The Madison region is a celebrated hotspot for direct delivery of fresh local ingredients from farm to table. Now long-established ties between farmers and restaurateurs locally are growing regionally as new businesses crop up to distribute meat, cheese, fruits and veggies and specialty products to restaurants in and around Chicagoland.
Chef Paul Virant
Todd Feitl is a pastry chef, but when we meet on a weekday afternoon he is behind the bar making his first butternut squash martini. The seasonal cocktail is a blend of “squash butter,” cinnamon, cloves and ginger with a shot of Crown Royal. “Too sweet,” he decides, so he’ll redo the squash butter using less sugar and taste it again. Sometimes Feitl’s test kitchen (of sorts) takes him in unexpected directions, like the time he concocted a cherry liqueur that tasted like cough syrup, “but it worked fine in a sorbet.”
In addition to his fondness for culinary experiment, Feitl shares his grandmother’s passion for food preservation, which makes him a good match for his job at Vie Restaurant in Western Springs, Illinois, an affluent community a half-hour train ride west of the Chicago Loop and flush with Wisconsin farm connections. His boss, Vie owner Paul Virant, Food & Wine Magazine’s 2007 Best New Chef, is nicknamed “The Jar Star” for the hundreds of containers of heirloom, pickled, sauced and juiced fruits and vegetables that fill a cool, dark, five-hundred-square-foot storage area near his kitchen.
Twenty quarts of sauerkraut simmer as we chat, just days before Virant makes his debut on Iron Chef (and loses to Japan native Masaharu Morimoto by only one point). He purchases ingredients from many family-run farms in the Midwest, as do a swelling number of fine-dining chefs nationwide, but Virant takes the buy-local commitment one impressive step further. Year-round on Fridays, and every other week during the winter months, the sleek Vie Restaurant moonlights as a truck stop for community-supported agriculture shares from southwest Wisconsin farms.
Vie’s CSA deliveries include fresh garden herbs, fruits and veggies packed tightly into thirty or forty boxes (depending on the season) for customers who pay a lump sum for the cornucopia plus a recipe for each item. The produce is shipped via Deb Hansen [pictured at right], whose Simply Wisconsin food distribution system is among those that recently replaced a farm consortium known as Homegrown Wisconsin.
“Not a lot of farmers out that way do CSAs,” says Hansen of Monona, who is the granddaughter of a farmer and ag teacher. Crops raised by her nearly forty certified organic farms help fill the gap in Chicagoland. A single share contains the bounty of several farms, most of which raise commodity crops in western Wisconsin. In addition to regular shares, year-round specialty boxes feature cheeses (such as cheddar with roasted garlic) and processed foods including spaghetti sauce, organic flour, maple syrup, honey and more.
“It’s great to be able to offer this to my customers,” says Virant, whose grandmothers taught him how to preserve food, and who soon plans to raise chickens and rare, heirloom crops in the yard of his new home. “The whole mission of this restaurant has evolved into a voice about how people should be eating and sourcing their food. If you commit to a CSA share, you’ll want to find a use for the food you receive.”
More and more urban Illinois restaurants and families are “going local” with products grown at small farms in Wisconsin. Interestingly, this lifestyle shift of our neighbors to the south comes at a time when the demand for local food sometimes outweighs supply back home in Madison, where CSAs, farmers’ markets and the area agricultural producers who supply them are established, integral components of our cultural and economic makeup.
Consider CSAs. More than six thousand shares from thirty-five farms were distributed to 7,700 households during the 2009 growing season, reports the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition. Compared to 2008, that’s a 180-percent increase in shares and more than $2 million pumped into—and circulating around—the local and regional economy. And better yet, there’s room for much more of this kind of sustainable stimulus package.
“There is a great demand for CSA and we need more farms to meet that demand,” MACSAC noted during its online recruitment of new growers for 2010. Insurance reimbursements of up to $300 per household—a new lifestyle incentive that joins gym membership discounts and subsidized walkathons in an effort to lower health care costs—have spurred the mushrooming marketplace. The rebate from Madison’s largest HMOs is a carrot “reaching a whole different audience than we do,” says MACSAC partner shares coordinator Gini Knight. It seems local, organic veggies aren’t just for the aging Birkenstock set anymore.
“Most of our farms sell out every year,” Knight says. “We have more people interested in CSAs than our farms can support,” which is why MACSAC has added eight more farms to the 2010 growing season roster for a total of forty-three. Of course there are other area farms that offer CSAs but choose to go it alone without MACSAC’s networking support.
Knight predicts Chicago markets won’t interfere much, long-term, with local food demands, at least in more heavily populated areas like Madison and Milwaukee. “Restaurants might provide a more lucrative business for some farms, but the quantities of purchase can be low, and it can be hard to keep them happy throughout the year,” she says. Farmers typically crave more time to grow food, instead of driving a truck—and incurring fuel costs—or staffing a farmers’ market booth to sell it.
“There’s clearly a real growth in demand,” says Steven Pincus, who operates Tipi Produce in Evansville, about twenty miles south of Madison. Work he began “as a young hippie” on five acres of rented land in 1976 today boasts forty-five acres and fifteen employees. Sales shifted from farmers’ markets to CSAs and direct sales to stores in 2004. Tipi’s tillable acreage increased five percent in 2009 but yields rose twenty percent due to cooperative weather, improved organic farming techniques, and an experienced crew of farm hands. “We’ll just try to keep doing things better,” Pincus says, “but I’m sixty-two years old and don’t need to keep farming bigger and bigger.”
Lesson in Simplicity
In La Grange, Illinois, two Metra train stops from Vie Restaurant, Dan Bacin raves about the 2009 menu overhaul at his classy but casual Bella Bacinos. It is the work of celebrated chef Stefano Viglietti [pictured at right], who also operates four popular Sheboygan restaurants: Trattoria Stefano, Il Ritrovo, Field to Fork and Duke of Devon.
“We’ve admired him for years,” Bacin says of Viglietti. “There’s no one I know who has the commitment he does to continued culinary education. He goes to Italy, year after year, to cook and learn—and his menus reflect his discoveries.”
Viglietti is a true believer in “simple preparations that involve excellent ingredients,” and his annual three-week trips to Italy in June plus winter excursions with staff seek out “small places where I can cook beside mothers and daughters in their eighties and fifties.”
When Viglietti got involved with Bella Bacinos, known for its authentic Italian pastas and exceptional pizzas made in a seven-hundred-degree wood-burning oven “so they bake like a soufflé,” he introduced Bacin to the plethora of premium Wisconsin ingredients. Viglietti is a from-scratch chef who even makes many of his sausages himself; that includes a lean chorizo in the “Tico” Costa Rican breakfast platter at Sheboygan’s Field to Fork.
"So many people say 'I don't believe how good I feel when I eat this food'—there's an uncleanliness that is deep in animals" induced with hormones and raised on pesticide-spattered grains, Viglietti believes.
“We buy whatever we can” from Simply Wisconsin, says Bacin. “It costs a little more, but we know the quality is there.”
Consider Bella Bacinos’ boscaiola pizza, a four-mushroom mix with pancetta, rosemary, truffle cheese and smoked mozzarella. Bacin considers it a Wisconsin pizza, right down to the oyster, shiitake, Portobello and crimini toppings grown just to the north and delivered to the restaurant by Simply Wisconsin. Viglietti says his Sheboygan restaurants used more than $160,000 in locally produced ingredients in 2009. That includes about $2,000 per week from Simply Wisconsin and Mineral Point farmer Rink DaVee’s Green & Green delivery service.
“I have to cook, make soup, run a restaurant, have my head in the game,” Viglietti says. Having trusted sources to gather local ingredients of high quality is an enormous time saver, not to mention a quality guarantee. “I’m paying fifty to seventy-five percent more, in some cases, but once you taste the results …”
Both Green & Green and Simply Wisconsin aim to make local foods more accessible and affordable. For DaVee [pictured at right], doing this effectively means time away from farming. But behind his easy smile and laid-back manner is a savvy businessman who enjoys the challenge of figuring out market strategy. In 2009 he began distributing a full line of seasonal items specialty products from twenty farms to restaurants, most in and around Chicago. That’s how winter squash from Richland Harvest in Viroqua ends up at the Ritz Carlton in Water Tower Place, and heirloom tomatoes from Spring Valley Produce in Hillsboro find their way onto the Nuevo Latino menu at another popular downtown restaurant, Carnivale. Baby arugula from DaVee’s own Shooting Star Farm is sold to Uncommon Ground, an edgy coffeehouse.
Green & Green provides more specialty crops (heirloom products, microgreens) than Simply Wisconsin, but these aren’t rigid boundaries. Neither is the customer base; both distributors sell to restaurants, for example, although Green & Green’s customer base is larger. DaVee’s inaugural year was one of refining the rhythm of business and carving a niche with customers—some formerly with Homegrown Wisconsin, others trying local, independent distribution for the first time.
“The cycle starts on the farms,” DaVee explains. “They get an order, wash and pack their products and bring them to a central location, where everything is inspected, labeled by restaurant order and palletized.”
After the pallets are loaded on the truck the driver heads south, making a few deliveries and eventually handing off the rest to a Chicago food hauler. “It’s still a ten-hour day,” says DaVee, who occasionally makes deliveries himself.
In the coming year he expects to move to twice-a-week deliveries so more restaurants can develop menus based on products available, and intends to expand the number of farms, products and restaurant customers in Madison and Milwaukee. Though pricing is tricky and clearly has been affected by the economic downturn, the growth of interest in local foods and heightened awareness of produce auctions (typically near Amish farming communities) contribute to the schedule he sets. The auctions, for instance, usually sell commercial-level quantities of food at prices noticeably lower than what the average consumer pays, so for DaVee to compete he must adjust his costs accordingly.
“I have to be sensitive to restaurants that already are working with low profit margins, I want to bring home decent prices for the farmers, and I need to make it worth my time,” he explains. “The days of chefs blindly ordering whatever they want are gone.”
Unlike Green & Green, Simply Wisconsin’s business model provides CSA options. Among the winter 2009–10 choices: five shares of grass-fed or organic meats ($250) and every-other-week delivery of one dozen organic eggs ($22), seasonal produce ($200), cheeses ($75) and preserved or processed items such as organic flours, maple syrup, pickles and popcorn ($95).
“We’re doing away with some myths that organic food has to be expensive, by working more with farmers on pricing,” says Hansen, who makes winter CSA deliveries at four Madison and eleven Chicago-area locations including Vie, where shares are sold to local residents as well as the restaurant. The 2010 rate for an eighteen-week season of spring-to-fall produce dropped to $440, a thirty decrease from Homegrown Wisconsin’s rate of $600 for twenty weeks.
“Our only criticism is that people love fruit, and Wisconsin doesn’t grow it as well as farmers on the other side of the lake,” restaurateur Virant says.
It’s true that the longer harvest season in western Michigan—home to national blueberry and cherry festivals—produces a wider range of fruits. In response, Hansen says Simply Wisconsin’s fruit shares are expanding to supplement Wisconsin strawberries, raspberries, apples and rhubarb with organic, Michigan-grown blueberries and peaches. It’s not a pure hundred-mile diet as the buy-local movement advocates, but regional partnerships like these are a step in the right direction when you consider the ingredients that make up a North American meal have traveled an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to your plate.
Going it Alone
For operations such as Snug Haven Farm, near Belleville, the forging of niche relationships with chefs is far from new. Bill Warner and Judy Hageman started selling winter spinach grown in hoop houses to L’Etoile in Madison in 1994. Next came business with the Tornado Club, Blue Marline and Madison Club to name a few.
In 1995, “we decided to take some of our spinach to Chicago and just show up with it at restaurants,” Warner says. They made a sale with chefs at three of four stops—the Ritz Carlton, Frontera Grill and Soul Kitchen (which has since closed).
“We’re on our own” and like it that way,” Warner says. The Rick Bayless restaurants (including Frontera) remain their largest restaurant account. Kevin Hickey, executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, considers the product “the best spinach available.”
Add sales at Chicago’s Green City Market in winter, the Dane County Farmers’ Market and Snug Haven’s twenty-four-week “buyers club” with a friend who sells eggs. Elegant Foods, a specialty food distributor based in Madison, helps with Chicago deliveries. It makes for a full life, complicated by the soil pest symphylans over the last few years. The root feeder, which can dive four feet into the ground and thrive there for years, is muscling into the Snug Haven crop, which means less spinach to sell.
Snug Haven has a plan of attack, but the predicament surfaces at an unfortunate time, when product demand is high. The buyers club alone requires more than 150 pounds of spinach per week.
“We have an acre of spinach under our hoop house but could sell ten acres of it,” Warner says.
Like the Warners, newcomers Joel and Jai Kellum [pictured at right] operate independently on the 850-acre (300 tillable) King’s Hill Farm in Mineral Point, and so far it hasn’t been easy, though you wouldn’t guess it from their feel-good karma. They stroll carefreely through what they have dubbed their “edible forest,” with Joel barefoot as sons Phineas and Cedar pluck berries from bushes and romp with their pets in early autumn. The forest boasts two hundred varieties of trees, shrubs and bushes, plus two thousand other plants that were placed in the ground in a random order. So an apple tree might be next to a raspberry bush, then a horseradish plant, with a groundcover of perennial flowers. Imagine a bouquet of broccoli, branches and blossoms. The concept, which to some extent mimics life in a natural woodland, makes it more difficult for wildlife, weather, a pest or plant disease to wipe out an entire harvest.
The young farmers are veteran risk takers, which makes them a good match for their chosen profession. They hitchhiked the country in the mid-1990s before landing at Avalanche Organics in Viroqua, first as farm workers, then business partners with another couple. The venture began with ten rented acres and eventually grew to forty. CSA shares ended in 2003 “because cash crops seemed more profitable,” Jai says, so the farm’s tomatoes, onions and salad mix headed into food co-ops, farmers’ markets and restaurants as far away as the Twin Cities. By the end of 2006, the business partnership soured. The Kellums ended up running the farm alone, with six-figure debt.
“We were doing well,” Jai recalls, “but then it started raining.” An understatement: their acreage bordered the Kickapoo River, and thirty-seven of the farm’s forty acres were under water during Wisconsin’s devastating floods of summer 2007.
The Sow the Seeds Fund and crop sales from twenty acres of rented land reduced the Kellums’ debt but left them wary and weary.
A Matchmaker Intervenes
Flooded out and about to go bankrupt, the couple began putting feelers out about where the future might lead them. They considered managing a nonprofit farm in California until Jim Slama, president of FamilyFarmed.org based in Chicago, caught wind of their predicament.
“There was a lot of kismet in that situation,” Slama recalls. “These were great farmers, and we didn’t want to lose them. California has enough organic farmers.” He knew of a Mineral Point landowner in need of help reviving his farm and made the necessary introductions. The Kellums moved in at the end of 2007 and spent the next year getting the place back in shape.
Their goal in 2009 was to find five hundred CSA customers to share the farming risks and reap its rewards. They got about a hundred and aim to double that in 2010. CSA income is supplemented by sales at Chicago’s Green City Market and Madison grocers. Joel tends to make twice-weekly trips to Chicago, rising at two in the morning and putting in a sixteen-hour day.
Despite the volume and the opportunity, Chicago connections haven’t always panned out. Unlike Madison and the St. Paul, Minneapolis area, says Joel, “Chicago doesn’t have a lot of co-ops supported by the people. Still, he remains hopeful, considering the Chicago metro area “a new frontier” where “people will catch on—it just takes a little while.” It is a reference to customers who demand shiny vegetables, fruits without blemishes and avoid buying what others have touched.
“My potatoes look great until they dry—it makes me want to have a mister with me,” Joel says. “In the Twin Cities, that battle had been fought a long time before we entered the picture,” which means consumers understand that healthy food need not look perfect.
Risk and Resilience
At this point, the Kellums prefer to avoid dealing with a middleman such as Simply Wisconsin or Green & Green, partly because of the bottom line. “Why should I drop my prices,” Joel inquires. His strategy is to add specialty CSAs, for fruit and just mushrooms, as his crops further diversify and flourish.
The couple avoided bankruptcy but say they remain in heavy debt. “It’s been so long that it doesn’t scare me anymore,” Joel says. Much of the farm’s three -hundred tillable acres is harvested by the machinery of neighbors. The Kellums added forty-five acres of vegetables, ninety acres of organic clover, ten beehives and a whopping thirteen-hundred shiitake logs. Add chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, a goat, a llama and a breeding pair of Glaustershire Old Spots Pigs. Put it all on a hill surrounded by the serene twists and dips of nature. End of story? Far from it.
King’s Hill had seventeen employees until the entire crew quit at the peak of harvest in 2009. What Jai had hoped would be a harmonious community, complete with weekly yoga instruction, turned divisive. Amish teens came to the farm’s rescue; Jai says up to ten work two days a week at peak harvest times and the Kellums are pushing forward.
Jai describes her husband as “someone who knew he loved farming from the first year he did it. I just love Joel and know he is a partner I could work with. We’ve changed and gained a new respect for each other.”
“It’s the challenges,” Joel says. “I could get good at carpentry, but after ten years, I’d only be so good. It would get old.
“With farming, every season is different, and it fulfills that craving for not knowing what’s going to happen next. Living plants bring some sort of fulfillment that nothing else can.”
Moreover, “You can do everything the same at the beginning of a farm season, but each year something about it will be a little different. You can never be an expert. Mother Nature always knows more than you do.”
Journalist Mary Bergin since 2002 has written and syndicated a weekly travel column; look for it at www.roadstraveled.com.
Slow Money: A Fast-Growing Movement
You’ve heard of Slow Food, the movement to enhance life and health by taking the time to savor what is eaten—especially when the food represents time-honored traditions, builds a sense of community or is the product of locally and sustainable means. Now comes the Slow Money Movement, and Madison is on the ground level of this nationwide effort to “bring money back down to earth.” Founder Woody Tasch, an activist and venture capitalist in New Mexico, says this favors investment networks that are devoted to local and small businesses that involve food and/or farms.
“There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex,” the nonprofit organization states, in its list of principles. “Therefore, we must slow our money down—not all of it, of course, but enough to matter.”
The movement substitutes “nurture capital” for the “buy low/sell high” mentality of the last century. That means investing assets closer to home, ideally with companies that give away half of their profits and make a deep commitment to protect and replenish the environment.
For more: www.slowmoneyalliance.org.
Tasch speaks at this year’s Family Farmed Expo, March 11-13 in downtown Chicago. The event, a forum for farm issue discussion, also introduces farmers to prospective urban customers.
The latter group includes restaurateurs to wholesale buyers (Whole Foods, Sysco).
For more: www.familyfarmed.org.