Have you ever wondered what farmers do all winter? Even when the soil is too cold or muddy to be worked or the animals slow down production, there is still plenty of work to be done. In fact much of the business of farming happens this time of year.
More than 200 farmers, food buyers, and agricultural professionals came together at ASAP’s Business of Farming conference last month. The echoey halls of UNC Asheville were filled with the voices of farmers who came from right up the road and all the way from eastern Tennessee.
They learned some of the fundamentals of running a farm business, like how to start a CSA, ways to strengthen their business plans, and how to tell their farm’s story. One of the most popular sessions was about the “do’s and don’ts” of selling to restaurants and how farmers and chefs can work together.
“It’s a powerful thing for chefs to have a story to tell their guests,” chef Philip Bollhoefer explains as he looks out at the crowd. He sources many of the vegetables and meats at Omni Grove Park Inn’s eight restaurants from local producers, often visiting their farms and getting to know them personally before using their food in his kitchens.
Paul Littman from Ivy Creek Family Farm is one of those farmers. He has lots of advice for growers who want to get their products on restaurant menus, like how to create a reliable schedule and ways to anticipate the needs of local chefs.
Littman says he thinks of Chef Philip when he’s out thinning carrots, and hopes that Bollhoefer thinks of his family’s farm when he prepares them in the kitchen. They agree that many diners are curious about where their food comes from, and having a farmer’s story to go along with the gourmet lettuce on their plates is a tangible way to connect the community with local farms.
Griffin Dodd of Red Scout Farm is eager to build these connections. He moved here last July with his wife Mary Carol to grow produce for farmers markets, a CSA, and hopefully restaurants. “Because we’re a local Black Mountain farm, we want to have a relationship with restaurants in Black Mountain so they can say, ‘this is coming from right up the road.’ Also, it fits in with our holistic goal of saying we want to be an integral part of the community and grow healthy food for the community where they know where it’s coming from,” he says.
The Dodds are about to embark on their farm’s first full season. They came to the the conference today to make new contacts as they get established. “I learned a lot of things in this session because we’re hearing from, not only the restaurateurs, but the farmer who’s been involved with them, so seeing how they built their relationship has certainly added to what I’m going to be thinking when we go talk to restaurants.”
The grower / buyer meetings are about to begin downstairs. Dozens of chefs, grocers, and specialty food producers are waiting to meet with farmers about adding new products to their menus and grocery shelves.
Chef Philip Bollhoefer is already there, ready to meet farmers from this morning’s class and others who might be good producers for the Omni Grove Park Inn.
Robin Reeves strides over to his table. She’s the seventh generation to run Reeves Home Place Farm in Madison County, North Carolina and she’s here today to find new ways to sustain her family business. Chef Philip perks up when she mentions she might expand her turkey production. They have a lively conversation about potentially working together this season.
Chefs have a lot of choices when it comes to selecting ingredients. Even though it might be easier to order from a large food supplier, there are many advantages to getting to know farmers at these kinds of events. “It’s exciting to buy local produce,” Bollhoefer says. “Going down a product guide on a computer and never knowing where the product may be coming from, it’s not very rewarding. I know when I’m placing a big order with a farm, that actually helps sustain a family.”
This year’s Business of Farming conference sparked dozens of conversations and potential business relationships, and gave farmers practical tools to succeed this season. Keep up with what these and other farms are doing all year at www.asapconnections.org