We’re delighted to be able to introduce a guest blog post this week written for us by Chet Sharma, of TRULY Experiences. Chet has previously worked in the kitchens of L’Enclume, Mugaritz and Le Manoir aux’Quat Saisons.
Here’s what he has to say on the subject of….
‘Farm to Table‘
The past decade has seen a push from chefs, the media and aristocratic foodies alike for more sustainably sourced food, preferably coming from local producers and vendors. I should know – I’m one of them. Having been involved in setting up Britain’s largest restaurant farm, I take every opportunity to champion the ‘farm-to-table’ movement.
And, on the surface, it’s working. Just pay a visit to one of the numerous food and farmers’ markets to see this revolution in effect. As we speak, crowds are flocking in the thousands to buy the season’s finest broad beans, peas and asparagus. It’s easy to conclude that the years of campaigning for more sustainably sourced ingredients have produced lasting change.
Except it hasn’t. For all of its successes, farm to table hasn’t changed the way the majority buys and – most importantly – has changed little other than the marketing ploys used by top supermarkets to make us feel better about what we’re eating. There’s still a long way to go before we see a real shift in the landscape of dining.
The reason farm to table hasn’t been able to change the way our food is grown is because it still doesn’t yet make sense from an economic standpoint. The growth of the farming industry has almost entirely been at either end of the scale; the giant multi-nationals and small family farms bearing the fruit. The sustainable medium size farms – the ones that could feasibly supply restaurants and discerning food-lovers – have been closing in the tens of thousands, year-on-year, for more than a decade.
Marrying this duality is near impossible. We are bombarded by all forms of media telling us that eating ethically sourced foods should be at the forefront of the public zeitgeist. But this push for how we should cook and eat is up against a deeply entrenched status quo.
This is most prevalent across the pond; the conglomerate grain producers account for less than 2% of farms in number, but over 50% of the American farming industry’s annual revenue. They are producing high-yield crops, bred to require little in resources from the soil and the farmer, meaning that they can be planted more or less back-to-back, so that every square inch is producing maximum profit year round. Commercially operated smaller farms simply cannot compete when the economy of scale is so far out of their reach. Worse still, the majority of this grain is actually used for non-human consumption.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. There are people out there still making a difference. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of the River Cottage Empire is one. Manresa’s David Kinch is another. But it is Dan Barber who really sits at the precipice of the public consciousness. Chef Patron of upstate New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barn, Barber sees a bright future for farm-to-table dining, if farmers could adopt a more holistic, more connected approach to their crops. Barber advocates the planting of commercially viable cover crops such as mustard, followed by legumes such as kidney beans and cowpeas and a hardy grain like barley. This allows the land to be cleansed for the primary, resource-draining crop, while also producing sustainable crops as the soil is replenished.
Great in theory, the problem is that it requires an individual farm to not only specialise in producing a single product, but to specialise in ‘produce’ as a whole. For that to work, there needs to be a market for the cover crops, legumes and hardy grains that are being produced in between seasons. For this more traditional system of farming to be profitable, we need to create a market for those ‘less desirable’ crops; which is a market that just doesn’t exist as yet.
The positive thing is that we’ve seen it happen before; it used to be that fillet steak was the popular preferred cut of beef, but by showing the public that non-prime cuts such as flat iron, hanger and skirt can in fact be equal in quality to the fillet, we’re making better use of the animals now than at any point since the industrialisation of farming. And this mentality is spilling over into large-scale food manufacture; the only point at which we start to see a true shift in the economic drivers key for change.
What it comes down to is a re-education of how we can use native crops which renew the soil. Why do foodies reach for the exotic quinoa when the rotation crop millet can be grown locally and is far more beneficial for the soil?  Chances are that it’s because most people don’t know what the latter is. Sadly, this is an indictment of the current state of food education.
Farm to table can’t be seen as a passive activity – for it to thrive, we’ll need to create the most important economic driver; the demand which creates a new market. This means educating ourselves on how farms actually operate, and how use produce that can put back into the earth what we so greedily take out. Only at that point will there be a demand for farmers to grow the less fashionable crops which can save their business.
 (This is before we even enter the ethics debate about a food product that is now so expensive that the natives who have eaten this for the past 3000 years are unable to afford it)
If this subject wets your whistle then take a look at the recent Netflix series ‘Chef’s Table‘ – one of the episodes features Dan Barber and Blue Hill Farm – look it up, well worth a watch.
Till next time, happy eating 🙂 And huge thanks again to Chet for this wonderful blog post.