Loco for Local

Restaurants and farmers make it work

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

jim-mccarthy-and-josh-carter0719Jim McCarthy (left), executive chef emeritus, and Josh Carter, market gardener, Shelburne Farms

Agriculture has always played a dominant role in Vermont. Our first settlers were mainly farmers who grew to satisfy their immediate needs. Since then, subsistence farming has given way to commercial agriculture, and although dairy has topped the agricultural product list since the 1900s, our state’s hardy farmers have continued a tradition of diversity in what they grow, even in light of the dearth of flat countryside on which to grow it.

It’s possible that today’s interest in local food — who grows what, where and how it’s grown, and how it gets to us — had its roots in the ethos of the Back to the Land Movement of the 1960s. Or not. There’s no doubting that Vermont and Vermonters care deeply about food and its production.

“Locavore,” a term denoting a person whose diet consists principally of locally grown or produced food, was named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2007, only two years after its first known use. In New England, you’ll occasionally see it written “localvore.” The story goes that “loca” is the Latin word for “places,” but also the Spanish word for “crazy,” and somebody didn’t like the crazy connection. But Merriam-Webster says it’s “locavore,” and that’s good enough for us.

Today, organizations like the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, the Vermont Farm to Plate Network, and the Vermont Fresh Network are but a few of the places a food-centric business can go for help and information. Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture and Markets is a tremendous resource for ideas and funding. Its Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, for example, offers grants to businesses for investing in infrastructure, marketing, research, and development, plus loan opportunities along with business planning and technical assistance.

Farm to Table Roots

(Not what you think)

Although the modern Farm to Table Movement is said to have had its beginnings in the 1960s and ’70s with the hippie movement, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States Postal Service launched an ambitious initiative in 1914.

agriculture_cut0719

Called the Farm-To-Table postal delivery program, it sought to capitalize on the success of Rural Free Delivery and transport produce directly from rural areas to cities, according to a 2008 presentation by Robert G. Cullen to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

A 12-city test program was launched, and Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson described the results in his annual report of 1914. Farmers were invited to register their names and designate the commodities they wanted to sell. Lists of farmers and the articles each offered were then printed and distributed in the cities by carriers.

The results exceeded expectations, Burleson wrote: “Shipments of country products ... so materially increased that now 18 additional offices have been named for similar exploitation of the farm-to-city service.”

The idea was to enter consumers into an ongoing relationship with a single farmer from whom they’d receive regular shipments of fresh food, similar to today’s community supported agriculture initiatives. Things shipped, and instructions for packing them, included eggs, berries, cherries, cottage cheese, meat, poultry, and butter by parcel post, although a caution was offered for shipping certain things, suggesting the use of night mail service to take advantage of cooler temperatures.

The bulletin recommended chilling or hardening butter thoroughly after being packed, until just before shipping. It stressed double wrapping it in butter parchment or paper and placing it in heavy manila paraffined cartons so the butter wouldn’t damage other mail.

For perishables, it suggested, “[T]he express can be used to better advantage than the parcel post.” Butter and lard were the two most popular products.

The effort, which lasted until 1920, took on additional significance during World War I, when the program’s experimental truck routes were considered important to the nationwide food conservation campaign.

For more about the Farm-To-Table postal delivery program see www.nal.usda.gov

Since 2012, Working Lands has benefited all 14 counties, having amassed 184 agriculture and forestry projects; distributed over $5.3 million in funds; leveraged over $10 million in matching funds (cash, in-kind, or other private and public investment); and made investments to grantees resulting in the creation of more than 500 jobs.

“The Legislature has seen the value of that program,” says Scott Waterman, the agency’s director of policy and communications, “and with some one-time money has pumped up funds for FY 2020. Folks interested, or starting working lands businesses, might want to apply in the fall.”

To take a look at this from the business perspective, we touched base with a few area restaurateurs to see how they make use of the abundance of options for building relationships with growers and local processors.

Among them are Bob Conlon, owner of Leunig’s Bistro & Café; Leslie Wells, founder and co-owner of Pizzeria Verità, and Dan Cervantes, executive chef, at Pizzeria Verità; David Hoene, chef-owner of Pauline’s Café and Restaurant; and Jim McCarthy, executive chef emeritus, at The Inn at Shelburne Farms. While we were there, we took advantage of Shelburne Farms’ unique position as both a restaurant location and a produce grower, and had a chat with Josh Carter, who runs the market garden.

As we were interviewing, we realized that many of the folks we talked with mentioned their appreciation for Black River Produce, which consolidates a number of farms under its labels. “Black River makes it so easy for us,” says Conlon of Leunig’s. “They’ve done the work of putting all the farms together to sell the products. The logistical nightmare would be dealing with each one.”

Leunig’s buys all its cheese and milk, and most of its vegetables from local farms, including LaPlatte River beef for its hamburgers. There’s not enough beef in Vermont to produce enough for its filet mignon, Conlon says, “so we have to buy them from the Midwest.” The same with lamb: Ground lamb is available locally, but chops are sourced from New Zealand.

At Leunig’s bar, all the beers on tap are local craft beers, and it sells wine from Boyden Valley and Shelburne Vineyard. The bread is from Red Hen.

When Business People featured Black River Produce in November 2005, its founders, Mark Curran and Stephen Birge, were still at the helm. In 2016, the company was acquired by Reinhart Foodservice, a Wisconsin corporation, that has so far kept the company’s name and focus the same.

It’s grown, though. In 2005, Black River employed 160 people, and had grossed $35 million in 2004, serving 1,500 active accounts. It now employs more than 200, partners with over 600 growers and producers, and has 3,000 wholesale customers.

David Hoene of Pauline’s prefers to do most of his buying from farms that have established direct contact with him or that he’s found on his own. “One of the benefits,” he says, “is since they’re coming to your back door, or you’re having some kind of conversation with them weekly, you can iron out any kind of quality issues very quickly. And the product has a long shelf life in my restaurant. I use less of it,” he explains, “because it’s fresh, vibrant, and sits on the plate nicely so you don’t have to hide it with sauce.”

Pizzeria Verità and its sister restaurant Trattoria Delia naturally import quite a few things from Italy — for example flour and tomatoes, based on the business model, says co-owner Leslie Wells. “But we try to do as much as we can locally. For example, we have a really nice craft cocktail program, and our bar manager, Chelsea Harris, sources as many local spirits as she can.” Vegetables are sourced from several farms plus Black River.

pizzeria-verita0719Pizzeria Verità

Dan Cervantes, Pizzeria Verità’s executive chef, mentions Sid Wainer & Son, a Bedford, Massachusetts, firm, as a source of vegetables and fruits. “For meats, I do like to order from Black River,” he says, noting its better pricing and Vermont location. “They’re doing their own pork and ground beef,” he says, adding that Provisions International of White River Junction has a “fantastic catalog with Vermont cheese, salamis, cured meats that I like to get from at least twice a week.”

Shelburne Farms has just hired a new executive chef, John Patterson, but Jim McCarthy, executive chef emeritus, is staying on during the transition season. We asked McCarthy how much of the food served there is produced there.

“Last year,” he says, “the farm produced 35 percent of all the food served at the inn and on the farm, and an additional 50 percent was raised, grown, or produced in Vermont, so 85 percent total is local.”

Those numbers include the fact that the farm raises all of its own beef and lamb, and has a seven-acre market garden run by Josh Carter.

“Our major goal production-wise is to service the inn’s needs,” says Carter, “so about two-thirds of what we grow, by value, ends up there. Then we do a farm share for about 70 members of the staff.” The third major outlet is the farmers’ market in Shelburne, where once a week through the summer growing season, mixed vegetables, cheese, and eggs are sold from a booth. Occasionally, he takes meat and cheese to the Burlington farmers’ market.

john-patterson0719John Patterson, executive chef, Shelburne Farms

“There are only two other outlets,” Carter says. “We sell cut flowers to In Full Bloom, then, mainly when we have extra produce, we sell to Wake Robin. I just reached out to them because Bill Iliff, the lead chef over there, used to work here. They work with some other farms, but I feel like we’re not pushing somebody else out of their spot.” Not competing with other farms “that are trying to make a living” is important, he says.

Asked for their definition of “local” brought chuckles across the board. According to McCarthy, Shelburne Farms uses the metric “local is from Vermont, and that’s what we track. But doing that is kind of funny, because then we put a lesser value on ducks from Quebec, which is 50 miles north, rather than 100 miles south.”

Conlon of Leunig’s defines local as Vermont and New Hampshire. Wells at Pizzeria Verità replies, “Vermont or close by. Black River goes a little farther out than that, but when we’re making decisions about something coming from California or close by, we’ll choose the more local.”

david-hoene-paulines0719David Hoene, executive chef, Pauline’s Café & Restaurant

Hoene at Pauline’s currently buys beef from New Hampshire and some from Maine. “And I consider that local, given the supply and the product, so I would say if you can travel there in a day it’s local. I get products sometimes from Massachusetts, but the majority is local produce that I’m getting within 15 miles of here.”

Other than a higher price, which most agree is offset by freshness, lifespan, and diner expectation, the only disadvantage might be weather, which can cause some scrambling to change the menu. “You have to be able to adjust your purchasing if a product doesn’t come in or isn’t up to quality,” Hoene says. “I’ve been buying local greens lately, and one of the farms I purchase from had to cut theirs in half because it got rained out.”

We asked Hoene how he decides which ingredients to source where. “You start with what your public might be asking for,” he says, “and then you start searching for the best product you can get, and the product the customer’s willing to pay for.

“For example, the Robie beef I’m buying now, for the tenderloin. It’s expensive and nobody was buying their tenderloin, so they came to me. They grow some of their beef in Vermont and some in New Hampshire, and finish it all in one place.”

For ground beef, Hoene works with John Kleptz at LaPlatte River Angus Farm. “They have a place in Milton and Shelburne,” he says. “Up in Milton, he built his own slaughterhouse and processing plant, so he handles it all in-house now. I can even get a strip loin once in a while if he has an extra one.”

The best thing, he continues, is “when he brings the beef to my back door, I get to chat with the guy who’s producing my food!” •