Nonprofit pushes farmer/chef partnerships to benefit area consumers
(pictured above: Jay Pierce addresses Piedmont Grown attendees at the local Cooperative Extension headquarters.)
Since taking over as executive chef at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Greensboro seven years ago, Jay Pierce has increased the restaurant’s local buying power and reputation as a community-minded company that supports local farmers and livestock producers.
“The company that I work for, they were supporting local farms and producers before I got here – that’s part of what attracted me to the position. I felt the responsibility to take it to the next level,” Pierce said. “…We believe that spending our dollars in the local economy only makes us all stronger, and that’s really important.”
Pierce has developed relationships with Piedmont farmers and plans the restaurant’s meals around what’s in season and readily available, ensuring the freshest of ingredients. A chalkboard at Lucky 32 informs customers of ingredients’ origins, whether it’s catfish from Ayden, beef from Randolph County or cheese from West Jefferson. Buying from small, often family owned farms as opposed to larger conglomerates is not always cheaper, and utilizing components straight from the farm – such as whole pigs, which he regularly purchases on the restaurant’s behalf – sometimes requires more manpower, but the one-on-one relationship he enjoys with farmers offers leeway in price negotiating, Pierce explained.
“I had to demonstrate to them first that I could drive our food costs down if we invested in people,” he said, noting that the company has embraced the initiative wholeheartedly. “…It gave an order to my universe, and it also propelled me forward, because I saw that I could be the change I wanted to see in the world.”
Last week at the Forsyth County Cooperative Extension Center, Pierce joined some of his fellow chefs, farmers and others committed to strengthening the relationship between local growers and cooks at the third annual conference of Piedmont Grown NC, Inc., a nonprofit brand-identity program that certifies food and agricultural products from farms in 37 counties.
Pierce serves as president of the board of Piedmont Grown, which wants its label to become synonymous with freshness and quality.
“There’s a sense that people, when they connect with who produced (the food), it has a different value than just buying it in the grocery store,” explained Dr. Noah Ranells, a small farm agribusiness specialist in the NC Cooperative Extension program at NC A&T State University and Piedmont Grown board member. “…In this day and age, people want to feel connected and to connect over food.”
Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms in Virginia gave the keynote address at the conference, which attracted more than 80 attendees. She gave what she called “a worm’s eye view of marketing from the trenches.” Polishuk, who has worked on farms most of her life, implored attendees to build their brand identity by employing people who are passionate about their food, educating their customers about the crops they sell, and capitalizing on the elements that set them apart from traditional food sources, such as grocery stores, before charging them to “Go forth and make money.”
“Freshness is really the advantage that we have over the local grocery stores; nobody at the grocery stores can compete with us in terms of freshness,…(and) you’re accountable – that doesn’t happen at other points of sale.”
Attendees also took part in break-out and networking sessions and enjoyed a luncheon featuring local and organic products provided by Spring House Restaurant and Chef Tim Grandinetti.
Margo Bennett, who co-owns a produce farm in Chatham County, said the conference was a great learning experience for her, both as a farmer and as kitchen manager at Angelina’s Kitchen, a Pittsboro-based farm-to-table restaurant and catering business that her farm also supplies. A growing awareness of the dangers preservatives and additives in food potentially pose is contributing to an increased interest in the farm-to-table concept, which utilizes ingredients from local growers at every opportunity, Bennett believes.
“The whole back to organics movement is so important, and we feel like we’re walking the walk, in a sense,” she said of her farm. “We care about the quality of the food because we eat it.”
Extension Agent Mary Jac Brennan said promoting locally grown and raised products makes dollars and sense for Forsyth County, which is home to 86 farms.
“Some of the economic development folks and other businesses are recognizing that this is a great opportunity,” Brennan, who also serves as a Piedmont Grown board member, said of the farm-to-table movement. “…Branding with Piedmont Grown is a wonderful way to recognize that (a product) really is grown in these 37 Piedmont counties. This could be a real economic driver for our area if more people would seek out locally grown foods.”
The conference was followed by optional “field trips” to the Lowe’s Foods store in Clemmons, which features local food and products and a Chef and Farmer Summit led by Brennan and Extension Agent Christ Jeffcoat.
For more information about Piedmont Grown, visit www.piedmontgrown.org.