farm-to-table or farm-to-fable?

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Some of my gardens last summer. Food, flowers, and herbs destined for the Noodle Guy’s kitchen. But where does our butter come from?

Laura Reiley, the food critic for the Tampa Bay Times, is writing a series called “Farm to Fable” that exposes outrageous fraud perpetrated by some Florida restaurants and farmers’ market vendors attempting to cash in on the trend for all things local. “Farmers” buying national grocery chain rejects from a huge distributor and claiming they grew them organically and locally. Restaurants claiming their meat is ethically sourced from a small local farm when it’s actually from a giant conventional (read: inhumane) operation several states away. They’re well-written articles and I highly recommend them.

They got me thinking about where we get our ingredients and what claims we make about it. Our website says we use ingredients that are “as fresh and local as possible”, which is pretty vague. We do go to quite a bit of effort and expense to support other small businesses in the area. We get most of our cheese from Fox Hill or Holmestead, except for Parmigiano-Reggiano which we get from Italy via Costco. We use maple syrup from Hutchinson Acres and honey from Brandt’s Bees. We get all of our in-season vegetables from Longspell Point Farm and TapRoot Farms, and we’re working on out-of-season produce as well: last year Longspell grew 300 Roma tomato plants to carry us through the winter, and we use TapRoot’s frozen basil “pucks”. When we want vegetables that the local farms can’t supply, we turn to the small, independent markets like Foote’s and Henny Penny’s; the big grocery stores are a last resort. (Their out-of-season produce may well come from the same place, but their profits go to different ones.) The one thing we will never buy from a store is meat. All our fresh pork, beef, and chicken comes from Longspell Point Farm.

Some things just aren’t available locally. Olive oil, which we use a LOT of. Peppercorns. Butter! I wish Fox Hill would start making butter. We are not allowed to use “backyard butter”, so our only source is large industrial dairies. Lemons. I’ve started a lemon tree, but even if it survives and thrives, I’ll be lucky to get a handful of lemons every year, which isn’t enough for our home use, let alone the shop.

We’re doing the best we can, I think, which doesn’t mean we’re not always on the lookout for ways we can improve. But doing much more than we are now would require a significant change not only in what we do but also in what our customers do, and what they expect and are willing to pay for. In the article on restaurants, Reiley writes: “The first tipoff on a menu? Constancy.” She’s right. Until someone in the Valley starts growing green onions hydroponically and on a large scale over the winter months, if you see fresh green onions in a restaurant dish in February, you can bet your Birkenstocks that they’re from Mexico or California. But most of us like constancy. We are accustomed to a steady supply of staples like tomatoes, peppers, and bananas regardless of geography or season. Are we willing to endure/embrace a winter of nothing but root vegetables and hardy kale?

We are also accustomed to cheapness. Many people, including all of our customers (thank you!), are willing to pay more for food that costs more to produce for any of a variety reasons: because it is locally sourced from a small supplier, because it is organic or GMO-free, because the people who grew/harvested/processed/served it are paid a decent wage, etc. But there is a limit to what even the most conscientious people are willing and able to pay. I have reached that limit myself, over a very small bag of potatoes for $10. Our customers might well reach that limit if we started using all local, non-GMO flour and had to pass on the cost of a 300% price increase in our main ingredient. (We currently use unbleached organic flour from a distributor in Halifax.)

Again, we’re doing the best we can. I just planted a huge bed of salad greens that will find their way onto Noodle Guy plates in a couple of weeks. Green onions will follow a few weeks later, and then basil and parsley, and finally garlic and tomatoes and peppers. It’s going to be a good summer.

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