Farmers see flavor as a ‘gateway’ to help people recognize the value of local agriculture
Farm-to-table restaurants operate on the premise that locally-sourced ingredients are better for the environment, better for the community, and better for flavor, too. Many chefs — and foodies — also believe that telling the stories behind those ingredients can help diners feel more connected to the people who grew their food.
So, what’s in it for the farmers? In this second story of a three-part series, reporter Kaya Williams heads from the table to the farm to find out.
You know that “Portlandia” bit, where the couple goes to a farm-to-table restaurant, and cares so much about where the chicken came from that they actually go visit the farm?
It’s kind of — well, exactly what I’m doing on this cool early-winter morning, as my GPS guides me to Sustainable Settings near Carbondale for an interview with the farm’s co-founder Brook LeVan in mid-December. I find him in the kitchen of his 19th-century home on the property, where he says he’s been working on the “origin story” of the farm; after a stop to witness the morning milking, we head to the hen house, where LeVan greets the birds and checks for eggs.
“Good morning, ladies,” he says, to a chorus of clucking.
I’m standing in the middle of a chicken coop with Brook LeVan, the co-founder of a farm called “Sustainable Settings.”
We’ve just met some of his dairy cows, who graze against the backdrop of craggy mountains. Crystal-clear streams run past acres of vegetable plots nearby. And this quintessential Colorado rancher, in weathered jeans and a wide-brimmed hat, is telling me about the importance of flavor.
“People, once they've tasted what is coming off of this place, recognize the extraordinary nutrient density and value and flavor, and how they feel, and how their body responds to eating real food,” LeVan says.
LeVan sees flavor as a “hook” or a “gateway” to help people understand the real purpose of Sustainable Settings. He and his wife Rose have been tending to this land for more than two decades, trying to see if they could restore the “vitality” of soil that had been worn down by industrial farming practices.
“Sustainable Settings was not really put together to be a nice little organic, biodynamic farm down the road that produces food — that’s a misnomer,” LeVan says. “We're here to try to heal the land, and really heal our relationship with all of the life that we co-create with.”
That biodynamic method combines the principles of organic agriculture with more spiritual ideas: In addition to rotating the crops, and using natural fertilizers, the LeVans and their small crew of workers are burying crushed-up crystals in the ground, and planting based on a calendar of “cosmic rhythms.”
As experimental as it may sound, scientists have conducted soil tests at the ranch that show whatever the LeVans are doing is working: Charts on the Sustainable Settings website indicate that there’s more fungi and more nutrients for microbes in the dirt than there used to be — more “vitality,” as Brook LeVan would say.
But LeVan says he also measures success in the testimonials from chefs, who sing high praises of Sustainable Settings ingredients and keep coming back for more.
“They’re flavor hunters,” he says. “I like working with the chefs because they’re flavor hunters.”
So, if you drive about 45 minutes up to Aspen, you may find the LeVans’ food at some of the best restaurants in town, like Prospect, which is Michelin-recommended, and Bosq, which has a Michelin star.
Bosq is widely recognized as the gold standard for farm-to-table dining around here; they credit almost two dozen producers on the back of their menu. Chef Barclay Dodge has served dishes made with Sustainable Settings watercress, hay and thistle, and he’s said that the food from this farm has “terroir” — like a wine that conveys the flavor of the land.
“Working with (Dodge) has been a great pleasure, and I view him, especially, as one of my forms of data,” LeVan says. “His responses and his uses and his comments and his palette are a soil test, and help guide my stewardship.”
That also resonates with Harper Kaufman. She runs Two Roots Farm in Emma, about halfway between Carbondale and Aspen.
Kaufman says that when chefs are recognized for their expertise in the kitchen — for what they do with her locally-grown ingredients — that reflects positively on Two Roots Farm.
“We were joking on the farm that we're now a Michelin-starred farm, and in a way that feels sort of true,” she laughs.
I stopped by Kaufman’s place, all greenhouses and snow-covered fields in the wintertime, because I was inspired by some crisp, zippy Two Roots leaves I had tasted at Bosq earlier this year.
Kaufman is a younger farmer. She got into agriculture in college about a decade ago, and she collaborates with restaurants throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I think not only have they supported my business financially, but also just been there to support me mentally and emotionally,” Kaufman says.
Kaufman says about 15 to 20% of her business comes from chefs, and a lot of the rest comes from CSA shares, where customers pay a subscription fee up front for boxes of produce throughout the growing season. (The acronym stands for “Community Supported Agriculture.”)
She tells me the restaurants can also inspire people to visit the farm; people sometimes show up at Two Roots asking to learn more about what they tried at dinner the other night.
That benefits her bottom line and helps her share the importance of soil health and local agriculture.
“When my customers come to the farm, there's so much that they see and smell and experience that is just so wildly different than the grocery store, and communicates a story of how the food was grown,” Kaufman says.
It’s a similar story over the hill at Farm Runners in Hotchkiss. The company connects small, local farms with nearby restaurants and markets, then helps with deliveries and logistics; while that enterprise drives most of their local food sales, they also connect with individual customers through a CSA program and a small farm market.
Matthew and Emma Kottenstette, who operate Farm Runners, say they’ve been thinking a lot about the message they want to communicate to chefs and diners alike.
“This came from here. And, you know, this is from your neighbor, your community,” Matthew tells me, as we sit at a picnic table outside Farm Runners HQ.
“You know, this is going to turn around and send a kid to college, or put clothes on them, or put food on their own table,” Emma adds. “It's really about the people for me, and wanting to make sure that everyone knows that every single purchase makes a difference to a family in our community, which I think is really cool.”
The Kottenstettes say people can recognize that community impact, and they can usually taste the freshness of local ingredients. And across the board, there’s more demand for these products than the farmers can keep up with.
But according to Matthew, the average consumer doesn’t really get what it takes to produce that food. Limited water, and a short growing season, are just some of the challenges.
“It's hard to get land, it's a lot of money to get started,” he says. “And, by the way, people don't want to pay you what it costs to produce it.”
Farming isn’t cheap, and neither is farm-to-table food. A CSA share can cost hundreds of dollars or more upfront, and a dinner for two at Bosq or Prospect can ring in around half a grand.
At the same time, there are places like Two Roots and Farm Runners that want to make sure everyone has access to fresh, local ingredients. They take SNAP benefits for many of their products, and they also work with restaurants that charge $30 dollars for a locally sourced meal, not $300.
Kaufman, from Two Roots, even contributes to LIFT-UP’s Farm 2 Food Pantry program, which involves dozens of growers in the region.
“It's a goal of farmers and the community alike, I know, to keep healthy food accessible to the whole community,” Kaufman says. “So hopefully, every year it gets more and more accessible, and the farmers are able to continue to, you know, survive and pay their bills as well.”
Emma Kottenstette says that’s part of the farm-to-table evolution — that a community of people who recognize the importance of the movement are working really hard to keep it going.
In her view, the movement has become mainstream, but that doesn’t mean it will uproot conventional models entirely.
“Without these big, big farms from all over the world, we couldn't feed our population,” she says. “However, if we could value our farmers or give them more resources so that we could have a next generation of farmers, you know, maybe we could turn that table a little bit.”
At least, she says, it’s worth a try.
This story is the second in a three-part series, titled “Dig In: Colorado’s Farm-to-Table Ecosystem.” Part one considers the diner’s experience of one locally-sourced tasting menu in Aspen; in part three, Kaya Williams heads back to the table to find out how restaurants are shifting the culture of local food.