By Blair Jackson
For some Fayetteville kitchens, using local produce is a top priority. Those who put seasonal fruits and vegetables on the table say they are also serving up freshness, quality and community investment. Ethical farm practices, an absence of genetic modifications and freedom from processing are all factors that motivate buyers to purchase proteins from local farms.
Clayton Suttle, co-owner of Greenhouse Grille, has been serving local produce and proteins for five years now. Throughout the year, guests can find lamb, chicken, beef, pork and even buffalo — all of which come from local farms.
The animals are all free range, raised in pastures, opposed to packed corrals. Being grass fed makes a difference, says Suttle. “They’re not just fed corn their whole lives, which translates to really bad fats in the meat.”
Planning ahead for winter stews, Kat McGill, kitchen manager for the recently opened Tanglewood Branch Beer Co., has been stocking up on ham hocks from Mason Creek Farms. Though she also cites quality and freshness as motivators, the true commitment of Tanglewood is to “keep it local.”
As a vendor at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, McGill understands the commitment and work needed to
raise livestock and grow local produce. At her booth, she sells the eggs of her free range chickens and sells yarn she spins by hand. Being a vendor allows her to scope out the produce. “I sit here and look at the vegetables and try to figure out how to put it on a sandwich.” Tanglewood’s popular eggplant sandwich was born when McGill was inspired by a beautiful crop of eggplants for a great deal. “I deconstructed eggplant parmesan and reconstructed it onto a sandwich,” she said.
Tanglewood owner J.T. Wampler says he hired McGill not only for her talent, but also for her inside track at the market. As a vendor, she knows who has what, and she also gets the occasional bulk offer when a grower encounters a surplus that needs to be moved. The result is an ever-surprising seasonal menu that reflects a kitchen bound to the earth.
This week, a crate full of cucumbers is the center of inspiration, and McGill is hunting for the perfect cucumber salad recipe. Good deals such as these are often given as substitutes to throwing excess produce in the compost pile, a harsh scenario for any hard-working grower. “A community market is a symbiotic relationship. It takes both sides to have a successful market. With no customers, food goes to the compost. If farmers’ aren’t there, then the community goes home with money in their pockets,” McGill explains.
Adam Simmons, the Child Nutrition Director of Fayetteville Public Schools, is working with Ozark Natural Foods to raise money in hopes of introducing healthier foods into cafeteria menus. The goal is to raise $165,000, which would translate to one dollar per meal — the estimated cost different between current ingredients and healthier alternatives.
Simmons has partnered with Little Portion Monastery Farm in Eureka Springs to provide the children of Fayetteville schools with a healthier alternative to processed chicken. He lists the benefits of free range chicken, “less fat, ethically raised, no genetic modification — a clean bird compared to one that’s been played around with a little bit.”
It has taken two years for Simmons and Little Portions to come to a price agreement. “It costs a lot more money to raise chickens the way he does,” he explains. From an economic point of view, most farms do not grow enough produce or raise enough livestock to validate wholesale pricing, even for the occasional bulk buyer.
The compromise between Little Portions and Fayetteville Schools originated in thighs and legs, which are less expensive than wing and breast meat. “Kids love them because they’re easy to eat, and they’re as nutritional as the breast meat because they actually get to walk around.”
Managing higher costs is a part of using local produce in a professional kitchen. “We believe in the use of local, fresh ingredients,“ says Suttle at the Greenhouse Grille. For Suttle, less chemicals, less pesticides and less of a carbon footprint are all reasons to buy and grow locally.
Suttle notes that a large amount of fossil fuel is needed to transport produce across the country, but simply stepping outside to pick fresh produce from a garden requires no fossil fuel at all. Greenhouse Grille has two organic gardens. One lines the side of the restaurant itself, and one is located three miles outside of the city limits.
Higher costs of organic and local foods used at the Greenhouse Grille do affect the restaurant’s bottom line, which means slightly higher menu prices for the guest. “It’s a choice we’ve chosen to make,” says Suttle. For the restaurant, regimented portion controls, waste management and recycling are all part of balancing the budget and supporting a locally sustainable system.
With a growing demand for local produce in professional kitchens, the farmers’ market and growers are being faced with the challenges and opportunities of selling in bulk. Peggy Maringer, manager of the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, explains the economics behind the prices of local produce and the growing pains of the market. “You wouldn’t call (the professional growers) commercial farmers in the way that you would think of a farmer with 1,000 acres of soybeans,” she says.
“The economics of the situation is that businesses are geared to being able to buy produce at those really cheap prices that they can get from a produce wholesaler from California. On the other hand, local growers need to get that full retail price they can get at the farmer’s market.”
Maringer says higher retail prices are necessary because of the man hours needed to actually vend at the farmers’ market. For growers, spending a 24 to 30 hours a week preparing, distributing and vending their product is a drain on productivity.
“There’s a breaking point. The economics of standing at the table holds you back to a certain level. We’ve had farmer’s market growers that have ramped up enough so that they overproduced, and subsequently made the decision to cut back and grow only what they can sell.”
The community would like to see those growers to reach capacity to be able to sell all of their produce.”
Maringer says that the future for food production in Northwest Arkansas looks very positive. With natural resources such as Beaver Lake and rich growing soil, as well as a healthy livestock and poultry industry, she says there is even the “potential to feed Northwest Arkansas from what’s growing on the farms.”
Distribution is the one bottleneck facing the expansion of the local produce industry. Maringer and the board of directors at the farmers’ market are considering ways to eliminate man-hours, shift hours of operation to accommodate more consumers and to possibly move the market inside or even offer an online ordering system.
In order to accommodate businesses and other loyal consumers year round, some farmers’ market vendors are working in heated greenhouse and hoop houses, and a select few plan on making deliveries during the winter months. Again, the problem goes back to distribution. The production capabilities are a reality, but in winter months it’s impossible to vend outdoors. Moving forward, the farmers’ market will need to consider an alternative venue or receive funding to build an appropriate building in order to offer year-round produce.
In the meantime, the seasonal farmers’ market will remain the romantic, old-fashioned model the community loves and supports. And even without a year-round distribution model, consumers can purchase local produce during winter months from select vendors.
This summer, the market is partnering with Fayetteville Public Schools to offer a 100 percent local menu, offering a specific quota for growers to work toward. It’s an experimental venture for both parties, but all involved are passionate about seasonal food.
Simmons hopes that by introducing local produce into the cafeteria menu, p
allets will change, nutritional value will increase and seasonality will be introduced into the cafeteria curriculum. Simmons says hehopes the cultural change will have an effect on how the students grow up and eat nutritionally. “If they start focusing on whole foods, fresh local fruits and vegetables, (their tastes) may cause them to turn a shoulder to processed food.”
Ultimately, Simmons says he would like a kid to go to Wendy’s and order a cheeseburger, only to look at the lettuce, tomato and onion and say, “Why would they have a tomato on it in December? That’s stupid.”