By Jan Norris
The business of foraging – picking up fresh produce from local farms and delivering it directly to the chefs – is growing as fast as the farm-to-table movement.
Rod Smith, co-owner of the foraging company Farms to Chefs in Boynton Beach, says this way of doing business is not really new at all – it’s how farmers and chefs have worked for centuries.
“This is old-fashioned, the way we used to do it,” he said. “It’s an old business that’s been reborn – the way it should be.”
A new demand for locally grown products has brought back the old model, however. Farms to Chefs is a company that delivers fresh produce and dairy items straight from local farmers to their clients – chefs at clubs, restaurants and institutions.
Smith says his was the first company in the area that he knows of to help chefs and local farmers connect directly without a distributor or warehouse in between. Though the foraging business has grown, “there still are not that many of us,” he said. “I just got an email from someone in St. Petersburg wondering if we go over there.”
A potential in connections
It started back when Smith was a chef, looking around at all the agriculture in the region and wondering why his produce ordered from a distributor was coming from California or Michigan. He said it dawned on him that there was a potential for a successful business connecting local growers and ranchers with other chefs.
Smith started the business five years ago. “The first years we were growing slowly,” he said, but he noted his business has increased 300 percent in just three years.
“There’s a huge demand. We can’t keep up – the farms are planting twice as much and it’s still not enough,” he said.
He says there are several reasons. “The local produce scene is at the top of everyone’s list. People are concerned and want to know where their food is coming from now, and more and more chefs are buying local and putting it on their menu to satisfy the customers.”
The prices are sometimes steeper, but diners are willing to pay for and be assured of fresher foods than the imports grown on questionable farms, he said.
Still, he said, “we have to be competitive. More and more mainstream distributors are adding local produce to their lists, though their definition of ‘local’ is vague – it can be Florida, Georgia or Tennessee.
“I just asked one of the Publix guys where they get eggplant. They said it’s from Honduras. I told him to look at his back door – the fields out there are full of eggplant. But the big stores have to buy a container full – not a crate here or there.”
It’s easier and cheaper to put one shipment on a truck from California making several stops, than to pick up at numerous local farms and have four trucks going in different directions. But therein is the freshness difference.
“We don’t have a warehouse. We bring everything directly from the fields to a customer. Nothing is warehoused. We go to the grower, two to three or sometimes five times a week and put it right on the trucks to deliver the same day.”
There are more local farmers popping up to meet demand, he said, but some are too small to effectively sell much. “Every season we pick up one or two more growers. Some of the smaller growers – I call them hobby farmers – they understand growing but not packaging. Packaging is a huge expense to many of the growers. But if you don’t pack correctly, it’s ruined by the time it gets to the chef.”
Specialty products are favorites of the chefs – things like Romanesco, the fractal-shaped green cauliflower, and shishito peppers. “We get a great leaf spinach they like,” Smith said. “It’s the old-fashioned kind, a broad leaf with curly edges – very colorful. The chefs are eating it up,” he said.
“One of the club chefs in Jupiter said one of his toughest diners, a club member, came up and told him it was the best kale she had ever eaten. It was our baby red Russian.”
Chefs choosing for chefs
Rod and his wife and fellow owner, Peg, are both chefs with combined experience of more than 70 years in professional kitchens. Smith worked in country clubs around South Florida, while Peg worked in New Orleans restaurants. In summer when growing is dormant in South Florida, the pair work at a summer camp in Massachusetts, cooking 500 meals three times daily for the campers and counselors.
Their kitchen acumen gives them an edge in choosing products from the farmers to sell to the chefs on their route that runs from Miami to Jupiter Island. A number of his old country club buddies are now customers. “We sell to Old Marsh, Loxahatchee Club, Pine Tree, Boca Grove – lots of them are now buying from me.
“We know what the chefs want and how they want it,” he said. “We’re a company for chefs by chefs.”
For more information about Farms to Chefs, contact the company at 561-633-9389, or see their website, farmstochefs.com.