The Farmer and the Cowman (and Restaurateur) Can Be Friends

Last week we hosted a food sustainability conference sponsored by our culinary program. Sustainability and local food sources is a big deal in Hawaii because between 85%-90% of all our food is imported. If there was a cataclysmic event which prevented food from reaching the ports, there is only about 10 days of food available to feed the population.

I have seen a number of arts bloggers draw a connection between the slow food movement and the arts so I listened closely to what was said hoping to gain a little insight from the practices of other industries.

Since the conference was organized by a culinary program, they approached the subject from the view of how restaurants can source more of their food locally and sustainably. The panels consisted of farmers, ranchers and restaurant owners talking about some of their practices.

Culinary Convening
Farmers, Ranchers and Restaurateurs Convene

There were some inspiring examples of some farmers operating almost completely off the grid with a high degree of recycling. They farm tilapia, circulate the water through lettuce and other plants which help filter the water and send it back through to the fish. Because of a rain catchment system, they haven’t had to draw from the public water supply in many months. Some of the effluvia gets diverted to a nursery which includes fruit trees to provide fertilization. One of the chefs at the gathering said he managed to put a dinner together for a party thrown by the governor where all the ingredients were grown within 100 feet of each other by sourcing them at the farm.

What struck me as applicable to arts and cultural organizations is the stories of some of the mutually beneficial relationships restaurants have created with farmers and ranchers. Chef Roy Yamaguchi of the Roy’s restaurant group convinced a farmer who was just weeks away from closing down his farm to grow a mesclun mix and required all his restaurants to use it. This allowed the farmer to stay in business.

Another chef, Peter Merriman, said that early on he made the conscious choice not to try to guard his food sources. While it undermines his ability to lay exclusive claim to offering high quality ingredients, he recognizes he is helping to keep his suppliers in business by telling people where he gets his ingredients.

Chef Alan Wong, who was in attendance at the convening, has been a long time proponent of using local ingredients. He spoke about how he held a beef tasting at one of his restaurants as part of an effort to convince restaurateurs to support ranchers by buying local beef.

The tasting ended up solving a big problem the ranchers had. The high end restaurants would buy the prime cuts of beef and leave the ranchers with the rest on their hands. A person from a local restaurant chain at the tasting had the presence of mind to ask what was happening with the rest of the cow. Now that chain consumes 250,000 lbs of local beef a year. Because the ranchers can sell the whole cow, the price is lower for everyone and there is incentive to the ranchers expand their operations.

Every arts organization has a different operating environment so I hope people can find something analogous to their own situation in these examples. The most obvious one to me is the oft mentioned fact that the regional theatre movement was intended to employ artists locally and still can if people commit to creating an climate in which this can happen.

One of the ways might be to duplicate Alan Wong’s tasting and actively invite colleagues to see different artists, not with the intent of “selling” them as so many showcase performances do, but with the approach of highlighting and celebrating local resources in an attempt to keep and cultivate them. There is an entirely different ambiance present in the latter scenario versus the former and I suspect one would be far more receptive to the idea of employing someone because of it.

I have to imagine given current trends that there is some mileage to be gotten out of boasting that the casting of a show produced a smaller carbon footprint because no one flew/drove a long distance to New York or Chicago to hire a person and the person didn’t have to travel far to appear locally. Arts organizations can celebrate their fiscal prudence by noting that they don’t have to pay for housing and per diem as they do with “imported” artists because the person already lives nearby. Therefore, much of the ticket revenue is going back into the community as artists buy goods and pay their mortgage and taxes. Perhaps the artists can make a statement about how they appreciate how the deliberate cooperation between a handful of organizations has created an environment that provides enough opportunities to live locally and raise a family rather than hustle for jobs in the big city.

Another idea would be to grow a network in which to share productions. Some theatres already invest in productions together, sharing the development costs and planning to have the show appear in both places. However, some of the members of my consortium produce shows for their own audiences while suggesting the other members might be interested as well. In most cases, each producing organization is partnering with a local performance group to develop the show already and a cost sharing agreement is already in place. Acquiring additional bookings in other parts of the state is just an added benefit for both. Having other venues willing to present the show can also assist with grant writing to support the development of  the production and support touring. I have had two shows I produced go on tour and I have hosted three that originated with consortium partners.

This sort of arrangement is easier when there is a longstanding relationship between organizations in place and they know they can trust that a quality product will be created when they commit themselves  in the conceptual stage. I think that is the sort of relationship that has been developed between the restaurants and the farmers and ranchers. The restaurants know what they are going to get from the suppliers and the suppliers know they have dependable buyers for their products.

One of the other challenges restaurants said they faced with local beef is that grass fed beef tastes different than corn fed beef. A representative from Roy’s Restaurants talked about how she has had to deal with indignant customers who demand to know what the restaurant is trying to pull when they first eat the meat. She spoke about how Roy Yamaguchi decided to not only note that the beef was grass fed in the dish description, but also put a section in the menu that explained about the beef and what it was the restaurant was trying to accomplish.

This immediately sounded like the challenge arts organizations face when trying to introduce audiences to anything outside their experience. The advantage the beef has over the arts is that while both steak and certain segments of the arts have an elitist aura about them, there is a perception that being adventurous with food is a mark of distinction while sampling a new arts experience is either intimidating or the mark of a snob. Do the arts need their own version of Anthony Bourdain to incite exploration?

(By the way, the title of this entry is a nod to the musical Oklahoma!)

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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