Chefs, farmers in Brainerd meet online to buy local food

Prairie Bay Grill
This year, chefs at Prairie Bay Grill & Catering in Baxter, Minn. experimented with sourcing ingredients from local farmers using a website called Local Dirt.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

On an unseasonably warm day in November, Arlene Jones shows off her Brainerd farm's root cellar, a space about the size of an office cubicle.

It's full of bags of potatoes, from Yukon Golds to purple Peruvians, and after Jones and her husband leave for the winter, a single light bulb will heat the space just enough to keep them and other root vegetables from freezing.

Bob and Arlene Jones grew the produce on The Farm on St. Mathias, an 80-acre plot they have run for five years just south of Brainerd.

Even as they near the end of their winter shutdown routine, Arlene pulls a few organic vegetables from the ground.

"This is a black Spanish radish," she says while slicing into a vegetable about the size of a tennis ball to show a white interior. "These get really huge, not woody, just crisp."

An unusual ingredient like that might be a highlight of a restaurant salad in larger cities, but around Brainerd the idea of incorporating local ingredients on shifting daily menus has been a tough sell.

As more people become concerned about health, obesity, sustainable living and related ideas, farmers markets and community gardens have been flourishing in Minnesota and elsewhere. Students are growing vegetables for consumption in school.

Cabbages at Great River Gardens
Cabbages at Great River Gardens, an organic farm in Aitkin, Minn.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

But to many, the challenge at this point is to scale up, to get groups of food producers and groups of restaurants, institutions and retailers together in an effort to improve reliability and consistency.

An experiment to get more locally grown food on resort menus this summer by six Brainerd chefs and eight area farmers was one of a variety of efforts on this front, showing both how things might work and why it's difficult.

First of all, says Jones, "You can't bring to a restaurant dirty, uncleaned produce, dirty carrots with their tops on and expect them to be happy about it."

The Farm on St. Mathias supplies produce for Community Supported Agriculture shares, where customers pay for a season's worth of food, often picking it up at the farm and typically needing to clean and sort it on their own.

"(Restaurants) are used to getting uniform, cleaned and graded produce," she says. "So you add labor either to the farm side or labor to the restaurant or institution side."

Joe Riehle
Joe Riehle, co-owner of Great River Gardens in Aikin, Minn.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

If anyone is familiar with that, it's Tom Kavanaugh, who used to run the kitchen at his family's resort in Brainerd and who has seen the burgeoning locally grown movement up close. Growing up at Kavanaugh's Sylvan Lake Resort, he remembers his grandfather grew food for the resort's restaurant.

"My grandfather started a large garden on the property," Kavanaugh said. "Then when he couldn't do it, I tried to find whatever I could. This was the 1980s. Then they were coming to my back door. In the last three to four years it's just exploded in this area."

Kavanaugh's restaurant is gone. But Tom Kavanaugh continues to work as a chef consultant.

When Linda Ulland, the University of Minnesota's Central Regional Partnership executive director received a grant to pilot a model for distributing local food to restaurants, she hired Kavanaugh to recruit chefs. Kavanaugh says resort kitchens go from very quiet to frantic once the summer season begins.

They settled on a web-based information-sharing effort called Local Dirt to help get chefs and farmers together. The website designers are based in Madison, Wis., but were very involved in the Brainerd project, according to Kassie Rizzo from Local Dirt.

The last of the crop
The last of the crop at The Farm on St. Mathias in Brainerd, Minn.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

"When we're operating in the summer season, those chefs are in the kitchen seven days a week," Kavanaugh said. "So time becomes an issue. What's great about the Local Dirt site is they're basically able to sit down at their computer and go to the farmer's market."

Local Dirt allows farmers to post the produce they have available and the prices, so chefs can plan menus around local ingredients and place orders online.

It sounds simple, and most associated with the Brainerd project like the concept. But it depends on farmers constantly updating what they have available and chefs showing enough interest to make it worth the farmers' while to keep the site updated.

It didn't always work. Joe Riehle, who runs Great River Gardens, had few nibbles from the Brainerd resorts through the website.

"I made sure they all knew that I had asparagus. Well, that didn't get an inquiry about it," Riehle said. "I don't need more markets for my asparagus, because we sell all we grow. But that was an indication to me that I don't really know what's going to come of this particular project."

Tom Kavanaugh
Tom Kavanaugh looking at LocalDirt.com in his office in Brainerd, Minn.
MPR Photo/Nancy Lebens

Riehle did fill one order for a chef, but he says he was not able to provide all the chef was looking for because Riehle's web entry wasn't up to date. Riehle said he expects a chef would not be happy with not getting what he ordered.

Matt Annand, executive chef at Baxter's Prairie Bay restaurant, is one of the chefs involved in this year's experiment. He likes the promise, especially if its users remember that the human touch is still needed.

"You have to develop relationships to get things done," Annand said. "Using the website took that away a little bit. I would encourage people use the site. After you put your order in give 'em a call and talk to them a little bit."

"I think it's going to be a great tool."

Annand makes sure his customers know where the food they eat comes from. The farms, sometimes with the ingredients they supply, are listed on the menu. More than 80 percent of the menu comes from farms no more than an hour or two away. Annand believes that approach sets Prairie Bay apart from other restaurants in the Brainerd Lakes area.

"In this area I'm going to be honest, it's going to be an uphill battle," he said. "A lot of places are cooking out of the same cookbook for a lot of years. It's much easier to pick up the phone to a major distributor and know your food is going to be here at noon on a Tuesday. It's another thing to deal with all these producers and farmers and coordinate their schedule with yours."

The Brainerd area farmers and chefs plan to meet in December to talk over how well their pilot project worked this year. They'll try to figure out if using the web to communicate works or whether there are methods that work better for them.

In the meantime, Rizzo of Local Dirt says the eight farmers from the pilot can use the site for free through the end of the year. The typical charge is $360 a year for wholesale sellers.

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