“The first person I ever sold anything to was Nancy Silverton,” says James Birch of Flora Bella Farms. “I called her at La Brea Bakery, and I drove there in my station wagon. And she bought this beautiful little cluster of cherry tomatoes.”
For 26 years Birch has been going to the Santa Monica Farmers Market to sell his crops of arugula, kale, broccoli and other produce. And though chefs like Silverton have been going to his stall for decades, he admits that a lot has changed over the years. “There were chefs back then, but not like today,” Birch says. "In the beginning I didn’t have that many chefs. It took years to build that clientele up."
Over the past few years, the increase in chef and restaurant demand has been good for business for farmers such as Birch, for a variety of reasons. For one, there's less waste. Advance ordering tells farmers how much to pick. “Before, I was over-picking and under-picking,” Birch says. Plus, the farm-to-table restaurant trend has made business stable for small farmers. “It’s made me more secure in my business,” says Peter Schaner of Schaner Family Farms in Valley Center, near San Diego. Schaner acknowledges that the chefs stabilize his income by coming week after week. “Back in the old days, a rainy day would be a bad day for us.” Now, he says, “The community people might not come out. But the chefs have to come out.”
But selling to chefs and restaurants isn’t the reason Schaner has been driving north to Santa Monica every Wednesday for 25 years. “My main service is to the people who come to the farmers market, the families.”
This brings up the important point that these markets were originally intended for the community to have access to local produce. But despite overwhelming demand and the fact that many of the farmers put aside some of their best crops for chef business, there's still seems to be plenty to go around — at least for the foreseeable future.
Wholesale food distributor L.A. Specialty is helping to ensure this with a local small-grower program. “Some of the growers that are at the market don’t have the capability of bringing enough product every Wednesday to supply major distributors such as ourselves,” explains Rhonda Rago of L.A. Specialty, who has been going to the market for her clients for 15 years. The program also allows farmers who don't have access to the farmers market to sell produce directly to L.A. restaurants. "The Santa Monica and Hollywood markets are very exclusive markets. A lot of the vendors that go there have been there for decades. It’s a very difficult market to get into," Rago says.
L.A. Specialty places orders with farmers and picks up produce directly at the farm, allowing farmers to know exactly what to harvest. “Not every restaurant can turn on a dime and change their menu four times per week. There are a lot of restaurants that want to support the small, local farmers but need more stability and regularity, and produce that’s more cost-effective," she says. In other words, by circumventing the farmers market, L.A. Specialty is making local produce available to restaurants that couldn't otherwise afford to buy whatever happens to be in season each week.
There is clearly a massive opportunity for profit in providing produce to the restaurant business among farmers and companies like L.A. Specialty. So much so that many farmers feel they could make it their entire business. But farmers like Schaner stress the importance of continuing to provide for the community. “The people who first supported me and our farm were the regular people that came daily or weekly to the farmers market to get their weekly produce," Schaner says. "Just because you might make more money more easily just dealing with the chefs, doesn’t mean that we need to stop going to the farmers market and taking care of the community.”
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Dealing with restaurants entails challenges for small farmers, too. As businesses rely on dependable sources for produce to arrive weekly or daily, a small organic farmer can easily run out of a product such as oranges for the season, especially with factors like extreme drought. But unlike the general public, who will just as happily come back for oranges when the farmer has them, restaurants can permanently move their business to a new producer, and the farmer has lost the account
But some challenges are welcomed by farmers, such as timing crops to help with menu planning, growing more of something because the chefs always use it or, in some cases, growing specific vegetables by request from restaurants. “I have an entire field of Japanese vegetables that have been requested by a chef,” Birch says. In other cases, chefs who are less familiar with the farming process have requested vegetables to be grown for them and expect the harvest to arrive in two weeks. In reality, the vegetables are ready at least three months later, well after the restaurant's seasonal menu has shifted.
Overall, farmers are thrilled to have chefs as clients. And business from restaurants not only means better produce being served on menus but also ensures that beloved farmers like Birch and Schaner can continue to sell their produce to the community.
“The restaurants and chefs make it possible for me to do what I love doing. And that's farming,” Birch says. And about the chef who purchased that beautiful little bundle of cherry tomatoes so many years ago: “It’s people like her that have made this possible for me."