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The farm-to-table movement has increased in popularity in recent years, largely due to shifting attitudes that prioritize food safety, food freshness, food seasonality and small-farm economics.
The farm-to-table social movement started in California. However, the movement has rapidly spread to the East Coast, where these restaurants are starting to pop up quickly with the growing demand.
While farms in California are largely able to produce year-round, farms in most of the nation experience little production for a portion of the year. The winter season presents new challenges for these restaurants that largely depend on fresh, local produce to keep up with standards.
There are several different strategies and techniques that farmers and restaurant owners utilize to keep up with demand during the winter.
Farmers that provide for farm-to-table restaurants often plan for the season early on.
Kyle Goedde, the farm manager at Great Road Farm for the Fenwick Hospitality Group in Princeton, New Jersey, meets with the chefs to develop a crop plan. The chefs discuss what produce they're going to be looking for throughout the season, and the farmers then work to produce those crops.
"In terms of winter, we mostly switch to stored crops, so right now, carrots, beets, rutabaga, turnips, those types of crops. We have those harvested and stored, and they will usually last until April in the cooler," Goedde said.
Fenwick Hospitality Group restaurants, including Agricola, Cargot Brasserie and The Dinky Bar and Kitchen, switch up their menus as winter approaches to focus more on the seasonal crops, according to Goedde.
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"The menu is tailored to reflect the storage crops in the winter. From the farm side, we produce an abundance of those crops at the tail end of fall, then we harvest and store those crops," Goedde said.
The farm has a couple of coolers in its barn, and employees can adjust the temperature for different crops. They store the crops washed in those coolers and ship them to the restaurant as needed.
They also have a heated greenhouse where they produce micro-greens and pea foods, so they have fresh greens throughout the winter, according to Goedde.
"The priority is the farm in the planning process. The way we’re set up here, if the chefs are looking for something that we don’t have, the next step is other local farms and local distributors. If it still can’t be found, it goes to normal distributions, but that is the last choice," Goedde said.
"We produce all year long, the animals are here 365 days a year and we harvest once a week every 52 weeks. So, from the protein side, there isn’t really a seasonality that goes with it," McConaughy said.
The same is true for their grains. The grains, such as wheat, rye and corn, are harvested in the fall, and they largely last throughout the year.
"The protein and the grains are about 70 percent of what is on the average menu, and we’re doing that 365 days a year," McConaughy said.
In terms of vegetables, the farm relies largely on root vegetables, such as onions, carrots, beets and yams, in the winter. The farm also has five greenhouses to produce lettuce and micro-greens in the winter.
"The only gap that we have are the plants that are unique to the summer, like eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers. So, our menu changes as we get into winter, you’re not going to see a lot of those summertime crops," McConaughy said.
Liz Hoffner, owner of Revival Kitchen in Reedsville, Pennsylvania, explains that Revival Kitchen closes for about six to eight weeks typically following Valentine's Day.
"People drive here, so we’re really weather-dependent. Most of our clientele is coming from about 45 minutes away in places like State College [Pennsylvania]," Hoffner said.
The restaurant has a few techniques for keeping up with demand. They freeze, preserve, pickle, ferment and can a lot of their produce, as well as change their menu with the seasons.
"We print new menus out every week. We talk to our farmers every Monday and then depending on what’s available, we rework the menu. If there’s no more broccoli then we take it off the menu, we’ll maybe have cauliflower or Brussels sprouts instead," Hoffner said.
Many farm-to-table restaurants can benefit from local food hubs in the winter months. Some farm-to-table restaurants rely on food hubs for their local and organic products for every season.
Local food hubs are mission-based aggregators and local farm-product distributors. They have risen in popularity with the farm-to-table movement, according to Chesapeake Farm-to-Table Executive Director Heather Hulsey.
They differ from normal food distributors, which are more profit-based and typically import things from South and Central America during the winter. Food hubs are supplied with local food. Their mission is to further local food and to help farmers, Hulsey said.
New technology and strategies have helped farmers to improve growing conditions during the winter, such as vitalizing greenhouses and developing sustainable storage methods. The popularity of farm-to-table restaurants has increased the demand for local produce and has led many farmers to extend their season through winter, according to Hulsey.
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