I’m still lighting candles, praying that all my friends’ restaurants make it to the other side of the pandemic, aware that it will take a miracle (and government action) for some of them to survive. The one slim ray of hope that I’ve found in talking to people across the country is that many of the small farms and artisanal producers who are the core of the farm-to-table movement have been able to pivot from selling to restaurants to selling directly to the consumer. Whether through community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, online farmers markets, e-commerce, or their own retail stores, they’re not giving up.
The Young Farmers—We Grow It; He Cooks It
Dee Levanti and Bill Braun, the young farming couple who runs Ivory Silo Farm in Westport, Massachusetts, left their early January 2020 crop-planting meeting with their top customer feeling great. Chef Michael Pagliarini’s two restaurants—Giulia and Benedetto in Cambridge, Massachusetts—commit to buying more than 60 percent of the farm’s production every year. “We grow it and he cooks it,” says Bill. “And he’s willing to take a risk when we want to grow something new…he just figures out how to cook it.”
Three months later they scrambled as Massachusetts shut down. “Consumer demand for local produce exploded,” says Dee. “We planted 20 more home-cook friendly crops, began to sell most of what we were growing to peer farmers who had well established CSA programs, and knew that no matter what we could feed ourselves and our daughter.” Luckily, the remainder of their production was bought by the Coastal Foodshed and donated by the United Way to local food pantries.
Moving forward, Dee and Bill are fairly optimistic because, well, people need to eat. “Our ideal,” says Bill, “is a co-op with our peers. Then we could all focus more on farming than selling. We’d be fortified in our diversity and better able together to withstand future disruptions so that we could keep feeding people no matter what.”
You can find Ivory Silo Farm’s produce on the menus at Giulia and Benedetto and, come April, at their plant sale—exact date to be announced.
The Baker—No Longer Bullet Proof
A self-taught baker and miller, Graison Gill is the owner of Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans. A fanatical focus on ingredients, the belief that baking simpler is better—fresh flour + water + salt + time—and his dedication to sourcing and milling his own flours has brought success and a James Beard nomination. Then the pandemic hit.
“COVID ruined everything,” says Graison. “My business model had been bullet proof for 11 years. Ninety-five percent of my sales had been wholesale to restaurants and markets. Once those sales vanished, the financial pressure became unbearable.” Forced to make difficult choices, Graison closed his doors on July 25, 2020.
Accepting that his world wasn’t returning to normal, Graison re-positioned his bakery to become consumer facing. He re-opened for retail on October 7, selling bread, cookies, sandwiches, pasta, and his stone-ground flours. So far, he’s struggling, taking one step at a time, barely surviving the impact of a broken walk-in and Hurricane Zeta within his first few weeks of re-opening.
Bellegarde Bakery is located in Mid-City New Orleans at 8300 Apple Street and orders can be made on the bakery’s website for pick up.
The Dairy Farmer—One Place, One Cheese
“We made the decision to not make a single pound of cheese this year,” admits John Putnum, an organic dairy farmer and cheese maker who milks a small herd of Jersey cows on Thistle Hill Farm in North Pomfret, Vermont. “A typical year for us is around 12,000 pounds of cheese, most of it is sold to restaurants.”
The farm’s award-winning Tarentaise cheese, the only cheese the farm makes is best described as a mountain Gruyère. Truly “sun and grass pasture raised” it is made only from raw milk produced in late spring to early fall when the cows are grazing in the farm’s pastures.
With the dramatic decline in restaurant sales, John is thankful his son’s internet savvy has enabled them to offer their cheese directly to the consumer for the first time and that there is enough cheese aging in the cheese house to sustain sales until early next year.
A detour before law school in 1973 derailed Allan Benton’s legal ambitions. “I heard of this old fella who was quitting the country ham business,” said Allan, owner of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tennessee. “And I needed something to do before heading off to law school. I went in it for a lark but realized I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Problem was, the market for country hams dramatically shrank in the 1980s and ‘90s as breakfast became a bowl of granola or yogurt instead of a mess of fried eggs, country ham, and biscuits. Allan’s business was on the brink—a well-kept secret among a handful of Southern chefs—until he took up Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) co-founder John T. Edge’s encouragement to pack up his hams and head to Oxford, Mississippi, for SFA’s fall symposium in 2003. “I’m so thankful to SFA,” said Allan. “That tasting saved my butt and brought my hams to the attention of chefs not only in the South but across the country.”
While he’s feeling the pain of COVID-19 due to the dramatic drop in restaurant sales, Allan’s grateful that he has been able to stay afloat and not lay anyone off due to the uptick in his retail and e-commerce sales. Allan recommends pairing his country ham with your favorite bourbon and advises to get any holiday orders in by December 1.
After over three decades of building their 21-acre farm, Manakintowne Specialty Growers, into the go-to salad mix for Richmond, Virginia, area chefs, Jo Pendergraph and her husband, Rob, knew that it was time for an exit strategy. Since they were already delivering five days a week to restaurants, they had the infrastructure to solve the biggest challenge for most small farmers in the farm-to-table ecosystem—how to get their products to the restaurant’s back door.
Virginia Growers was born as the Pendergraphs took on 12 small farms with complementary products like eggs, chevre, and honey. Right now, they’re down to six farms due to reduced restaurant demand. “A quick pivot to CSA farm shares,” says Jo, “and a big increase in our online farmers market sales really helped. And we’ve had the time to right size the farm and slow down a little, which has honestly been good.”
Not ready to call it quits, Jo knows that at some point restaurants will bounce back, and she’ll be ready with her Manakintowne Salad Mix and poised to sign on more small farmers for her Virginia Growers brand.
Salumeria Biellese opened in New York City on Eighth Avenue near 27th Street in 1925. The two founding cousins, Ugo Buzzio and Eusebio Mello, were surprised at the popularity of their charcuterie.
Located in the heart of what was then Manhattan’s Little France, their neighborhood was populated by men and women who worked in the city’s restaurants and hotels. They recognized the cousins’ charcuterie as identical to that of Savoy, only with Italian names, and started to buy it for their restaurants. Today, that same business thrives, selling to top restaurants across the country.
Helmed by Ugo’s son Marc Buzzio and Marc’s son Drew, they refused to lower their standards when the pandemic hit, continuing to buy only certified Berkshire pigs, hand sewing the natural casings, and having the patience to naturally ferment their products. Only two concessions have been made: an e-commerce direct-to-consumer effort and crafting salumi in smaller sizes, well aware that the home cook wasn’t going to buy a nine-pound finocchiona but might buy an eight-ounce finochietta.
“We’ve tightened our belts,” says Marc, “and we’re confident enough to keep doing what we do. We’ve been niche since 1925—that gives me hope that we’ll weather this storm.”
Marc recommends buying what he fondly refers to as the “salumi tris” (trio)—finochietta + napolitana + salame con porcini. These and all of Salumeria Biellese’s other products are available on their website or via Goldbelly.
We all have to eat and that’s job security for farmers and producers. And since we are all cooking at home a hell of a lot more in 2020, and for the foreseeable future, it’s time to step up. Support your community farmers and producers by cooking and eating what they grow and make. This holiday season, research which local farms and producers are selling in your area by speaking to chefs, farmers markets, and the most obsessed foodie you know in order to treat yourself and your family and friends to the best local produce, cheese, bread, and cured meats you can find.