Farmers: 'Farm-to-table' is a buzzword, not a revenue stream
LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — The growing farm-to-table movement seems like it would be a win-win for Louisiana. Farmers get to sell and spotlight their products on local restaurant menus. Chefs get to work with the freshest local ingredients. Customers get to support and learn more about local agriculture.
But the movement hasn't given Louisiana farmers the financial backing they'd like.
They say farm-to-table is a buzzword that does little more than market their product. And in some cases, restaurant owners even falsely advertise that they are serving goods from area farms that the restaurants aren't purchasing.
"How has the farm-to-table movement impacted us?" mused Acadiana farmer Brian Gotreaux. "I can't say that it has a whole lot."
Located in Scott just outside of Lafayette, Gotreaux Family Farms has grown during the past 15 years from a small operation meant to provide organic, nutrient-dense food for Gotreaux and his family into one that anchors the Hub City Farmers Market and provides fresh produce and meat to many in Acadiana.
Gotreaux grows 167 varieties of produce and is known for his grass-fed, pasture-raised chickens. He also produces tilapia, lamb, beef, goat, eggs and honey on the farm.
On this chilly Wednesday afternoon, he is preparing an order for Lafayette restaurant Dark Roux, which opened Dec. 29.
Restaurant owner Ryan Trahan picks up 120 pounds of chicken, 80 pounds of turkey, 40 tilapia filets, 20 dozen eggs and about 100 pounds of fresh winter produce — enough food to last the restaurant about two days.
"We've been seeing the Gotreauxs pretty much daily since we opened," Trahan said.
Trahan uses Gotreaux and other local vendors to populate his always-changing menu, which consists wholly of local foods except for three items he has not been able source locally: flour, onions and the heirloom corn used in the stone-ground grits.
Dark Roux is one of only a few truly farm-to-table restaurants in Acadiana, according to Gotreaux.
Gotreaux said there are many more restaurants that purchase a handful of veggies from a farmers market to use in a dinner special so they can increase their business through the buzzword "farm-to-table." Other restaurants will actually use local producers' names on menu items that are not coming from the sources cited.
"There's a lot of chefs who say they're using our products," Gotreaux said. "There's a lot of chefs just using the buzzword for market share."
Farm-to-table isn't even a description Gotreaux likes to use.
McDonald's or Burger King could be considered farm-to-table restaurants, he reasons, because they source their food from some kind of a farm and it ends up on a table.
"All food comes from a farm, and it all in some way ends up on a table," Trahan said. "Everything can be farm-to-table."
So if not farm-to-table, then what?
"We support local foods," Trahan said. "We're a community food-based restaurant."
No matter how it's phrased, the business local farmers such as Gotreaux receive from restaurants focusing on local foods isn't enough to really impact earnings.
"I can't say one way or another that it would make or break us," Gotreaux said. "It's a small movement here in Lafayette. A lot of people think it's bigger than it really is."
Farmers in other parts of the state are saying the same thing.
Based in Farmerville in north Louisiana, Anthony Yakaboski grows a few hundred acres of local produce on his farm.
"Everybody says local, fresh is the way to go," Yakaboski says, "but they don't really practice what they preach."
What Yakaboski is seeing is that individual customers and restaurants are seeking convenience above all else. Customers used to pick their own fruits and vegetables from his farm, but now they want it washed and packaged at farmers markets. Most restaurants have moved from working with a handful of local vendors to using large supply companies where they can be guaranteed to get the products they want.
Again and again that is the story farmers are telling in Louisiana. Many promote local, but few actually purchase local.
Marguerite Constantine, who owns WesMar Family Farms in Moreauville, says that more than a steady revenue stream, the restaurants have provided an awareness about local foods.
"Louisiana is starting to get it," Constantine said. "I think that our business has gotten stronger because of that awareness."
-MEGAN WYATT, The Advertiser