By Matt Low | Photography by Linda Gentry
In the last decade, the growing popularity of the farm-to-table movement has come a long way in bringing consumers into direct contact with the growers and producers of the food they eat. That a new coinage (“farm-to-table”) is needed to describe the seemingly basic act of acquiring food directly from a farmer is evidence that this transaction has either, at best, been taken for granted or, at worst, disappeared completely for most consumers. Nevertheless, as chef and author Dan Barber argues in The Third Plate, there is a “promise of farm-to-table cooking” that warrants further consideration, because when its core principles are followed by chefs and home cooks alike, such meals “take their shape from the constraints of local agriculture and celebrate them.”
However, as this movement becomes more popular, a paradox has also emerged. Unsurprisingly, this paradox mostly concerns how the movement is portrayed in the media (Barber himself bemoans how the term has become a “much abused descriptor”). On one hand, there are advocates like Michael Pollan, whose popular book and Netflix series Cooked champion a fairly modest version of farm-to-table, with an emphasis on more in-home cooking that uses fresh foods (mostly plants, but some meat) acquired as close to home as possible. On the other hand, there is a ballooning market for books and especially television programs that feature so-called “celebrity” chefs creating elaborate meals with “locally sourced” ingredients, typically in some coastal or exotic locale, that can have the unintended effect of fetishizing the farm-to-table movement. Though both versions celebrate real food and real farmers, the latter runs the risk of making this movement seem inaccessible, possibly even elitist, especially for those of us living in the American Midwest.
Thankfully, in our area, the resurgence and expansion of farmers markets, the proliferation of community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) and the uptick in restaurants offering regional menu items are all strong indicators that farm-to-table has crossed an accessibility threshold, at least for those willing to seek it out. It is evident that more Midwesterners are paying attention to the origins of their food, which also means more attention is being given to those at the front end of the farm-to-table equation. This is cause for celebration because, as the poet Mary Oliver reminds us, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Devotees of family farming and sustainable agriculture in our region did in fact come together recently at Sawmill Hollow Family Farm in the Loess Hills. They held an open-air dinner that its organizers hope to make an annual event, to be practiced each year in proximity to Earth Day. In addition to celebrating the vitality of the planet more broadly, this is an event that equally seeks to celebrate what organizer Andrew Pittz refers to as “rural vitality”: namely, a thriving community of farmers, producers, consumers, thinkers and even politicians committed to fortifying the traditions and values that have existed along this stretch of the Missouri River Valley for generations.
The dinner at Sawmill Hollow in late April shared a number of common elements with the open-air dinners, which are another popular offshoot of the farm-to-table movement. These similarities include the following: outdoor seating at long tables with a picturesque view, a set menu prepared by a well-known chef and, of course, foods grown, raised or produced locally. Without a doubt, this dinner succeeded at each of these levels. The weather was ideal for mid-spring, and the facilities at Sawmill Hollow Family Farm perfectly accommodated the 50 or so guests who attended the dinner. Chef Clayton Chapman and members of his talented staff from the Grey Plume in Omaha prepared an eclectic menu that featured fresh produce from Rhizosphere Farm, pork loin from Beeler’s Pure Pork and aronia berry jams, wine and cobbler from Sawmill Hollow.
Speaking with Andrew, who has adopted the title “farmer in chief” at Sawmill Hollow, it is clear that there was more at stake in this dinner than taking advantage of a popular farm-to-table fad. Andrew has an educational background in rural sociology, along with horticulture and food studies, and it is his desire “to share the stories of as many great people” working in local agriculture as he can. Given the amount of positive attention Sawmill Hollow and its annual North American Aronia Berry Festival have received in local and national press, and the increasing availability of aronia berry products in regional chains like Hy-Vee and national chains like Whole Foods, Andrew is doing quite well in sharing the story of his farm.
Partnering with the Grey Plume and Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development for this dinner enabled Andrew to deliver a message of outreach, exposure and positivity to an audience closer to home: “The impetus is to show that we have an honest and authentic sustainable agriculture in the region.” That this message was well received by those in attendance was made evident by empty plates of charcuterie, wide eyes following large trays of pork loin, quick hands reaching for jars of apple and aronia berry cobbler and sincere appreciation expressed to the growers, producers and chefs who worked together to make this meal possible. As this event continues to grow, it’s easy to envision the potential for making authentic farm-to-table accessible for an ever-expanding audience in this region.
One other possible critique that might be made of the farm-to-table movement is its emphasis on the consumer—as in, directing as many people as possible toward farm-fresh produce, largely operating under the assumption that there will always be farmers to provide these goods and services. As Dan Barber notes in The Third Plate, “Farm-to-table may sound right—it’s direct and connected—but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around. It makes good agriculture difficult to sustain.” Thus, it is encouraging to hear Andrew address the “farming deficit” among his reasons for hosting this sort of dinner, along with an “appreciation for local growers” that might otherwise be overlooked.
To solidify this point, Andrew took some time at the end of the dinner to recognize several people in attendance who embrace and embody the ideals of “rural vitality,” including Chuck Hassebrook, formerly director of the Center for Rural Affairs, and Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, as well as representatives from Whole Foods’ Local Producer Loan Program. These are individuals who pose serious questions about agriculture in the American Midwest, whose work behind the scenes is integral to the success of movements like farm-to-table and without whom such movements truly would fade away like any other fad.
Sawmill Hollow Family Farm is located just north of Missouri Valley, Iowa, where visitors can sample aronia berry products at the tasting room with scenic views of the Loess Hills; their products can also be purchased in area grocery stores such as Hy-Vee and Whole Foods. The 2016 North American Aronia Berry Festival will be held September 16 and 17. For more information, visit SawmillHollow.com.
Rhizosphere Farm produce is available at the downtown Omaha and Aksarben farmers markets and is featured at a number of area restaurants. More information about the farm can be found at Rhizospherefarm.org and on Facebook.
The Grey Plume is located in Omaha’s Midtown Crossing. Information about seasonal menus, reservations and their online store, Provisions, can be found at TheGreyPlume.com.
Matt Low lives and teaches in Omaha. He and his family enjoy exploring the growing number of sustainable food options available throughout the area.