Harvest / Venerate the Plough
The author tends to his vertical farm.
Photo by Eric Frick
Millennials may flirt with the idea of farming for a living—they yearn to fill their Instagram pages with sunflowers, muddy boots, and old rustic barns. They have no idea.
Four weeks in and the farm is a disaster. Granted, it’s only an indoor vertical farm, free of mother nature’s influence, but a farm nonetheless: one that demands daily attention. This past Saturday, I forgot to water. Just one day. The bed of dill looks like a tire ran over it. The brown basil leaves, which are supposed to be a succulent green, extend sideways, reaching out for that drop of water that never materialized. Death by LED. Only the micro peas survived. This is strange, because I was told they require the most water.
Kent’s advice echoes in my mind. (He’s one of the best farmers in Western New York.) “Always go see the farm, he says. “If the animals look unkept, or if you see a bunch of old equipment lying around, then I wouldn’t buy from them.” I survey the scene. Water puddles beneath grow beds that are caked with nauseating residue. Several empty plastic seed containers lie crushed and scattered on the floor.
A few months earlier, I knew nothing about farming. Farmland has always been in the way, filling space between destinations: the miles of corn rows dulling the view on the way to the beach, the flat pastures that stretch forever on either side of I-90. Airplane travel is the same. I often peer down at the shadow of the plane as it glides over squares, circles, and diagonal lines, each signifying a change of farm properties. Flyover country here in America looks like a giant backgammon board.
Now my perception has changed. I gaze at pastures with wide wonder. I try to imagine what crops are growing, while admiring the farmer, the custodian of said land. My transformation has come out of necessity. My wife and I just opened a farm-forward restaurant in downtown Buffalo called Rowhouse. Given our proximity to some of the best farmland in the country, it only makes sense that we try to design our menu around locally available proteins, produce, and fruit.
Some attribute Western New York’s rich farm network to the microclimates around the Great Lakes. Others say that glacial sands, deposited thousands of years ago, created a unique soil laden with minerals. Whatever the reasons, our goal at the restaurant is to capitalize on this without losing our shirt in the process.
We live in a world where it’s cheaper to buy a peach coming off a skid from California than it is to get a much fresher peach from a farm twenty miles from the back door of our restaurant. It comes down to volume. The gigantic farms grow so much that they can afford to deliver product at a rate far cheaper than the small farmer, who struggles with every step in bringing that seed to the salad. To stay afloat the small farmers must pass their cost onto the restaurants, who then pass it onto their customers, creating an expensive cycle.
The phrase “Farm to Table” annoys some people and too many restaurants overuse the technique of naming farms in an attempt to market their menu. In fact, several restaurants have been busted for lying about where they get their products, using farm attribution to raise their menu prices. Most chefs desire consistency, which is why they are often OK with sourcing from giant food purveyors like Sysco and US Foods, with their just-in-time logistical systems and low prices, rather than from the farmers who typically deliver at scattered times with uneven volume counts. But we are willing to accept all of these headaches and figure out a way to make it work with local farmers, because they have the freshest products. And by fresh, I really mean peak freshness.
Peak freshness is that precious moment when a living specimen is ripe and ready to be consumed: the luscious red raspberry, glistening in the summer morning light, begging to be plucked; the plump young Mangalitsa pig, brought to the butcher shop at the tender age of eighteen months with the perfect fat to muscle ratio that time of life provides; the coffee cherry, picked, washed, dried and roasted all within a week’s time. We desire the freshness not because its trendy, but because it tastes better.
As we start brokering relationships with local farmers, we arrive at another roadblock with proteins. Our chef flat out refuses to accept anything frozen. The farmers and butchers freeze the meat immediately upon slaughter to preserve shelf life and manage their inventory. In fact, the entire farm sourcing system here in Western New York is predicated on moving frozen rather than fresh meat.
“Chef, the farmers say that customers can’t tell the difference,” I say.
“Of course, they are going to say that,” he replies, “they’re trying to sell you a product.”
“Brian Gilvasy, a rancher from Ontario who supplies some of the best spots in Toronto, says frozen meat, when thawed, actually tastes better,” I respond. “He says his chefs allow the meat to thaw out then it ages for several more days, so it’s actually fresh.”
“That flies in the face of science,” he argues. “When you freeze meat, you drastically alter the physical texture. Ice crystals form inside and when they pop it damages the cells.”
“Fine, I guess we’ll just do produce and fruit,” I say in a defeated tone.
Chef snaps, “You’ve figured out nothing. Go to the Amish, go to Canada. I just don’t get it. There’s a point where the animal is killed, right? Why can’t I get it then? We are the buyers. We should get what we want.”
“No, it’s what the farmers want,” I yell back.
Roughly forty percent of America is farmland. Though the land is vast, its occupiers are few. Farmers make up only two percent of the population and half of them are women. The average age of the American farmer is fifty-seven. It’s a dying profession because it’s grueling work. And when I say dying, I mean, literally. Thus far in 2018, over 200 farmers have committed suicide. The federal government recently sent out suicide prevention pamphlets with milk checks to New York farmers.
Millennials may flirt with the idea of farming for a living—they yearn to fill their Instagram pages with sunflowers, muddy boots, and old rustic barns. They have no idea. The sheer willpower it takes to wake up each morning and test your luck against the forces of nature requires a confidence and resourcefulness our attention-deprived generation sadly lacks.
When a tractor breaks down in the field, a farmer doesn’t wait on hold with a Triple A dispatcher; he fixes it himself. When her animals get sick or give birth, the farmer nurses the beast back to health. The farmer is a perfect mix of a dozen different disciplines. The farmer is a meteorologist, predicting the weather and then learning how to defend against it, as droughts, wind, and rain wreak havoc on crops. A farmer is a soil scientist, able to determine pH balance by sucking on a wad of dirt.
Kent Miller, who was mentioned earlier, runs Plato Dale Farm. I met him on a snow-swept plateau in Arcade, where he grows over sixty unique products on his 200-acre property. We were sitting on the ground in his heated high tunnel, not far from where his cows stood.
“I’ll put my chickens frozen up against any fresh bird out there,” said Miller that day. He attributes the high-quality taste to yellow beta keratin the chickens get from his seeds. “The better the seed, the better the chicken. The same goes for running. The muscles are developed in their legs. But there is a cost to that.” Miller said there wasn’t enough margin with chickens to add another step such as delivering them fresh.
He refers us to a buddy, Sam, who he thinks would be up to the challenge of delivering us fresh protein, adding, “He is an ambitious guy. I keep telling him he has got to run his birds more, though.”
Sam was trying to fix the starter on his truck, using an instructional YouTube video on his cell when I approached. He said he needed the truck to plow the following day. Most farmers are forced to work more than one job to sustain themselves. Sam’s property consists of several houses, barns, garages, piles of mud, pigs, jungle gyms, and an old camper used to house chickens.
Sam’s overalls and boots are caked with mud. He tells me he focuses on livestock because there aren’t enough hours in the day to do produce. “Cattle are a lot easier to raise, easy to maintain. Veggies are maybe easier to sell, but you’re talking only four to six months a year, and it’s a lot of work. You need lots of help.”
Sam agrees to get us fresh birds under two conditions: if we give him a guaranteed weekly order, and if he can find regularly scheduled time with a licensed butcher. (There is a serious dearth of certified slaughterhouses in Western New York.) Our only request is that the animals get delivered in a refrigerated truck. Sam assures us he was in the process of organizing this (he’s trying to build it himself).
After the third delivery out of coolers from the back of his pickup truck, we part ways with Sam.
“It’s always two weeks. The truck will be ready in two weeks’ time,” says Phil Bianchi sarcastically when I recounted the situation. Phil manages Rochester-based Headwater Food Hub, a logistical network connecting farmers and restaurants. “It’s tough because many small farmers simply don’t have the capital to invest in a $40k refrigerated truck, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Transporting fresh meat is a very risky business.”
Headwater’s business model revolves around a marketplace website that allows chefs to shop from an array of farmers and products, all off invoice. Farmers like them because they pay generously for product. Headwater essentially pays the farmers a season ahead of time to grow the food they think will sell, which gives them the best margins. They work with primarily organic and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)-certified farmers, which drives up prices for their restaurant customers.
Rowhouse signs up to be Headwaters’ first Buffalo client. Their product comes in fresh each week, but it isn’t cheap. Unfortunately, that cost has to be passed on to our customers. Restaurants typically need four dollars coming in for every dollar going out. Paying double the price for any commodity is a difficult decision.
Headwater works primarily with Amish farmers. The Amish are stereotyped as growing superior food at much cheaper rates. They have two advantages. They rely heavily on family labor, and their religious status means they are not subject to the same rules and regulations as normal farmers. Specifically, they pay no workmen’s compensation or social security.
One of their religious tenets states that they can’t benefit selfishly from technology, so very few Amish farmers carry cell phones, use computers, or drive vehicles. Many of the Amish peddle their products thru weekly community auctions.
Buyers from all the large grocery stores were in attendance the day I visit the Orleans auction. I corner the auctioneer, looking for intel. “Each farm has a code,” he tells me. “Memorize the codes for the best farmers and only bid on their stuff. Wait till after the reps from the bigger stores are finished buying.”
Although the pricing at auction is affordable, everything is sold in palette quantity, which works for supermarkets but not so much for restaurants. In a good week at Rowhouse, we may go thru a case of kale, but a palette contains forty-eight cases.
Just as farming is a balance that is learned over time, so, too, is the process of sourcing from the farms. Only by sinking down into it, can you discover efficiencies and build real relationships with growers who may be able to hook you up by selling you their seconds, product that doesn’t look as nice but still tastes just as good. Another, better option is to pay the farmer a season ahead of time to grow the crops we need, hoping that a freak weather event doesn’t blow up the deal.
Ultimately, however, the best option is to grow the food yourself. This is the only way to get the margins necessary to run a competitive restaurant, especially in a city like Buffalo where customers don’t appreciate jacked-up prices. In writing this story, I befriended Dan Roelf, the head of Arden Farms in East Aurora. In a family dispute, he lost control of the land he had been grooming for the better part of the last decade. Dan is known to grow some of the best herbs anywhere. After careful due diligence studying soil maps, Dan discovers that a plot of land we own in East Aurora contains superior soil. In exchange for reduced rent, Dan will start growing his products on our property and will supply Rowhouse at reduced rates. This is the kind of cooperative effort we need to make the numbers work. He will begin producing crops next summer.
In the meantime, the vertical farm at Rowhouse serves as my training lab. It has helped me to better understand the farming process—and the challenging economics of running a restaurant.