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Mike Mustard is the farmer equivalent of a one man band. He tends to his four-acre farm in Lexington Park, Maryland, without any support. When it comes time to harvest his crops and deliver them to top D.C. restaurants—Ellē, St. Anselm, Hazel, and Mirabelle—he fills up his Fiat 500 Pop. Not much larger than a Smart car, it looks like it has the horsepower of a pony at a petting zoo.
What he needs is a truck, and he’s hoping his new partnership with Blue Duck Tavern can help. Starting this month, the public can sign up for a 30-week, $600-per-customer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program where participants visit the restaurant on Saturday mornings to pick up a box of produce paired with recipes from Chef Adam Howard. Mustard is hoping 50 people sign up so he can put $30,000 toward a truck and spend $4,000 on a tool that will help him farm more efficiently.
“It’s not just a sack of bruised zucchinis,” Howard says. He knows the quality of Mustard’s vegetables because he cooks with them at the Michelin-starred restaurant. “It’s a really gorgeous thing he puts together. We’re trying to find some way to get him a lump of money to get the equipment he needs to keep growing.”
Mustard did something similar last fall when he had a surplus of vegetables. “I thought, ‘What about the servers, cooks, and dishwashers—everybody who works at the restaurant?’” Soon he started packing boxes for workers for $20 each. “It was enough for like six meals.”
He has empathy for restaurant staff because he had a career as a chef before he discovered his passion for agriculture. “There’s something more meaningful about the food industry than showing up and cooking a plate of food,” Mustard says.
Having worked in both industries, Mustard has insight into what chefs need from local farms and vice versa so both can thrive. One answer is better communication. Farmers sometimes get burned when they grow a crop for a particular restaurant at the chef’s request and then the chef decides not to put it on the menu. “Then the farmer has nowhere to sell the product,” he says.
When it opened in 2006, Blue Duck Tavern was one of the trailblazers of D.C.’s farm-to-table movement that put a spotlight on Mid-Atlantic growers. Its menu has always displayed the names of the area farms it uses. But the farm-to-table movement has grown up. If version 1.0 was about tapping into local farms as purveyors, version 2.0 is about teaming up with them as partners. Chefs are forming intimate and innovative relationships with farmers to ensure both the longevity of local agriculture and better quality food for consumers. The timing couldn’t be better. Plant-based dining, which is both a diet and a style of dining that makes vegetables the star of the plate, is taking off.
On June 1, the founders of plant-based restaurant Oyster Oyster put 30 diners in a party bus and drove them to Root and Marrow Farm in Lovettsville, Virginia. That’s where organic farmer Erik Schlener estimates he’ll grow 80 percent of the produce for the restaurant coming to Shaw in late summer. The literal field trip included a farm tour where Schlener clipped off sugar snap peas for wide-eyed city dwellers to sample, followed by a family-style dinner.
“I wanted to give people a glimpse into what’s really inspiring us,” says Oyster Oyster Chef Rob Rubba. He also sought to shift some of the limelight to Schlener, whose farm is just over a year old. “The guy is doing incredible things. Without him, I have no purpose. That’s the thing that’s always forgotten.”
Quality is the driving force behind Rubba’s partnership with Root and Marrow. He believes you can taste the difference between an organic vegetable that made the trip across the country and one grown within driving distance of D.C.
“A lot of what Rob and I are doing is working on using the whole plant,” Schlener says. “What Rob and I have is special. He shares the same respect for the land and for the food and the people he’s feeding.”
The pair began working together when the idea for Oyster Oyster was just starting to sprout. “It’s important to me to work with someone who could tell me exactly what was going on in the farm,” Rubba says. “It’s blossomed into a really crazy friendship. I think that creates a deeper relationship where we care if each other succeeds and we work hard to make sure that happens.”
If a restaurant can commit to sourcing such a large percentage of the produce it needs from a single, small farm, it creates a reliable revenue stream. “When you can make a bigger order, it really makes a difference,” Schlener says. “A farm doesn’t need too many restaurants to really make a go at it … When you do that, more farms can lower their prices and be more competitive.”
One of the biggest barriers preventing more restaurants from sourcing exclusively from places like Root and Marrow is the cost. Restaurants operate on thin profit margins and customers are already feeling pinched by steep prices. But until competition drives prices down, restaurants that decide to commit to working with small farms will have to become effective at telling stories about the real cost of growing good food.
Sustainability is a priority for Oyster Oyster, but the founders don’t intend to preach it inside the restaurant. “I never want to hit a guest over the head with all this information,” Rubba says. A server won’t tell you about Root and Marrow Farm when you sit down unless you ask, nor will you see farm names scrawled on the menu. “So much information—it takes away from the experience,” Rubba says. “You can use your Instagram feed to share those stories.”
Little Sesame partner Nick Wiseman believes there’s better awareness among diners about sourcing and sustainability, “but that doesn’t always extend to people being willing to pay for what caring means,” he says. “The biggest challenge we have is telling that story and connecting those dots.”
In April, the hummus shop put on a two-day “Wild Sesame” escape in Stanardsville, Virginia, with help from tiny cabin rental company Getaway and apparel company Outdoor Voices. Almost 100 people gathered in the woods to hike, forage, party, and eat the lamb and celery root that Little Sesame Chef Ronen Tenne cooked over an open fire.
“We’re trying to get people outside the restaurant and tell these stories through events where connections to agriculture are being drawn in a more clear way,” Wiseman explains. Like Rubba, he’s hesitant to shout sustainability at his customers who pop in for a quick meal, but he does want to associate the Little Sesame brand with the great outdoors. “If we can get people outside the four walls of the restaurant to cool experiences, they’ll trust us with storytelling.”
One story Wiseman hopes to tell is about Gail Taylor—the founder of Three Part Harmony Farm. This month, Little Sesame awarded Taylor a $5,000 grant in its inaugural “Little Seedlings” fellowship program. The two-acre farm in Northeast D.C. collaborates with other woman-owned, minority-owned farms to supply more than 200 CSA customers with vegetables, herbs, fruit, cheese, and honey.
With the $5,000 grant, Taylor is hiring Earth-Bound Building to erect a structure inside the farm’s greenhouse where workers can wash produce. “We’ve been using canvas tents for three years,” Taylor explains. “I feel like I lose one every year to the wind.” She’s thankful for Little Sesame for stepping up. “That’s a lot of money for a vegetable farmer.”
Little Sesame doesn’t plan to source any produce from Three Part Harmony Farm. The restaurant is simply partnering with the National Young Farmers Coalition to invest in farms of the future. “We’re figuring out how we can improve our supply chain,” Wiseman says. “You hear the statistics about the age of farmers going up and young farmers not going back to the land, yet there’s all this excitement around food. We thought it would be cool to invest directly in young farms that are looking to grow and scale.”
The biggest challenges small farms face, according to Wiseman, are a lack of access to markets willing (or able) to pay a fair price and a lack of access to capital to fund infrastructure and expansion. Little Seedlings hopes to chip away at these issues, especially as fast casuals with major buying power continue to be the fastest growing sector within the restaurant industry.
“The visionary chefs of the last generation who started buying well and caring about ingredients started the movement, and now you’re seeing fast casuals able to really buy at scale and change the way people are growing and eating food,” Wiseman says. With only two shops so far, Little Sesame already buys 25,000 pounds of chickpeas annually from an organic farm in Montana.
Like Little Sesame, Chef Amy Brandwein of Centrolina supports an urban farm within the confines of the District. She was ahead of the curve when she struck up a partnership with nonprofit DC UrbanGreens four years ago. At the beginning she sourced about 50 pounds of vegetables per week. Now she’s up to about 100 to 150 pounds per week.
DC UrbanGreens operates urban farms in wards 7 and 8 with the goal of growing affordable produce for District residents living in food deserts. As the organization’s sole wholesale client, Brandwein pays top dollar for the produce. The money she spends subsidizes the nonprofit’s efforts.
“It’s every chef’s dream to have vegetables that are super fresh, and in a city like D.C., it’s hard to get anything that’s grown in the immediate local area,” Brandwein says. “Beyond that, I like that the dollars that are being spent go back into the local economy.”
The chef hopes more restaurants find ways to support the city’s urban agriculture centers, especially as D.C. is poised to create more. This spring the Council passed legislation to create an Office of Urban Agriculture and Mayor Muriel Bowser set a goal of adding 20 acres of urban agriculture by 2032. There are already two key programs in the hopper that are currently stalled under the management of D.C.’s Department of General Services.
“The capability of using unused land and converting it into agriculture that provides all those beneficial aspects of having a farm in D.C. is well worth doing,” Brandwein says. “Not too many kids in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia in these densely populated areas have seen how a carrot is grown. It’s about connecting with the earth, teaching people new skills, and reconnecting with nature.”