What Does Farm-to-Table Really Mean?

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The Chef's Garden
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If you consider yourself at all interested in food or the foodie world, you've probably heard of every healthy buzzword or trend, from organic to local to farm to table—and it's confusing to figure out how each is similar yet different. We talked to farmer Lee Jones of the family-owned, sustainable farm The Chef's Garden in Huron, OH, and The Culinary Vegetable Institute, to clarify some common misconceptions about the least-known of the bunch: farm to table.

SHAPE: How do you define the term "farm to table?"
Farmer Lee Jones (FLJ): I think in the last 50 years there's been such a disconnect about where our food comes from and how it's grown. New advancements have allowed us to mass-produce for quantity, not quality, and not in ways that are necessarily safe. At The Chef's Garden, we're just trying to become as good as the farmers were 100 years ago. I really define farm to table as a direct relationship with like-minded people. It's not about distance, though my dad always says that the shortest distance between two points is the back door of the farmer to the front door of the consumer.

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SHAPE: Is farm-to-table food always organic?
FLJ: Definitely not. "Organic" is such a hot buzzword. The thing about it is: Unless it's labeled "certified organic," something organic can still come from a developing country, or it could still really be GMO. Organic simply means an eliminination of things from the equation. The Chef's Garden isn't certified organic, but I consider us a sustainable operation. We're always trying to find new and sustainable ways to grow quality produce in cost-effective ways.

SHAPE: "Eating locally" is another hot buzzword. Is eating farm-to-table fare the same thing as eating locally?
FLJ: I think the trend of eating locally started out with good intentions, but I think the term is an oversimplification. My advice would be not to get wrapped up in the distance or the miles and instead just try to build a relationship with the people you know.

Thomas Keller once told me a story: He buys his butter from this woman in Vermont and has it shipped to his restaurants like Per Se and The French Laundry. Keller purchases it because of the quality—he believes her butter is the best. Is that local? No, not really. But local doesn't define quality. The woman owns 10 cows. She's a small operation, and without people like Keller buying her butter, she's not sustainable. A lot of smaller, family-owned farms are similar. I'd ask you to think of the farmer: If we limit ourselves to only doing business within a 100- or 200-mile radius, we're not economically viable. We wouldn't be able to pay our workers a living wage—and good workers are extremely important!

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SHAPE: What are your tips for people who want to become more involved with the food they're eating and learn more about it, especially for those who live in bigger cities and may not know how to get started?
FLJ: Seek out people who feel the same way you do. If there's a farmers' market near you, head there. People pay more for entertainment than they do food, so get your family or your kids together and make it a social outing. Talk to the farmers there who are willing and excited to talk about how they're growing things. Ask questions. If they're not willing to talk about their stuff, move to the next booth and find someone who is. This movement is all about rebuilding relationships between farmers and consumers. It's a great thing.

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