What do we mean when we say “farm-to-table”? F or some, the phrase sums up a global movement in which consumers are encouraged to eat fresh, locally sourced foods for reasons ranging from health benefits to environmental impact. For others, farm-to-table signifies nothing more than a trend. However we define it, the farm-to-table movement has taken an especially strong hold in the South, where cities like Charleston, South Carolina and Birmingham, Alabama have capitalized upon widespread consumer interest in farm-to-table dining and now rank among the most exciting food destinations in the U.S.
Over the last few years, Shreveport has welcomed local beer, local coffee, a handful of new farmers’ markets and more. The Shreveport Farmers’ Market has grown to epic proportions, with an estimated attendance of more than 13,000 shoppers on opening day in 2014. A small handful of local restaurants, most notably Wine Country Bistro and Bottle Shop, have methodically cultivated demand for locally sourced products among restaurant patrons. In addition, several local catering companies now offer locally sourced menus for weddings and special events.
Is Shreveport experiencing the birth of a farm-to-table dining scene? As president of Slow Food North Louisiana, Angie White is qualified to answer that question. Slow Food North Louisiana is the local chapter of a global nonprofit with a mission “to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life, and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat.” Through her position with Slow Food, White regularly interacts with local farmers, restaurateur, community gardeners and food activists.
“For this to really take off, it needs to be chef and restaurant-driven,” White said. “I think chefs, ultimately, will create the demand for local products. It’s just a matter of educating the consumer.” White lists restaurants like Wine Country Bistro and Bottle Shop, Frank’s Pizza Napoletana, The Petroleum Club of Shreveport and Blue Southern Comfort Foods as a handful of Shreveport eateries that are already sourcing some ingredients locally. While it excites White to open a restaurant menu and see products from Mahaffey Farms, Smith Family Farms and Shady Grove Ranch being served, she sees it as only a tiny step in the right direction.
“Distribution needs to be addressed. Who gathers up local food from area farms and delivers it to the restaurants? At some point, a business will step up to fill that void,” White said. “The other big piece that’s missing is a USDA processing facility,” she added.
Discussing local food with White, it’s obvious that she understands the challenges ahead on Shreveport’s road to establishing a true farm-to-table food system that reaches beyond a small handful of restaurants and seasonal farmers’ markets, bringing year-round access to fresh, local food into neighborhoods, homes and schools.
“We have a long way to go,” White said. “But we’re going to get there.”
>When we get there, it’ll be thanks to the hard work of farmers like Evan McCommon. McCommon’s Princeton-based family farm, Mahaffey Farms, produces a variety of vegetables as well as pork, eggs, chicken and more. The farm does not use chemicals, preservatives, hormones or pesticides. They sell their products directly to the public at their farm stand, at the Shreveport and Benton farmers’ markets and at grocery stores that stock local products.
A former real estate agent who left that profession following the 2008 crash, Evan McCommon has become a leader in the local farm-to-table movement. I chatted with McCommon and his wife, Nicky, at Shreveport Green’s annual farm-to-table fundraiser dinner, Feast, which featured a menu entirely sourced from local farms.
“I don’t see farm-to-table as a fad at all, I see it as where we have t o go as a society, if we’re going to survive,” McCommon said. Anyone who has taken note of the fact that California is rapidly running out of water- and is also where the majority of America’s fruits and vegetables are grown- knows what McCommon is getting at. Eating local food isn’t just about better— tasting, healthier food— it’s also about sustainability.
The menu at Shreveport Green’s Feast fundraiser included chicken and pork from Mahaffey Farms. McCommon is still getting accustomed to seeing the name of the family farm printed on menus at places like Wine Country Bistro and Frank’s Pizza Napoletana.
“I feel a huge amount of pride,” McCommon said. “I thought it’d take 10 years to see Mahaffey Farms listed on menus, but it happened in two years.”
Farmers like McCommon will tell you that interest in local food products is definitely growing. But what if you can’t afford to dine at upscale restaurants, or you simply prefer to cook at home? And what if the seasonal farmers’ markets are closed? Stephen and Rebecca Krefft’s Delta Delivered is a promising young company, opened in April 2015, which seeks to make farm-to-table dining a year-round reality for Shreveport.
The Krefft’s launched Delta Delivered to gather and deliver fresh products from area farms directly to consumers on a pay-as-you-go basis. The mixed fruit and vegetable bags assembled by Delta Delivered range from $26 to $46 in price and contain seasonal items ranging from squash and green beans to blackberries, strawberries and more. All items included in Delta Delivered bags are purchased from farms within a 250-mile radius of Shreveport. Stephen Krefft worked in the food service delivery industry for 10 years, an experience that left him wondering if the average person understood how old most produce is by the time it reaches the consumer.
“If you go to the average grocery chain, most of the produce will be from Florida, Texas or South America,” Stephen Krefft told me. “These items begin to lose freshness the moment they’re picked. After something’s spent two weeks in the back of a truck, it’s not going to taste fresh.”
“Our products are all local and seasonal,” Rebecca Krefft added. “Someone contacted us recently and asked ‘Why don’t you have bananas?’ Well, we don’t have bananas because we’re not in Central America,” Rebecca Krefft added. Like local chefs and farmers’ markets, the Kreffts seem to understand that Delta Delivered will only succeed if local consumers become more educated about what it means to eat local.
Standing among rows of heirloom tomatoes still wet from a summer storm, Jason Brady surveys the plot of DeSoto Parish land that he and his business partners have dubbed Hiccup Ranch. Brady is a partner in Cadre Hospitality Group, which owns Wine Country Bistro, Zocolo and Southern Fork Catering. While he refers to the 2015 crop as “an experiment,” Hiccup Ranch is already producing a wide variety of vegetables and herbs that will be put to use in his restaurants.
Restaurant-owned farms aren’t unheard of, but they are still a rarity – even amid the current farm-to-table craze. Brady cites James Beard Award-winning Chef Dan Barber, owner of Blue Hill Farm and executive chef at Blue Hill New York, as an inspiration. Chef John Besh’s restaurant, La Provence, operates a small farm in Lacombe, Louisiana. Besh and Brady may be the only two restaurant farm owners in the state.
“We planted these seeds,” Brady said, gesturing towards rows of ripening tomatoes. “We know these tomatoes are fantastic because we grew them. It’s quality control.”
The conventional wisdom regarding Shreveport is that we’re typically about 10 years behind current trends. Food trucks, craft breweries, a bicycling culture, Whole Foods Market – Shreveport’s gained all of these, among other things, in the last few years. Many would argue that we are behind the times. But that perspective of ingrained cynicism doesn’t take into account how surprising and unpredictable Shreveport can be. It also ignores the uncommon talent and tenacity found among the crop of entrepreneurs currently reshaping the city.
As a whole, Shreveport may be behind the times when it comes to eating local. But a small handful of local businesses are actively defining the future of farm-to-table.