The Farm-to-Table Fable

//The Farm-to-Table Fable

The Farm-to-Table Fable

Grass-fed cattle on our farm, Smith Meadows.

Fifteen years ago, when I was a bright-eyed free range farmer, I loved getting this kind of call:

“Hello, this is Chef Smith from Restaurant Brioche. Our restaurant is planning to be 100% local and farm-sourced. We’d love to have your food on our menu.”

My pulse would quicken. A chef? Calling me? The thought was almost unimaginable. Our family farm, on the brink of bankruptcy, needed customers and needed them fast. Decades of selling corn, apples and cattle on the commodity market had nearly sunk our operation. Now that we had transitioned to an organic, free-range model, chefs were starting to notice.

“Absolutely,” I replied. “What do you have in mind?”

“I’d like to feature beef tenderloins,” he said. In the background, I could hear pots clinking, and food orders shouted above the din of kitchen noises. “We’ll need fifty pounds a week.”

My heart sank. Not because I didn’t desperately want the business. But because —for several very practical reasons— this type of order would be impossible for our farm to accommodate.

“Well… as I’m sure you understand, it takes almost two years to raise a steer on grass. Even though we butcher over a hundred steers per year, we only get about 20 pounds of tenderloin each time. So, at that rate…”

Before I could finish this thought process, the chef cut in. “What’s your wholesale price per pound?”

“It’s ten dollars a pound, but like I was saying…”

“Ten dollars?! We’re getting tenderloins off the truck right now for $4.50. I mean, they’re not grass-fed, but still… that’s more than twice as much.”

Our price board at farmers market. How do farmers walk a successful line between retail and wholesale pricing?

The conversation was heading downhill fast. “I understand. But when we process a steer, almost 40% of it comes back as ground beef, and only about 4% is tenderloin. So we have to price it accordingly…”

On the other end of the line, silence. I could already tell that I had lost him. “Let me think about it,” he said at last. “I’ll get back to you.”

As you can probably guess, he never did. Over the years, I experienced hundreds of phone calls like this, nearly all of them asking for quantities or pricing that our farm couldn’t provide. Now, fast forward to 2012, three weeks ago. I opened my inbox to this message (names changed for anonymity):

“My name is Chef Jones, from Pomme-De-Terre Bistro. I’d like to order a free-range hog from you. I have a special event next Friday. Last year I got a two hundred pounder from Happy Skippy Farm, but they’re no longer in business. I’ll need it delivered on Thursday. What’s your price?”

Allow me to share my thoughts after reading this e-mail:

● Although it’s an understandable assumption on the chef’s part, our farm isn’t set up to deliver hog carcasses. Have you ever carried a two hundred pound carcass on your back down 18th Street in Washington D.C.? Let me tell you… you’ll get some double takes. Hauling massive animal cadavers around the city is an enterprise unto itself.

● Our farm schedules butchering appointments months in advance. My butcher, the owner of a 3rd generation family shop, is a very, very busy man, and can’t accommodate orders without prior scheduling. Even if I wanted to fill this order, I’d need more notice than one week.

● So what happened to Happy Skippy Farm? (I was going to call it “Fuzzy Feelings Farm,” but it seemed too flamboyantly fictitious). Why aren’t they still in business? I have no way of knowing, but I have a hunch that they were chasing an unsustainable business model, i.e., wholesaling hog carcasses in downtown D.C.

● Finally, what’s a fair price for a two hundred pound dressed hog, anyway? This year, commodity prices (the price for hogs raised on confinement farms) averaged eighty two cents a pound. My cost for raising a free-range pig is very close to this number, so to add profit, I would charge a dollar per pound. Of course, I would need to drive the hog to the butcher, pay for the butchering fees, make a return trip to pick up the carcass, then deliver it to the city (all told, about 400 miles of driving). At farmers market, we’ll net about $3.50 per pound for a whole hog. So what’s the appropriate price tag, an agreeable middle ground for both producer and chef?

Our pigs are REALLY free-range... and sometimes they even get out on the public roads! This is me, leading them back home with a bucket of grain.

If my reaction to the e-mail sounds jaded, or too analytical, or (god forbid) snarky, then please don’t take this the wrong way. My mission must be the same as the restaurant’s: to stay in business, and operate profitably. ‘Know thyself,’ is a cardinal rule. For us, this has meant selling at farmers markets, and avoiding the restaurant scene almost entirely.

A wise farmer, who worked many years as a sous chef at a famous restaurant, once told me: “Restaurants want a Grade A product, but only want to pay a Grade B price.” While this is certainly a generalization, I can’t deny that on average this has been my experience as well. After fifteen years of farming, I have serviced roughly two dozen restaurants, but turned away several hundred. Even though I was willing to offer wholesale pricing, most chefs didn’t understand what I had to charge to make this complex relationship work.

The optimist in me very much wants to see this model succeed. In theory, it’s great for farmers and chefs, as well as the public. I’m as happy as anyone to sit down at a restaurant and order a local salad from a small, organic farm. But to be honest, I don’t understand how these farms are growing this food at a wholesale price while covering their operating expenses. For our farm at least, it’s just not the right economic fit.

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By | 2015-09-22T09:31:17+00:00 October 15th, 2012|Farm|43 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in Washington DC for nearly two decades. Pritchard's first two books received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and NPR, and his latest book is set to debut in 2018.

43 Comments

  1. Sandra Kay Miller October 15, 2012 at 12:37 pm - Reply

    Or worse yet, how about those restaurants that order the less expensive bits from us and then make it sound on their menus as if they’re sourcing all of their meats from the farm? One of the reasons I farm today is because I want to raise the quality of foods I was used to cooking at a restaurant that sourced locally back in the 80’s. Sadly, the restaurant didn’t make it. Why? Because the customers weren’t willing to pay the price for sustainably raised food and wanted the same thing on the menu each time they patronized the establishment.
    Both you and I know that the farmer that chef will most likely get his pig from will either:
    1) butcher the hog illegally at his own farm
    2) raise it outside in a non-CAFO environment yet feet it grocery store/restaurant garbage and/or industrial waste
    3) not have to actually farm for the majority of their personal income
    Keep doing what you’re doing, Forrest. No one can buy integrity, it has to be earned.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 16, 2012 at 8:24 am

      Sandy,

      Yes, I’ve had this happen too… there can be so much ambiguity. In my case, the chef mentioned offhand that he had run out of my beef midweek, and was disappointed by the poor quality of industrial beef he had to use to make up the shortfall (until I delivered again that weekend). When I asked him if he changed menu to reflect this substitution, the chef said… “Uhh… I meant to, but I forgot.”

      YIKES.

  2. Clare October 15, 2012 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    Hi Forest – I’ll be really curious what comments come of this… Really interesting topic to me since we’ve experienced some of the same thing… with basically the same conclusion.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 15, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      Hey Clare,

      Good to know I’m not alone! Looking forward to continuing the conversation, and building on others’ experiences.

  3. Diana Boeke October 16, 2012 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Timely post. We were excited to get our pastured chicken into local restaurants. But the wholesale price is barely break-even for us, and even at that, they only order a few at a time, and make their menus sound like all of the chicken is from us… Deliberately vague, in other words.
    I now look at the restaurant relationship as just another marketing outlet to reach our real target audience, the consumer, not the chef. Our hope is that when they see our farm name and location on the menu, they might look us up and give us a call for their own home-cooking, or recognize us at the farmers’ market.
    So I’m happy to keep the restaurant orders small, and see it as a “good will” gesture to support the local restaurant industry that is doing its best to support local food, but need to stay profitable themselves…
    About the premium cuts challenge: Many of our customers are squeamish or just too lazy to deal with a whole broiler chicken. So we started doing parts. But the bottom line cost of cutting up chickens is a real eye-opener! Each chicken requires time, a whole separate clean area and bowls that need to be washed, plus each pack of parts needs to be bagged, weighed, sealed, and labeled. We were shocked to do the math and realize the price per pound we needed on wings, boneless breasts, and legs in order to make the SAME profit (compensation for our time/hourly wage–which is less than minimum wage, btw) that we do with our whole birds. We certainly couldn’t afford to buy our own parts, but we sell out of them with every batch, so it’s worth it for some people.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 16, 2012 at 8:14 am

      Diana,

      Great response. I agree, the farm-to-restuarant outlet could certainly be a contributing piece to a diversified marketing plan, but my feeling is it must remain a small one. Even if one is able to supply large volumes (which it sounds like is not your situation), the margins are razor thin. And if we’re only getting $100 orders? Unless the restaurant is only one block away from our farm, good luck paying for the gasoline!

      Perhaps fruit and vegetable farmers have a different experience?

      And yes… I gave up trying to “part out” my chickens many, many years ago. Simply getting whole birds to market takes up an amazing amount of production time (it takes my crew of 4 a full work day to process 300 chickens), compromising our ability to actually do chores and grow other products. If I were to then cut the birds up, it’s not much of an overstatement to say we’d never get anything done on the farm!

      Keep up the good work, and please stay in touch 🙂

  4. Derek Luhowiak October 16, 2012 at 8:21 am - Reply

    We have meet before, I got lots of things from you with my food cart local 647. I now own a butcher shop here in fauquier. It going well and we are expanding. I never haggle with the farm about price I will pay 3.50 for a great pig and I too schedule my dates out for slaughter months in advance which new ” farmers” do not know. I have so many “farmers” trying to sell me things they do not know how to price yet. So the relationships are a 2 way street. It is tricky to say the least to guess what you need 3 months down the road. I take whole animals only and the menu and charcuterie reflect that. It has been a education process to consumers as to why there is only one hanger steak but I am open about it all the way through the process. I welcome any farm to come see us. We are not a chef driven venture but I feel we are a farm driven venture and my products are hand made and small batched to reflect the true nature of availability and to my surprise I can get people to head cheese !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Forrest Pritchard October 16, 2012 at 8:33 am

      Derek,

      Great to hear from you! I had wondered what you were up to, and sounds like you’re doing excellent work. As you’ve certainly figured out by now, the Local 647 food truck was a good fit for us, because we were able to sell you ground beef, our #1 most abundant product. If I’m going to supply a restaurant, I feel obligated to always have plenty of product when they come calling so I don’t leave them hanging.

      Agreed, this is a two way street. And despite the fact that the farm-to-table concept has been around for awhile now, I believe it’s still an emerging economy. The more education we have on both sides, the more stability we can create going ahead. Thanks for doing a good job on your end, and I look forward to hearing about your continued success.

  5. Alan Schreck October 16, 2012 at 8:26 am - Reply

    Forrest,

    Keep the blogs coming! Our first stop every Saturday morning is the farmers market, to get what is seasonally available locally, and then round out what we still need for the week elsewhere. I know not all people will agree, but to us it is worth paying a premium to know how your food is raised, where it comes from, and to actually know the farmers.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 16, 2012 at 8:36 am

      Thanks Alan, I always look forward to seeing you both. I’ll personally be away this Saturday, but Aaron and Dan will be there to represent!

  6. Melissa October 16, 2012 at 11:15 am - Reply

    Despite knowing many chefs, I’ve never sold to them. Like many small farms, we do only frozen meat, which most chefs have a prejudice about. Also we don’t have enough cows to provide a consistant supply of some cut that’s only 1/24th of the average cow. Pubs might actually be easier to sell to than restaurants since they do burgers and I always have a massive amount of ground beef.

    That said, in Chicago there are several farms and restaurants that seem to work well together. Most of these restaurants (Publican, Big Jones are two I can think of off the top of my head) have their own butchers and change their menu to fit supply rather than order supplies to for a pre-made menu. But if you ask closely, a lot of the farmers they are working with, while they are small, family, non-factory farms that I’d feel comfortable buying from, are not doing 100% grass-fed for beef/goat/lamb.

    I also do some private/catering dinners with our products. I appreciate my friendships with chefs I know, but a lot of them just want to conceive of their menu in their head a month before a dinner and then expect to get what they want. These chefs are not easy for me to work with. I need to find chefs that I can say “I’ll have one quarter cow and three ducks available” and they can build a menu off of that.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 16, 2012 at 1:41 pm

      Melissa,

      The in-restaurant butcher shop is a completely new concept to me, and frankly makes a great deal of sense. To give you an example, many years ago I was asked to provide four 25 pound roasts for an organic food festival in Maryland. I had my butcher cut the roasts (frozen and vacuum packed), and then I personally delivered them to the restaurant. Imagine my disappointment when, after I carried in the 4 roasts, the chef nonchalantly said, “Oh, did I forget to call you? We’re expecting less people, so we only need one. Thanks anyway.”

      Did this chef have any idea how difficult it is for a small producer to sell 25 pound roasts?! Long story short, it took me 6 months before I was finally able to sell them… and at half the price I had offered him (which was already at wholesale). I took quite a bath on that transaction.

      Anyway, it’s experiences like this that make me reach out to the broader community for solutions. I’m not giving up hope! Thanks for the great response.

  7. Loren Brown October 16, 2012 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    Thanks for taking the time to share this fable. Here’s a bit of perspective from our Inn and 40 seat restaurant.

    Our guests are delighted with our menu and yet surprised to learn about the “back of the house story” of supporting our local farmers, bakers and creamery. The buy at the cheapest price from the market pervades even those who consider themselves foodies or locavores.

    Two examples– we planned with Jordan Winters (who apprenticed with Joel Salatin and now runs Wintergrass Farm in the Mohawk Valley area of NY) in mid-October to supply a 300 person meal for the following July. We planned with Sap Bush Hollow Farm http://www.sapbush.com/works.htm (operated by Shannon Hayes and her family) in the spring to purchase an agreed upon amount of chickens through a six month period ending in October. We do this so our eaters can walk-in and enjoy a different kind of nourishment.

    Here’s an article written by one of our guests that offers up the difficulty and the pleasure of supporting this work:

    http://holeinthedonut.com/2011/09/30/culture-adirondack-mountains/

    These are the stories of relationship in seasonal and business cycles…and commitment to viability for the earth, the farmers, the cooks and the eaters.

    • Melissa October 16, 2012 at 1:01 pm

      I wonder if unorthodox models would more easily support farmers. I’m thinking what Elizabeth restaurant does in Chicago, which is that they pre-sell tickets.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 16, 2012 at 1:23 pm

      Loren,

      Placing large bulk orders in advance sounds like a brilliant way to bridge the potential divides. Promotes a trust relationship on both sides. Nearly all of my experiences have involved weekly orders, and in the early days, I might struggle all week to get an order together only to have the restaurant cancel at the last minute. For a young producer, it was devastating!

      I’m friends with Shannon at Sap Bush Hollow, so I’m delighted that you’re getting food from her wonderful farm. Thanks for explaining how you operate, and for sharing the blog (it’s my opinion that the pigs were interested in the writer because they are omnivores, and the cattle timid because they are vegetarians!)… I think you’ve provided a real solution.

  8. MacLaren Scott October 16, 2012 at 3:06 pm - Reply

    Hello Forrest,
    Wonderful topic to bring up and open to all. We are a tiny farm in Taos, NM and our main goal at the moment is simply to know where our food comes from (the back yard), to raise our 3 yr old daughter in an earth based, aware manner, and try to educate our community through example. So far I have only sold my goat milk, chevre, and eggs, and the occasional kitchen experiment of the week (fermented veggies, kale chips, granola, einkorn bread, etc), but I have often wondered what it would be like to go BIG and sell at the Farmer’s Market too.
    As far as farm-to-table, I envision inviting a chef (unless I can get my nerve up to do it myself) to come once a month to the farm and cook up a set meal for X number of guests. Tickets would be sold in advance, and 4 top tables could be arranged outside in the grass or under the porch. I feel this could be a great way to educate people on what goes into growing and raising food organically and sustainably. I even imagine the guests being a part of the harvesting and dinner prep if they choose. I think this arrangement could be a nice thing for the small farms who do not have the resources to sell regularly to restaurants, and nice for non-farmers to get a glimpse at a small farm operation and realize they, too, could do this for the betterment of their family and community.
    MacLaren

  9. Tricia Park October 17, 2012 at 7:04 am - Reply

    Wow am I glad I had some extra time this morning and found this to read! I’ve often wondered if I was the only one who was frustrated by the attitude of chefs and restaurants. We have gotten calls for years asking us to supply them with beef, pork, chicken, turkey or eggs. Each and every one wanted wholesale prices. I was tempted many a time to supply them at the price they wanted – then I did the math and said I just can’t do that. I won’t do that.
    My recent chat with a restaurant that wanted 4 whole pigs in the next 2 weeks- the usual local supplier is out of business. They wanted them at $2 a pound delivered.
    This was the 2nd restaurant to contact us for pork in the past month. Suppliers are out of business… gee at that price this is not surprising! Did we supply them? No.

    I tell all farmers that they have to stick to their price and do not compromise it. They have to set their price to be profitable and not whine/complain “I can’t charge that my neighbors won’t pay it”
    Farmers have to be profitable on all fronts- their pricing is the best way to get there. Lower it and lose……. Sometimes lose the whole farm business. I’ve seen it over and over again.
    We also parts out our chickens- yes it is labor intensive but I can fit it in at the moment. I also charge dearly for boneless skinless chicken breast. I have to charge for that to pay myself a living wage. It is a year to year decision if we will continue to do cut up…..
    I don’t like my price but it is driven by my costs and my desire to make a living wage on my own. I can’t feed the world food. I have no desire to. I want to (and I do) raise high quality pasture based and grassfed meats to the local area- I do this because I love to do it I also do it to be a profitable business. Farming is a business not just a passion. Passion for it will only get you so far when you can’t pay the bills or make a living at it.
    It is good to hear from the restaurants how they can make it work- they are few and far between. Do we want to supply them? Not right now.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 17, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      Tricia,

      A lot of hard-won wisdom in your response! I think it’s totally appropriate to charge extra -sometimes a lot extra- for parting out chickens. I’ve been told by smarter farmers than myself that boneless skinless breasts must be priced at a commensurate value of an entire chicken. Evidently, the prevailing habit of the consumer is to buy these parts and nothing else… so the farmer is left holding the rest of the bird (wings, thighs, etc.). If you’ll pardon the joke, this is one time where 2 birds in the bush (laying hens out free-ranging) might be worth more than one in the hand!

      I’m also a firm believer that in some operations, cutting up chickens is entirely appropriate. On our diversified livestock farm we rotate cattle, pigs and sheep each day, and gather eggs 3 times a day, cutting up chickens is what we call a “Time Vampire”.

      It sounds to me like you’re just the kind of economic mentor that your fellow farmers need… keep up the good work, and I wish you sustained success. Please stay in touch.

  10. Sylvie in Rappahannock October 17, 2012 at 8:05 am - Reply

    Forrest – many thanks for bringing this topic up – and what an eye opener for me to see all the comments about the restaurants that source part of their need from a farm yet suggest that all the meat/poultry they serve come from that farm!!!! what a disservice to all in the long run.

    I work as a personal chef, doing private dinners and private events where I cook at the client. I do not have the consistent need of a restaurant so I cannot contract with any farm but I try too use as much local as I can (for a number of reasons), but that does involve juggling. Not all potential clients are educated about the local food infrastructure – and not all are willing to be. I never expect wholesale price, although always happy when a farmer extends me a courtesy discount… But yes, I have to say, sometime I scratch my head and wonder: how can they make a profit if they are delivering – w/o charging a delivery fee?

    One of my challenges is to find the clients who want local and understand that they must have flexibility in the menu — so that if we are planning a wedding 6 months ahead, we are planning a “working” menu, with the exact vegetable and fruit TBD at the time of the event… depending on what the harvest is. But then, with so much notice, I can order the whole hog or the 25 pound roasts or the 5 beef tenderloins (BTW, I hope that you now ask for a non-refundable deposit on an order like that – how…. rude! What would that chef do if the dinners were canceling on him at the last minute? wouldn’t he charge their credit card for the cost of the cancel meal any way?).

    On the other hand, there is the client who e-mails in early October and asks about for a whole pig roast sometime in October or early November…. so I have to explain that 1. we need a firm date. 2. we need to find a pig 3. we need to schedule a slaughtering date ASAP a few days before the part and with hunting season upon us, she needs to commit now… and I am not sure we can do it.

    With smaller dinner parties, there isn’t as much time to plan since I get – at most – 2 weeks notice. So I make my calls to find out what my local farmers (and I am so happy for those who list their current availability on line!) have before proposing some menus. But it can be challenging navigating wants vs. availability and “why can’t you just go to Costco?” — which is another whole education process onto itself (reminding myself that if they ask, it’s because they do NOT know). Generally if the flavor/freshness/wholesomeness argument does not win, the “I will have to charge you for my time and my mileage to co to Costco – and it will inferior” wins. But once in a while i do have to tell a client we aren’t a good fit!

    My client have to be flexible, and I have to be flexible too. Because, you know, although a week ago, looks like tomatoes would be in for my event, and I asked for 30 pounds…. it rains like hell 2 days before… and they all split…

    But I do thin the restaurants that really want to be part of the local infrastructure (and not just ride the latest food trend) will work with those farms that have a superior products — by taking whole animals and breaking them down themselves (or taking whole cut up animals and having an ever changing menu), working to understand their constraints, doing things such as Loren is doing,… because in the long run, everyone must make a sufficient profit to remain in business. I don’t get those restaurants that do “local” but have a static menu — do patrons really believe that’s the case? sadly so apparently. I mean, isn’t part of the charm of local to have an ever changing menu? like daily changing? …

    PS – I will take grass-fed frozen meat over fresh CAFO meat anytime – there is no comparison.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm

      Sylvie,

      You’ve got it all correct… boy, would I have loved to work with you when I first started out!

      As a personal chef, I imagine you’re in a unique position to influence food education. It’s probably impossible for a restauranteur of chef to explain to every patron the nuance of a particular farmer-to-restaurant relationship (often times they rely on the menu or a harried waitress/waiter to convey the information). But in your case, it’s a mutual benefit to have that conversation; in a way, I would think having this insider knowledge would translate into up-selling your talents, and make you more in demand. Has that been your experience thus far?

      Thanks for the great post.

  11. Julie October 17, 2012 at 10:55 am - Reply

    Like you, I have had some bad experience with the wholesale game….I agree we as farmers need to grow, but at what cost…Imagine them playing that game at Wal Mart. Still the old saying is alive and well…”You get what you pay for”

  12. Mike Moskos October 17, 2012 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    The press loves to gives chefs and high-end restaurants credit for moving the populace towards pastured meats–and they have–but I think the real credit goes to food clubs, small retailers, farmers’ market sales, etc. I know what extraordinary effort it takes a food club or small retailer to make all the initial arrangements, but once it gets done, its a nice steady supply for people who want–and sometimes absolutely need–the particular type of food offered. To give you an idea of volume, the particular food club I volunteer at gets 3 pallets stacked 5 feet high every other week from our primary farmer and his neighbors who he’s convinced to raise animals a certain way. Sometimes I think it’s the local chapter leaders of the Weston A. Price Foundation who really should be given the lion’s share of the credit.

    It’s great to see grass finished hamburgers offered at restaurants, but there’s nothing like having it at home.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 18, 2012 at 4:51 am

      Mike,

      A shout out to the Weston A. Price Foundation! Love it.

      I agree with your main point. It takes a lot of upfront communication and relationship building to establish this kind of model. Chances are it can’t be handled in a harried, 3 minute phone conversation! The best relationships I have with restaurants are with chefs who have taken the time to visit our farm. It’s almost always an extraordinary eye-opener for them to see where the food actually comes from.

  13. Kevin Campbell October 17, 2012 at 10:59 pm - Reply

    Hello Forrest,

    I’m a chef/owner of a pop up restaurant in Colorado Springs, CO, and we are about as unorthodox & unconventional as it gets, and it is slooooooowly working. We find underutilized restaurant space, “hijack” the place for an evening & prepare a dinner with locally grown foods. It’s not easy, but I am blessed with not having a restaurant, an overhead, a lease, and with this freedom, I go directly to the farmer and pay them a fair price for an amazing product. Then, here is the best part; I get the farmers to come to these dinners, my treat, & then invite the public to come and meet the local cattle rancher, goat lady, quail farmer, heritage pig guy, meet the people that grew the foods they are about to eat, learn about their farm, how they can purchase their products & expose the farmer to a new group of people that probably would have never known that people farmed in the area, let alone their goods were available to them. It is a work in progress, and cheeks, shanks, belly, marrow, sweet breads & ox tail are a hard sell to a town that is accustomed to $8.99 all you can eat prime rib. But to change that, I believe we need to talk about sustainable eating & start growing sustainable chefs. It may sound silly, but two very important issues we are overlooking. In my culinary world, animals are grown & harvested, all parts are gathered, the creative process begins, a menu is written and then, I do my very best to not screw up what others have labored so hard to bring me. Thanks for what you do. I’m excited to join the conversation & learn more from you.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 18, 2012 at 4:42 am

      Hi Chef Campbell,

      What a GREAT idea. It really makes for a complete educational experience.

      Come to think of it, I was able to participate in an event like this a few years ago, and it was tremendously rewarding for everyone involved. There were roughly 25 people at the dinner I attended, and nearly everyone in the audience/restaurant had a production question for me. In my opinion, it’s not about recognition nearly so much as it is making a connection.

      Keep up the excellent work, and make sure your local press knows what you’re doing… it would make a great story for them.

  14. Art D. October 18, 2012 at 4:20 am - Reply

    I was able to relate to this first as a furniture maker. In the past ten years I have had so many people come to me expecting custom pieces at Ikea prices and not understanding why they’ll have to wait weeks or months for it.
    Having done some farm work and ordering of whole animals I’m a little surprised that a restaurant professional would know less about the process than I do.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 18, 2012 at 4:47 am

      Art,

      I think part of the problem here is that, in my experience, chefs are incredibly busy and under a lot of stress to get their product onto the table. We’ve all been raised in a culture where instant gratification must intersect with supreme customer service… and nowhere is this set of unreasonable expectations more endemic than in the food business.

      So, I don’t exactly blame the chefs; I feel as though the system as a whole has broken down, largely due to cheap (inexpensive and lesser quality) food being hauled around on tractor trailers!

  15. April Reeves October 18, 2012 at 7:43 am - Reply

    Here in Canada all food is expensive. Chefs will pay our going prices for both meats and vegetables. Many of us smaller farmers do a good business, with some, like Curtis Stone in Kelowna, who makes $60,000 annually after taxes growing veggies for market, restaurants and private customers. Chefs here also cruise the markets and pay accordingly.

    In Vancouver, even the urban farming groups make a living growing food. They are also recognized and promoted by their municipalities and even a bank! Vancity Credit Union paid me to teach urban farming methods on several occasions last year.

    I have only private customers and grow exclusively for them. They come to my farm for delivery.

    I know it’s different up here, but maybe the US could take a look at “why” it works here and see if you can extract anything we do and make it useful for yourselves. That’s what Joel Salatin said to us on the 2 times we’ve had him here. Our model was interesting to him. It all takes time, but I can see it coming where the US small and urban farmer may be in a position of power to earn a good living.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm

      April,

      We have a saying over here on the East Coast… “the West Coast is always 5 years ahead.” I’m delighted to hear that things are progressing in that direction, and what it might portend for us laggards here along the Atlantic! I’ll take this as an auspicious sign.

  16. Kimber Herron in Clarke County October 18, 2012 at 8:04 am - Reply

    Hey Forrest,

    Looks like you opened up a big 800-acre paddock here for discussion. Great work on the bog so far!

    I’d guess that the major difficulty in having a farm-to-table project work for everyone involved is the unwinding of the industrial restaurant model. What we know as the modern restaurant in this country more-or-less co-evolved with the auto culture and the wholesale-resale/MBA/buy low, sell high model. Even though there are many small-scale restaurants trying to make a well-intentioned go of it, the buy low/sell high paradigm still resides inside the minds of most of us–that has been part of the cheap energy business culture.

    Many of your thoughtful respondents have hinted around this: the emperor with no clothes is the chef and the modern restaurant/business entity. They are the middlemen of the farm-to-table project. And, before tomatoes and (free-range?) eggs are thrown my way, I hope that Forrest and Nancy can vouch for the fact that I do like chefs, and restaurants, of course. I even pose as a chef when the need arises. But the fact remains that all persons in the farm-to-table money line are trying to make a living. With a long history of ‘cheap food’ at our backs, how can we make a fit between the truly new economy of retail-oriented farmers like Forrest and the old world of wholesale commodity mark-up restaurateurs?

    Although some of your respondents(like Loren and Tricia) offer some interesting ideas, it appears as though the farmer is still in a position of receiving the haircuts, no matter how small the effort (such as specials on chicken ‘fabrication’). I’m certainly not advocating institution of an adversarial move against chefs and restaurants, but after probably more than 70 years of ‘thinning their margins’, perhaps it is time for those besides the farmer to thin the margins in order to make such farm-to-table projects work. For farmers interested in making that project work, educating the prospective buyer(chefs) about the realities of operating a viable farm have to be part of the PR work of that farmer.

    In the end though, Forrest may be correct that the Farm-to-Table idea may indeed turn out to be just a fable. At least in the form of farmer-to-retail restaurant model. When you run the numbers–even for a small-scale vendor operation–one is left scratching their overalls on how this “thing” is gonna work. I’ve run such numbers myself–and I’m pretty good at math–and the back of the envelope says no. Unless…unless one farms and operates the ‘restaurant’ as well, known in business jargon as vertical integration. I know of a few local farms already engaged in such activity via on-site kitchens, and they appear to be successful. I think we’ll have to rename the Farm-to-Table movement the Farm-to-Farmer’s Table movement.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 18, 2012 at 7:26 pm

      Hey Kimber,

      First off, indeed, let me vouch for your admiration and support of chefs who are pursuing this cause!

      Second, the idea of the Farm-to-Farmer’s table is indeed compelling. And if you can use MBA phrases such as ‘vertical integration,’ then allow me to use ‘intellectual capital.’ A big part of the success in the farm-to-table philosophy is the idea that customers are genuinely getting something new and different: fresher, more nutritious, environmentally sustainable, etc. As we’ve come to realize, perhaps it’s the customer winning here, not the chef or the farmer! So, the idea of the farm-to-farmer’s table is intriguing because it circumvents the wholesaling, and builds on the story. Just so long as the farmer can finance the dining atmosphere, ha ha.

      In the end, I think you’re on the right track. Either 1) there must be sacrifice of margins across the board (i.e., we all hang together!), or 2) the customer needs to pay more, or… wait just a minute here… 3) everyone should try growing their own food.

      Eureka!

      😛

  17. Ed Matthews October 18, 2012 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Hi Forrest. Ed here from One Block West. Thanks for weighing in on this topic and touching a lot of points that are of a concern to me as the chef of a local and seasonal restaurant. And thanks to Sylvie to alerting me about this thread.

    Like you, I am particularly irritated by other restaurants that imply that all of their proteins are sourced from such and such a farm when in fact, only part of the proteins are. This is inherently dishonest and dishonorable and is insulting to the chefs like me who are committed to truth in menus. Worse, I am incensed about restaurants that proclaim that they source locally when I see the Sysco truck parked out back each day, rolling off boxes of frozen “local” proteins.

    Over a decade, I have set up my restaurant to try to work with small farmers so I have a menu that changes each day, allowing me to run shanks one day, loin chops the next, and so forth. Still, on a Saturday night at 8pm when we have sold through the pork porterhouse chops, customers can get irate when the server says we have run out. The concept that we might get six or eight porterhouse chops from a single hog is alien to most consumers and trying to explain that is an excercise in futility (and risks damaging the server’s tips).

    I have also positioned my restaurant’s price point where I can afford to pay the asking price to the farmer for the product. I don’t haggle on price. But if the asking price is so high that the end product won’t sell, then I don’t buy it. So you won’t often see tenderloin on my menu; customers won’t pay for it in this market. We are lucky in that the farmer we work with on beef works with a few select restaurants and among us all, we can consume almost all of the cuts from a steer. So the big-ticket DC restaurants take the prime cuts and we take skirts or hangers, and I assume somebody takes a lot of the burger. No matter how much we try, customers will not buy burger here.

    I find that using the so-called (and awesome tasting) “lesser cuts” forces me as a chef to be highly creative to entice the public into ordering cuts with which they might be unfamiliar. And creativity is not a bad thing for me and my crew–we thrive on it.

    For smaller animals such as lambs where we take the entire animal, we have other issues. How long does it take to accumulate enough hind shanks to put them on the menu for a single night? Where do we store them? [I have the tiniest freezer, big enough for a little ice cream and not much else]. How do we move through the entire carcass before it spoils? Lamb, unlike beef, does not age so gracefully.

    Consistency of supply is another issue. For rabbits, some weeks we get zero. Some weeks we get 14. Some weeks we get three. This is a menu challenge for certain!

    And of course, there are the customers that call on Wednesday and want lamb loin chops on Friday who have no clue how long it takes to get a lamb processed, delivered, broken down, and on the plate. And let’s not talk about the abbatoirs that have no clue what they are doing.

    I suppose that this is a long-winded way of saying that if a chef is committed (and like me, crazy enough), that there are models that can work. But it is a hell of a lot of work on both sides and I don’t think that end customers appreciate that aspect of what we all do.

    • Forrest Pritchard October 18, 2012 at 7:11 pm

      Dear Chef Ed,

      Thanks for taking the time to write this very eloquent response. I completely empathize with the challenges on your end, and applaud you for the ingenuity and flexibility you’ve built into your model. It’s great to hear from a chef who is more than just involved… you are understanding the production and supply challenges of your producers, and seeking to create a win-win situation. Bravo.

      Undoubtedly, despite the frustrating aspects involving customer communication, you ARE getting through to some of these folks. Although that’s difficult to quantify economically, we all must take solace in the occasional emotional paycheck!

      I’ll be sure to stop by One Block West again soon, and enjoy (as I always do) your wonderful menu.

  18. Sylvie In Rappahannock October 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    What a great conversation going with multiple point of views. Except none from a traditional restaurateur…, the one that relies on the Sysco truck, day in and day out…

    A willingness to understand and accept each other economic reality and work toward a common goal that can satisfy all parties is a common thread. Education is also another common thread… but we can each only do so much. It is hard to compete against cheap and a-seasonal food — even when taste and ethics win. As a people, we believe we are entitled to cheap food, and we are used to the taste of cheap – having closed our collective eyes and taste buds to its horrendous hidden costs (not so hidden that they can’t be found – just not glaringly obvious).

    It is only when most of us demand local sustainable foods that taste that what food should taste – and are willing to pay its true costs, so everyone along the chain makes a living wage and the land is also nourished for the future, it is only then that we will have more restaurants like One Block West — because then everyone will expect to eat like that!

    Meanwhile, let’s keep going. Because, there is really no alternative, is there?

    • Forrest Pritchard November 2, 2012 at 4:30 pm

      Thanks, Sylvie, for keeping it going. A great conversation, and I’ll plan to do a follow up at some point.

  19. Kristina Norrad October 19, 2012 at 7:25 pm - Reply

    have been attending a local market for 3 years now..and this last year was a big struggle dealing with the new manager/family…the only farmer from the begining to the end of the season but because of issues dealing with that new crew I’am pulling out and am looking to start up another with like minded local producers of foodssssss..the public has been a great support and I think they will be better served with people who hold thier best interest in thier health and eating local than the $$ from draws and trinkets..yes they have a place but how can you call yourselves a farmers market with only one farmer? At the market people will pay a fair price for good quality organic foods but here to you can’t get that price dealing with resturants ..or have that sprout grown to the same height day after day with out sunshine….so market do operate on a give and take system of what available..but here too we have to deal with the rainy day that keeps people away and into the grocery store for the one stop shop…I do thank the loyal customers that come weekly and still call when the market is done for the season which was way to short this year….Best of luck for everyone..eat healthy stay strong

  20. Henry Cammack November 10, 2012 at 8:34 pm - Reply

    Hey Everyone. I know this conversation has been dead for a while. But I just had a suggestion for all your farmers who have so much extra high quality ground beef. Start a Burger night. The farm I have worked on for the last two years has a bakery on the farm. They decided to start a burger night in Burlington, VT where we serve grass fed and finished beef burgers to the public. It does involve a staff of about 10 extra people and a lot of time and setup costs. But instead of selling the burgers at a wholesale price and still having extra they have 300-500 customers come out to the farm each Monday and Friday and eat a burger, hotdog, or veggie burger. While this has been a huge “Time Vampire” as Forrest said. It has provided them with a new market for ground beef and they can barely keep it on the shelves! You wouldn’t need the infrastructure they have if you kept it smaller. Being in Burlington,VT a pretty local food conscious community they had to get big quickly. They can get 3X more for the ground beef then they ever would have before at $7 a burger as opposed to $7 and LB. Plus it builds a whole new customer base and people keep coming back for other farm products. Just and idea and a bit of my own experience.

    Henry

    • Forrest Pritchard November 13, 2012 at 7:47 pm

      Henry,

      Thanks for this great idea. As a small farmer, it’s always great to have another ‘tool in the tool box,’ especially when it comes to value-adding to our plentiful ground beef supplies!

  21. Caitie Rountree November 25, 2012 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Forrest,

    I’m a farmers market customer of Smith Meadows (and fellow William & Mary alum! Hark upon the gale!) and have been so thrilled with your blog. Thanks so much for your willingness to participate in customer education in this space, and thanks to all of you who contribute to such lively, thoughtful and respectful dialogue.

    Supporting small farmers and the businesses that those farmers depend on to get food to my table has become a real passion for me. As a general rule of thumb, when I’m shopping for groceries, I ask myself how my purchases are supporting non-BigAg food production, and that usually allows me to make decisions I feel confident about. Eating out, though, has proven much trickier. I’d rather spend my money at a fumbling farm-to-table restaurant than a restaurant with no interest in food source, but as the discussion above illustrates, I know there are still a lot of “kinks” that need to be worked out.

    When it comes to dining out, it seems to me that smaller restaurants have more flexibility to experiment and dialogue with farmers than larger ones, but that larger restaurants may have the infrastructure or steady demand that could provide more stability in the long run (such as operating their own butchery, as one commenter mentioned). I also wonder if it’s a case of symbiotic evolution. It seems to me that a farm that caters to restaurants might need to specialize in a different direction than a farm that primarily sells directly to customers like me at markets. I’ve wondered the same thing about farms that participate in the “farm to school” model I’ve heard about.

    At any rate, I really just wanted to say “thank you” for shortening the distance from farm to table with this website as well as your meats!

    • Forrest Pritchard November 29, 2012 at 9:30 am

      Hi Caitie,

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I totally understand your motivation to support a nascent farm-to-table restaurant. When I eat out, I do the exact same thing… not only is it bound to taste better, but I get to experience the real food story in a way that’s otherwise impossible at a conventional restaurant.

      The symbiotic evolution suggestion is particularly insightful. Indeed, our farm has geared itself towards efficiencies that best suit a farmers market sales channel, but it certainly didn’t have to manifest itself that way. I’ve spoken to many producers who actually prefer to sell directly to restaurants (that is, unless/until the relationship sours, at least!); these growers look at me askance when I describe all the extra effort required to attend 7 different markets each weekend. For their farms, simply loading up the truck once a week and executing scheduled deliveries is the system that suits them best.

      Always great to hear from a member of the Tribe :^) Please introduce yourself at market sometime -I’m usually at Arlington Courthouse or Takoma Park each week- and thank you for supporting our family farm!

  22. Wendy Parker November 29, 2012 at 8:13 pm - Reply

    WOW! your whole blog post is a page out of our lives. 30 lbs of tenderloin for a catered dinner. 70 lbs of loin primals for a restaurant or how about the pork side needed at the end of the week, never mind about what to do with the other side. And yes, those “wholesale prices” that everyone wants.

    We are a small, heritage pork producer, well small by industry standards, but rather large in comparison to other local pastured pork producers that are chasing that farm to fork fable. We finish about 150 hogs a year, all on pasture year round.

    Most of our sales are to private consumers either by the side or by the USDA retail cut. We do work with 2 restaurants regularly and then one very nice establishment that uses our pork for special events.

    Our favorite chef to work with is a true farm to table sort of guy. He uses a chalk board menu and rarely has the same thing on his menu more then 2 days in a row. He doesn’t dicker over price and never ever even asks for a wholesale price. What he does do is use the flexibility in his menu to help us move our less popular USDA cuts in a timely manner and in return he gets great pork at a good price. It is a perfect symbiotic relationship. He calls and asks “what we have allot of” in the freezers. I tell him and give him a good price (but not a give away price) and then I drop it off on my way through town. No special trips to the butcher, no last minute “must haves”, no feeling like I am getting scalped on the price and best of all, he has made it much easier to use the whole pig! If he needs a particular item that is one of our better sellers (bacon comes to mind) then he pays whatever price I need to get for it. He wants to help his farmers stay in business and we want him to stay in business. It is a win win situation for all involved. He does this with all of his suppliers. Oh and my favorite thing about Adam (the chef/owner at Broken Bread) is that he LOVES boar meat. Occasionally we have a piglet that doesn’t get castrated for some reason or other. While we butcher them fairly young (8 months is young for a heritage hog), they still have that extra flavor in the meat. He loves to cook with flavorful meat and has been invaluable in moving several boars out of our fields and onto the dinner plate of folks all over town. Otherwise, my family would be eating a bunch of boar meat.

    Anyway. Great conversations you have here on your blog. I just found you today but I’ll be a regular reader from now one. Thanks for all you write!

  23. Dinosaur Tamer October 2, 2014 at 9:16 am - Reply

    There is an incredible new book out called The Third Plate. It is about just this sort of interaction, and it is written by a pioneering chef in the farm-to-table movement (Dan Barber). I highly recommend it, because I think he is speaking your language.

  24. pagevalleyorganics November 4, 2014 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    I run a very small farm in Page County. Hi Sylvie!! I have raised Tamworth hogs for two years now plus a few steers, selling retail off the farm and at the farmer’s market. Last year, I opened a food booth at the Market and cooked up sausage biscuits and breakfast sandwiches, and Italian sausages and bacon burgers for lunch. I had to have an outlet for all of that sausage and burger meat! And that was upselling for my own beef and sausage while still maintaining awesome prices. What an way to add to my profitability, and to entice people to buy retail since they just tried the product!! Given this success, we are in the nascent stages of trying to figure out the economics of a farm to table cafe and marketplace here in the county, in a historic building on Main Street. I am finding there are lots and lots of options concerning grant money for farm to table business endeavors, so I am a farmer in the process of becoming a cafe and retail food (sourced only from chemical and drug free local farms) store, based upon the success of the Farmer’s Market food booth. Yes, I am clear that we are stepping into dramatically more overhead, and will start with an outdoor 8 tent market in the Spring in the parking lot of the building while renovations go on inside. We are hopeful that by next winter, people will be willing to step inside, and enjoy an expanded menu, and take our retail products home with them. I’m Dancing Cow Farm on Facebook, and I will be posting regarding our progress! Literally in the second week of conceptualizing!! Any sources anyone wants to point me to are welcome!! Business planning, grant money, local organic farms willing to coordinate and grow for the market, etc. Warm regards, love the thread, much food for thought. Susan

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