Fresh from the FarmApr 01, 2021 ● By Diann Nichols
As a kid growing up in rural Kentucky, I didn’t know about the farm-to-table movement, but I lived it every day. Each summer, I helped my parents plant a vegetable garden that I thought was big enough to feed the entire town. Then came the weeding and watering of the plants. A few months later, we would reap the benefits of what we sowed, feasting on fresh vegetables from our garden. What we couldn’t eat, we froze or canned to have during the winter months.
As I grew older and the novelty of working in the garden wore off, I swore I would never string another green bean or shuck another ear of corn, especially since the grocery store had canned vegetables available. For years, I lived the canned life. Then I moved to Dallas and rediscovered the joy of farm-to-table fresh produce at the farmers market. Now, I get a Zen-like pleasure from preparing this produce, and the results are amazing, even for a mediocre cook like me.
The farm-to-table movement isn’t new. In fact, it’s been around for more than a century. The movement began in St. Louis in 1914, during World War I, as a postal initiative to get fresh products from farms to cities. At first, the program was highly successful and within four years, 41 post offices were added, including Dallas. However, the program proved to be short-lived. By 1920, it was a thing of the past for various reasons. Trucks delivering the food broke down, resulting in delays which, in turn, caused food to spoil. Eggs were hard to package and were often broken upon arrival. The advent of self-serve grocery stores lured customers away from home delivery. Finally, Congress decided against providing additional funding for the program.
The farm-to-table movement saw a resurgence in the 1970s and became more of a community food system. Chef Alice Waters opened a restaurant called Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., in 1971. It became an incubator for the farm-to-table rebirth. Ms. Waters simplified her food, buying only from local farmers and concentrating on the food instead of technique. The ingredients were the star with emphasis on where they came from, who made them and the preparation process. This revolutionary concept changed the meaning of fine dining. Instead of relying on getting hard-to-find products that were out of season, locally produced, fresh products were prominent. Home cooks as well as restaurant chefs embraced the movement. Farmers often set up stands on the sides of roads to sell produce to passersby. As the movement grew, farmers markets and farm stores sprang up in large cities as well as small towns.
In the past few years, there has been an even greater interest in farm-to-table food as people have begun to care more about what they eat and the source of that food. Cindy Johnson, manager of Frisco Rotary Farmers Market, has a few thoughts about why people are embracing the movement. “There are people who really want to know how their produce or meats are farmed and ranched,” she said. “They want to know what kinds of pesticides are used. They want to know what the growing conditions are like, how the animals are treated. They prefer free-range eggs over the eggs you get from chickens that stay in barns on little boxes and lay eggs all day.”
Also, she said, “There’s the concept of not only knowing how the food is grown, but who grows your food. There’s the whole relationship aspect of knowing that you’re supporting a small businessperson – a local farmer, local rancher, a crafter, a pickler, a baker - directly without all the interim distribution costs, and you get to talk to that person about their product. They can tell you how to prepare the vegetables, what the growing conditions are like, where they come from.
“I think those are really the three aspects – the freshness of the product, being able to know how it’s grown so that you can avoid chemicals if that’s important to you, and then knowing the person who’s growing your food and that you’re supporting that person and that person can provide you information about the product,” Ms. Johnson said.
Aaron Reeves, owner of Reeves Family Farm in Princeton, east of Frisco, echoes that sentiment. “I think people in the last decade or so have been catching on to the importance of local food and who grows their food and where it comes from due to GMOs and non-organic foods and such.”
David Fisher, owner of Fisher Family Farm and Ranch, located east of Dallas, agrees. “Some people just want to support small, local businesses. The family farm is a dying enterprise and if they support farmers markets and even … our home delivery business, they’re helping what really is a dying enterprise. I believe now that the amount of people farming in the United States, counting corporate, it represents one percent of the population.”
Ms. Johnson said farm-to-table products generally are more fresh than those available at most supermarkets. “Your typical vegetable or fruit that’s in the grocery store has traveled 40 hours by truck from the farm to get to the grocery store, and then it sits on the grocery store shelves. Whereas if you go to a farmers market or you go directly to the farm, maybe it was picked 24 hours before and it’s presented right there to you.”
The fresher the food is, the better for you it also may be. “I hope that people see value in getting things (that are) little bit more hands on,” Mr. Fisher said. “They know how it’s grown, why it’s grown, when it can be grown and understand the less time it has been off the vine, the more nutrition it has.”
Mr. Reeves agrees. “Over time, if people eat a majority of local food, they’ll be healthier because they’ll have more good micronutrients,” he said.
Katharina Kreke, marketing, events and communication manager of the Frisco Fresh Market, said, “I think people really like knowing where their food is coming from, where the things that they’re putting in their body are coming from. People feel like they’re more in control that way, and having a trusted source you’re getting it from, too.”
Michelle Anderson, manager of the Frisco Fresh Market, added, “I think that the quality (of the items) is actually a little better. It’s a little fresher and I think we have a little bit better variety. We have things at the farmers’ market that you’re not going to find at the grocery store.”
Will the farm-to-table movement continue to thrive and grow? All indications point to an overwhelming yes. For starters, food just tastes better when it comes out of the field during its peak season. “Things are better tasting if they’re grown locally, or at least if they’re able to be picked and handled differently than something that has been in a logistics chain for two weeks,” Mr. Fisher said.
However, farming for the local market is a tough job. Mr. Reeves, who has been farming since 2006, owns 12 acres of land and leases another 25 acres. He also has a farm store on the property. One way he deals with the seasonality of farming is by selling farm shares, which raises funds during the winter months to purchase seeds and equipment as well as tend to other tasks when farm production levels are lower.
“It keeps us out of debt as farmers and also gets people to invest in our operation. It’s like a stakeholder in our operation,” he said. Also, “They get to know us as a farm and as a family. It’s a good way to meet customers. They’re coming in on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and they can ask any questions. They can even volunteer. At the end of the season, we have a potluck farm-to-table dinner and talk about the next season.”
Mr. Fisher owns 45 acres of land and rents another 25 acres. He currently relies on part-time, seasonal help but hopes to hire a few full-time employees this year. However, farm work isn’t for everyone, he said. “It’s hard work. It’s not glamorous. It’s drudgery in a lot of cases.” Although, it is not without its rewards. “Our long-time farmers market customers start to feel like family,” he said. “You know what they’re going to (purchase) when they walk up. It develops a very nice relationship. It’s the same thing with the home delivery. It starts to become a very personal relationship because they know they can count on seeing the same face and being able to communicate about it if they’re not happy, and we’ll take care of them.”
“The good thing about the market is that there really is something for everyone,” Ms. Kreke, of the Frisco Fresh Market, said. “We have all sorts of products in all kinds of categories. So, anything you’re looking for, chances are you’ll find them in our market. It’s kind of like a one-stop shop.”
The variety of products available at the Frisco Fresh Market is also a big draw for shoppers, Ms. Anderson said. “We’ve got products from all over the world. We’ve got fresh produce. We’ve got great olive oils and pastas, baked goods. We’ve got home décor. We’ve got bath products, candles, CBD, pet food.”
Such markets also foster a sense of community. Ms. Johnson said the Frisco Rotary Farmers Market is “a place where you can go and you’re bound to see somebody from your town or neighborhood. … It’s a Saturday morning walk-and-talk kind of thing. You can go and get something that maybe you can’t even find in the grocery store.”
It helps that farmers markets appeal to people of all ages. Shoppers at the Frisco Fresh Market range from 20-somethings to octogenarians. Also, “I would say we’re a very family-friendly environment,” Ms. Kreke said. “We have a lot of people that bring out their kids. It’s just something fun to do on the weekends with them.”
Of the long-term outlook for the farm-to-table movement, Mr. Reeves said, “I think the best thing we do is shop local, shop small. That’s what we need.”
Diann Nichols is a freelance writer, a music lover, an armchair traveler and an amateur photographer who never tires of learning something new.