The fungus that caused the 19th century Irish Potato Famine wouldn’t have claimed a million lives if Ireland had been growing more than one potato variety, experts say. And today, experts warn about a similar dependence on only a handful of crop varieties.
Few trends can protect against a food-supply crisis, but farm-to-table cuisine is resurrecting crop varieties that had nearly vanished, increasing crop diversity. If the trend can be sustained, it could diversify the food supply.
“It’s the only real outlet to bring those back, the varieties that are no longer grown,” says Executive Chef Kyle Mendenhall of The Kitchen, one of the first restaurants to popularize farm-to-table cuisine in Boulder.
“It creates a demand for these varieties,” says Kelly Whitaker, the chef at Basta who grows an urban garden on the building’s lawn and buys from local farms. “Farms are willing to separate a corner and grow what you want.”
Just for its Boulder chef customers, Thistle Whistle Farms on the Western Slope will grow 300 pounds of a tomato variety that, Whitaker says, is probably grown nowhere else in the country.
This is the time of year when Kitchen chefs meet to plan with farmers, Mendenhall says. Farmers plant accordingly. Local farm owner Peter Volz says he grew an obscure Asian green just for a chef who requested it last year. Chef choices are helping diversify what’s produced in the region.
“About 90 percent of the stuff we source from local farms we couldn’t get from large suppliers,” Mendenhall says.
Last year, one Kitchen chef decided to incorporate a little-known vegetable into the menu. So one farmer grew “crosnes,” a tuber in the mint family. Never heard of crosnes? They look like puffy white slugs. But many more appealing varieties of produce have been forgotten, too. Out of the thousands of apple varieties grown a century ago, only about five are grown commercially today, according to author Michael Pollan, who has reported extensively on dwindling crop diversity in his books and The New York Times.
The problem affects both plants and animals, says Eric Skokan, founder and chef at Black Cat Farm-Table-Bistro.
“In terms of Big Ag, there are three breeds of commercially viable pig, one broiler chicken, and four varieties of carrot,” Skokan says.
He raises several hundred varieties of crops and animals, including many heirloom crops and heritage animal breeds that have largely been lost. Whitaker recalls meeting Skokan.
“He starts handing me produce,” Whitaker remembers, “and I’m like, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’”
The varieties are chosen for taste, Skokan says. They aren’t chosen for their ability to be grown in uniform rows, which matters to large-scale producers who must machine-harvest crops.
“I want perfect green beans, not perfectly uniform green beans,” Skokan says.
Running a small-scale farm-to-table operation allows him to grow varieties, like heirlooms, that are too difficult for large-scale producers.
“The small scale is allowing heirlooms to come back,” says Kitchen Chef Mendenhall.
The Kitchen sources its heirlooms from a wide network of producers, including a Paonia farmer who grows 250 tomato varieties and likes to deliver 10-pound boxes with no two tomatoes of the same variety. Mendenhall acknowledges that the inconsistency and cost wouldn’t work for many operations. But more and more restaurants are growing their own heirlooms.
“If I bought heirloom tomatoes at Whole Foods,” Boulder Café owner Dave Jablonski says, “I’d have to charge you $20 for a salad.”
So the 71-year-old grows the restaurant’s heirlooms in his home garden. Greenbriar Inn owner Phil Goddard also says he’s glad to have the land to grow his restaurant’s heirloom varieties. They’re expensive to source from local farms.
“We pay more,” says Mendenhall, “but we’re OK with that.”
Then again, not many restaurants can charge Kitchen prices. And at least one farmer says the farm-to-table model can be difficult to maintain.
“I don’t think a small farm delivering to one restaurant is sustainable,” says Jim Hammond, who owns Hazel Dell Mushrooms, a farm featured prominently on trendy menus across Boulder.
Personal farmer-to-restaurant delivery only works for tiny mom-and-pop operations, says Hammond, who delivers through a wholesaler company.
“You need to ramp up volume for a long-term business plan,” he says.
Hazel Dell has grown as it has benefited from the farm-to-table trend, Hammond says. Restaurants make up a significant portion of the company’s sales — and the namedropping menus create new Hazel Dell customers.
“Some customers come in and say, ‘I had your mushrooms at this restaurant,’” Hammond says. “Some people come in and want only a box of Lion’s Mane,” one of his more obscure varieties.
At Black Cat, Skokan hopes more customers will be naming specific crop varieties. His farm grows 14 carrot varieties, and his menu features each by name.
“We want people to fall in love with that variety of carrot,” he says. “They’ll put positive pressure on other farmers to grow long-lost, obscure varieties. They’ll make it commercially viable.”