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Making a Culinary Connection

Imagine flipping open a menu and seeing your farm fare featured. Make that dream a reality by becoming a chef farmer with these tips.

By Barbara Berst Adams

(Page 2 of 2)

Chef farmers attract customers through education classes
Photo courtesy Rockhill Creamery
Pete Schropp enjoys entertaining and educating visiting chefs at Rockhill Creamery.
Who Ya Gonna Call?
Farmers interested in selling to chefs need to find out if enough exist in their area who are willing to buy specialty, local-farmed produce. High-end restaurants may already be connected to other local farms. Chain fast-food and low-end cafés more often depend on low-cost wholesale deliveries. And while there are exceptions, the chef farmer is not generally looking for economy restaurants that demand the cheapest wholesale prices; rather they’ll charge restaurant buyers close to the same price they’d charge at farmers’ markets. 

One place to start your search is local listings for fine-dining restaurants and trendy pubs and bistros; find out how they promote their services. Are they catering to the green crowd or gourmet crowd? Do they state that they support local economies and purchase locally when possible? During the hunt, potential chef farmers shouldn’t overlook trendy cafés and sandwich shops. They can also check out local bed-and-breakfasts, personal chefs and caterers. Bed-and-breakfasts may be delighted with a weekly delivery of herbs and free-range eggs for their customers’ omelets. Personal chefs can tout the locally produced culinary benefits of their offerings, too.

The Learning Curve
The farmer who wants to sell to chefs needs to learn about the world of the chef. It’s an artistic, scientific, fast-paced and demanding business. Learning to grow for chefs came naturally for the Russells because they are foodies themselves. They eat in fine restaurants, attend food shows, watch the Food Network on TV and study cookbooks. 

On-Farm Education
Read more about how to connect with chefs by offering learning opportunities on your farm.
Aspiring chef farmers can also find a growing number of farmer/chef cooperative organizations that connect chefs and farmers so they can do business together. Some of them provide workshops or learning materials to help chefs understand the demands and language of farming while they help farmers understand the needs and language of the chef. A new chef farmer can also try to connect himself with just one promising chef. The farmer can invite him to the farm, ask many questions and expand clientele one by one from there.

Get Cooking
Who the farmer should contact (the chef, the manager or the owner) depends on the actual food service.  “To sell produce to restaurants,” Russell advises, “the grower must contact the person who purchases the product. In high-end restaurants, this is generally the chef. Call them when they are least apt to be busy [mid-afternoon] and arrange a time when you can visit the restaurant with samples and a product list.”

Some restaurants have a head chef who works the days with the most customers—usually weekends—so, in some cases, this may be the chef to start with. 

Find a Chef
Many farm-to-chef programs are regional and go by various names. Search online for “farm to chef,” “farmer chef connection” and similar phrases to find a program that serves your area. Also check out these resources:

United States Personal Chef Association

American Personal and Private Chef Association

The Chefs Collaborative

The Farmer-Chef Connection
The Russells started their chef farming business by bringing fresh produce from their garden to a chef. The chef purchased it and then asked for more. From that start, they now sell to about a dozen restaurants. Whether chef farmers have an actual appointment or are dropping off samples unannounced, it can be valuable to make the first impression of your sampling very attractive, arranged in a basket or in a new shallow cardboard box. Then the aromas, beautiful colors, unique varieties and vibrancy can do the selling. Include your business card, farm information and future purchasing information in a waterproof baggie stapled to the container. 

Keeping the Chef Farm Growing
Once chefs are hooked on flavor, they need to know they can trust you as an ongoing supplier. A close farmer-chef relationship has proven to be one of the best ways to keep a chef farm secure, growing and profitable. Eventually, you can serve more than one food service to spread out the risk. 

“To decide which crops to grow, contact chefs before planting season to determine their needs,” says Russell. “Long-time, trusted relationships play a vital role in this process. Through experience and record keeping, grow only what you believe you can sell.”

Inviting chefs to the farm can work wonders for the farmer-chef relationship. Chefs have new things to learn about working with real, local farms, and one of them is that nature is different from year to year. In the case of Childs and the Russells, chefs come out to the farm regularly, and the surprise chef tour at Rockhill Creamery for the bistro owner landed a great ongoing sale for the farm. In all cases, farmers should work closely with chefs to decide what needs to be grown from season to season, most likely adding a few experimental patches each year so the farm’s cuisine business evolves over time. Chef farmers do well to understand the pressures chefs are under and keep open lines of communication. When possible, they should dine at the restaurants they serve. After all, chef farmers don’t just serve the food trends, they are trend-setters themselves. They’ll gain many insights for improvement by being a restaurant guest.

For some, being a chef farmer, while challenging, is full of unique delights. What could be better than doing business research with a candlelit dinner in a fine restaurant, watching the farm’s own artisan cheese, escarole or meats being served to restaurant customers? 

About the Author: Barbara Berst Adams is the author of Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth (New World Publishing, 2005), and The New Agritourism: Hosting Community and Tourists on Your Farm (New World Publishing, 2008). She hosts the Center for the Micro Eco-Farming Movement at www.MicroEcoFarming.com.

This article first appeared in the January/February 2010 Hobby Farms.

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Making a Culinary Connection

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Reader Comments
Great article. I got some really good ideas.
Jo, Muscle Shoals, AL
Posted: 6/17/2010 12:21:48 AM
this is really wonderful article. Both broad enough for those with a casual interest, and enough substance that I actually have some action points to follow through on. Thanks so much fof this one! (I also love the term "chef farmer"!)
myra, pittsburgh, PA
Posted: 2/17/2010 2:55:34 AM
I've never heard the term 'chef farmer', how cool, I love it!
wendy, round rock, TX
Posted: 1/24/2010 5:41:02 PM
I really loved this article. I have already been in touch with a local bakery and cafe owner about purchasing fresh produce and eggs from me. So I am really excited to see an article about this type of farming. I'm also really glad to see chef's and owners that are interest in purchasing local food and supporting local farmers.
Amber, Sunbury, OH
Posted: 1/5/2010 10:20:10 AM
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