Winter greens, like these growing in an unheated high tunnel at Surowiec Farm in Sanbornton, New Hampshire, in February, are in high demand by restaurants.
Photos courtesy of Charlie Burke, New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection.
Is your farm producing more than you can sell through your farmstand, CSA or farmers markets? If so, the time may be right to consider wholesaling. Customers are pushing restaurants and supermarkets to offer locally grown food, and schools and institutions want to include locally grown food on their menus.
- Are you consistently producing more than you can retail?
- Could you regularly and reliably supply one or more large customers?
- How would your products be distributed? Could you deliver?
- Could you supply several different kinds of produce?
- Could you provide different types or cuts of meat?
- Could you offer eggs or dairy products?
Working with restaurants
Restaurants want variety, according to Jeffrey Paige, chef/owner of Cotton, a casual upscale restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire, that is Certified Local by the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant Connection. Paige has long been a proponent of locally grown food. He prefers to incorporate local fruits and vegetables into his menu because they're fresher and tastier, since they're not varieties grown primarily for their ability to tolerate long-distance shipping. Throughout the year, when it comes to produce, restaurants are interested in both quality and variety. While the recent availability of locally grown root crops in winter is valued, there remains a need for lettuce and other greens. "Heirloom tomatoes would be appreciated anytime," Paige added.
In addition to variety, restaurants need reliability. Suppliers must be able to make good on their promises when it comes to timing and content of deliveries. "When we put an item on our menu, we need to know we will be able to get the ingredients to prepare it," Paige said. This would, of course, also be true of schools and institutions.
Working with schools
Schools are looking at prices, according to Stacey Purslow, coordinator for the NH Farm to School Program, an initiative begun in 2003 to educate school food service personnel, students and parents about the value of buying locally grown food. Although most school districts subsidize school lunches, typically priced around $2.50, there remains room for a substantial increase in funding for locally grown food. To utilize foods from local farms, some school districts are building a database of recipes for menu items that are tasty and meet USDA guidelines for school lunches.
Colleges and universities are also seeking locally sourced foods, often in response to student requests. Farms aiming for this market may need to join with other farms in order to offer products in sufficient quantity.
Another way for farmers to get locally grown foods into schools may be via a CSA. So far, this has been done in rather limited situations, mostly with small private schools. In this arrangement, both the school and some of its teachers may participate.
Kevin Donahue, executive chef at Dyn, a Certified Local corporate dining facility, selects garlic at Red Manse Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire.
Making the connection
Connecting can be a major problem in these partnerships. Restaurants and institutions tend to be busiest at times when farmers may have less on their plates. Experienced chefs and farmers alike find that email works far better than phone calls. Paige often plans and places orders at the end of the day, and it is convenient for him to send emails around midnight. Farmers can respond in the morning when their workday begins.
An efficient way to promote farm sales is a weekly email listing products available during both the current and the following week. Larry Pletcher, owner of Vegetable Ranch in Warner, New Hampshire, said, "The problem for me is that I sometimes get too many responses and I run out."
Can you supply variety and quantity?
For restaurants and institutions, it's more convenient to get locally grown food from a single source. Trish Taylor, executive chef at the Grappone Conference Center in Concord, New Hampshire, said she generally orders about $300,000 worth of food annually from Sysco, the center's main vendor. Of that $300,000, approximately one-fourth to one-third is for produce. When she's able to procure locally grown ingredients, generally for use at small events, about half of her purchases tend to be produce and the remainder is dairy and meat.
You should always check with the market about its needs for any particular product. Don't expect every market to buy your zucchini when every other farm has a bumper crop too.
In addition to Vegetable Ranch's 14 cultivated acres in Warner, New Hampshire, Larry Pletcher farms 5 acres at St. Paul's, a boarding school for about 500 students in Concord, New Hampshire. The spinach and other vegetables grown here will be served in the school's dining halls and in the cafeterias of nearby Concord Hospital.
The virtual farmers market
Large distributors, such as Sysco, maintain websites that make it easy to order online from one supplier. Farmers can work together to consolidate their products on a single website and become, in essence, a virtual farmers market. The NH Farm to Restaurant Connection is experimenting with this model. According to president Charlie Burke, the organization's website lists products from multiple farms and hopes to add a feature that will enable farmers to include the products that will be available the following week.
From field to table
Getting farm products to restaurants and other institutions is a large issue in terms of both time and money. "I love to visit farms and pick up produce, but that's just too time-consuming," Paige said. "My dream is to be able to visit a central location where I can pick up locally grown produce." For farmers, the challenge might be to work together to aggregate and distribute products.
The FDA's proposed produce safety rule (http://1.usa.gov/1c5bJ9O) under the Food Safety Modernization Act would establish standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding produce on domestic and foreign farms, and would require tracking of produce from field to table. It may affect how distribution could be accomplished. As the proposed act stands, certain farms would be exempt based on annual sales and distance from delivery points; this stipulation may apply to many small farms in the Northeast.
Restaurants and farms growing together
"It's nice when farmers can work with an individual restaurant," Paige said. For years he worked directly with Nesenkeag Farm, and he and the farmer would get together in the fall to plan crops and select seeds for the following year. As a result, his restaurant had both seasonal and unusual varieties, produce he often could not acquire elsewhere. This type of farmer/restaurant alliance probably works best when the restaurant and farm are both well-established, are well-known to each other, and the arrangement is exclusive. In this situation, the restaurant may or may not contribute to seed purchases.
Another way for farms and restaurants to work together is for the restaurant to contract with a farm to provide all it will need of a single crop. Kevin Halligan, chef/owner of Local Eatery, a 35-seat restaurant in Laconia, New Hampshire, contracts with a single farm for onions. The farmer provides onions to the restaurant on an as-needed basis.
New Hampshire restaurants that buy local farm products can be certified as members of the NH Farm to Restaurant Connection (http://bit.ly/1jjeqCV); other states may have similar programs. Certification began in 2011.
Grocery stores are another potential outlet for farms interested in wholesaling. A number of grocery stores nationwide buy local items. In New Hampshire, for example, about 30 supermarkets, including Shaw's and Hannaford, are buying and featuring locally grown produce, meat, fish and dairy products.
Tyler Hardy of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, New Hampshire, has experience marketing to supermarkets. He suggested talking with grocery store or produce managers before the growing season to garner ideas about what stores want and will likely order. Hardy recommended the Hannaford "Close to Home" program, in which a farmers market-type cart is set up in each store.
New Hampshire Mushroom Co. grows about 1,000 pounds per week of delicious and unusual mushrooms. Many of them are delivered to restaurants in New Hampshire and neighboring states.
"Delivery is key," Hardy said. He has more than 50 employees, who work to get produce to outlets on time. Brookdale's produce is picked and delivered the same day, an advantage over large regional or national distributors whose produce may be on a truck for up to five days.
The market for locally raised meat
In response to publicity about hormones and tainted meat, people are asking restaurants about the source of the meat on their menus. The public thinks highly of meat grown by small, local farms, so restaurants are a ready market. For farmers supplying locally raised meat, considerations include:
- Quantity/size - A whole or half animal may be more than a restaurant can handle. Many restaurants do not have the ability to cut meat or the refrigerator/freezer space to store it.
- Cuts - A given restaurant may need only high-end cuts. You can offer restaurants the option of working directly with the meat cutter to maximize the preferred cuts. Halligan uses a different solution and buys whole animals, either fresh or frozen. He utilizes all the meat from one animal, changing Local Eatery's menu every two weeks to make use of the different cuts. This results in substantial savings for his restaurant.
For schools and institutions interested in locally grown meat, price is a primary concern. Unlike restaurants, which can pass costs on to customers, schools and institutions must operate within strict price guidelines. On the other hand, schools and institutions could be options for farmers looking for a market for less desirable cuts and ground meat.
As with locally grown produce, the answer for those offering meat may be consolidation. Working together, farmers may be able to provide higher-end cuts to restaurants while marketing lower-end cuts and ground meat to schools and institutions.
"It's so much easier not to buy local," Paige said. "It's so much easier to get all veggies and meat from one 1-800 number. The challenge for farmers is to change that."
Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor to Farming since 1998. She resides in Henniker, New Hampshire.