Small-farm owners discover a way to serve locally grown items to a public clamoring for more fresh food.
Old MacDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O, and on his farm he had a … restaurant? That’s right: Farm restaurants are sprouting across the nation. This dining trend makes sense as more consumers insist on fresh, local food. “Hyper-local” (for example, restaurant gardens, do your own butchering) was listed as one of the Top 5 trends in 2011 by The National Restaurant Association. “Locally sourced meats and locally grown produce” also made the Top 5.
Colleges and universities are responding to the growing interest in farm-to-fork dining by offering fieldwork for culinary students. Colorado’s Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, for example, now offers a five-week off-campus externship that takes students to work on farms and ranches, as well as in wineries and restaurants.
For small family and hobby farmers, operating restaurants supplements unpredictable incomes and connects farmers to the community. Farmers not only find it fiscally wise, but many find reward in sharing their bounty and educating people about farming. In fact, farm tours are often part of the dining experience.
While many farm restaurants share a commitment to fresh, sustainable philosophies, the types of restaurants vary widely. Across the country, meals range from rustic, down-home cooking to elegant, gourmet destinations, and the restaurants from alfresco-seasonal to year-round dining establishments. Here are a few examples.
Farmer Joe Johnston was faced with a dilemma. He could either sell out to urban sprawl or preserve part of his family farm and share it with the growing community of Gilbert, Arizona. Johnston chose the latter, and that decision has served him well.
Joe’s Farm Grill serves more than 1,400 burgers a week and has received rave reviews on the Food Network’s show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Johnston converted his 1960s boyhood home into a fun, trendy grill that serves ribs, pizza and the signature “Cheeseburger Built for Two.” Arizona beef burgers are topped with crisp Johnston farm vegetables.
“For preserving urban agriculture, the high-volume restaurant business allows us to keep the farming tradition,” Johnston says.
The restaurant opened in 2006 and sits on 16 acres of urban farmland. Citrus, olives, lettuce, apricots, tomatoes, herbs, medjool dates and more are produced for Johnston’s farm restaurant.
“The tighter you can integrate the farm-to-fork concept, the more people are interested,” Johnston says.
More than a dozen cars line the grass, creating a makeshift parking lot on the J.L. Hawkins Family Farm. Diners drive from miles around to savor a slice of heaven in eastern Indiana. A farmer and ordained Lutheran pastor, Jeff Hawkins, along with his family, serves up to 100 savory, wood-fired pizzas on Friday nights from May to mid-September to benefit HOPE CSA Inc., a nonprofit clergy education program.
The Neapolitan-inspired pizzas burst with flavorful, fresh ingredients like pepperoni, sausage, chicken, tomato and basil straight off Hawkins’ farm. The only items not sourced there are the cheese and flour that come from neighboring Indiana farms.
The Hawkins family and volunteers have been running the carryout pizza restaurant for three years.
“Serving pizzas on the farm seemed natural since we are such a food family,” says Hawkins.
Hawkins’ son, Zach, a baker, created the crowd-pleasing dough recipe that uses a touch of farm-produced honey. To bake the pizzas, the family constructed a wood-fire oven using old bricks from a nearby farmhouse.
“A lot of people hold up Naples, Italy, as the best pizza. We try to learn from that and use as many local ingredients as possible. We’ve taken Italian cooking and moved it to our little corner of Indiana,” Zach says.
Diners are invited to dine alfresco on the beautiful 99-acre farm near North Manchester. A high tunnel allows patrons to dine rain or shine. Picnic tables under ample shade trees provide views of grazing cattle and clucking chickens.
“I love finding places like this,” says local resident Maxwell Mattern. “Knowing there’s a local farm that serves pizza with fresh ingredients makes me feel my community’s taking steps towards a greener tomorrow.”
Hawkins loves seeing families come together to enjoy their pizza. “It’s great to see kids who normally don’t get to experience a farm.”
As the evening sun casts a soft, hazy halo around the emerald fields and relaxed diners, it’s evident that Hawkins serves a slice of heaven.
Tucked away in the Finger Lakes region of New York, the Restaurant at Elderberry Pond sits in the middle of the Lego family’s 100-acre farm. Lunch and dinner patrons view orchards, vineyards and gardens while feasting on roasted organic free-range chicken, freshly dug organic potatoes, and just-picked vegetables of the day. The aromas of crisp apple pies and sun-drenched, raspberry-filled tarts float through the dining room.
“We have a passion for sharing fresh, local foods from our farm,” says farmer Lou Lego, who opened the restaurant in 2004. “We started a food store in a small stone building and sold prepared soups and coleslaw made with farm ingredients. People told us, ‘We love your food, and you really need to open a restaurant so we can eat on the farm.’”
Making the leap from farmer to restaurateur was natural, Lego says. His wife is a nutritionist and his son, Chris, attended the Culinary Institute and worked as a chef in Atlanta. Now Chris works as Elderberry Pond’s executive chef, and he can be found marinating pork from Mulefoot heritage pigs or creating sublime apple desserts from some of the farm’s 100 apple varieties.
“The trick is to create a menu that matches what’s in season,” Lego says. Vegetables appear on plates just hours after being picked.
Lego’s restaurant is evidence that the farm restaurant trend is strong.
“We’re starting to get a lot of culinary students who are interested in doing internships here,” Lego says, “Not just for the restaurant. They want the farm restaurant experience.”
As crowds gather for these unique experiences, it’s clear the farm restaurant concept is here to stay.
Sarah Miller is a freelance writer from Perrysburg, Ohio. She covers a variety of topics, but especially enjoys tasting her way across America. Celebrating farmers and food origins is important, and she enjoys sharing these experiences with her family and readers.