The concept of restaurants bringing in the freshest local food they can find from area farms has been around for a few decades, but it has exploded in popularity in the past few years. That’s thanks to both the growth of new small farms, including organic ones, and to a growing cadre of chef-owners of first-class eateries, many along the Connecticut Coast. And a support network in both the public and private sectors has emerged to strengthen existing connections and help forge new ones. And, with the growing popularity of dinners served in a meadow or under a windbreak of trees, sometimes the food never leaves the farm at all.
Jonathan Rapp opened the River Tavern in 2001, after running a similar establishment in New York City, making him a pioneer in the Nutmeg state. He deals with about 20 farms during the course of the year, with two or three being his main suppliers. One of those is White Gate Farm in East Lyme. Pork, goats and beef all come from other farms, and seafood comes straight from Gambardella’s on the Stonington docks.
Sourcing everything locally, from so many different vendors, “is a lot more trouble; it’s a lot more expensive” than just buying from one big, non-local provider, Rapp says. “It’s driven by me as a cook wanting the best ingredients. I’m friends with the people that grow it; I’d rather share my income with them. They’re able to tailor what they grow to our needs; if I have a problem I can talk to them. It’s a much more fulfilling relationship than just calling up a wholesaler.”
Needing to pass on the expense to his customers, Rapp says, runs the risk of making the farm-to-table movement seem “elitist without meaning to be, but the fact of small-scale farms, especially in a place like Connecticut where land is very expensive, [means] food is expensive.” He says mass-produced, so-called “conventional” food (which he calls a misnomer, because it’s small-scale, local farming that was “conventional” for centuries) is still needed “because we’re not going back to a time when we spent one-third of our income on food.”
For the past eight years, Rapp is also the chef behind “Dinners on the Farm,” which serves dinners five nights in a row at two local farms—White Gate Farm in East Lyme in July this year, and Barberry Farm in Madison in August.
Pauline Lord established White Gate Farm in East Lyme in 2000 on property that had been in her family for decades. With four acres in cultivation, she grows a mind-boggling 58 certified organic vegetable crops, plus chickens and turkeys for meat, as well as eggs and flowers.
At the dinners, 200 guests sit down at long tables with linen tablecloths and fine china and enjoy seven courses, all locally sourced—“whatever is super local and super delicious at the moment,” Lord says. “The final menu doesn’t get established til 3 p.m. each afternoon, it’s so spontaneous. Sometimes people arrive for dinner and see Jonathan disappearing over the hill with a basket, grabbing a last-minute item.”
Dinner includes a tour of the farm, so guests can see exactly where their food is coming from. Lord says the dinner—with tickets between $100 and $150 per person—is a high point of the summer for many attendees, who come from all over Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. The dinners benefit several farm and food-related nonprofits.
THE ORGANIC STATE
Anita Kopchinski and her husband Bill Sokol run Hidden Brook Gardens, LLC, also a certified organic farm, in Ledyard. They began working with the River Tavern but then developed a relationship with the Oyster Club in Mystic, closer to their farm. “We sell mixes of salad greens, apples, cabbage, whatever I have,” she says. “They don’t have a set menu. I call them up and tell them what I have and their menu changes every day.”
She says supplying restaurants constitutes 20–25 percent of their income. “We sell [to them] at a discounted rate, but they take a bigger order. It’s time well spent; it’s less labor intensive than a farmers market where I’m not sure my stuff will sell or not.”
The Connecticut chapter of NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association, has nurtured the growth of small farms in the state and encourages the farm-to-table movement. Board President John Turenne spent many years as head of food service for institutions like Yale, Wesleyan, and Choate. Then he set up a consulting business “to bridge the gap between conventional food service and more sustainable models,” like locally sourced food. He sees the farm-to-table model increasing in popularity. “The public is demanding to understand the stories behind the food they’re consuming,” he says. “The more they understand a good story behind the food, the better they feel about it.” Some of those “good stories” include benefits to the environment; support for local businesses and farms; better treatment of farm animals and farmworkers; and, in many cases, organic practices that feed the soil and keep pesticides out of the crops.
COMMUNITY TO TABLE
The Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge subscribes to the organic approach. It also shows there’s more than one way to run the farm-to-table pipeline. The property was formerly a family dairy farm. The family deeded the property to the town in 2007, and a nonprofit now runs the operation as an organic vegetable farm on eight acres of the property. A visit on a sunny but
blustery day in early spring turned up three young farmworkers watering tiny seedlings of kale, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and herbs in a big plastic-sided greenhouse, the farm manager doing chores on a tractor, and two dozen friendly chickens strutting in the yard around their coop—the epitome of free-range.
Executive Director Caty Poole says the farm runs a 175member CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, in which members buy shares in advance and take home whatever the farm produces. It’s a way of enjoying the benefits of local farming while sharing the risk. They also sell their produce at a weekly New Haven farmers’ market from May through October, and sell directly to four restaurants including Wheelers Market Café in Woodbridge and Zinc, Caseus and Miya’s Sushi, all in New Haven.
Poole says sales to restaurants make up about 10 percent of the farm’s income. And the farm does its own version of Dinner on the Farm as a benefit for itself, very much like those catered by the River Tavern. As a nonprofit, the farm runs educational workshops for adults and children on land separate from the commercial operation, highlighted by a butterfly garden installed by a local Girl Scout troop.
If you don’t run a restaurant but still want top quality local, often organic, food delivered right to your door, you’re in luck. Since 2008, Deb Marsden has been operating Connecticut Farm Fresh Express, which delivers those items around the state (except Litchfield County, which she deems too far) from her home base in East Haddam.
“We go to farms across the state and pick up orders our customers make, and deliver year-round anything you can think of,” she says: “raw milk, eggs, meat, cheese, yogurt, stored winter vegetables like potatoes, onions, radishes and turnips, greens, granola, soap—there’s an amazing amount of stuff that people can order.” At the height of the season the list expands to include more vegetables, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, nectarines, and apples. She estimates, “You can get 40 to 60 percent of your groceries locally even in the winter; you just have to eat seasonally.”
She and eight part-time employees deliver to between 50 and 80 customers per week, with delivery fees of about $15 a week, depending on distance.
The state of Connecticut is also helping grow the farm-to-table movement. Linda Piotrowicz came to the Agriculture Department in 2006 with a mandate to work with restaurants and institutions to promote local agriculture. “I quickly learned I didn’t have to convince the chefs to want local food,” she says. “The problem is getting it there.” That required consistent supply and a workable distribution system. Toward that end, she’s published newsletters, organized farm tours, and held conferences. For the past four years, she’s organized a Farm-to-Chef Week that includes up to 80 eateries, from hospitals and corporate cafeterias to high-end restaurants to coffee shops. “We have all kinds of different price points,” she says. The requirement for participation is four menu items, each of which has to feature a Connecticut-grown ingredient. “It’s been great to expose the public to more farms and farm products,” she adds, and the program continues to grow.
Common Ground High School in New Haven is another nonprofit with its hands in the dirt. Its students raise farm animals—chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, and turkeys—as well as vegetables on a one-acre plot. Farm Manager Shannon Raider-Ginsburg says it’s “the most basic farm-to-table” operation, selling deeply subsidized produce to the school’s own cafeteria. Common Ground also sells to the public and holds two dinners on the farm each year as fund raisers. “We’re very sensitive about how we talk about the harvesting of animals for our meals,” she says. “We’re showing what humane animal husbandry looks like and give people pause to think about where their meat comes from.” She says the school sells to New Haven restaurants, including Caseus, 116 Crown and Miya’s, and adds, “Our two main goals are education and access; we could sell to the highest bidder but it’s our mission to share this food as broadly as possible.” As a nonprofit, the school does not want to compete with other farms.
116 Crown owner John Ginnetti says his motto is “innovation and whimsy.” Affirming Piotrowicz’s observation, he says, “The farm-to-table movement always had big fans on the restaurant side but there was only a small number of farms that could provide product, be it produce or protein; this is the first year I’ve seen an increase in local farms coming to us and saying, ‘I just started this farm; I can get you microgreens in two weeks.’”
Ginnetti works with about 10 farms at different times throughout the year, and four on an ongoing basis, including two nonprofits and two regular farm businesses. He also buys on occasion from itinerant foragers. “We move on the fly; it’s always delicious.”
Kim Dziubinski is owner and chef at SeaGrass Grill in the Indian Neck section of Branford. Her goal is to support local farmers and fishermen while making her own living in a way that supports healthy living and a sustainable environment.
“Every day I go to the farmers and find out what’s available and go and create the menu. I try to keep it for a week, but make changes as needed. There’s only so many cuts in a cow or so many fish I can get.” She has her share of frustrations. “I had a gentleman in here the other day who said, ‘I had a T-bone steak here two weeks ago. Why can’t I get one today?’ I explained to him about so many cuts in a cow; he said that’s ridiculous. But I think more people are starting to get it. They seem to be more interested and more and more people are talking about it.”