Fredericksburg Farmers and Chefs Weigh In On the Debate
Text by Elizabeth Rabin
The term “farm-to-table” has had a certain trendiness over the years, appearing on menus of “hip” restaurants or in the sales patter of artisanal food vendors at fancy wine tastings. But uncovering what the idea of farm-to-table actually means in Fredericksburg will reveal an informed, conscientious community of farmers, restaurateurs and markets that are eager to share what they know.
If the average person searches the term “farm to table Fredericksburg” online, you are likely to get a list of restaurants that have been praised in food magazines for their delicious cooking and their discerning use of local food. Although FOODE, Bistro Bethem, La Petite Auberge, kybecca and many other local restaurants have received these honors and are touted as the places to go while in town, readers should also know that these restaurants are more than culinary destinations.
Chef Scott Mahar, whose restaurant Poppy Hill Tuscan Kitchen was mentioned in Epicurious’ “Top 10 List of Farm to Table Restaurants,” likes to go to the farmers’ market not only to see what produce is currently out, but to also to talk to farmers and plan his menu with the seasonal yield. “Everything is perfectly ripe and ready to eat,” he explains, confident that he’s buying vegetables that are a better quality because they haven’t been picked early in order to ripen on the truck ride. Tomatoes come from Miller Farms, microgreens from Glenburnie Farm Produce, and meat from Saddle Ridge Farms in Culpeper. Mahar is frequently on the lookout for new ingredients to either add to classics, like fried green tomatoes, or combine into new dishes.
Chef Justin Cunningham, who is the executive chef at the newly opened Spencer Devon Brewing, also chooses to use as much local food as he can when assembling his menu. “Being a former business owner, it feels great to support others locally as well as being more environmentally friendly,” Cunningham says. “It helps me sleep better at night.” Spencer Devon’s menu currently highlights food from Snead’s Asparagus Farm, Blenheim Organic Farm, and beef from Monrovia Farms. But Cunningham has ambitions to make his restaurant as locally focused and as sustainable as possible. For example, some of the excess grain from the kitchen is donated to local farms to help feed to their animals. Emmet Snead of Snead’s Farm has also been helping the chef find providers who can get him what he needs. However, using local foods isn’t just a business strategy; like all bon vivants, these chefs are also inspired to use these ingredients to create delicious food.
Thankfully, the farm-to-table concept extends past the restaurant business and into local grocers and markets. The local farmers’ market, which serves Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and King George, lists 33 vendors in its 2015 season, while stores like Harvest Market and Kickshaws strive not only to provide quality food, but to help exchange ideas with their customers.
Kathy Craddock opened Kickshaws Downtown Market because of her firm belief that well-sourced, quality food goes a long way to improving our well-being. Buying products for the store has been an educational experience for both her and her customers in understanding where their food comes from. “If I can’t tell them where something is from or how it might affect them, then I won’t sell it,” she said. Craddock opened her shop not just to provide good food to the community, but to address the accessibility and cost of eating healthy. “I never want to be the market that’s too expensive and drives people away,” she said, stating that Fredericksburg has become more and more selective about where its food comes from.
Lee Russell, who opened the Olde Towne Butcher in 2009, agrees, saying that his customers have come to know the farms where he gets his products. “You might be able to buy chicken for $1.50 at Wal-Mart, but you can’t even raise one on your own for the same amount,” he said, and often uses that fact as a way to discuss his pricing to customers. His personal goal of changing and bettering the meat industry not only drove him to open the shop, but also to take a greater interest local agriculture. Conversations with customers have inspired him to expand his shop from a butchery to a grocer that carries organic and local products like milk, produce, honey, and eggs. Ongoing conversations with customers and suppliers, such as Emmet Snead, continue to help Russell plan for stocking his store by keeping him current on what’s growing and what’s coming up
Snead himself has seen the local foods movement and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscriptions steadily taking hold and has adapted his farm to keep up with these changes. He has sold produce to various Virginia restaurants since the 80s, building relationships with owners of local restaurants where Snead dined and eventually began selling them his produce. His crops currently include asparagus, sugar snap peas, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, and heirloom melons. But more and more individuals wanted fresh local foods as well, confirming Snead’s view that “quality is better than price.” This year, 380 families have signed up for CSA subscriptions. Snead also participates in a loose coalition of other local farms like C & T Produce, the Canning Farm of King George, Agriberry of Hanover, and Braehead Farm to exchange different products and offer a variety of items in the CSA box. Not only do CSA subscribers benefit from a variety of food, but the extra crop that any one farm produces can be kept in the area and used. “It also allows the farmer to specialize and focus on higher-end produce,” he said, explaining that he will also plan with his brother, who runs Braehead Farm, on what they will plant for the coming year.
Craving delicious local vegetables or farm-fresh eggs? Farm-to-table in Fredericksburg means not only an abundance of quality food, but a welcoming community that will help you find the good eats and the answers to your locavore questions.