Photo by Rachael Brugger
Vegetable-based community-supported agriculture operations have gained immense popularity. Everywhere you look, farmers are jumping on the CSA bandwagon, and for good reason: CSAs provide much-needed cash flow early in the season, offer a dependable source of income and ensure a high rate of customer retention. However, with increasing numbers of CSAs and more local farms switching to the CSA business model every year, the barriers to entry for new and beginning farmers are increasing. Launching a full-fledged, farm-to-consumer CSA without a solid background in farming can be intimidating, but aspiring market gardeners need not despair. The recent focus on direct-to-consumer selling leaves a wide-open opportunity for beginning farmers to grow custom produce for local restaurants.
Restaurants seeking to capitalize on the local-food movement are focusing more on sourcing local veggies. With this shift comes opportunity, and what could be more appealing to a chef than a reliable source of local vegetables completely tailored to his or her desires? That’s where your custom garden comes in. With the chef or restaurant owner, you brainstorm and develop plans to grow and harvest specific crop varieties to fit their needs, and in turn, the restaurant agrees to purchase your produce. This symbiotic relationship can be a great avenue for new gardeners to gain experience and develop a brand without taking on too much too soon.
Here are some tips for making the farmer-restaurant connection:
1. Know Your Audience
Scan your local food scene for hot restaurants. Are they sourcing locally? If so, how are they getting their produce? Most likely, they’re shopping at farmers’ markets and buying in bulk based on what’s in season. You can make their chore easier by helping restaurant chefs plan ahead based on the crop plans you’ll have laid out months in advance. If a restaurant isn’t yet sourcing locally, perhaps having a custom garden can help get the manager over the fence.
2. Research Hard-to-find Crops
Operating high-end, foodie-centric restaurants is a tough business. Every restaurateur is trying to one-up the next. In order to do that, they need to be different, and this is where you can add value. Take a look around to identify what crops are under-represented in your local-food scene. Winter root crops, such as rutabagas and turnips, are currently in high demand but rarely grown. How about specialty greens for spring, or heirloom corn for summer? Here in Tennessee, a local farm grew fresh ginger this past year. Talk about unique! By setting yourself apart from the crowd, you can help your customers do the same for their businesses.
3. Meet Local Restaurant Owners
One of the best ways to meet your future customers is to get involved in your local-food community. Find out what events your favorite restaurant chefs are attending and be sure to make an appearance at them. Or better yet, volunteer. Donate your time or goods to a worthy cause with fellow food advocates, and you’ll soon be surrounded by like-minded people who are proactively changing the way we eat. Once you’re in the mix, keep riding the tide. You’ll find that most everyone will be happy to have you along for the ride.
4. Devise a Plan
Set up a time to sit down with your customers and walk through some seed catalogs and potential crop plans. Come to the meeting prepared with a rough plan of action and an idea for the various crops you think might set the restaurant apart from its competition. This can take a bit of research and planning, but it will also make you look serious and prepared for the task at hand.
5. Diversify Realistically
If you’re just starting out, don’t spread yourself too thin. Choose a handful of crops and do them well. The whole point of starting out with custom market gardening is to hone your skills and gain valuable experience before growing into something bigger. Be prepared to grow an additional 25 percent or more of each crop for a little buffer in case your yields don’t turn out as expected. Be conservative in your planning, and hopefully you’ll over-deliver when the time comes.
6. Start Small, Grow Big
Start small by focusing on one or two restaurants. Work through a couple seasons and make sure you resolve all the kinks on a small scale before investing valuable time and money into your business. Restaurant owners and chefs have a reputation for being fickle and unreliable. By starting small, you limit your risk of getting burned by untrustworthy clientele.
7. Make It Interactive
Involve local restaurants and their staff as much as possible. Host a planting day or a harvest day where the service staff and line cooks can visit the farm and learn more about where the produce comes from. Depending on the farm’s facilities, hosting a harvest dinner or a "family meal” with the restaurant’s staff is a great way to build a lasting relationship. Doing so will endear you to your customers and create a lasting bond. Forming relationships and building trust keeps your customers loyal and instills confidence in the sustainability of your business.
By growing a custom market garden for local restaurants, you begin to establish your brand and gain respect in your local food community. As you continue to impress, you can begin to think about expanding into a CSA, vending at farmers’ markets or growing your restaurant relationships to new levels. A custom market garden can be just the opportunity for you as a beginning farmer to get your toes wet before making the big leap.
About the Author: With no background or family history in farming, James Ray and his wife, Eileen, left careers in New York City’s fast lane to start Little Seed Farm near Nashville, Tenn. Thankfully, neither was disowned by their parents.