Farm-to-table. Locavore. Artisanal. These phrases get thrown around a lot when we think of our regional food economies. What defines local? How can we support scalable growth for growers, sellers and distributors? And how can we insure quality and integrity once product demand surges in popularity?
Charlotte-area chefs, farmers, restaurateurs and food writers recently convened at JWU Charlotte for a lively discussion of the state of the local food economy. Kristen Wile, senior editor of Charlotte Magazine, moderated an expert panel that included:
- Catherine Rabb, JWU Charlotte senior instructor and sommelier
- Joe Kindred ’02, Kindred Restaurant
- Sammy Koenigsberg, New Town Farms
- Pauline Wood, Matthews Community Farmers’ Market executive director
The conversation ranged from the origins of the locavore trend to the feasability of feeding entire cities with locally-grown products.
Not surprisingly, it all comes down to financial viability. Rent is too high to sustain local farming alone, at least as long as customers are unwilling to pay for it. While public education on this topic is slowly expanding — with an increasing awareness of the value of local produce — consumers may never be willing to buy a $30 chicken dish solely because those chickens are free range.
We also heard about the underlying value of farms. The further outside the city one ventures, the closer one is to the farms and, with it, a growing awareness of where our food comes from. As Sammy Koenigsberg put it so, farming products are the “canvas and paints” for culinary professionals. Pauline Wood added that, “The more you know about your food, the more you want to know.”
All of the panelists agreed that the local food movement is about more than just knowing that the food will taste better.
Local food is about the community. Local is an education. Local is a relationship. People can finally know for certain that what they are eating came from farmers and chefs with integrity. As Pauline Wood of Matthews Farmer’s Market noted, the food is “grown for flavor, still alive, not wilted and just picked. Who wouldn’t want that?”
That said, there will always be what Sammy refers to as “flocals,” or fake locals, who pawn their store-bought wares off as local products. But the more farmers weed those people out and the more people demand more products that are grown locally, the greater the quality of the marketplace. As Catherine Rabb put it, “The better the raw ingredient, the better the quality of the ultimate product.”
The panelists further emphasized that this local food movement is chef-driven as we can see at Kindred, the acclaimed Davidson, NC, restaurant run by Joe Kindred and his wife, Katy. Kindred has taken the motto of quality to heart.
As the name suggests, relationships are everything. For a while, the menu came solely from what Joe called “Farmer’s Choice.” If his local farmer had too many eggplants to know what to do with, Joe would completely reform the menu to fit that. If it was an expensive item, he would run something cheaper to offset the cost. The goal was all about taking care of the people they have relationships with.
Catherine Rabb has been in the restaurant business since 1984. “[You have] to take care of everybody you work with if you want to be in the community for a while.” Rabb was a pioneer of local purchasing, focusing on this aspect before it had hipster cachet. She explained how people need to take into account the entire process from the start at the farm all the way until the food is plated and consumed. Nothing is perfect, nor can one thing please everyone, but having integrity and sticking to a mission that counts is worth more than the profit value alone. People come back when they believe in something.
That said, the belief in local may be a hard goal to maintain in the wake of economic reality. Land is being taken up more and more by the growing commercial development of the city, which means that farmland is declining.
When land is at $50,000 per acre, a small town farm cannot function at a cost-effective level. Sammy told us it is especially difficult for farmers who want to create this new produce and create these special relationships from the start. Farms therefore need to create the relationships now in order to be around in a few decades.
In the future, hopefully this local culture will spread in order to better feed the people of the cities with this beautifully old-fashioned way of making food.
The food economy panel was hosted by the Center for Free Market Studies at JWU Charlotte, which is part of the College of Arts & Sciences. Learn more about the Center.
BELOW: SCENES FROM NEW TOWN FARMS. // PANELISTS BEFORE A PACKED AUDIENCE AT JWU CHARLOTTE.