Made in the Berkshires: The continued expansion of locally-grown food
WILLIAMSTOWN >> The farm-to-table movement — which encourages eateries and families to use fresh, locally produced ingredients in preparing meals — is entering a new point in its evolution.
Some local chefs are chafing at what some see as a fad, but should be a standard operating procedure for every home and restaurant.
Of course, that doesn't keep them from working hard in their own kitchens to expand the farm-to-table pursuit as it is their best path to creating dishes that are gastronomically vibrant, resoundingly healthy and good for the local economy.
"It keeps the money in the area and the product is much, much better," said Chef Robert Beuth, who supervises the kitchens at Hops & Vines and The Log in Williamstown and NoCo Pastaria in North Adams. "The quality of the ingredients is 15 times better than what you can get in most grocery stores."
The farm-to-table movement had humble beginnings. It began as many as 30 years ago here in the Berkshires and in some other agricultural regions around the country, according to Angela Cardinali. She is the founder and director of Berkshire Farm & Table, a local organization that promotes regional food culture by cultivating collaborations that produce events and foster dialogue about regional fresh food choices in homes, restaurants and in the media.
Indeed, Mezze Bistro in Williamstown and the John Andrews Restaurant in South Egremont are just two eateries that have been using locally produced food almost exclusively for more than 20 years.
"Since the beginning, it's been a quiet and organic process, one that has attracted many people to the idea," Cardinali said. "And in the last five or six years it's been skyrocketing. The awareness level has really exploded."
It has, in fact, grown so much that restaurants in urban areas like New York City, not exactly a hub of agricultural activity, are seeking ways to use locally grown foods from surrounding regions, including the Berkshires, to bolster the quality and freshness of their cuisine.
And through local farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, more locally grown food is finding its way to more kitchens and tables of private homes. Meanwhile, more institutional kitchens, at hospitals, schools and hotels, are seeking local foods to bolster their menus as well.
Local coop markets, like Berkshire Coop Market in Great Barrington and Wild Oats in Williamstown, also stock locally produced foods. At the same time, regional supermarket chains stores like Big Y Foods and Stop & Shop are showing a strong interest in featuring locally grown produce for their customers.
Part of the point of all these efforts, aside from promoting healthy eating, is to expand the market for the economic engine that has driven at least part of the county's economy since the 1700s — agriculture.
"We're looking for any way to find more mouths to feed so our farmers can survive and thrive," Cardinali said. "So now we're looking at expanded delivery systems — how to we get it to the buyers? And how do we get the restaurants not yet in the farm to table effort to take notice?"
She noted that there has been progress in both areas.
"We're starting to see a shift to where there is room for expanded distribution of locally grown foods," Cardinali said. "So by further publicizing this movement, we're generating economic development around these ideas."
Room to grow
Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown in Great Barrington, said there is room for expanding the use of locally produced foods at restaurants.
"Establishing and pioneering the networking of farmers with the chefs and owners of restaurants continues to strengthen that bond," she said. "It is this linking of the farms with the community that builds the local food economy. And that strengthens the economy of the Berkshires in general."
Berkshire Grown supports local agriculture as a vital part of the local community, economy and landscape through advocacy for farmers, fostering education and outreach, increasing community access to local food, networking farmers and food buyers, and promoting locally-produced food.
About 130 of the roughly 200 farms in Berkshire County that log annual sales of more than $5,000 belong to Berkshire Grown, according to Zheutlin.
"Going forward, we want to be creating more prosperous and diverse farms in the Berkshires and engage the community in support of our local farmers and food entrepreneurs," Zheutlin said.
Chef Beuth understands all that, but has to focus on using the wide variety of local foods to expand his creativity and cuisine.
"On some days, I'll get produce that was still on the vine two hours earlier," he said. "It's just a beautiful product. But it shouldn't be a fad. It should be what restaurants do everyday because good food is fresh food, and because it strengthens the local economy."
Contact Scott Stafford at 413-496-6301.