Connection direction: Chefs want to buy local; need farmers

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SALEM, Ohio – Farmers sell their veggies, meat and eggs at farmers’ markets. They sell it at roadside stands and out of their garages. They set up CSAs and send out fliers.

But they may be missing a huge opportunity just down the road.

Restaurants need food, too. And recent research shows they want local food.

What they want. Ohio State grad student Shoshanah Inwood led a study to determine opportunities for producers to sell locally.

What she found may make farmers’ eyebrows raise: 90 percent of the 100 retailers and restaurants in Inwood’s study want to increase their local food purchases.

“What a tremendous opportunity for local and organic farmers,” Inwood said.

Increasing interest. Restaurants and retailers are getting the bulk of their food through mainstream food distribution centers, Inwood said.

But that doesn’t mean they prefer it.

Interest in local food is increasing, mainly because of the taste, she said.

“The culinary community appreciates taste, and local foods taste better,” Inwood said. “That’s one asset they value above all others.”

Restaurant needs. It’s more than just taste. Supporting local farmers is just as important.

“I want to keep the money I’m spending, and consequently the money our customers pay, within our community,” said Mike Mariola, owner of South Market Bistro in Wooster.

Mariola is dedicated to serving local food in his restaurant and knows how much opportunity there is for farmers.

His focus is to find the “basics” – like celery, onions, potatoes – locally. But farmers have to be able to produce them year-round because restaurants still need tomatoes when the temperature drops, he said.

Once farmers are supplying enough of these basics, they can specialize in unique products to set themselves apart, said Mariola, who buys from 20-30 local producers and wants to work with more.

Benefits. Selling to restaurants extends farmer Marcus Ladrach’s growing season.

Ladrach, also of Wooster, sells to South Market Bistro and other local restaurants.

“It’s a good venture because farmers’ markets are over in October and then I can keep selling [cabbage, potatoes and Brussels sprouts] all year long,” he said.

The restaurants are buying the food regardless of where it’s produced, so they might as well by it locally and have a fresher product, he said.

Connection. So, if restaurants and farmers are interested in doing business, what’s the problem?

The connection is missing, Inwood said.

After talking with chefs while doing her research, she gave them a Local Food Connector card. These cards give contact information to find local producers.

“I’ve wanted to buy local, I just had no idea how. This is great,” they told Inwood.

Farmers and farmer-oriented organizations need to take the lead, and there needs to be more promotion, Inwood stressed.

“Buy local” campaigns in other states are popular but they haven’t been embraced in Ohio, she said. Although Ohio Proud is a “buy local” effort, Inwood said many respondents didn’t recognize it.

Policy also needs to be changed so it is more small- and medium-farmer friendly, she said. Small producers worry about liability when they sell to restaurants.

Another option is to connect local farmers with local distributors. The distributors make it easier because they already know how to work with restaurants and understand price schedules, Inwood said.

Ethnic influence. Inwood was most surprised by how much ethnic markets value local producers.

And because these stores are smaller, they offer more options for small-scale farmers who can’t offer 10 boxes of tomatoes a week, she said.

Ethnic markets often want mainstream goods with a unique twist, such as a different variety. For example, Inwood wrote in her report Middle Eastern markets stock young, short okra, while Indian stores want longer, older okra.

A small-scale farmer usually has more flexibility to experiment with these preferences, she said.

Looking ahead. Now that she has the research, Inwood said her next step is to determine what restaurants are looking for and how to promote it to farmers.

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)



Get the details



* Report is available at www.ifoh.org.

      Order hard copies ($4 payable to Ohio State University) at:

            Shoshanah Inwood

            Thorne Hall – OSU/OARDC

            1680 Madison Ave.

            Wooster, OH 44691



* Innovative Farmers of Ohio

      3303 Liberty Road

      Delaware, OH 43015

      740-368-8552

      www.ifoh.org



* Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association

      P.O. Box 82234

      Columbus, OH 43202

      614-421-2022

      www.oeffa.com



* Chefs Collaborative

      262 Beacon St.

      Boston, MA 02116

      617-236-5200

      www.chefscollaborative.org

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