The trials and tribulations of Greater Lansing’s farm-to-table industry

Putting the farm on your plate

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It’s a broiling summer day, and rather than lounging in an air-conditioned living room, John Dickerson is toiling in the sun at Magnolia Farms, planting crops like kale and Swiss chard. 

Dickerson, 33, possessor of an aspiring green thumb, learns the ancient trade through brutal repetition. He walks up and down the crops directly beneath the sun’s heavy rays, planting what seems like an endless row of beans. 

“It was very new to me. My first day I planted two 200-foot rows of beans. You hand-seed them every 2 inches. I was exhausted,” Dickerson said. 

But this back-breaking effort and dogged tedium yields the absolute freshest produce, a valuable and tasty bounty for restaurants where ingredients are sourced farm-to-table, the culinary industry practice of utilizing ingredients purchased directly from local farms. 

If you expect your meal to be cooked with the freshest ingredients possible when you sit down at a restaurant, nothing compares with the farm-to-table method. And while Greater Lansing still has some catching up to do with other regions like Traverse City and Kalamazoo, the capital region has a dedicated scene of urban farmers and restaurants working hard to perfect the craft.

As local as local gets

If you’ve dined at People’s Kitchen, Tantay or Ruckus Ramen restaurants that have received high praise from Lansing’s foodies you’ve tasted produce that was grown on a city block just a few miles away from the Capitol. 

Magnolia Farms, founded in 2015, has several land plots on Lansing’s east side where volunteer farmers grow a large variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Its current primary caretakers, Nathaniel Kermiet and Aliza Ghaffari, began their stewardship in 2018. 

“I was doing educational gardening for a long time, and I was interested in scaling up and growing even more food,” Ghaffari said. “The Lansing Urban Farm Project said it needed farmers, and nobody else responded. Not wanting to see the land fallow, Nathaniel and I signed up for it.”

Ghaffari, who uses they/them pronouns, a New York native, came to Lansing with Kermiet, their partner, in 2012. They became passionate about independent agricultural work thanks to their experience at a student-run farm at the community college they attended in Baltimore County, Maryland. 

“I started a school garden there and felt so at home. It was the first time I was super excited to go to school and it was all because I could work on the garden. That’s where I got hooked on it.”

Magnolia vends its finest harvested goods at the East Lansing and the Allen Neighborhood Center farmers markets. It also works directly with a handful of eastside restaurants like People’s Kitchen, delivering such produce as collard greens, asparagus, garlic, onions, parsley, peppers and tomatoes. Other restaurant clientele, such as Ruckus Ramen, will visit Magnolia at a market and pick up what they need directly. 

Dickerson, who rose to become the co-manager at Magnolia, tends to its wide variety of crops on a daily basis during the summer growing season. Dickerson also works at People’s Kitchen as a prep cook and dishwasher and acts as Magnolia’s own restaurant liaison. He networks with local eateries and their chefs to determine what ingredients Magnolia can readily supply for them, which in turn helps shape the latest updates to the restaurants’ menus. 

“Food is a very intimate thing. Developing those relationships between farmer and restaurant is special. Knowing where your food comes from is one thing, but having that relationship is a special thing to have,” Dickerson said.

How farm-to-table restaurants are made possible

On the other side of the farm-to-table coin, working side-by-side with local farms, are the restaurateurs. Soup Spoon Cafe owner Nick Gavrilides regularly purchases goods from farms like Monroe Family Organics in Alma. What’s not available at places like Monroe, Gavrilides will substitute from Stan Setas Produce, a Lansing-based wholesale supplier. 

“With farm-to-table products, we are always on the hunt. Through Michigan farms, we get meat, dairy or anything, really. We get as much locally produced goods as is sensible, in terms of cost,” Gavrilides said.  

Gavrilides swears by the quality of produce gathered from local farms, saying that dishes that are cooked using their ingredients are far superior to those that are prepared using mass-produced goods imported from faraway states. “The farmers and the people curating the product are taking a personal interest. It also doesn’t have to sit in a truck for several days coming up from Texas,” Gavrilides said. 

Tantay, a restaurant specializing in Peruvian cuisine in the Allen Neighborhood Center, regularly purchases fresh ingredients from Lansing farms like Magnolia and Highwater. Owner Jose Aste said the connection to local produce is essential for his cooking.

“Pachamama means Mother Earth. That’s the basis of Peruvian cuisine. Before it was colonized, everything was legumes; vegetables and quinoa. For me to get local stuff from local farmers is absolutely amazing,” Aste said.

The local gold standard for restaurants following the farm-to-table model is Red Haven Farm to Table Restaurant, in Okemos, one of the largest farm-to-table restaurants in Mid-Michigan. Red Haven was founded by co-owners Nina Santucci and Anthony Maiale, beginning its life as the Purple Carrot Food Truck in 2011 before taking on its current brick-and-mortar home in 2012. 

“We were very interested in the farm-to-table movement. When we started the food truck, we were really into seasonal cooking, because Michigan has great stuff to work with,” Santucci said. 

Red Haven has since developed a massive network of Michigan farms from which it supplies its ingredients. Its first partnership, made during the humble food truck days, was Ten Hens Farm in Bath. Santucci and Maiale became familiar with the struggles that come along with farm-to-table, in particular that a restaurant following that model may find itself at the mercy of the elements. 

“Just before we opened, all of the stuff that Ten Hens planted for us was washed away by a heavy rain. Right away, we learned one of the major challenges of farm-to-table cooking,” Santucci said.

Hanging with the elements

Dickerson said that the restaurants Magnolia works with must be flexible with their purchases in order to roll with the punches. 

“If a chef develops a menu based on one product, well that product might only be available for a couple of weeks or just a month. Restaurants will be getting something consistently from us, then we won’t have it. They’ll have to get it somewhere else or redevelop their menu. That’s the problem with farm-fresh food: there’s a limited window of when stuff is ready,” Dickerson said.

Going along with the ebb and flow brought upon by seasonal changes is one of the biggest roadblocks for a restaurant that wishes to take on a majority farm-to-table menu. Making frequent adaptations is an absolute must for the concept to function properly. 

“The area that you’re in doesn’t necessarily produce the full gamut of ingredients that you need to produce your menu. Some people can choose to put together a menu that only draws from ingredients from their area,” Gavrilides said. 

To combat the simple fact that a small independent farm can’t possibly supply the entirety of a restaurant’s needs, Santucci said that Red Haven has developed a large web of Michigan farms it partners with, each boasting their own specialization, be it different types of meat, fruit or vegetables. If one farm is facing a shortage in a particular product that it offers, Red Haven can turn to one of its other partners to pick up the slack.  

“The biggest thing we did was grow our network of farmers. At the height of the season, we are working with upwards of 20 different farms. If one person is devastated and without a particular ingredient, we can go somewhere else,” Santucci said. 

If all else fails and certain ingredients are absent in Michigan across the board, farm-to-table restaurants like Red Haven can fall back on the creativity of its chefs. Santucci says her cooks can tweak recipes on the fly in the face of nagging supply chain interruptions. 

Another obvious challenge shared by all Michigan farms are the winter months. Small independent farms like Magnolia that don’t have properly heated greenhouses that provide a method to grow produce indoors are forced to shut down altogether, and restaurants like Red Haven must rely on produce that is hearty enough to maintain its freshness throughout winter. 

“The challenge isn’t so much getting product, it’s just that what’s coming in is not nearly as exciting as what goes on during the summer. It’s a lot of storage vegetables; different types of squashes, potatoes and onions,” Santucci said. “If you store tomatoes in cans, you can have those ingredients year-round.”

The future of farm to table

Should we expect to see more farm-to-table restaurants?

According to the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association, the farm-to-table concept is slowly developing statewide. Michigan is actually second to only California in the diversity of locally grown products. 

“True boutique farm-to-table, we don’t have a ton of. But we have seen the trend be around long enough that almost everybody is integrating more locally purchased items into their menu. Sourcing local products has become more economically viable,” said Amanda Smith, executive director of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association Education Foundation. 

Smith cites programs developed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, such as increased funding for processing facilities that provide cold storage of produce, therefore allowing seasonal goods such as Michigan apples to be purchased year-round.

Smith said that Traverse City and Kalamazoo have particularly strong farm-to-table scenes thanks to having more ingredients typically found in restaurants to choose from at their regional farms and markets. One disadvantage in the capital region is a relative lack of farms that grow crops that are conducive to supplying farm-to-table restaurants. 

“The Traverse City region has always been a very diverse growing area that has allowed for a lot of fruits and vegetables to be grown. The central region has always been more focused on dairy and row-crops,” Smith said. “Bringing more fruits and veggies to the market will make it easier for restaurateurs to make plates.”

Greg Sinicropi, owner of Art’s Pub, a Lansing restaurant that serves pizza, burgers, sandwiches and other classic pub fare, said that true farm-to-table is simply not viable for a restaurant like his. 

“For logistics and even basic profitability, it’s really hard at a place like Art’s Pub, which is a high-volume operation, to do something like that. We want to be that way as much as possible, so we work with as many local vendors as we can,” Sinicropi said.

While Art’s Pub is able to source some of its ingredients locally, it needs others in such large quantities that going farm-to-table is just not feasible. For example, Sinicropi said, Art’s Pub uses thousands of pounds of cheese. “I can’t imagine there’s a farm-to-table mozzarella producer that can keep up with that.”

Santucci explained the many other hardships come with running a farm-to-table restaurant. For starters, it’s extremely time-consuming compared to utilizing major wholesale suppliers.  

“It’s a lot more difficult. We’re always working with 20-plus different farmers. From a state of ease, if you can get all of your things from Cisco, you don’t ever have to worry about that component. It’s more reliable and consistent,” Santucci said. “Being able to see things from start to finish is harder, but it’s a lot more rewarding. Most people just don’t have the time to do it.”

Sinicropi also shared his frustration with just how time-consuming confirming orders can be: Hypothetically, a manager’s entire shift could be spent contacting different vendors for the various ingredients needed to run Art’s Pub efficiently. 

“Most of our managers are working managers. If you want somebody to spend three or four hours on an order where they have to call multiple vendors, well, in a perfect world that would be great. But in our world, where you’re 30 percent short on staff, it helps to have it consolidated into one,” Sinicropi said. 

Santucci also cites old-fashioned apathy, saying that if the Greater Lansing region wants to see more farm-to-table options, consumers should ask local restaurants where they buy their ingredients and if they’re not gathered locally, ask why that is. 

“Sometimes the customers don’t have any idea, nor do they necessarily care, about the effort spent to make the plates as local as they possibly can be,” Santucci said. “Maybe they would be just as happy spending a little less money on something that wasn’t sourced locally.”

Though Soup Spoon has a number of ingredients and dishes that are sourced locally, it isn’t always realistic for the restaurant to rely entirely upon Michigan-made goods. Certain menu items demand imported ingredients. 

“If you chain yourself to things that only come out of your area, your menu will be different every single day. That’s why I say my concept calls for buying as many local ingredients as makes sense,” Gavrilides said.

Gavrilides also mentioned the hard fact that Lansing has a lower population density, which by default gives Lansing’s restaurants and diners fewer options when it comes to the farm-to-table experience. 

“Pre-COVID, Lansing was moving quickly toward that upscale farm-to-table experience. It will be interesting to see if it continues when things normalize. We have a good amount of farms to choose from around here, but they have more. There’s more people, so there’s just more options,” Gavrilides said.

But even though farm-to-table can be an uphill battle, those dedicated to it want to see it succeed now more than ever. Overall, Smith said it can be expected for farm-to-table to become popular across Michigan soon. 

“As part of the economic recovery from the COVID crisis, when you go to a restaurant, you’ll see more of an experience. People are going to want to experience the community that they’re in. That’s where farm-to-table helps grow the entire community,” Smith said.

Dan Kostecke, who co-owns Risen Breakfast & Bakery and the LFA Farmers Market in Mason with his wife, Rachel, said the importance of going farm-to-table is that it helps put money directly back into the local economy. 

“Keeping the money in the community is hugely important, and so is making sure that farmers can continue to farm. It’s a dying breed. Generational farms aren’t being passed on because it’s very hard work and the money at times isn’t amazing. If we don’t continue to support local farmers, we are putting ourselves in a bad spot, food-systemwise.” Kostecke said. 

Ghaffari said that supplying restaurants from local sources makes more sense from an economic and environmental standpoint than importing their goods from states across the country. They wish for the practice to become standardized. 

“I hope it one day won’t be a front-page news story, it will just be a normal thing that people do,” Ghaffari said.

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