Farm-to-table is a new trend but it is in no way a new practice. We have our roots in personal farming; since human beings stopped being nomadic and started settling in one spot they utilized agricultural techniques to subsist.
Farm-to-table was just how things were until about the end of the 1900s when the United States started to urbanize. Prior to that, “most of the food that Americans ate came from within 50 miles;” but, as we migrated toward urban centers, and shipping and storage technology advanced we got our food from further and further away.
This didn’t last too long, however, with the first restaurant branded as “farm-to-table” emerged sometime in the 70s concurrent with the hippie movement. At that time “organic, local and natural food became trendy and more people began supporting local farmers.”
On the west coast especially, individual restaurants emerged to honor locally-sourced, fresh ingredients and to rebel against the capitalistic and unhealthy proliferation of processed, ready-made foods. This reemerging trend found its way slowly to larger, influential cities throughout the country but the farm-to-table movement didn’t really take off until the early 2000s.
To clarify, yes, technically, all produce and meat originate from a farm. What the new trend specifies as farm-to-table, however, emphasizes freshness and quality which means that the distance from farm to table has to be small enough to protect both.
The 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act mandated that any product labeled regional or local agricultural food, or farm-to-table has to have an end point less than 400 miles from its origin. Colloquially, farm-to-table can be defined a bit more loosely and is considered by many to mean that the restaurant or person selling the produce has a direct relationship with the farm in question. At the farmers’ markets in New York City, the primary products featured are considered locally sourced and in the same category as farm-to-table (though, not necessarily the same as a farm-to-table restaurant if shoppers are taking the produce home instead of purchasing for a business) and many of those sellers come from all over New York State as well as sometimes New Jersey and Connecticut.
In that situation, the personal relationship with the product is what gives people the sense that farm-to-table branding does: you know where the products came from, you know they didn’t travel all that far (generally less than a day trip), and you know they weren’t frozen or preserved and are therefore actually fresh.
Even the restaurants and chefs who define themselves as farm-to-table have slightly different interpretations beyond the legal parameters of the category. Some are adamant about knowing the intricacies not only of how livestock is raised and treated but also how it is processed before it gets to them. Getting truly locally sourced meat is more difficult than it is for produce because under US law all meat is required to go through either federal inspection by the United States Department of Agriculture or local state inspection. But currently, there’ are not enough meat-packing plants that work with small-scale livestock farmers to meet the demand” for locally-sourced livestock.
Some chef’s, therefore, don’t choose certain farms, even if they are local, if the farm doesn’t work with a meat-packing facility that is also local enough to meet their standards for farm-to-table identification.
Locally sourced food is also difficult because foods are seasonal, especially produce but also fish. For fish, the restaurant may have to be dependent on what the “catch-of-the-day” is, meaning whatever was biting for their chosen fishers. In addition to that certain fish have certain seasons and certain areas have quotas on how many wild fish can be caught and kept. This can be limiting to a restaurant’s supply; but, consumers who are seeking farm-to-table and familiar with it should be open to this type of guessing-game and limitation.
Generally, there is a lot more uncertainty with a farm-to-table restaurant because it is reliant on what is growing and flourishing locally, what restrictions there are on local animals and produce, and how much a small, independent farmer or producer can fulfill your demand.
Some farm-to-table restaurants in areas where it is possible have their own, restaurant linked farm that the chefs source from daily and people associated with the restaurant itself tend to. This is the epitome of control in the farm-to-table industry because the restaurant knows first hand what’s doing well and what isn’t going to be available, which helps with planning ahead, especially. If your lettuce isn’t quite ready but the carrots are coming in nicely, you can plan your dishes accordingly.
Farm-to-table restaurants may also be more expensive to run than more “traditionally” restaurants who use the cheapest sources no matter where they’re coming from. There is more labor cost that goes into local produce and meat, especially for organic, grass-fed and other trendy standards to be met (the required inspections cost money). Thankfully, most customers know what’s up and have sought out farm-to-table because it is becoming synonymous with better quality, fresher foods that are better for the environment and their health. This means they’re generally prepared to pay a few pennies more to get the quality they desire.
The benefits, however, can outweigh that added cost in so many ways. Without the extra shipping, the environment benefits and with more transparency into the food and less time between harvest and preparation, health, wellness and quality are more of a guarantee. And, if a restauranteur or chef can develop a mutually beneficial and supportive relationship with the farmers, they can have much more creativity with their dishes. Chefs can request certain produce to be grown from a small farm that is much more capable of doing small-batch and experimental work than a large, corporate industrial one. Having a personal relationship with the person growing or raising the food can also ensure a sense of trust and reliability; even if something happens and a particular crop doesn’t do well, if the relationship is strong then the farmer is more likely to collaborate and come up with creative, and even exciting solutions. If something goes wrong with a mass-produced, trans-national company, you’re more likely to lose both money and your product and get little if nothing in return.