Many upscale D.C. restaurants tout some combination of organic, sustainable, or “natural” ingredients. Part of the value added to that $30 piece of fish is the backstory—you know, how it was line caught, coddled like a baby, and rushed to your plate within 24 hours.
Georgetown Harbor’s new Agraria, owned in part by the North Dakota Farmers Union (NDFU), is taking the eco-marketing one step further; the approach involves not just quality and ecology but also the folks doing the coddling: American family farmers.
“We want people, when they step in the door, to know that this is a restaurant owned by family farmers,” said NDFU President Robert Carlson to the Grand Forks Herald (N.D.) in January.
They won’t know it from the restaurant’s décor, designed by D.C. haute-interior giants Adamstein & Demetriou. The look is sleek and sophisticated, more earth-toned than earthy, with its greens and creams and expensive woods. Nor does Agraria’s size speak to the ideal of a mom-and-pop operation. The restaurant has 350 seats in an arrangement of spaces that seem to go on forever. No, such an association would more likely come from having read—in one of several news accounts/blog entries/online chats—that the restaurant, yes, is owned by family farmers.
“There’s two concepts for how we want to be different,” says Mark Watne, NDFU development specialist and executive secretary of Agraria. “We can tell you the story behind [the ingredients]—rather than one or two items, we’re shooting for 60, 80, 90 percent….[And] we’re owned by those same producers, so we’re using product that we’re comfortable eating ourselves and feeding to our families.”
The idea started out as a purely NoDak affair. Farmers in the union were looking for a way to cut out the middleman and, with the help of food-services consulting firm Cini-Little (the project is now managed by the D.C.-based Magnate Group), hatched a plan for a farmer-owned upscale restaurant. Turns out, though, you can’t supply an entire restaurant with only vegetables and meats raised in North Dakota. Though the majority of the investors are from that state, the concept grew to include products from family farms around the country.
Sounds noble. But what is a family farm, anyway? The criteria for Agraria’s suppliers are that their food be grown or raised in the United States, “with the primary labor and management done by a family,” says Watne. “It has nothing to do with the size.”
Good thing, because the days of the “back 40” are gone, says Mark Toigo of Toigo Orchards, which provides Agraria with cherries and apricots. “The family farm is virtually an extinct animal in many regards,” he says. Toigo’s parents bought the Shippensburg, Pa., parcel back in the ’60s, and he was one of the rare folks to return to farming after graduating from college, professing a “rather incestual desire to keep [the farm] in the family.…It’s the worst form of child abuse—handing down the family farm,” he laughs. “You think, [If the farm were sold,] all of us could have a new car and a beach house—but then as time goes on, you get this very strange love of the land.”
That’s just the spot Agraria is hoping to stroke: home, family, pride. If its emotional cues work as planned, the restaurant will provide another outlet for producers like Toigo. And the restaurant is just the first endeavor of Agraria LLC. If it’s successful, the group plans to open more around the country, in addition to “cafes, Internet marketing, maybe going into grocery chains with a line of ‘Agrarian’ products,” says Watne. “It’s really a brand development and expansion.”
The undertaking all but baits the cynical. Agraria’s former project manager through Cini-Little, Amy Phillips, boasts that in the states, “we don’t use child labor, we don’t use conscript labor, we make sure that our people are well taken care of…including indigent labor.” Phillips goes on to describe almost Utopian migrant-worker villages in California, complete with health-care facilities and schools.
Chris Fullerton, who manages southern Pennsylvania’s Tuscarora Organic Growers cooperative, which supplies vegetables to Agraria, admits that “it’s hard to do vegetable farming and at some point not hire outside help.” He notes that as the definition of “family” itself changes, nonrelations are becoming a vital part of the family farm. For Tuscarora, the priority is that there is little distance from the folks doing the work and the folks calling the shots.
But familial ties are often key to a modest enterprise; they’re perhaps most crucial in the small-boat fishing industry. Richie Davis, who catches wild salmon, halibut, and black cod for Seafood Producers Cooperative, an Agraria-connected supplier, says that working with his two sons, ages 12 and 18, makes good business sense. “I don’t have to have a contract [or] any legal binding paperwork,” he says. “I can adjust what they’re exposed to in the fishery based on how fast they can learn,” so there is no fear of hiring someone who’s underqualified or might sue after an injury.
It’s hard to reconcile any of these small-tribe scenarios with a phrase like “brand development and expansion.” It could take a lot of Ma and Pa Kettles to supply the tomatoes for Agraria-brand ketchup. And Watne admits both that a family farm ain’t gonna get rich supplying to one restaurant and that Agraria’s mission is more a goal than an absolute certainty. Coffee beans and bananas, he points out, aren’t grown anywhere in the United States: “If we ever had bananas [on the menu], you could probably pretty quickly say, ‘Ha-ha! Agraria lied!’”—Anne Marson
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