From the Source

Minneapolis has been with the farm-to-table movement since before it was cool. But thanks to corporate co-opting and general hyping of the trend, it’s hard to tell the farm from the faux. What’s really going on with good, local food in the city?

By Anne Lies

If you believe the PR, farmers have it great.  Virtually everywhere you look there are rustic-cozy restaurants, grocery stores, and even fast food chains decked out with images of bucolic farms, happy cows, and rugged farmers offering up the bounty of their fields. The suggestion is that all of those establishments have direct relationships with farmers, in order to supply their customers with fresh, local food. Farm-to-table, it’s called, and unfortunately, it’s all a bit of a sham.

The concept of farm-to-table is a great idea. It emphasizes alternatives to industrialized, processed foods, and attempts to strengthen local economies and food systems by directly supporting farmers. But along the way, farm-to-table got co-opted

The concept of farm-to-table is a great idea. It emphasizes alternatives to industrialized, processed foods, and attempts to strengthen local economies and food systems by directly supporting farmers. But along the way, farm-to-table got co-opted. The same companies and practices the movement intended to reject instead took it over. As it stands today, “farm-to-table” is just a buzz phrase, largely stripped of any meaning it once had.

The movement behind the phrase, however, is still alive and well, and that’s great news for travelers. What better way is there to get the (literal) flavor of a place than by eating as locally as you can? It might take a little digging to get past the advertising, but it’s not actually hard to find restaurants that insist on using local, organic, and sustainably grown foods. This is significantly easier in Minneapolis, which has functioning farms less than an hour's drive away. The area's short growing season makes it especially challenging to buy local all year round, but these restaurateurs (and many others) recognize the importance of supporting the local food network and are doing everything they can to keep it healthy.

Good Real Food   

Birchwood Cafe opened in 1995 as a farm-to-table restaurant without realizing it. Photo by Anne Lies

Tracy Singleton opened Birchwood Café in 1995, with a vision of serving locally sourced food from farmers with whom she had direct relationships. She began working in restaurants as a teenager, but had never really thought about the importance of the food. “[It] came off of one truck, and was either frozen or pre-made. You just thawed it out, put it on a plate and served it.” It wasn’t until she started waiting tables at Lucia’s—another Minneapolis champion for the local—that she began to understand what real food could (and should) be. Food at Lucia’s was sourced locally and made from scratch. For Tracy the experience was transformative, and later those values became key to Birchwood. “The more we sourced with relationships and a connections, the more we wanted to source that way. So we helped, I think, to build a bigger network and create a better local food system for restaurants.”

Yet Tracy she didn’t aspire to be a trendsetter. In fact, she hadn’t even heard the term “farm-to-table” until they won a City Pages award in 2012

But it’s all true: “If a farmer’s name is on our menu, we are buying from him [or her]. The things that are listed on the chalkboard? Those are [from] personal relationships and connections.”

 One of Birchwood's eight seasonal menus is summer. Photo by Anne Lies

One of Birchwood's eight seasonal menus is summer. Photo by Anne Lies

Birchwood serves menus in an eight-season rotation: spring, summer, scorch, autumn, dusk, frost, winter, and thaw.

Those divisions allow the kitchen to take advantage of local produce at its peak, though some are easier than others. Items like dairy and meat are available locally year-round, but others, like some varieties of produce, coffee, and chocolate simply aren’t available in Minnesota. “We buy as much local and organic and sustainably-produced food as possible, [but] I can’t even begin to say that we’re 100 percent local, year round.” Instead, when Birchwood can’t source a product locally, they purchase through a local and organic distributor instead. “We rely more on labels and certifications when we don’t have the personal relationship.”

Eggs Benedict at Birchwood Cafe. Photo by Anne Lies

As for differentiating her business from something that’s only farmwashed (a marketing technique that’s used to create a certain image about how products are made, usually used by major industries), transparency is critical. Many customers care about where their food comes from, but they don’t always know how to ask, says Tracy. It’s up to her to make sure her story is told, starting  with her “Good Real Food” tagline.  “It’s real food that comes from farmers and real people,” she says “It’s about relationships and connections, and having those principles guide what we create.”

By the Numbers With Common Roots

Inside Common Roots Café. Photo by Anne Lies

Since opening in 2007, owner Danny Schwartzman’s intention with Common Roots Café has been to serve great organic food that is sourced locally and made from scratch. But a key part of that vision, and one of its biggest challenges, is to make food affordable for his guests while supporting as many small organic farmers as possible. He identified it as an important niche within local foods that didn’t have to automatically translate to fine (i.e. expensive) dining. “[When we opened], the Birchwood was one of the only places that was in that zone,” says Danny. “I wanted to help fill that niche and show that it could be done.”

In addition to showing it was doable, Danny also wanted to show it was quantifiable. From day one, Common Roots has tracked all of its dollars spent, by their sourcing category. “Our goal is to get as close to 100 percent local, organic, or fair trade as possible. We’re now consistently above 90 percent for the café, and we’re not far behind that for catering.” Not only does Common Roots track that data, but its posts monthly graphs on its website showing exactly how all of its food is sourced. This rare level of transparency is one Danny wishes more businesses offered. “I haven’t seen numbers from anyone else, literally.”

We try to be supportive buyers, [and] give feedback about what works and what doesn’t in terms of pricing and packaging.
— Danny Schwartzman

Sourcing locally can be complex, but like other restaurateurs, Danny emphasizes the importance of relationships with individual farmers. He also acknowledges that it can be hard for farmers to break into the market. “There’s a great local foods community here, [but it can be] intimidating. So we’ve made a point of buying from at least some smaller farmers.” He also invests in those relationships over the long term. “We try to be supportive buyers, [and] give feedback about what works and what doesn’t in terms of pricing and packaging.”

It’s challenging for farmers to try and handle their own sales and distribution, so for Danny, it’s important to do what he can to support them.

Above all, he sees a need for larger changes in the food system with more support for the small farmers. “[They] don’t get subsidies and don’t get the benefit of federal programs. They’re competing in a stacked-deck [situation],” Danny says. What the general public wants, he says, is not what’s supported. “A lot of it is opening people up to conversations about big-picture market challenges.”

Closing the Farming Loop

Dean Engelmann and Scott Endres got into the restaurant business through the back door. Well, more accurately, they came from across the street. They opened Wise Acre Eatery in 2011, but have been business partners since 2002, when they opened Tangletown Gardens, a garden center and landscaping business across 54th street from Wise Acre. The link between the two businesses (beside the fact that they’re both housed in neighboring vintage gas stations) is one farm.

 Photo by Anne Lies

Photo by Anne Lies

The garden center and the restaurant are both supplied by the same farm and greenhouses, located on 100 acres near Plato, Minn., about 50 miles west of Minneapolis. Before opening Wise Acre, the pair had already begun growing food crops and selling CSA shares. When the building across the street went up for sale, Dean snatched it up. “It was a no-brainer,” he said. “We didn't ask if we could make it work; we asked ‘[How do we] make it work?’”

It was the setup for a nearly complete supply loop, and as far as Scott and Dean are aware, it is unique. “Many restaurant/farm partnerships exist throughout the country, but we know of no others with an all-inclusive interconnection.” The farm supplies produce year round (thanks to the greenhouses), as well as Scottish Highland cattle, heritage pork breeds, and free-range poultry. During the growing season, Dean figures the farm provides nearly 100 percent of their food. “Even in the dead of winter we estimate 80 percent of everything comes from our farm,” he says. “Milk, cheese, butter—all things we don't produce—we source from other local like-minded farmers and are proud to support their hard work.”

During the colder months, they also rely on what they’ve preserved by canning, pickling, or freezing, and they have a 1000 square-foot walk-in cooler that can hold well over 20 tons of stored produce such as potatoes, carrots, and cabbage. “Really, we are just living life much like our grandparents and great-grandparents; California growers weren't shipping in produce 100 years ago, and they survived by preparing for winter from the garden.”

On the farm, Dean uses organic growing methods for everything, including non-edible plants, and uses integrated farming methods to maintain soil health, like crop rotation, cover crops, and integrated livestock. . For Dean, this is the heart of the matter as he also echoes  Danny’s assessment: “Farmers have new access to markets that really didn't exist 15-20 years ago. The challenge is finding the scale that fits them, their farm's capabilities, and the desires of their customers.”

On the farm, Dean uses organic growing methods for everything, even non-edible plants. Integrated farming methods like crop rotation, cover crops, and integrated livestock are instrumental to maintaining soil health, and for Dean this is the heart of the matter: producing the best ingredients possible while staying true to sustainable farming principles. He also echoes Danny’s assessment: “Farmers have new access to markets that really didn't exist 15-20 years ago. The challenge is finding the scale that fits them, their farm's capabilities, and the desires of their customers.”

Like others, Dean acknowledges that the term “farm-to-table” has become diluted to the point of being meaningless. “While there are many restaurants working very hard to make strong local connections with farmers and their products, there are just as many making the claim with little or no real merit.”

Let’s lay “farm-to-table” to rest, not because the idea isn’t important, but because the phrase isn’t really indicative of, well, anything. It has been a strong trend for much of the last decade, and according to the National Restaurant Association, local sourcing continues to dominate the top food trends for 2016. This means there will continue to be opportunities for small farmers to break into direct markets, but it also means that farmwashing will continue to be common. If you want to know where your food is coming from, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Business owners who are genuinely working to support local producers aren’t doing it because it’s trendy. Rather they recognize it as a way to support a fair, healthy, and sustainable food system—from the ground up.

And they all agree you’ll never see Sysco trucks parked at their back doors. “Unless,” quips Dean, “they are lost.”


Anne is a Minneapolis-born freelance writer, editor, and photographer who currently lives, gardens, and cooks among the cornfields outside of Madison, Wisconsin. When she's not traveling in search of a great meal, she can be found in her garden growing one. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

Anne is a Minneapolis-born freelance writer, editor, and photographer who currently lives, gardens, and cooks among the cornfields outside of Madison, Wisconsin. When she's not traveling in search of a great meal, she can be found in her garden growing one. Follow her adventures on Instagram.