Farms Keeping Up With Chefs

  • Jesse Meerman is a 4th generation Dutch dairy farmer in West Michigan. He's the family cheesemaker. Here, he's cutting a big vat of curdled milk into cheese curds. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Chefs are always dreaming up the next big dish. Lately, it’s been
trendy for restaurants to showcase locally-grown farm products and meat
from livestock that’s been raised on a pasture instead of in a feedlot.
But Rebecca Williams reports just because something’s hot in the
kitchen… it doesn’t always mean a better payoff for farmers:

Transcript

Chefs are always dreaming up the next big dish. Lately, it’s been
trendy for restaurants to showcase locally-grown farm products and meat
from livestock that’s been raised on a pasture instead of in a feedlot.
But Rebecca Williams reports just because something’s hot in the
kitchen… it doesn’t always mean a better payoff for farmers:


(Sound of water running, dishes clanking)


It’s 11 am at Sweet Lorraine’s Cafe. But it’s not too early for beer.


Chef Lorraine Platman is whipping up the first batch of her new fish
and chips. She’s using locally-milled flour and locally-brewed beer:


“I shouldn’t give you my whole recipe because it’s going to be an
absolutely fabulous beer batter. But it’s got a little baking
powder… the beer is what accelerates it and makes it nice and
crispy.”


(Sound of whisking)


Platman owns the three restaurants that bear her name, so naturally she
calls the shots. For her, this means getting ingredients close to home
and as close to nature as possible. Platman says fresher food tastes
better.


But it’s also about how a product performs when you cook with it. She
swears by the eggs she gets from local chickens that are raised without
antibiotics or hormones.


But Platman says it’s not easy getting local ingredients year round
especially during northern winters, so it means being flexible:


“I have a vivid imagination so I come up with some weird ideas but they
work and the guests really like them. They get very excited when they see
either Michigan grass-fed beef or chicken on the menu, they’re just enthused
by it and we’re buying from our neighbors so it makes us feel good I
think.”


Platman says the restaurant industry is competitive and always
changing. You have to serve food that excites people. She says chefs
pay a lot of attention to what their guests like.


The National Restaurant Association recently surveyed chefs around the
country. Locally-grown foods, organic produce and meats and cheeses
from grass-fed animals all made the top ten list. They’re expected to
stay trendy for at least the next year.


For the farmers who grow these products, all of this can look appealing
on paper. Smaller family farms are slowly disappearing in favor of
much bigger operations. Getting into new markets can mean staying in
business. But many small farmers say there’s a gap between the promise
of new markets in restaurants and the reality.


(Sound of cheese-making)


Jesse Meerman raises pastured dairy cows three hours west of Sweet
Lorraine’s Cafe. His farm supplies the Cafe with organic cheese.
Meerman is the family cheesemaker. He’s cutting a big vat of cheese
curd into millions of tiny pieces:


“Today we’re making Gouda cheese and a variety of it is Leyden, which has
caraway seeds in it.”


Meerman says they used to only sell their milk. But they wanted to
make more money by selling aged organic Dutch cheeses. They sell to
retail stores, farmers’ markets and restaurants. With the help of a
distributor they’re starting to get on menus in Chicago.


Meerman says restaurants are by far the toughest new markets to break
into:


“Being a farmer, it’s completely opposite of the way I am because we’re
connected to the land… this is our place, you know? We want to have our
business right here and we’re so stable and to a fault almost, because
farmers don’t change, that’s one of our biggest flaws. And chefs –
they’re opposite, they’re always changing. And it’s hard to keep up
with them.”


Chefs say they just want what they want when they want it. They’re not
always willing to wait for farmers to catch up.


Rich Pirog is with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He
says farmers need some help to adapt to chefs’ changing needs. He says
more investment in infrastructure at the state and local level would be
a start:


“We need to be able to make the case for investment in these types of
foods and if we can’t make that case then it’s likely we won’t see local
foods be able to scale up to the levels that I think people are wanting them to be
available in every store, at every restaurant.”


Pirog says farmers also need to have something solid to take to the
bank. They need to prove to their banker that these new restaurant
markets are real before they can get loans. They need loans to buy new
equipment that helps them produce more or different products for chefs
– and to keep quality high.


But mostly, whether or not restaurants can become sustainable markets for
farmers depends on the whims of chefs.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

The 100 Mile Meal: A Homegrown Thanksgiving

  • Reporter Dustin Dwyer found all the ingredients for his Thanksgiving dinner within 100 miles of his house, including the turkey (poor thing). (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

Thanksgiving is about family, friends, and ridiculous amounts of food. But the food we buy can have a big impact on the environment. And a lot more people are starting to look for local ingredients to put in their meals. One movement encourages people to get all their food from within 100 miles of their home. Dustin Dwyer tried to find out how practical that could be for his Thanksgiving feast:

Transcript

Thanksgiving is about family, friends, and ridiculous amounts of food. But the food we buy can have a big impact on the environment. And a lot more people are starting to look for local ingredients to put in their meals. One movement encourages people to get all their food from within 100 miles of their home. Dustin Dwyer tried to find out how practical that could be for his Thanksgiving feast:


I like to look at labels on my food. I don’t care so much about the nutritional info, I just want to know where it came from.


But there’s a problem with that. Even if I know where something is packaged, I still have no idea where the actual ingredients come from. I mean, where the heck do they make partially hydrogenated soybean oil?


I have no idea. And so, for one meal, for the most important meal of the year, I decided to try to get all my food, and all the ingredients in my food, from within 100 miles of my apartment in Southeast Michigan.


If you’re impressed by my ingenious and creative idea, don’t be. I stole it from someone else. Alisa Smith and her partner James MacKinnon were on a 100 mile diet for a year, and they’re writing a book about it. I called up Alisa for some help.


Dwyer: “So my wife and I are going to do the 100 mile Thanksgiving, and I want to ask some advice.”


Smith: “Oh, great! For doing a single meal you picked a very good time to do it because it’s the harvest bounty, so that makes life a lot easier.”


I’m thinking, excellent, this could be a piece of cake. But I’m worried about a few tough ingredients, such as salt. Alisa says salt is a problem for a lot of people.


“I think in the end, you probably will find that salt isn’t available. And not being able t o make it yourself you might just say ‘okay salt is going to be an exception for us.'”


Ok, fine, but I still wanted to make as few exceptions as possible. I’ve got to have a challenge here, somehow.


That said, our menu would be simple: just turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Turkey turned out to be easy.


“Roperti’s Turkey Farm.”


Christine Roperti has been living on her family’s turkey farm in suburban Detroit all her life. Farms like this one are getting crowded out more and more by suburban sprawl. There’s even a brand new subdivision next door to Christine’s place. There have been offers for her land too.


“Yeah, but I don’t want to go anywhere. I like the farm, and like raising my turkeys.”


I liked knowing that Christine actually enjoys this, and cares about it. It made me feel good. And that’s important, because I was also paying a lot more for her turkey than the store-bought stuff.


Anyway, I was flying high, and things were going really well. My list of exceptions was firming up, and it was mostly spices: salt plus all the spices for the pumpkin pie.


Then, while I was bragging at work about how I’d be able to get almost everything but salt for my local dinner, someone reminded me that there are actually salt mines under the city of Detroit.


Like a good journalist I looked into it, and ended up on the most absurd shopping trip of my life.


“Okay I’m headed over the Ambassador Bridge, going from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. They do have salt mines in Detroit, but they don’t sell that salt as food salt in the US, they only sell road salt. So in order to get food salt that’s made within a hundred miles of my house, I have to go to Canada.”


Because of some trade regulation I don’t understand, table salt from this mine can’t be commercially shipped into the US. So I ended up in a city I barely know, looking for a grocery store. I went into the first, and then the second without finding the right brand of salt. Then an hour or so later, in the third store…


“Finally! Windsor salt.”


So, I wasted a lot of fuel putting this dinner together. It’s probably still an improvement over what the Sierra Club says is an average two thousand miles of driving that goes into each ingredient for my usual dinner.


But here’s the thing: if all this local stuff is available, I think I should be able to get it at the grocery store down the street. I should probably let them know that, and let them know I’m willing to pay more for it. I mean, that’s better than driving to Canada for salt, anyway.


But making that happen would take a lot more effort, a lot more voting with my pocketbook, and a lot more than just checking labels.


For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Related Links

Colleges Graded on Sustainability

A new report on sustainability is grading
the top 100 colleges and universities in the
country. Tracy Samilton reports the grades
reflect the institution’s environmental and
endowment practices:

Transcript

A new report on sustainability is grading
the top 100 colleges and universities in the
country. Tracy Samilton reports the grades
reflect the institution’s environmental and
endowment practices:


The top 100 colleges and universities in the country just got their
report cards grading them on sustainability. There are a few A’s, a
lot of B’s and C’s, and more D’s than you might really hope to see.


Mark Orlowski is head of Sustainable Endowments Institute. He says
colleges were graded in seven areas, including recycling and whether
the institution considers more than profit when managing its endowment
portfolio.


He says Dartmouth, for example, buys locally produced food, and
Stanford stands out for its endowment practices:


“We recognize Stanford for being the first school in the
country to adopt climate change shareholder voting guidelines.”


Orlowski says he hopes the annual report will encourage colleges to
make sustainability more of a priority.


For the Environment Report, I’m Tracy Samilton.

Related Links

Locally Grown Food Sprouts in Restaurants

  • More people want to get locally grown food. Restaurants are picking up on the trend, but there's a shortage of farmers growing local produce. (Photo by Lester Graham)

One of the hot trends expected in restaurants this year is
the use of locally-grown, seasonal foods. But finding those
products can be challenging for chefs, even in the middle of
farm country. Julie Grant tells the story of one restaurant
that’s closing after years of seeking out local meats and
vegetables:

Transcript

One of the hot trends expected in restaurants this year is
the use of locally-grown, seasonal foods. But finding those
products can be challenging for chefs, even in the middle of
farm country. Julie Grant tells the story of one restaurant
that’s closing after years of seeking out local meats and
vegetables:


All Parker Bosley ever wanted was food that tasted good.
He’s a chef and he wanted his food to be satisfying, but
when he got into the restaurant business more than twenty
years ago he thought something was wrong with the food he
was cooking:


“I thought, there’s something wrong with this business in that
I don’t think my food was that great, even though I’m cooking very well.”


Bosley decided the problem was that he wasn’t starting with
good enough ingredients, and that mediocre ingredients
couldn’t create great-tasting food:


“And I thought about it, and I thought, I don’t have real chickens,
I don’t have good tomatoes, I don’t have good lettuce, and so forth…
it’s coming through a commercial source, so I thought, something’s wrong here.
I used to have wonderful chickens and wonderful tomatoes and strawberries when I was
growing up on a farm in Ohio…what happened to that?”


Bosley is probably Cleveland most highly-renown gourmet, but he decided
to put on his boots and headed home to the farm. Well, it wasn’t exactly his farm, but
he started driving around unnamed country roads. He was looking for small farms and road-side stands.
He’d use the chickens, eggs, tomatoes he brought back to
create dishes at his restaurant, and he liked the results:


“Once I got started and into that and realized, I was right, I was correct
your food cannot be better then the food with
which you begin.”


Bosley built his reputation, his restaurants, and his menu by
building relationships with farmers. And now nearly every
ingredient in almost every dish – from the squash and bacon
soup with hazelnuts, the mixed greens with goat cheese and
honey-thyme dressing, and even the beef medallions with
mushrooms and wine sauce – they all come from local farms.


Parker’s restaurant has been recognized more than once by
Gourmet magazine as one of the top 50 in the country, but
it’s not always easy to gather those ingredients. Sometimes
farmers just don’t have as much as the restaurant needs.
Jeff Jaskiel is Bosley’s business partner:


“We have our little qualifier in our menu, if you read it, it says ‘Sorry, we’re out
of this tonight.’ And we’ve gone through periods where we don’t have chicken on the menu for three
or four days and if you go to a restaurant and couldn’t find chicken on the menu, people would think you’re
a little bit strange.”


So, they get a lot of complaints:


“‘Why are you out of this?’ The later tables come in at 9, 9:30 and we’re out of three or four things
and they’re a little bit disappointed and we were only able to get so much in this week and I think they
try to understand and they do come back so I guess what we’re doing still means something to them.”


It’s starting to mean enough to enough people that the
National Restaurant Association expects local, seasonal
foods to be one of the hottest trends in restaurants this
year.


Lots of restaurants in New York or California already identify
exactly where each ingredient on the menu comes from, what
farm it came from, and how it was produced. But as his long-time passion
becomes hot, Parker’s restaurant is closing.


(Sound of talking)


Today Bosley is standing in the wind and cold, but it’s
still sunny outside. He’s at one of Cleveland’s newly budding farm
markets. It’s set up in the parking lot of a new outdoor
shopping mall and it’s near a new upscale neighborhood. There are
about 20 stands, with things like heritage chickens and turkeys, cheese from grass-fed cows,
and lots with apples. All the products come from nearby farms. Bosley’s call for
local produce was a big part of creating what’s now a
network of markets like this throughout the region:


“I’m doing a lot more than just making good food and maybe buying direct from a farmer. I am
doing the right thing for the environment, I am doing the right thing for rural
communities, I am doing the right thing for urban communities. I never start out, oh, I want to
be an environmentalist, and I’m going to out and hug trees and save the countryside. I just
want good food, which, if you pursue it correctly, you will be
an environmentalist.”


Bosley’s 68 now and he sees the next phase of his career in
encouraging more farmers to grow gourmet mushrooms, make
goat cheese, or build greenhouses so that there’s lettuce other
produce available for the growing market of chefs and other
people who want good local food year round.


For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

The 100 Mile Meal: A Homegrown Thanksgiving

  • Reporter Dustin Dwyer found all the ingredients for his Thanksgiving dinner within 100 miles of his house, including the turkey (poor thing). (Photo by Dustin Dwyer)

Thanksgiving is about family, friends, and ridiculous amounts of food. But the food we buy can have a big impact on the environment, and a lot more people are starting to look for local ingredients to put in their meals. One movement encourages people to get all their food from within 100 miles of their home. Dustin Dwyer tried to find out how practical that could be for his Thanksgiving feast:

Transcript

Thanksgiving is about family, friends, and ridiculous amounts of food. But the food we buy can have a big impact on the environment. And a lot more people are starting to look for local ingredients to put in their meals. One movement encourages people to get all their food from within 100 miles of their home. Dustin Dwyer tried to find out how practical that could be for his Thanksgiving feast:


I like to look at labels on my food. I don’t care so much about the nutritional info, I just want to know where it came from.

But there’s a problem with that. Even if I know where something is packaged, I still have no idea where the actual ingredients come from. I mean, where the heck do they make partially hydrogenated soybean oil?

I have no idea. And so, for one meal, for the most important meal of the year, I decided to try to get all my food, and all the ingredients in my food, from within 100 miles of my apartment in Southeast Michigan.

If you’re impressed by my ingenious and creative idea, don’t be. I stole it from someone else. Alisa Smith and her partner James MacKinnon were on a 100 mile diet for a year, and they’re writing a book about it. I called up Alisa for some help.

Dwyer: “So my wife and I are going to do the 100 mile Thanksgiving, and I want to ask some advice.”


Smith: “Oh, great! For doing a single meal you picked a very good time to do it because it’s the harvest bounty, so that makes life a lot easier.”


I’m thinking, excellent, this could be a piece of cake. But I’m worried about a few tough ingredients, such as salt. Alisa says salt is a problem for a lot of people.


“I think in the end, you probably will find that salt isn’t available. And not being able t o make it yourself you might just say ‘okay salt is going to be an exception for us.'”


Ok, fine, but I still wanted to make as few exceptions as possible. I’ve got to have a challenge here, somehow.


That said, our menu would be simple: just turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie. Turkey turned out to be easy.


“Roperti’s Turkey Farm.”


Christine Roperti has been living on her family’s turkey farm in suburban Detroit all her life. Farms like this one are getting crowded out more and more by suburban sprawl. There’s even a brand new subdivision next door to Christine’s place. There have been offers for her land too.


“Yeah, but I don’t want to go anywhere. I like the farm, and like raising my turkeys.”


I liked knowing that Christine actually enjoys this, and cares about it. It made me feel good. And that’s important, because I was also paying a lot more for her turkey than the store-bought stuff.


Anyway, I was flying high, and things were going really well. My list of exceptions was firming up, and it was mostly spices: salt plus all the spices for the pumpkin pie.


Then, while I was bragging at work about how I’d be able to get almost everything but salt for my local dinner, someone reminded me that there are actually salt mines under the city of Detroit.


Like a good journalist I looked into it, and ended up on the most absurd shopping trip of my life.


“Okay I’m headed over the Ambassador Bridge, going from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. They do have salt mines in Detroit, but they don’t sell that salt as food salt in the US, they only sell road salt. So in order to get food salt that’s made within a hundred miles of my house, I have to go to Canada.”


Because of some trade regulation I don’t understand, table salt from this mine can’t be commercially shipped into the US. So I ended up in a city I barely know, looking for a grocery store. I went into the first, and then the second without finding the right brand of salt. Then an hour or so later, in the third store…


“Finally! Windsor salt.”


So, I wasted a lot of fuel putting this dinner together. It’s probably still an improvement over what the Sierra Club says is an average two thousand miles of driving that goes into each ingredient for my usual dinner.


But here’s the thing: if all this local stuff is available, I think I should be able to get it at the grocery store down the street. I should probably let them know that, and let them know I’m willing to pay more for it. I mean, that’s better than driving to Canada for salt, anyway.


But making that happen would take a lot more effort, a lot more voting with my pocketbook, and a lot more than just checking labels.


For the Environment Report, I’m Dustin Dwyer.

Related Links