Pacts Rule

Forging a chef-partner partnership can yield substantial perks for both parties.

Chefs partnering with farmers is the latest evolution in the farm-to-table movement. Such arrangements go beyond chefs shopping farmers markets or developing a stable of nearby growers. These partnerships vary, from farmers growing exclusively for a chef to dedicating specific acreage to the restaurant. But they all allow what makes the partnerships so alluring: chefs getting the exact produce they want, right down to choosing the seeds.

“That’s really where the next level of farm-to-table needs to go,” says Meghan Sheradin, executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, a group that works to build farmer-chef relationships. “The power of having commitments and planning with each other is super important.”

Locally sourced food is more popular than ever, claiming the top spot for the third year running in the National Restaurant Association’s menu trend survey of more than 1,000 chefs. Sustainability and other farm-to-table buzzwords claim six of the top 10 hot topics for 2014. Farmer-chef business duos can be structured in several ways. A season’s worth of produce can be paid upfront (a highly risky option), while other partnerships have payment structures in place. Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms and Chef-proprietor David Kinch of Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos, Calif., agree on a monthly fee for all produce grown on the farm. Sandberg says Manresa makes up about 20 percent of her farm’s profits. 

“It’s hard to quantify the benefits, like the publicity my farm gets from being partnered with one of the best restaurants in the world,” she says. “I can sell more seats in my gardening classes and cooking classes. If I didn’t have any other revenue, he would have to pay me more.”

Special arrangements can also prove fruitful, providing income flow for the farmer and easing the billing for the chef. Per pound rates for each item paid on delivery work for chef-farmer partners like Co-owner Sean Baker of Gather in Berkeley, Calif., and Verbena in San Francisco, and farmer Linda Butler of Lindencroft Farm in Ben Lomond, Calif. 

“It was the most beautiful farm I’ve ever seen,” says Baker. “Perfectly storybook. Everything she grew was just very beautiful. You could feel the attention to detail.”

Baker, who buys everything grown at Lindencroft Farm for his restaurants, purchases 50 to 200 pounds of produce each week depending on the season. The Butlers set the price for each item, based on market rates and their labor.

Baker will, however, start a discussion about prices. Once Butler tells him how much labor was required to harvest a product (tiny edible flowers for garnishes, for example), he often agrees to the original quote.

Custom grown produce can cost 5 to 20 percent more than conventional, but Baker’s diners are willing to pay more for such high-quality ingredients. In addition, his chefs are careful about waste.

To keep food costs in line, chefs can make slight price increases for popular high-volume cocktails or dishes. Another option is to source specialty and heirloom items through a farmer partnership but workhorse ingredients, like garlic and onions, elsewhere. 

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer,” says Daniel Pliska, executive chef of the University Club at the University of Missouri and the American Culinary Federation Central Missouri chapter president. “The relationship needs to be really honed well. One has to be able to support the other. It depends on where you’re located and the profile of your restaurant menu.”

Partnering with a farm puts a restaurant on the forefront of the local food movement, which will likely attract diners who support farm-to-table experiences. This publicity benefits the farmer, too. 

Beyond potential media mentions, the restaurant receives individual attention from the farmer and the selection of premium and niche ingredients. 

Sandberg grows hundreds of varieties of vegetables, some esoteric, for Kinch. Since he is the only chef she grows for, produce can be harvested at any stage, such as kale when the leaves are a certain length. “I don’t have to worry about the specifications of another customer,” she says. 

The partnership has a ripple effect with restaurant staff. Employees can visit the farm, weed and work the land to make a connection with the food they are cooking or serving. They, in turn, can share firsthand experiences with customers.

For many chefs, the partnerships lead to side benefits. Baker has not only seen a strengthened friendship with Butler, but also a creative inspiration for his cooking. “It’s given me a whole lot more personal connection to the dishes I cook,” he says.

"It’s given me a whole lot more personal connection to the dishes I cook."

-Sean Baker, co-owner at Gather and Verbena restaurants

Chefs must vet prospective farmers by talking with other chefs, growers and organizations, and by asking hard questions about the farmer’s experience, business model and growing practices. “A good gardener doesn’t always equate to be a good farmer for your restaurant,” Sandberg says.

Ensuring that the farmer can supply enough of the right product is also a consideration. For an operator like Pliska, who runs five kitchens at the University of Missouri, it’s almost impossible to find one small farm that can supply everything he needs.

Kitchens also need to be prepared for whatever the farm brings. Canning and preserving techniques come in handy to stretch the use of high-quality ingredients. Both chefs and farmers are at the mercy of weather and other unpredictable variables that could decrease expected yields, such as blight and livestock illnesses.

The farmer—not the chef— should select the farmland, Sandberg says, adding it’s essential to ensure that the farmer lives on the land. “You want a farmer who is completely in tune to what happens on the land, whether it’s 5 a.m. or 10 p.m., or when the pipe breaks or the animals break out of the pasture in the middle of the night,” she says.

These relationships are delicate ecosystems, with each side dependent upon the other. “If he goes out of business, I’m going to have to find another customer,” Sandberg says. “And the downside for him is if I go out of business, he has to start his partnership all over again with another farmer.”

But even with these risks, both sides agree that the increased quality is worth it. 

“If you run a small business dedicated to quality, you have to buy ingredients like we’re talking about to keep your food at a high level of quality,” Baker says. 

Heather Lalley is a Chicago-based freelance writer, author of the farm-to-table cookbook “The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook” and a part-time baker.

Read This Before Digging In

Whether the chef-farmer relationship is exclusive or not, it requires bushels of trust and communication on both sides. Some considerations:

Know the details of the farm’s operating methods, from weeding to watering, especially when summer can bring repeated rainless days.

Understand the risk involved and be sure to have a contingency plan in case of problems.

Be the kid in a candy store for a moment, but heed the farmer’s advice when he says the obscure strain of cauliflower you want won’t grow well in your region. 

Promote the uniqueness of growing ingredients to your specifications with your guests.

Go for a trial season to see how the arrangement works out; add an escape clause in the contract.