Chefs, farmers plant seeds for more local foods in restaurants

Nov 8, 2017

 

 


With the first snow on the ground and sticking, most farmers and gardeners around the Peninsula are looking ahead to next year.

And as the demand for locally sourced food grows, it isn’t just farmers hoping for a productive 2018.

Cool. Wet. No good for eggplant. That’s one takeaway from the 2017 growing season on the Kenai. On the other hand, it was a banner year getting what did grow well into local restaurants. So well, in fact, that Amy Seitz of Lancashire Farms in Soldotna, found herself struggling to keep up with demand for her eggs.

 

“You’re squeezing your chickens, going ‘give me more eggs."

 

A bit of hyperbole there. Amy loves her chickens. But those birds did have a full time job keeping up with supplying Odie’s Deli. Owner Megan Schaafsma says the goal at the beginning of the year was to simply add local lettuce to her sandwiches.

 

That modest shopping list quickly grew to just about anything she could get from Ridgeway Farms and as many eggs as possible to feed the early morning fishing rush, hungry for breakfast sandwiches.

 

“It was several months of ‘hey we should do this, hey we want to talk about this, hey I need to get some more chickens because you use too many eggs’. For a little while it took some patience on both ends to get on the same page, and then it took figuring out a form of communication that worked for both of us," Schaafsma said.

 

Communication is the key to filling local restaurant coolers with locally sourced food. Because the kitchens need those items regardless. But vegetable farming on the Kenai, at its present scale, can’t always keep up with such rigorous demands. That’s partly what Tuesday’s meeting was about. Connecting the supply and the demand to create something resembling a predictable and profitable market.

 

It’s an ambitious goal, and it’s starts small. Text messages back and forth to find out what’s looking good for a particular week. Or how tired those chickens are. Amy Seitz says the word of mouth about what is available is getting out there, with stories making their way from restaurant to restaurant and farm to farm.

 

“As a farmer, it’s great to be able to tell people you should go eat at these places because you’ll get eggs from here and lettuce from there. This summer, my aunt said someone came to pick up their CSA basket (community supported agriculture) from Ridgeway Farms and was just raving about the eggs at Odies. So, I’m just hearing the public be excited about it, too.”

 

But making a shift away from commercially grown, nearly always available, shipped from who-knows-where produce and other food is not without its challenges. If you’ve ever grown lettuce here, you’ve dealt with slugs. Well, those little buggers don’t magically disappear just because that lettuce is going to a restaurant instead of your own salad bowl at home. Those things take extra time on both ends to ensure safe, clean food.

 

But the upside, despite some of the headaches, seems nearly limitless. Even the state is involved, with a new program called Restaurant Recognition for businesses that buy local. Lyssa Frohling is a project assistant at the Division of Agriculture. She says it’s kind of an offshoot of the Alaska Grown program, basically, helping consumers see who’s in the local game. Participating restaurants get window stickers and other marketing and advertising goodies.

 

“We’re going to provide them with a specialty logo, so that when people from Fairbanks travel down to Soldotna, they can see that logo on the restaurant’s website or on their window and say they serve Alaska Grown, I’ll go eat there," Frohling said.

 

Keeping the masses fed as locally as possible is the goal, and Amy Seitz and Megan Schaafsma say that won’t stop, no matter how cold it gets this winter.