Food from small sustainable farms may contain more nutrients than conventional produce sourced from large-scale industrial farms
Farms that practice sustainable agriculture typically produce lower greenhouse gas emissions
Drew Hiatt walked me around a small patch of farmland just a few footsteps away from his dining room inside the Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton, New York. He is the farm planner and executive chef of the House’s Jean-Georges restaurant, which serves farm-to-table cuisine, sourcing ingredients grown on the property’s one-acre farm.
“My wife Joy is the farmer – she pulls a lot of the weeds. I cut the asparagus and pick the breakfast radishes,” he said proudly. “It’s a lot harder than it looks … but we enjoy what we do; this is my life,” said Hiatt.
A quick walk around the farm revealed more than just asparagus and radishes: There are crops of curly kale, red leaf lettuce, Japanese long cucumbers, blueberries, arugula, carrots, tomatillos, zucchini flowers, figs, black raspberries, and an herb garden with cilantro, dill, thyme, parsley, lovage and Thai basil. Each crop is neatly defined in different sections, and I started to feel healthier just by looking at all of it.
“We’ll use these black raspberries to make a black raspberry crème fraiche ice cream on top of peach cobbler,” he said.
Then I watched as Hiatt picked a radish that he will serve that evening as part of the restaurant’s amuse-bouche. This is, of course, what “farm-to-table” cuisine is all about.
“Farm-to-table” – a term that implies food that is locally sourced and purchased by a restaurant or for your own kitchen table directly from a farmer or producer, has been trending, and its related cuisine has become increasingly popular among foodies who appreciate seasonal fare as well as those concerned with the health of the environment and the local economy. “It’s essentially a way of eating based around food that has been grown and harvested in a sustainable way,” said Kristy Del Coro, a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist. The term is also used to describe the movement that promotes this way of eating.
Decades ago farm-to-table eating was “a normal thing” according to Hiatt. “It was just a way of life. People are just getting back to where they started from. … Back then, no one went to the farmers’ market and bought microwave dinners,” he said. Now, “people are more health conscious and care about knowing where their food comes from.”
Farm-to-table benefits: Flavor and nutrition
There are many reasons why one might find farm-to-table food appealing, and flavor is a big one. The flavor of local produce is, according to Hiatt, “what the food is supposed to taste like.”
“We can buy asparagus, but it’s nothing like the kind of asparagus we get here. It’s sweet and tender, and we can eat it raw,” Hiatt said. “It has a true asparagus flavor, not like something you would get somewhere else that is mass produced.” He also touts the juiciness of ripe tomatoes in season. “You can eat them raw like a piece of meat. Tomatoes in January are hard and there’s no juice,” said Hiatt. “If someone asks if they can get a tomato on their burger in January, I say ‘no.’ I don’t even buy them.”
Additionally, while it hasn’t been scientifically proven, local produce is likely more nutritious. According to Del Coro, who is a culinary nutritionist at SPE certified, where she works with chefs and food service operators to help them develop healthier and more sustainable businesses, produce sourced from local, small sustainable farms may contain more nutrients than conventional produce sourced from large-scale industrial farms for several reasons.
For one, there’s the practice of crop rotation. “Smaller sustainable farms that practice healthy crop rotation will have more nutritious crops,” said Del Coro. That’s because farms that use a variety of cover crops – those planted specifically to enrich the soil — will foster nutrient-rich soil and thus nutrient-rich produce and grains, explained Del Coro.
Local produce is also typically harvested at its peak ripeness, when nutrients have had time to fully develop, so it’s at its peak nutritional content when brought to sale. “Some conventional produce, especially if out of season, may be harvested prematurely … and so it may appear to be ripe by color but not actually taste ripe – think of out-of-season tomatoes or strawberries that appear red but don’t have much taste – and so they would be less nutritious than local produce,” said Del Coro.
Produce grown locally is also trucked a much shorter distance to a location to be sold, like a farmers’ market – and is often sold that very same day, minimizing any potential loss of nutrients during transit, including vitamin C, which is sensitive to light and will decrease in food after it is harvested, explained Del Coro. “Local produce has less time to deteriorate and lose nutrients compared with conventional produce,” said Libby Mills, a registered dietitian, cooking coach, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Benefits to the environment and local economy
There are environmental and economical benefits too: farms that practice sustainable agriculture typically produce lower greenhouse gas emissions, have less nitrogen run-off from fertilizers and use fewer pesticides than large industrial farms, explained Del Coro.
Local farmers “take into consideration how to maximize the yield, with the least amount of environmental impact while also making sure they are profitable so that they can support their families. This is a scenario that is good for the environment, ecology and the community,” said Mills.
Cooking seasonally dictates menus, which helps with food costs, instead of buying out of season, where it costs more, explained Hiatt. And by purchasing food directly from the source, “there is no need for a distributor so the food can be priced lower or at the very least, you can be confident that more of every dollar you spend is going towards paying the farmer instead of a ‘middle-man’ or distributor,” said Del Coro.
Supporting local farmers means you are also supporting those who care for the fields, manage the farm equipment and harvest the crops. Additionally, buying from local farms and local fishermen can help create a market for ingredients that otherwise aren’t consumed widely enough to be sold at a large scale, such as heritage varieties of grains, heirloom produce, less popular but still flavorful cuts of meat, and under-appreciated species of fish, including Atlantic spiny dogfish and Acadian redfish, that haven’t had much value in the US market and are often discarded when caught by fisherman because they can’t sell them, explained Del Coro.
The farm-to-table movement has been largely chef-driven as they have recognized the value in building relationships with local farmers to develop seasonal menus, explained Del Coro. Developing a seasonal menu not only offers consumers tasty food that is harvested at its peak ripeness; it also makes the menu more interesting for both the chef and consumer.
“Chefs who make buying local a priority generally value the seasonality, the diversity of ingredients and opportunity to create different types of food with what is available, and to serve the most flavorful food possible,” said Mills.
The benefits can come full circle. Hiatt, for example, will source ingredients from other farms when necessary. “We’re supporting local business – which at the end of the day, supports us – ‘cause a lot of these people that we buy the products from, from some of these farms – they all eat here,” he said.
How to eat farm-to-kitchen table
Here are some tips from culinary experts on how to bring the farm to your table:
Seek out your closest farmers’ market. “Many foods found at the farmers’ market are so delicious eaten on their own, they require minimal preparation,” said Kristy Del Coro, a registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist. “You don’t even need to buy a lot at once – start by purchasing a few foods that are familiar to you and simple to prepare, like tomatoes, basil and mozzarella to make a classic caprese salad.”
You can also save time by shopping for simple staple items including fresh fruit, salad greens, milk and eggs that you would otherwise buy at a supermarket. “Buy as much on your grocery list as possible; then head to your regular supermarket for the remaining items,” said Del Coro.
Find culinary inspiration at the farm. If you are able to commit to going to a farmers’ market on a regular basis, you can start to plan your meals around the seasonal produce that’s available. But it helps to be open-minded. “If you come across an unfamiliar ingredient, talk to a farmer who is selling it and ask him or her for advice on how to prepare it!” said Del Coro.
Buy the amount you will use and eat. It’s easy to get carried away when all of the choices look great, but “nothing is worse than having food go bad because you bought too much your first time,” said Mills.
Join the conversation
Build relationships with local farmers. Using trips to the farmers’ market as an opportunity to talk with farmers and learning how they grow the food you’re buying can be rewarding, explained Mills. Developing relationships not only gives you knowledge you can trust, but can also be a source of meal ideas and friendship over time, according to Mills.
Pay attention to labels on animal-based foods. With regard to meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and eggs, it is important to find out if animals are being humanely raised, what the animals are fed, if growth hormones are being used, and if antibiotics are being used. You can look for labels that indicate whether a product is certified humane, raised without antibiotics, and hormone-free, advised Del Coro.
Be informed. Hiatt says it’s important to note that out-of-season products are not local. Seasonal charts can cue you to what is in season in your geographical area. And if a region doesn’t grow certain foods, they’re definitely not local. For example, pineapples and mangoes would not be local fruits on Long Island – so if you see them marketed as local on Long Island, you should be skeptical. “We don’t grow those here,” he said. “Don’t assume everything is local. It isn’t a lot of the time.”
DIY. Don’t live near a local farm? You can grow your own produce according to Hiatt – even if you live in an apartment. In fact, some of the plants in Topping Rose’s garden originated in Hiatt’s own garage. The first step is sourcing the seed, which you can get from a place like Hudson Valley Seed Company, according to Hiatt. Once you’ve sourced the seeds, the next step is germination, or sprouting the seed, which requires a seed tray, a cell pod of sorts, which you can buy in any store that has a garden section. “You can do it in a garage or even a closet… you want the temperature around 70-80 degrees,” said Hiatt. Darkness and warmth are key, and germination can take two to ten days depending on the seed.
The third step is buying a plant light, which you can find at a garden store. Once the seeds come through the dirt, Hiatt advises turning on the plant lights for 12 hours each day, which replicates the effects of the sun. In about eight weeks, when the plants get strong and big enough, you can transplant them into bigger pots with potting soil. After approximately four months, the plant should be ready to pick – though in the case of tomatoes, for example, it’s important to wait until a tomato reaches its intended color, and is soft. “If it’s hard, it’s not ready to pick,” said Hiatt.
Getting started in the kitchen
If you need a simple farm-to-table recipe idea to get started, check out the one below using corn, tomatoes, basil and shallots – all of which can be found at a farmers’ market in the summertime. “These amounts don’t even have to be exact – it is really about the combination of ingredients and flavors and you can adjust to your taste,” said Del Coro, who developed the recipe.
Farm-to-table corn tomato basil salad (serves 6) by Kristy Del Coro
4 cups halved heirloom cherry tomatoes
2 cups corn kernels from roasted or grilled corn (about 4 ears)
¼ cup torn fresh basil
2 Tbsp minced shallot
3 Tbsp basil oil* or extra virgin olive oil
Juice from 2 to 3 limes
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients into a bowl and mix gently to combine. The salad can be eaten slightly warm or at room temperature.
* Basil oil is a great way to use any excess fresh basil since it is usually sold in large bunches at a farmers’ market. Make the oil by putting a handful of fresh basil with its stems in a small pot and add extra virgin olive oil until it covers the basil; heat on low until it is just warm to the touch and before the oil begins to bubble; remove from heat and steep for 15 minutes before straining. Store basil oil in the refrigerator for a longer shelf life. This method can be used for a variety of herbs.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.