Monday, April 13, 2009

Inside the Farmer-Chef Connection

By Krista Anderson
New Seasons Market Company Chef

As Head Chef for New Seasons Market, I’m always looking for ways to bridge the gap between the people who grow our food and the people who eat it. Connecting one-on-one with the farmers and ranchers themselves is the best way to make that happen, and there’s no better opportunity to do that than at the Farmer Chef Connection conference. Imagine dozens of local food producers coming together for an all-day networking opportunity with regional food buyers, sharing food, swapping ideas and making offers, building relationships that will benefit both parties and ultimately, the consumer.

The Farmer Chef Connection conference is the innovation of the Portland Chapter of Chefs Collaborative. I was part of the original Portland CC Steering Committee, which we formed in 2000, sitting around a table at Greg Higgins’s restaurant. The first conference was held in 2001 at WillaKenzie Winery in the Willamette Valley. Each year since, attendance has grown, and the conference has benefitted greatly from the administrative support and partnership of the local non-profit, Ecotrust.

This year—the ninth!—the conference was hosted by the Portland Chapter of Chefs Collaborative, and held at Clackamas Community College, with about 220 farmers, ranchers, pickle makers, cheese makers, educators, lawyers, nutritionists, chefs, and students in attendance. Our own Jon Beeaker, Store Chef at the Raleigh Hills New Seasons Market, was the host of the event, multi-tasking between introductions on stage and preparing lunch in our makeshift kitchen. Our keynote speaker was Brent Foster, an environmental attorney for the Oregon Department of Justice. He spoke at length about the implications of the installation of liquefied natural gas pipelines which would cross the state of Oregon from east to west, and the legal battles farmers and ranchers may face as those pipelines are installed. Brent showed photos of the damage the digging does to precious farmland and waterways, and cautioned against importing yet another fossil fuel from overseas. This is a hot topic, and there are very strong opinions on all sides of the issue. It’s worth learning more about, and you can read details of the proposals along with some of the different perspectives here, here and here.

The second speaker was Sheila Martin, Director of the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at Portland State University. Her presentation emphasized the importance of maintaining strong relationships between the rural growers of our food and the urban consumers. Keeping our connections strong is vital to preserving our food networks for generations to come.

We had our choice of workshops to attend throughout the day:
  • In “Innovative Ideas for Marketing Local Products in an Economic Downturn,” we heard how Sun Gold Farm is exponentially growing its business and securing its future through the sale Community Supported Agriculture shares. We heard from David Barber of Three Square Grill and Picklopolis about the importance of making personal contact with local buyers to introduce new products, and Piper Davis from Grand Central Baking shared some of their strategies for cutting costs while maintaining quality. The question of whether farms need to maintain a website came up, and the value of having one was discussed. Simply offering contact information and a few photos can go a long way towards putting a face on the farmer.
  • In “Meat Inspection Logistics,” the discussion focused on the option of creating a state inspection program in Oregon. The idea is to speed the flow of meat from farm to plate, but there are still lots of hurdles to overcome.
  • “Buying and Selling Direct” covered the dos and don’ts of interacting with food suppliers and buyers.
  • “The Future of Food: Supporting the Next Generation of Farmers and Chefs” is at the root of establishing a sustainable food system.
One of the highlights of this event has always been the potluck lunch. Farmers and producers attending the event are paired up with registered chefs, playing perfectly into the “connection” theme. It’s been my responsibility to connect the donated food with the volunteer chefs, and to develop a menu based on these pairings. Each year, the lunch gets even better, and this year was no exception: Rich Indian Spiced Lamb, Kale and Garbanzo Bean Stew was the result of partnering Upper Dry Creek Ranch, Truitt Brothers and Organically Grown Company with New Seasons Market chefs; Sweet Briar Farms whipped up some Pulled Pork and Coleslaw; Prairie Creek Farms teamed with the Institute for Culinary Awakening to create a colorful Good Earth Medley of vegetables; and Sweet Oregon Mint provided mint tea as well as the mint we used in our New Seasons Market Mint Chocolate Brownies. This is just a tiny sampling of the bounty of dishes that were available, all made possible through donated food and time from the participants.

It was amazing to hear about some of the innovations that the people involved in our local food economy are implementing. One group is establishing a Community Supported Kitchen, similar to a CSA share, but with prepared foods, all in the style of Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions. To wrap up the day, everyone was invited to visit the Tasting Pavilion, where locally grown foods, both fresh and preserved, were available for sampling. At the same time, a documentary called Ingredients was screened. Check out a clip from it here:

What I took away is an affirmation of how vital these relationships are. We know that the farmer is invested in the success of our business, as we are in his. When I see these connections being made, I know that the ranchers, farmers, chefs and artisans aren’t just buying and selling. They’re cinching up the ties that bind our regional food economy together, and they’re ensuring that the rich agricultural land that surrounds this urban area will be here for future generations to farm. By educating ourselves and our community about the issues surrounding sustainability in our local food system, the culinary community can be a catalyst for positive change. With this knowledge, we can help to create markets for good food and ultimately help preserve local farming, ranching and fishing communities.

Our food system can only become stronger through the sharing of ideas, and we’d love to hear yours. Let us know your thoughts on how we can establish a sustainable food system that will ensure plenty of agricultural land and fresh food for generations to come.

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