3rd Annual Farmer-Chef Conference highlights the trend towards localizing food in WNY
As ordinary as it sounds, it’s not every day that the growers of food meet with those who prepare it. In fact, the divorce of the farmer and the chef has been an increasing phenomenon since industrialized farming became the norm for food production in the United States.
Yet on Monday, farmers, restaurateurs, and related food professionals were united at the Field and Fork Network’s 3rd Annual Farmer-Chef Conference to garner knowledge, resources, and networks that will serve to strengthen the rapidly expanding local food movement in Western New York.
The local food movement is the trend of returning to buying and eating foods that have been sustainably grown nearby, rather than the popular items found in most grocery stores that typically have higher “food miles” on them. “Food miles” – the distance that your food travels from the farm to your plate – can have significant implications on the environment and on the quality of the food that you are putting into your body. Industrialized farming methods, while decreasing the cost of food and increasing the quantity produced, have increased the miles that food travels, and have also greatly hindered the ability of small, localized family farms to make an affordable living.
There are nearly 7,500 farms in WNY, and an increasing number of regional restaurants seeking to stock their kitchens with local produce. By working closely together, chefs and farmers will provide a significant boost to the local economy by keeping money in the region, and bringing about a healthier populous as a result. The Farmer-Chef conference aimed at giving farmers and chefs the tools and information to work hand-in-hand to regionalize food production and consumption in WNY.
Under the theme “Bridging the Farm to Table Gap,” over 200 attendants spent the day exploring relationships marketing, seasonal menus, nose-to-tail butchery demonstrations, local wines, institutional food procurement, urban agriculture, and so much more. This year’s keynote speaker, Joel Salatin of Polyface Inc., is a family-farm owner, renowned author, leader in the farm-to-table movement, local and sustainable food enthusiast, and was featured in the documentaries Food Inc. and FRESH, as well as the best-selling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Salatin’s animated speech captured his passion for sustainable food paradigms and he provided the crowd with the recipe for baking a successful “local food system pie” (producer, processor, marketer, accountant, distributor and patron.)Salatin went on to discuss how the local food movement is more than just an alternative to the status-quo; it is an ethical framework for the way that the food system ought to function. It’s not just about buying local foods. Instead, it's about producing healthy, naturally grown foods that our bodies are meant to consume. “The happiness of the pig is missing,” explained Salatin, in reference to the “science-based” western agriculture practices that are widely used today. He says that our common food production methods only focus on what will produce the highest quantity at the fastest rate for the most money, ignoring the biological aspect of what it really means for food to be food.
What’s surprising is that food is not something that most people are used to thinking about too much. Though we consume food every day, and it is what sustains and nourishes us, most people don't think about it very often. Becoming a locavore can be challenging when modern alternatives can be much simpler (and cheaper), and it involves a lot of conscious decision making on the consumer’s part. Restaurants that embrace the locavore trend come against a major challenge in accessing affordable and local food that is in demand by consumers.
Dave Cosentino, co-owner of Buffalo’s Aroma Group Restaurants, stocks much of his kitchen from local farms. Cosentino discussed the impact of using local, sustainable, and seasonal food for his customers. “Usually when the chef or the wait staff converse with our customers about where the food comes from and how it was raised, they embrace it and get excited about it.”
However, he says, “You need patrons that aren’t going to fall in love with yesterday’s menu… sometimes people want what they are used to and don’t care about the local impact.”
What was evident in the events at Monday's conference is that there is a paradigm shift going on in Western New York. Farmers and chefs, the people dominantly responsible for what ends up on our plates, are recognizing the real difference between the local food movement and the dominant industrial food production system. “There is a moral ethic that runs from the field to the fork; you have to respect the pig-ness of the pig,” Salatin said to his audience.
We are what we eat, and eating food that was grown responsibly and according to biologically-based methods makes our bodies healthier, stronger, and longer-lasting.
Through this local food movement in Western New York and all over the world, we are starting to rethink the answer to a shockingly difficult question about man’s greatest need: What is food?