilth Produce also fulfills an increasing number of 'custom growing' requests from restaurants. For example, Jude’s Old Town Café recently reached out to Seattle Tilth’s nearby Rainier Beach Urban Farm about sourcing specialty items like beets and heirloom tomatoes. Customers appreciate neighborhood-grown menu items, too.
Founded in 2007 by co-owners Colin McCrate and Brad Halm, Seattle Urban Farm Company designs, installs and manages edible gardens throughout the city for clients like Pike Place Market eatery The Pink Door.
McCrate posits that urban farms add value to restaurants in so many ways, including greater control over the diversity of vegetables and herbs available, which informs seasonal menus. Urban farms also allow for greater engagement of staff through regular ‘on-farm’ work parties, which helps deepen their connection to the food they serve.
Moreover, a custom farm helps ‘brand’ a restaurant as a “thought leader” in the local, sustainable food movement, thereby creating marketing and outreach opportunities with the media and public.
Farmbox Greens takes urban farming to new heights, literally. Established in 2011, the company uses a recirculating hydroponic and aeroponic systems to supply nutrients to plants in an indoor vertical farm. Energy-efficient LED lighting disperses energy to the plants, while a climate-control system balances temperature and humidity, thus providing a stable, year-round growing environment.
A proponent of sustainability, the site utilizes 90% less water than conventional agriculture, no GMO seeds, no pesticides or herbicides, no agricultural runoff, and minimal food miles.
“I think we’ve been quietly making an impact,” observes owner and urban farmer Dan Albert. Albert maintains that chefs choose Farmbox Greens for two basic reasons: quality and price.
“The vast majority of our greens are at the current market price or below,” Albert notes. “We want to do everything we can to be as competitive as possible in order to enable chefs to include our greens on more dishes.”
“At our core, it is about growing great produce and delivering it within hours of harvest rather than days,” he declares. “This is important for a few reasons. The first is that our greens are fresh and it simply tastes better then greens grown in California or Ohio that are shipped to Seattle.”
But freshness also means longer shelf-life, asserts Albert. “We’re often complimented on the fact that our greens can stay fresh much longer than our competitors. These are important components because the chef gets a better quality and flavor while minimizing waste.”
Albert concludes, “I can’t overstate the impact that 'fresh' can have on the bottom line simply for the fact that a chef has more time to use the micro-greens. Reducing restaurant waste is a big part of profitability and shelf life is key.”
Suburban 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living in Woodinville provides many key Seattle health and learning centers and well-known restaurants with“just pulled from the ground” food, sometimes harvested and delivered within hours from local farmers employing the highest farming standards within a sustainable system.
21 Acres PR and Communications spokesperson Brenda Vanderloop expounds, “21 Acres is a key partner of the Puget Sound Food Hub and our farm and many others are suppliers to their institution and restaurant buyers.”
Vanderloop shares that purchasers include eight area hospitals, the University of Washington, a variety of schools, Seattle Central Co-op and grocery stores, over sixty low-income day-cares, restaurants like Canlis, Portage Bay Café, Taco Canyon and Andaluca, several cafés through Bon Appetit, and a number of urban food trucks and caterers.
Snappy Alleycat Acres Urban Farm Collective has been ‘growing forth’ since 2010. According to spokesperson Allison Rinard, the organization relies predominately upon volunteer labor, but each site does employ a part-time farm manager to oversee the volunteers. Currently Alleycat Acres operates three farms with two more on the way.
“Up until 2015, all of our sites were privately owned by community members who donated their land to grow food, “ Rinard explains. “However, last year we watched as each of these owners sold their land to increasing offers from developers.”
Alleycat Acres has since shifted their focus to publicly owned land. Moving forward into 2016, Rinard hopes to begin collaborations with area chefs on bespoke, ‘make-to-grow’ projects that provide the restaurant with unique items, and in return, provide a source of publicity and funding for the farm. Ideally, Rinard hopes to join forces with area restaurants to raise much-needed operating funds by hosting a wine and food pairing dinner and auction, showcasing local chef talent and Alleycat produce.
“Sustainable urban agriculture offers so many positives for city dwellers as individuals and neighborhoods; we get to engage in good stewardship of resources and take ownership of our food,” contends Sheryl Wiser, Communications & Puget Sound Fresh Manager for Cascade Harvest Coalition.
Cascade Harvest Coalition is a non-profit organization committed to ‘re-localizing’ Washington State’s food system by connecting consumers and producers. Puget Sound Fresh offers a directory of regional farms plus an award-winning directory app.
“I believe there are truly inventive and inspiring partnerships and models that are emerging from the urban farm movement,” Wiser adds. “Healthy farms make for healthy food and healthy communities.”