Farm-to-Table: Connecting Sustainable Chefs and Farmers

Vermont takes the farm-to-table movement seriously. So seriously that they have a nonprofit organization called Vermont Fresh Network and its primary goal is to connect farmers with local chefs. It also helps to keep the consumer updated on these partnerships. There is a good reason for the kind of oversight and communication that the Vermont Fresh Network provides as Vermont restaurants spend millions of dollars each year on Vermont produce, meat and dairy products.

The Farmhouse Group owns four restaurants in Burlington that collectively spend approximately $1.3 million each year on purchasing meat, produce, cheese, dairy and miscellaneous farm products like eggs, bread, masa, and cornmeal, from local farms.

Farmer Eric Seitz delivers greens from Pitch Fork Farm to executive chef Kevin Sprouse at The Farmhouse Tap and Grill.

Of note is the evolution of the Farmhouse Group’s relationship with local farms and The Farmhouse Tap and Grill’s intense commitment to get local farm produce on their menu.

Since cooking their first meals in 2010, The Farmhouse has made it their mission to showcase Vermont grown, raised and produced ingredients. This might sound like an easy task, especially in a state like Vermont where craft farms dot the landscape. However, when you serve, on average, 700 pounds of beef a week and 21,890 pounds of greens annually, the task is monumental and takes more than an enthusiastic chef and a collection of hardworking farmers. In fact, just last year company president Jed Davis decided after five years of operation that it was time to hire a dedicated salaried Farmhouse purchaser, Tom Deckman, who focuses specifically on projecting food needs, stocking the walk-ins and filling orders with farmers. This decision marked a critical moment in their commitment to Vermont farmers as it raised their efforts beyond a single kitchen mentality and freed their chefs to focus on their individual responsibilities.

Deckman explains that the original intent of hiring him was to give chefs more time to manage their kitchens. What has emerged is a full-time position that has helped The Farmhouse Group streamline their local purchasing. Over the past five years, consistent numbers have emerged, which guide Deckman and the chefs when projecting quantities for the year to come.

Forecasting quantities for the farmers

Spencer Welton at his Half Pint Farm.

Deckman said, “Each February we look at the previous year’s purchases and any changes to the menus to forecast the upcoming season’s numbers.” While The Farmhouse Group has formed partnerships with over 20 farms, there are five that provide the bulk of their purchases. For these five farms, The Farmhouse Group is responsible for one-half to one-third of their sales, making the February projections critical for each farmer. With five years of reliable, consistent numbers, the February projections have helped to create a mutually beneficial relationship for both chefs and farmers. All of these February conversations between Deckman and the farmers end in a handshake contract that ensures that the chefs get what they need and ensures a guaranteed sale for the farmers.

Farmhouse Tap and Grill Executive Chef Kevin Sprouse attends all those February meetings with Deckman and the farmers. He also makes regular visits to the farms during the growing season so that he can touch base with the farmers and see how things are progressing in the fields and hothouses. Each farm, large and small, fill a need for Sprouse and he values them all. While the Jericho Settler’s Farm’s 200 acres provides large quantities of greens, root vegetables and tomatoes year-round, what The Half Pint farm grows on its 2.5 acres in Burlington’s Intervale is just as important to Sprouse.

200-acre to 2.5-acre farms

Sprouse said, “Because they grow on a smaller scale, the Half Pint Farm is more willing to try new things and grow small batches of experimental crops.” This is what Half Pint farmer Spencer Welton calls growing, “the fun stuff.” On his 2.5 acres, Welton grows 400 varieties of herbs and vegetables and specializes in baby and specialty items like edible flowers. He hires three full-time seasonal employees to help grow and harvest. He and his wife, Mara, like working with finicky crops that require extra labor and close attention. They provide products for approximately 38 clients, a combination of restaurants, food trucks, and caterers, but they sell the bulk of their produce at farmers markets. On the day we visited their farm, Mara was out making deliveries that consisted of 86 bunches of French Breakfast radishes, micro greens, 29 mini lettuce heads and 20 pounds of Burdock root. The Farmhouse purchases make up only 1.5 percent of their yearly sales.

Jericho Settlers’ Farm herbs for sale at their greenhouse

While the Half Pint Farm initiated their relationship with the Farmhouse Tap and Grill by passing along an availability list to Deckland, another small farm, Does’ Leap in Bakersfield, Vermont, began their relationship with the Farmhouse chefs at the Burlington Farmer’s market. George van Vlaanderen and his wife Kristan Doolan’s goat dairy provides the Farmhouse with an average of 20 pounds of Chevre and 5 pounds of Feta a week. While this is their biggest restaurant account, it provides only 7 percent of their yearly sales. However, van Vlaanderen said that it is a consistent 7 percent – sales with the Farmhouse Tap and Grill do not fluctuate. He credits the common and deep-seated goals between owners and chefs for the Farmhouse Group’s consistency and commitment to his farm.

The Jericho Settlers’ Farm in Jericho, Vermont, sits on 200 acres and specializes in year-round vegetable production. Husband and wife team Mark Fasching and Christa Alexander produce 25 acres of certified organic vegetables, flowers and herbs each year. A total of 175 acres of the farm is devoted to grazing sheep, pigs and poultry and a full acre of crops are raised year-round in their hoop and greenhouses. They began working with the Farmhouse Tap and Grill the year they opened, providing them primarily with grass-fed beef. Since then, they have shifted away from meat production and now grow vegetables year-round. “The Farmhouse shifted right along with us,” Alexander said.

For the 2016 season, in addition to many other products, Deckman has projected purchasing 6,000 pounds of cabbage and 5,000 pounds of tomatoes. Alexander said that they can rely on these numbers but the lines of communication are always open, so if there is an overflow of one vegetable or another, they can call Deckman to let him know, he then communicates with the chefs to see if they can run a special that takes advantage of the surplus. The Farmhouse Group represents about 5 percent of their sales and is their largest restaurant account.

Working with Deckman has streamlined the ordering process for the farmers as much as it has for his chefs. Instead of talking to four chefs, Alexander works with one purchasing manager, saving her time. Deckman’s role extends well beyond making projections and completing orders. He has also helped create greater efficiency in the way that Jericho Settlers’ delivers their products. For instance, instead of selling radishes or scallions by the bunch, Deckman recommended that they instead sell them to The Farmhouse Group by the pound, lowering labor costs for the farmer, and thus helping to lower the cost for The Farmhouse.

George Van Vlaanderen pouring freshly gathered goats milk.

In an effort to get fresh grown Vermont tomatoes earlier in the season, Deckman agreed to give Jericho Settlers’ advance payment for one year, thus providing Fasching and Alexander the capital they needed to invest in more energy efficient hoop houses. Alexander explains that the lines of communication are always open, which lends itself to a healthy financial relationship. “I want to help them succeed because it means that we will also succeed,” Alexander said.

Although Deckman does most of the communicating with the farmers, The Farmhouse Group chefs still keep in touch with what is going on at each farm. Sprouse takes time each season to visit the farms and see what is growing in the fields and hoop houses. He also sees them in the kitchen at the restaurant.

Like other farmers, when Alexander makes a delivery, she will stop in and talk with Sprouse to see what he needs, introduce him to a new crop they are growing and simply catch up. She has enormous respect for the amount of food that The Farmhouse Group sources from Vermont farms. She recognizes that for them, this is a major commitment and not just a fleeting trend.

When asked what vegetable is most difficult to purchase consistently and at high volumes from Vermont farmers, Sprouse said potatoes. Although they are able to buy new potatoes and fingerlings locally, The Farmhouse Tap and Grill consumes 50 to 60 cases of potatoes a week, most of which end up as French fries. That kind of volume makes buying them locally impossible. Alexander said that they tried to grow Russets one year, the potato traditionally used for French fries, but they cannot come close to competing with the commodities market for that item.

Information about Jericho Settlers’ Farm CSA.

Future of farm-to-table

Deckman said that farmers contact him on a daily basis hoping to sell produce to one of The Farmhouse Group restaurants. While The Farmhouse Group still maintains steady traffic with their four restaurants, Farmhouse Tap and Grill, Guild Tavern, El Cortijo Taqueria y Cantina and Pascolo Ristorante, this year they will expand into catering.

“This will add another 25 big weekend sales to our calendar,” Deckman said. This might mean there is room for new farmers to enter The Farmhouse Group market, but Deckman recognizes that his job demands a conscientious effort to maintain sales numbers with current farms. He balances identifying the best farms for the best products with remaining loyal to his current farmers.

Managing the logistics for a successful and sustainable farm-to-table experience requires more than good intentions. The Farmhouse Group’s experience in developing long-lasting relationships with Vermont’s farmer’s serves as an example of what can happen when chefs, farmers and restaurant owners intentionally build relationships that are financially beneficial to all parties involved. With an umbrella organization like Vermont Fresh Network involved, those valuable relationships are further legitimized. There are currently 220 restaurants registered with the Vermont Fresh Network. Those restaurants must source at least 15 percent of their food from member farms and report to the network how much produce they buy. The network then confirms those numbers with the farmers. That kind of accountability lends credibility to a restaurant phenomenon that, at least in Vermont, has grown well beyond a trend or fad. Farm-to-table is here to stay.