March 1 2017 09:56 AM

Farm to table movement takes hold in Greater Lansing

This article was written for City Pulse's 2017 Dining Guide. Click here to check out the full guide.

The farm to table concept seems pretty intuitive: You eat what’s close because it’s easy, it’s affordable and it’s healthy. So it’s no surprise that in the last decade it’s become a full-blown social movement. In fact, the wholehearted “eat local” and “downhome feel” marketing has taken on nearly religious overtones in some homes and restaurants.

Although farm to table is the oldest way of doing things, the counterculture movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s is what really re-energized the movement. Chefs like Jerry Traunfeld from Herbfarm in Metro Seattle and Alice Waters from Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., set the stage for the nationwide farm to table craze to come.

This craze has certainly hit in Greater Lansing — a welcome advance in a region that, for many years, was sorely lacking in fine or even trendy dining options. Lansing in the early 2000s was desolate when it came to interesting places to eat. Now, the area is home to a multitude of restaurants like Gracie’s Contemporary Bistro in Williamston, Bridge Street Social in DeWitt and Red Haven in Okemos, all of whom utilize local producers as much as possible.

Although the farm to table concept seems simple, it’s not an easy thing to pull off. Farm to table restaurants face many challenges that others don’t. They have to deal with the unpredictable Michigan weather and its effects on the crops, find produce during the winter months, find farmers to supply the restaurant’s demand and navigate the legal issues around using local foods.

Nina Santucci, co-owner and front of house manager of Red Haven, said that the biggest challenge is working with whatever products they have or don’t have any given day.

“Right now, for example, its warm and great outside, meaning that if it stays this way for a few days and then we get a freeze, there might not be as much fruit for the year — maybe none at all, it just depends,” Santucci said. “My husband does all the ordering, and he spends a great deal of time on the phone with farmers, talking to them about things like this. It’s a lot of work, but very rewarding in the end.”

Sarah Kops, chef at the State Room, agreed, saying that the challenges in Michigan are seasonality, including the shorter growing season and the need to supplement in the off-season.

“Finding farms or multiple farms to get enough products to supply the demand can be difficult,” Kops said.

And while chefs like Kops are concerned that they can’t get enough product, farmers like Phil Throop, owner of Wildflower Eco Farm in Bath, are worried that there aren’t enough restaurants that will buy their products.

“The thing is, restaurants don’t typically use that much produce.” Throop said. “There are those few that are actually buying locally and preparing it, but there aren’t that many out there. It’s a fairly small market.”

Throop explained that large commercial produce farms grow vast quantities of a few crops. While Throop’s farm is quite small, only 3 acres in size, his strategy is to grow a variety of crops in smaller batches.

“What helps us is growing lots of variety, so I can grow more on selling 20 types of veggies rather than three,” he said. “Diversity is key for small farms like this. It allows us to be flexible and thorough on our crops.”

Wildflower Eco Farm, which has provided produce for such Lansing area favorites as Soup Spoon Café and Red Haven, grows approximately 60 types of fruits and vegetables, including Asian pears, apples, radishes, greens, herbs and a variety of heirloom tomatoes.

Despite these challenges, local chefs and farmers seem optimistic that farm to table’s pros far outweigh the cons, both economically and in taste.

Red Haven’s menu, for example, boasts an interesting array of dishes made with an wide variety of uncommon ingredients. A recent scallop dish, for example, was made with sweet potato, blood orange, savory fennel and saffron. Other offerings from executive chef Anthony Maiale include butternut squash shooters made with bananas and bourbon.

Longtime Greater Lansing favorites like Dusty’s Cellar, the State Room and Soup Spoon Café have followed suit in the local food department, broadening their ingredient repertoire and, in turn, their menus. Soup Spoon, for example, features cage-free eggs in its dishes, as well as housemade deli meats from Soup Spoon owner Nick Gavrilides’ start-up project, Wolfe Meats. Tannin in Okemos, makes all of its pasta in house. The local producers it has partnered with for other ingredients have their own section on the menu.

The State Room uses a lot of products from MSU assets, as well as Michigan farms like Otto’s Chicken from Middleville. Dusty’s Cellar is riding the “locavore” train, featuring entrees like half-roasted duck from Maple Leaf Farms in Falmouth.

The trend will likely continue to grow as Greater Lansing becomes home to more great eateries. EnVie, the long-anticipated French-American restaurant, for example, is slated to open downtown this year. Owners James Cheskaty and Lance Davis plan to source as much local produce and product as possible.

“I think people have become more connected with their food,” Santucci said. “I think we got to this point where food was so processed, and people have gotten much more educated on what food can do for your body. We’re much more educated consumers now than we were in the past.”