By Kaitlin Ohlinger, Foodable Contributor
Is “local” anything more than a buzz word anymore? Absolutely. Meet Beth Satterwhite and Erik Grimstad of Yamhill Valley’s Even Pull Farm. At less than a year old, these two are quietly and unpretentiously turning the wheels of the area’s community supported agriculture system. Oregon is a bountiful agricultural state, offering an almost never-ending supply of interesting produce year round. According to Beth, restaurants play a critical role in the success of a local food system. But first, what exactly is community supported agriculture?
Community Supported Agriculture
An almost frighteningly simple system, community supported agriculture (CSA) is a structure that allows individuals to buy “shares” of produce from a local farm in advance, and receive them weekly throughout the season. Because shares are purchased ahead of time, it saves the farm from the burden of relying on a bank for many of their initial seasonal costs. The benefits are fairly indisputable; aside from the obvious perks of enjoying weekly fresh, local produce, the customer and the farmer are able to establish a relationship that would otherwise be a challenge.
How Restaurants Help
What ways can a restaurant help in the overall success of a local food system? Says Beth, “Restaurants are often the first place people are exposed to unusual produce or seasonal produce. Most people eat broccoli, apples, grapes, and tomatoes every single week all year long, but that isn't the reality of fresh food. There are shifts and changes in a seasonal/local diet, and so many delicious flavors to explore. Chefs can open people's eyes to how delicious eating local and seasonally can be. This is our point of entry with local food! If it's delicious, they will go out and try to find it and cook it themselves.” Your customers trust you and most likely want to emulate what you do in their own kitchens. You’ve created the initial spark needed to get someone out of your average produce aisle and engaged with what is available locally.
Be a Good Customer
There is nothing more important to a restaurant than a good regular customer. Now that you’ve established a relationship with your farmer, it’s your turn to be one. Besides the golden rule (just be nice), what are the easiest ways to support these farmers you’ve come to know and hopefully love?
1. Be consistent. “Be a consistent customer. Order every week. Order in a reasonable quantity so it is worth the farmer's time to pick, wash, pack & deliver it to you. I know a lot of chefs like to spread the love and source from a ton of different farms, but I think our best chef relationships are with chefs that work closely with a few farmers to meet their needs. Spending $40 a week at a lot of different farms means far less than spending $200 a week at just a few.”
2. Ask questions. “Be aware of seasonality and take advantage of bounty when it's around. Learn about seasonal availability or ask your farmer! (New potatoes aren't actually a spring crop: you plant them in spring and start harvesting in early summer.) If we don't grow something you want right now, let us know! And let us know how much of it you would buy if we had it (so we can plan for next season), and then BUY IT if you requested it. There's nothing more frustrating than dedicating field space to something chefs say they want and then never buy.
3. Stock up on basics. “Buy local salad greens! Almost every restaurant has a salad on the menu. Work with a farmer in the winter so they can plan to grow for you.”
4. Be flexible. “Be forgiving if the weather throws a wrench in the works. Farmers do everything they can to mitigate risk, but sometimes things don't go as planned. Remember that a farming season is like a giant sailing ship: your farmer can't change direction quickly. If hot summer weather fries a couple of plantings of lettuce, you're going to have a big gap. If you need 50lbs of greens for an event and normally order 10lbs, chances are your farmer won't be able to meet that sudden need. We plant crops weeks and months before we harvest them for you, so a lot of times we have to wait until next year to address a production shortage.”
The Big Picture
How can restaurants help ensure the longevity of local food? Chef/Owner Paul Losch owns Ruddick/Wood, a locally-focused restaurant and tavern in Newberg, Oregon. Even Pull Farm is just one of many local purveyors utilized. “Whether a consumer at the retail level or a restaurant buyer, continued support of local food systems will ensure that they are a lasting piece of the community. Without support, by default the local food system would start to fall apart and farmers would be forced to move into the commodity markets. Highlighting and speaking about the connections within the restaurant hopefully inspires people to check out the local farmer's market or other outlets for locally produced foods. In the end, I feel that refocusing the food system on the local market will lead to it being a more cost-effective option than it currently is.”