The Farm-to-Chef Relationship: One Road to Success as a Sustainable Farmer

By Stephen Juliusberger, Principal at Syntuitive Food & Beverage Development, Miami, FL, and Southern SAWG Board member

In many ways, sustainable methods in farming are on the rise, both in access to land, such as the growth of urban farming, and through growth in markets for local farm products. There has been an explosive increase in the number and popularity of farmers’ markets and there is a new readiness among wholesalers to accept goods directly from farms. Much of this growth has been driven by the public’s increased interest in the provenance of their food and their willingness to pay a little more for locally grown foods.

Another reliable way of ensuring profits to the farmer is through direct relationships with buyers. The most utilized method for direct marketing is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and other subscription-based relationships. CSAs are an especially great vehicle for direct sales in areas where patrons are adventurous, who like to experiment in the kitchen and who are willing to buy a variety of produce and food items—even if some are more expensive. A drawback of CSAs, however, is that the farmer is often forced into patterns of growing that become too repetitive for themselves and possibly their clients. On the other hand, farmers who try to provide variety and unique offerings risk going beyond clients’ willingness to accept unfamiliar crops.

A rising tide in direct relationship marketing is the Farm-Chef direct supply route. In almost every market people are eating out more. Likewise there has been growth in the number of choices for where to eat. This growth provides a great opportunity for farm-to-chef marketing and the potential for mutually beneficial relationships. Chefs are always looking for separation—the ability to distinguish their menu from others because it gives them a marketing edge. Being able to write on their menus that their products come directly from a grower can be a huge competitive advantage. Simply put, chefs gain cachet by advertising their relationships with farmers. Menu statements like this: 

Benson Farms roast chicken, over braised Wadson Farm escarole; natural jus

help increase sales which in turn helps chefs to pay more for farmers’ products. That is, farmers benefit because they can sell their products at a higher price when selling direct to chefs.

So, how can farmers create chef relationships and tap into this market stream?

1.     Discover the market—look in your area for the chefs/restaurants that might appeal

2.     Ask to meet the chef and owner, bringing samples of your current crops

Farmers should be ready to discuss their crops so that chefs fully understand the nature of the crop and gain insight into how they can prepare and present the crop to their diners. The true secret to a successful farmer-chef relationship is farmer willingness to reliably grow crops that chefs want to explore and regularly buy. Chefs like to write and deliver seasonal menus—they will creatively use crops for their whole growing cycle while also carefully planning their next menu based on farmers anticipated next seasonal offerings.

When farmers and chefs work together, farmers can enjoy diversity in their operations (giving them greater operational resiliency) and get premium prices for their unique products. They can also anticipate more constant demand which helps keep volumes more constant.

The bottom line is this: get to know your local chefs and build yourself a more secure sales stream for your farm!

Shari Hawley