Austin certainly has the reputation as a city that values keeping it weird and supporting local businesses, but a group of area farmers is very concerned about what it sees as the fluctuating definition of "local" when it comes to fresh produce. The buying local trend is hot all around the country just now, prompting restaurants, grocery stores, and produce distributors to use the "We Buy Local" banner as an effective but sometimes misleading marketing tool. So, how does Austin define local? Does it have to mean produce grown in our home county, or could the parameters expand to include the entire big state of Texas? Area farmers adhere to a definition that includes produce and food products grown within a 150-mile radius of Austin. This is the same standard used by most of our farmers' markets, with a few seasonal exceptions for items such as citrus, bison, seafood, and apples not regularly produced in Central Texas.
Why is the definition of what constitutes local so critical? A newly formed coalition of area farmers and ranchers called Growers Alliance of Central Texas, or GroACT, maintains that diluting the definition of local to include produce from anywhere in the state deceives consumers while threatening area farmers' livelihoods. If so many people are really buying local, they ask, why aren't their farmstands and farmers' market stalls selling out? Why is it now necessary for many of them to sell at two or three farmers' markets in order to make the same (or less) income they used to generate with one stall? While several factors are surely involved here – the soft economy, the number of overall farmers' market shoppers being diluted by the proliferation of markets, and even the resurgence of backyard gardens and chicken coops – GroACT members remain convinced that defining local is a serious economic issue for them.
Austin's modern local food movement began in the early Nineties with a small, dedicated group of organic farmers who sold produce from the back of pick-up trucks and off folding tables at small neighborhood markets. When Whole Foods Market built a flagship store at Sixth and Lamar in 1996, the same farmers offered a weekly market in the parking lot there for some time. The movement grew slowly over the next 10 years, as it did around the country, until it blossomed fully in the national consciousness about four years ago.
Today, the Austin metro area boasts six active farmers' markets (four on Saturday mornings, one on Sunday mornings, and one on Wednesday afternoons) and nearly 20 community supported agriculture subscription programs offered by area farmers. Food service providers at the Austin Independent School District and St. Edward's University are buying local food through distributors and the Sustainable Food Center's Farm Direct program. Some lucky private school students are enjoying locally sourced and organic meals prepared by a company called Patricia's Lunchbox.
On the restaurant front, some 50-60 restaurants participated in Edible Austin's third annual Eat Local Week in December 2010, agreeing to present at least one locally sourced dish on their menus and donating proceeds to Urban Roots. Of that list, we estimate that there's a core group of 25-30 local eateries that regularly feature dishes prepared from local ingredients, either as regular menu items or seasonal specials. The majority of these are either chef-owned or chef-driven, but they all have one important thing in common: the flexibility and commitment to change menus seasonally to reflect the availability of local produce. The normal model for restaurant chefs is to make a list at night, place a call to a large wholesale distributor, and have that order conveniently show up at the back door the next day. Buying local may cost more, and it certainly means more work for the chef and the kitchen staff, but the chefs who are doing it are aware that the closer the farm to the fork, the better the flavor of the food.
We spoke to some of the core group of locavore chefs, and they had somewhat elastic definitions of local. Many of them shop farmers' markets religiously and also buy from distributor John Lash of Farm to Table, who sometimes sources outside the 150-mile radius. "Local to me is anyone who sells at the farmers' market, and I'll hit all four of them on a Saturday morning," says Jack Gilmore, chef/owner of Jack Allen's Kitchen, adding that he does source outside the immediate region for things like Gulf seafood, citrus and avocados from the Rio Grande Valley, or winter tomatoes from hot houses in far West Texas.
The new urban farming pioneers who make up the Austin-area organic and sustainable farm and ranch community make their living in a business that is naturally fraught with difficult challenges. Their livelihoods are affected by searing heat, Arctic blasts, parching drought, voracious pests, scarce and expensive water, sky-high land prices, and, most recently, a soft economy. In spite of the challenges, they raise clean, healthy food for their families, neighbors, and customers. Running a small family farm is an all-encompassing occupation that leaves little time for creative marketing, outside sales, lobbying, or product distribution.
Local farmers are represented by the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, a Texas-based nonprofit that advocates for independent agriculture and citizens who support local food (see "Event Menu"), and by the city of Austin's relatively new Sustainable Food Policy Board, which works to address such local food issues as farmers' market regulations and water rates for community gardens and urban farms. But when GroACT formed to give organic and sustainable farmers and ranchers a stronger voice in the local food movement, one of the first issues they chose to address is the definition of what really constitutes local food – and who better to do that than the folks who are actually growing it?
"Growing good, clean food in Central Texas is very hard work, and because Austin's local food system is still forming, procuring local food takes some effort, too. GroACT wants to give credit to chefs who do more than just write 'We buy local food when it's available' on their menus," says Katie Kraemer Pitre, co-owner of Tecolote Farm and a founding GroACT member. "Restaurants deserve recognition for their efforts." In order to provide that well-deserved recognition, GroACT recently surveyed its members, asking them to identify chefs and restaurants who buy from them regularly. Twenty area farmers completed the surveys, and GroACT gave a special shout-out to the Top 10 vote-getters (see "Top Austin Restaurants Buying Directly From Neighborhood Farms," below).
"What is interesting about the results is that restaurants of all sizes are in the Top 10. These restaurants, whether they are large or small, new or old, are keeping family farms in business," says Erin Flynn, co-owner of Green Gate Farms and another founding GroACT member. Flynn also pointed out that the local chef who received the most votes in the survey was Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due. However, his roving supper club and regular farmers' market booth didn't really qualify as a restaurant, so he will be part of a similar survey of local caterers later in the year.
Bear in mind the survey results did not reward restaurants that buy what they consider local produce from distributors or farmers who are not members of GroACT. So, missing from the list are such longtime local-food proponents as Kerbey Lane Cafe (see "Locavores Before It Was Cool," March 5, 2010), which contracts with a specific area farmer for local crops, and Eastside Cafe, which now raises all its own eggs and grows 30-50% of its produce in its large organic garden and at nearby HausBar Farms. Still, the results do offer a fascinating snapshot of Austin's local food movement in 2011 and a great list of potential dining options for folks who really want to eat local.
So, what can the conscious consumer who really wants to support local agriculture do to help define what local food really is? "Ask lots of questions," says Flynn, "and hold restaurants accountable." Any chef or restaurateur who is honestly buying local will have answers. For instance, here's a list of questions consumers can pose at any restaurant that has words such as "local," "organic," "sustainable," or "farmers' market fresh" on its menu:
• How often does your menu change?
• Can you describe some of the dishes that include locally sourced ingredients?
• Which local farmers are your suppliers? Are they certified organic?
• What percentage of ingredients here come from local sources?
• Do your meats and poultry come from animals that were pastured and raised humanely? Is the seafood sustainable?
Olivia restaurant chef/owner James Holmes echoes Flynn's suggestions, saying: "We have a menu meeting every afternoon so our servers know where ingredients come from and can talk about them. When people ask questions, we welcome those conversations."
Austin consumers can ultimately define what truly constitutes local food with their grocery shopping and dining out dollars. The farmers of GroACT and the restaurants that already support them encourage consumers to make informed choices.
The Growers Alliance of Central Texas recently distributed a survey to its member farmers and ranchers, listing 130 restaurants thought to be locavore-friendly. Respondents rated them according to whether they purchased food "frequently" (weekly or whenever solicited) or "infrequently" (monthly or occasionally). Farmers were urged to write in restaurants that weren't on the list and to include purchases made by chefs at farmers' markets. These 10 received the highest rankings:
1) Odd Duck Farm to Trailer
2) East Side Show Room
3) Texas French Bread
4) Somnio's Cafe
5) Jack Allen's Kitchen
7) Trace at the W Hotel
8) La Condesa
10) East Side Pies
See additional survey results at www.groact.com.
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