The feel-good nature of farm-to-fork is hard to deny. Sacramentans can easily eschew factory-farmed supermarket products by purchasing seasonal produce directly from growers or beef from local ranchers, and pat themselves on the back for eating healthfully, supporting the local economy and reducing their carbon footprint.
But imagine a time when tomatoes aren’t grown every year, or a spring that passes with no strawberries at the downtown farmers market – all so secondary crops flourish and the area can retain the richest possible soils.
This sounds like Sacramento sacrilege, but for Dan Barber, author of “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food,” (Penguin Press, $29.95, 496 pages) this scenario brings the farm-to-fork ethos to its proper fruition.
Despite the good intentions of farm-to-table, Barber writes that the movement “celebrates a kind cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow. ... It makes good agriculture difficult to sustain.”
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Barber knows what it is to be a locavore cheerleader, and he still is in many ways. Barber’s the chef/co-owner of Blue Hill, a Michelin-starred New York City restaurant that’s been tagged as “farm-to-table” for more than a decade. He also oversees Blue Hill at Stone Barns, an educational center and nonprofit farm in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. But he explores a much more nuanced take on farm-to-fork in “The Third Plate,” one that challenges the movement for enabling farming practices that value consumerism over the best use of the land.
“The way (farm-to-table) is interpreted is very convenient,” said Barber, in a call from Blue Hill at Stone Barns. “It allows us to be pretty lazy about our engagement with agriculture, yet at the same time claim credit for being engaged with agriculture in a laudatory kind of way.”
Barber believes the bulk of the problem lies with Americans’ want for protein-centric diets that value prime cuts, and favoring fruits and vegetables that, while tasty, are demanding to grow. He likens tomatoes to the Hummers of the vegetable world, due to the amount of resources they require from the soil. Secondary and cover crops such as cattails are meanwhile MIA on menus, though they act as a field’s natural water filter and can be made delicious by sautéing in butter and lemon juice.
“I shopped this morning for asparagus and strawberries, peas, and feeling quite virtuous because I shook the hand of the farmer,” said Barber. “But I don’t know it’s the game-changing agricultural vehicle or path. We need to do more of celebrating the whole farm, like the way we talk ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking of an animal.”
Barber breaks down the American eating experience into a series of plates. The “first plate,” or what Barber calls the “American expectation dinner,” is an 8-to-10-ounce hunk of protein surrounded by a few choice vegetables. That central item could be steak, a salmon filet, a chicken breast, or any other protein sourced from a large-scale food operation.
The “second plate” represents the current farm-to-table experience. Those lamb chops might be sourced from a family rancher in Dixon, or the chicken from a pastured poultry operation in the Capay Valley, and the side of Sloughhouse corn purchased that morning at the farmers market. But it’s essentially the same meal as the “first plate,” a protein-rich course that often depends on plenty of resources to produce.
“We need to turn the culture on its head,” said Barber. “It’s not farm-to-table. It’s the farmer growing what he expects will sell at the market that morning. That carries a greater return on the investment, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best possible thing for the land, and the farmer isn’t (compromising) other crops to get a great tomato.”
Enter the “third plate.” This system of eating would consider what’s in the best interest of the soil or farm, vs. what consumers simply expect. Secondary and cover crops would be just as important as tomatoes and corn. Those crops would be diversified and rotated to suit the soil’s needs, instead of supporting monocultures of corn and other crops. Dinner plates would include more beans, which keep soils rich in nitrogen, and locally grown grains. Meats would play a supporting role and feature secondary cuts such as shank.
“We need a system of eating that adequately expresses what the land wants to provide,” said Barber.
Local restaurants that fly the farm-to-fork flag certainly don’t shy away from protein-centric options, and diners will expect the summer staple of heirloom tomatoes with mozzarella for the next few months. Fully implementing the principals of “The Third Plate” would require a paradigm shift about how we eat.
Patrick Mulvaney, chef and proprietor of midtown’s Mulvaney’s B&L, says that eating cover crops isn’t a new concept at his restaurant. Mustard greens, which are grown around vineyards to provide natural weed control and help improve soil, have long been a menu fixture. His menu has also included chard stems gratin, which are boiled and then baked with Parmesan cheese and a touch of cream. (“It’s yummy and chewy and delicious,” said Mulvaney).
Given the abundance of agriculture around the region, coupled with the culinary talent, Mulvaney believes Sacramento is the perfect place for “third plate” principles to take root. But it won’t be easy.
“I’m certainly open to (local farmers) saying, ‘Hey, I know you love my tomatoes, but they take a lot of nitrogen and I need to replant,’ ” said Mulvaney. “I think it’s a great conversation to be had between farmers and chefs.”
Craig McNamara, owner of Sierra Orchards in Winters and president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, also believes the Greater Sacramento region is ripe for farm-to-fork to evolve. McNamara knows Barber (who, incidentally, hadn’t heard of Sacramento’s proclamation as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital”) and shares many of his philosophies.
“I do back what he’s writing and agree with the general direction in ‘The Third Plate,’ ” said McNamara. “I agree that the soil is the foundation of everything. Water is the lifeblood and the soil is the womb where it all happens. We can build on the best of ‘farm-to-fork.’ I’ve been doing this for 34 years and I’m a believer. But this doesn’t happen overnight.”
McNamara said some steps are being made in the right direction, even with crops such as tomatoes. Many local tomato farms have done well to keep their soils rich with nitrogen by planting clover as a cover crop and reducing water needs with buried drip irrigation systems.
So perhaps in Sacramento, with our year-round growing season, we’re better positioned to abide by “The Third Plate” and enjoy our tomatoes, too.
Barber counts on chefs to play a key role in turning “The Third Plate” from a concept to an ingrained way of eating. With a proper culinary touch, customers may start demanding risotto made of rye, barley and buckwheat.
“The chef at the farmers market is old news,” said Barber. “What’s new is the chef learning the nuts and bolts of farming. That’s where we need to go.”