By Meredith Hines-Dochterman/The Gazette
What is farm-to-table?
Is it shopping at your local farmers market? Dining at a table in an actual cornfield or joining a community-supported agriculture program?
The answer is all of the above — and more.
“I feel like it’s one of those catchphrases that has a lot of interpretations,” says Nicholas Brink, front house manager of the Linn Street Cafe. “It depends on who you talk to.”
At the Iowa City restaurant, farm-to-table means buying the freshest ingredients from local producers, whether it’s attending produce auctions in Kalona, serving Iowa beef or partnering with Eden’s Farms in Central Iowa for pork.
“We’re really lucky that we’re so close to many great farms in Iowa,” Brink says. “This has been a focus for us since 1996, before there even was a movement. It’s nothing political or cultural; it’s just that it seems like the right thing to do.”
That’s a sentiment more people are beginning to share. Eastern Iowa farmers markets have steady crowds, more schools are planting their own gardens, and education programs that highlight the health, economic and environmental aspects of buying local continue to increase.
Soilmates, a garden education service in Iowa City, focuses on the fundamentals of soil health by engaging local youth to understand that gardening isn’t just growing plants, but growing healthy communities. Founder Scott Koepke and his students have transformed school and community plots into a source of food or flowers, with an emphasis on the link between biodiversity and balance.
“The more diversity we bring to a system, both with plants and people, the healthier that system becomes,” Koepke says. “My students are hopefully rediscovering a more self-reliant, direct connection to where their food comes from, instead of assuming it will always just magically be at a store.”
It’s hard to pinpoint when farm-to-table began. After all, it never was a movement for farming families, but a way of life. Some say the transportation advances that made it easier for us to get from one place to the next made it easier for our food to travel further distances, too. However, that dynamic has slowly shifted back to local sources.
“The movement has really grown in the last two to three years,” adds Jason Grimm, co-founder of the Iowa Valley Food Co-op for the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area.
You can see it in the restaurants with revolving menus that feature the freshest ingredients or farm-to-table meals that allow people to dine right at the source.
Last year, Four Oaks hosted its first Cuisine in the Corn fundraising event at Bloomsbury Farm. The dinner featured an all-Iowa menu served in a cornfield.
“To be on the farm, in the midst of the heartland knowing this is the food that feeds the world — it’s just hard to describe,” says Lisa Pritchard, public relations and marketing director for Four Oaks. “Most of our diners were native Iowans and noted that although cornfields were a natural part of their upbringing, the Cuisine in the Corn experience was unlike any other. They were just over the moon.”
This year’s dinner will be held on Aug. 25. The menu will feature several courses, but Pritchard says it won’t be finalized until right before the event.
“It’s farm-to-table,” she says. “Everything will be fresh from Iowa. That’s part of the deal.”
The closer you can get to eating something that comes out of the ground, the better it’s going to taste. Knowing that, and creating an infrastructure that supports it, is what supporters say keeps farm-to-table a movement instead of a lifestyle.
“We’re still on the edge,” Grimm says. “People who are food conscience, who seek out opportunities to eat local, are still the minority. We still need to go to special restaurants or farmers markets to have access to the food we want.”
If more of this food was produced by local growers, the public would have more opportunities to buy local. Working with producers to encourage them to diversify is an ongoing focus.
“We’re making baby-steps, but still have a very long way to go before we stop importing most of our vegetables from California and Mexico,” Koepke says. “Sure, the growing season is shorter here, but we still have the potential to diversify production in Iowa well beyond our current capacity, which, in turn, strengthens Iowa’s economy.”
5 tomatoes, diced
1 onion, chopped
1 cucumber, sliced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
Salt, pepper to taste
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
In a large bowl, combine the tomato, onion, cucumber, bell pepper, basil, parsley, garlic and vinegar. Toss and add salt and pepper to taste. Chill and serve.
2 ounces dried salami, diced (about 1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
2 garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
2 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (about 1 cup)
1 pound flat green beans, stem ends snapped off
1/2 cup water
1/2 teaspoon balsamic or sherry vinegar
Warm the salami in the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook until they melt into the sauce, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt.
Add the green beans and the water, cover tightly and shake the pan to coat the beans with the sauce. Reduce the heat to low and cook until the beans are extremely tender and flavorful, about 30 minutes.
Just before serving, stir in the vinegar and season to taste with salt. The beans can be served either hot or at room temperature.
Source: “How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table” by Russ Parsons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; May 9, 2007)