Despite the threat of looming thunderstorms, the show went on at Wakeman Town Farm Monday night, as more than 200 —farmers, food artisans and writers, chefs and food lovers turned out for the Farmer-Chef Connection, a grassroots event focusing on why sourcing and buying local is so important.
Moderated by Elizabeth Beller, WTF chairman, the panel included Bill Taibe, chef at The Whelk and Le Farm, Lori Cochran of the Westport Farmer’s Market, Rene Giroux, the head grower for Gilbertie’s, Nancy Roper, chef of Boxcar Cantina, along with Michael Aitkenhead, WTF Steward and teacher of environmental science at Staples High School.
The main event started with a discussion about what we, as a community, can do to make it more appealing to buy from local vendors, farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants, as well as what chefs of all stripes can do to work together to leverage their local purchasing power.
The panel talked about what it will take to get customers to understand the value of foods that are produced sustainably (healthier, fresher, tastier, better for the local environment and economy) and to change up the mindset so people understand where the few extra dollars spent on organic or sustainably produced local foods goes. As Lori Cochran put it it, “Farming the right way is harder. But it is worth it.” Farm Steward Mike Aitkenhead, noted that immigrants, despite their relatively low incomes, seem to innately understand the value of organic produce, and are willing to pay more for local products grown without harmful pesticides. He says if they can do it, we in Westport can do it, too.
Chef Taibe spoke of how more local restaurateurs (despite fears that higher priced sustainable ingredients will eat into margins), can be quite successful while supporting local farmers. His Westport restaurants, The Whelk and leFarm, are two strong cases in point.
He stressed the importance of the farmer-chef connection and relayed an anecdote about how moved he was by Easton farmer Patti Popp’s Facebook Post that she was near tears because her recently planted crops were washing away from back-to-back deluges. He noted that having a relationship with farmers like Patti keeps him keenly aware and appreciative of how hard each farmer works to get the best foods into his hands.
The upshot of the discussion focused on ways for restaurateurs to make ordering and buying from local vendors more economical and practical, with suggestions such as two restaurants coming together to share the purchase and storage of a whole cow.
Taibe talked about attempts to set up a local RSA system (restaurant supported agriculture), where chefs place their orders with local farmers weekly and the produce is delivered to a central Westport location, like Wakeman Town Farm or the Farmers’ Market.
The RSA also gives the chefs a chance to tell the farmer exactly what they need, and even suggest which feed to raise cows or chickens on in order to yield the specific flavor profile that that they desire.
After a Q&A, Beller introduced some of the local farmers in the audience and it was refreshing to see so many relatively young (under 50) farmers representing a new generation of local food producers. Some of the farmers in the house included Sport Hill Farm (Easton), Gilbertie's Herb Farm (Easton, Westport), Speckled Rooster Farm (Westport), Chubby Bunny Farm (Falls Hill), Wells Hill Farm (Weston), Farming 101 (Newtown), Farah's Farm (Wilton).
Before wrapping up, moderator Beller challenged the crowd to “be ballsy” in restaurants and ask their servers where their produce and meats come from. “I ask specifically which farms my salad greens and other ingredients are from. When they say, ‘a local farm,’ I push for specifics. I want them to know that it’s important to me to eat in restaurants that serve local foods.”
All in all, it was a glorious night on the farm, all about good food, hardworking people, and sharing ideas about how to support local farmers and food producers.