“Where do you get your wheat?” I was about to ask.
My husband and I were out for a rare dinner alone at a nice restaurant, which advertises itself as exclusively local and organic. Next to us, a floor-to-ceiling board announced the night’s specials next to a list of farms where the food was grown.
I had just interviewed a local wheat farmer for an article and heard about a number of farmers in the Valley, who are switching from growing conventional grass seed, long the main crop in this part of the world, to growing organic grains for local markets. I was curious if this restaurant bought its wheat from one of the farmers I’d heard about.
But just as the waiter leaned in, and the question was about to leave my lips, I thought of this spoof of Portland, Oregon from the new show Portlandia, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask.
It’s true – Oregon is in the midst of a farm-to-table restaurant boom. I’ve been to three restaurants in the last few months with boards listing local farms. One is decorated with a mural of the rolling hills where the restaurant’s produce is grown, and the menu includes photos of the smiling farmers who grow the food.
Of course, farm-to-table restaurants are not new. Alice Waters has been serving up local, organic fare at Chez Pannise in San Francisco for decades. What is new about the locavore restaurants opening in this area is that more and more of them are affordable. One of the restaurants I ate in is a brew-pub and another serves “healthy fast food”, with all dishes under $10.
Moreover, just as the clip of Portlandia suggests, local restaurateurs (as well as grocers and bakers) seem to be forging closer relationships than ever with local farmers – and all parties are coming out ahead.
“It became a heck of a lot more fun to farm,” the wheat farmer I interviewed told me about his farm’s switch to growing food for local markets. “It’s infinitely more rewarding than just growing a product for a guy that you never know.”
We consumers might be the biggest winners. I’m a huge advocate of growing a garden, shopping at farmers’ markets, and cooking from scratch, but the reality is, Americans eat out a lot. In a 2006 survey, the average American family spent 42 percent of their food budget in restaurants.
When restaurants buy from local farms, our meals are more nutritious and taste better, since the food hasn’t made the 1500-mile road trip most produce takes before consumption in the U.S. And just think about all of the pollution and carbon not spewing into our air, and all of the money staying within our communities.
Besides, as a consumer, you can always put down the menu, ask the waiter to save your seats, and go meet the farmer who grew your wheat.
Are farm-to-table restaurants cropping up in your area? What do you think of the trend? I’d love to hear your thoughts.