From garden to menu
June 9, 2008 · Updated 2:55 PM
"On a sunny afternoon, Rebecca Slattery's farm seems as inexorable as spring itself.But these days, the mysterious force of nature pushing the first intrepid crops to the sky withers in the face of an element perhaps even more arcane: the market.As Bainbridge farmers search for ways to sell their crops for enough money to meet the rising costs of staying on the island, they are learning to nurture not only chard, kale and cauliflower, but also potential clients.We definitely need (to do that) on Bainbridge, Slattery said, because we're such an endangered species - farmers here.One step in that direction took place Monday evening, when local farmers met with restaurateurs at Winslow's La Belle Saison, to discuss how to build a stronger farm to table relationship.Currently, most people who eat at island restaurants have no idea where their food comes from, farmers said, and that prevents consumers from being grounded in the community.It's just very evident that if we are what we eat, then we are where we eat, Bainbridge Island Winery owner Gerard Bentryn said. And if you don't eat from Bainbridge Island, you are just passing through.Eating local produce unites peoples' senses with the land and the work of their neighbors, said area farmer and director of the Kitsap Food and Farm Alliance, Sandy Shallots.It gives people more than just words, she said. People can taste and smell and touch - we call it the wow effect - and they are able to see a vision of our community. It just shows people that this is where I live, this is a sense of place and a farm-to-table connection.Those bonds have been fragmented in an era characterized by globalization and corporate control of production, where most food comes from industrialized mega-farms or off-season suppliers overseas, participants at the meeting agreed.People are distanced from the community, Bentryn told attendees. We are the only people who can connect them to where they live. Food is beautiful, food is magical, food is mystical, and it is spirituality for agnostics.Owners from the four restaurants present at the gathering, which was filled to capacity with farmers, expressed willingness to buy more island produce.I won't be able to completely use all local produce, said La Belle Saison owner Jeannie Wood, who hosted the event, but I want to feature it.Other restaurant owners echoed that sentiment, asserting a willingness to purchase local products but citing limited available quantities and high prices as constraining factors.You cannot buy 100 percent organic produce from the island and be able to survive, said Bistro Pleasant Beach owner Hussein Ramadan.Nevertheless, Ramadan already buys such produce on a consistent basis and expressed empathy for the plight of island farmers.I grew up in a small farm back in Lebanon and we used to grow everything on the farm, he said, So it's a passion, and I know how hard it is for you to do your jobs and at the same time to make a living and sell your products.Likewise, farmers seemed to understand the constraints faced by restaurant owners.I worked as a chef in kitchens on the island for 10 years, said Brian MacWhorter, who owns Bainbridge Island's Butler Green organic farm. I always knew it was a price deal (governing purchasing decisions).But one chef-turned-agriculturalist reflected that she could have better supported local farmers. I wasn't the best steward of local produce that I could have been, said apprentice Liz Huffman at the Persephone Farm. I could have pushed a more local agenda and found a way to meet the bottom line in other ways.Even if locally purchased produce costs more, it leads to new opportunities, said New Rose Cafe owner Larry Hile.It would be a good start for us for producing some different seasonings, he said. Craft is the foundation of good cooking, and food is only as good as the products that you use.That outlook has made Hile a good match for Slattery's Persephone Farm greens.At this farm we do a really fancy salad mix with especially flavorful little herbs, she said Monday, as she turned a bed soon to be seeded with such plants. Salad greens are really my passion, and it's a labor of love.Such labors don't leave much time for other things, and both groups at the meeting observed that the day-to- day demands of their jobs make it difficult to take out extra time to sustain connections.Farmers feel like they work too many hours, which they do, Wood said. But so do we, so there has to be more communication. We have smallish farms, which is fantastic, but somebody big like (Bistro Pleasant Beach owner) Hussein has definite needs.Larger size requires better planning, Ramadan said, and farmers should participate in that. It would help me as a chef if the farmers could call on say, Tuesday, and tell me that they have this and this, he said, because I plan my menus a week before.Farmers added that restaurateurs could also provide more guidance. I need to know, with all of the varieties (of crops) that I grow, what interests (chefs) for the kinds of dishes they are making, said Betsey Wittick, owner of Laughing Crow Farm. Monday's meeting seemed to provide a good opportunity for farmers and restaurateurs to network. They swapped cooking and cropping strategies, while munching on snacks that included a quiche made with leeks and sorrel from the farm of Darrah Cole.One speaker promised to make networking easier in the future, even instantaneous.If you have surplus vegetables, then you can post it on (the web), said Bainbridge Island Community Network director Dave Henry, and it will zing it out to all those people who are looking for it.The goal of such Internet involvement, Henry said, would be to catch people who use on-line resources to buy far-flung products, and direct them back to the resources available in their own community.Restaurateurs can also nudge consumers to check out their own back yards, Wood said, by featuring local farms on their menus. The carte from La Belle Saison, for example, lists local ingredients used by the restaurant and the farms that produce them.Informative menus also help in other ways, Wood joked.Maybe if (customers) are reading something, she said, they won't complain about the service being slow.Besides, it's exactly that sort of speed-driven, impersonal mentality that local farmers and restaurant owners must work together to combat, said farm intern and former waitress Anna Oeste.I am passionate about getting out of the McDonald's phase, she said. I would like to see us get beyond that and start paying attention to the ties in the community.This is the first in a series of April articles on local farming."