The Tilian Farm Development Center extends the CSA model with 'Restaurant Supported Agriculture'
Kim Bayer | AnnArbor.com Contributor
The concept of CSAs (for Community Supported Agriculture) has so much potential to improve the health, environment, and economy of communities (everywhere!) that more and more people are taking advantage of this avenue for getting food directly from a farm nearby. The kinds of food available (year-round now, like vegetables, meat, frozen food, storage crops, or even just garlic!) and the models for membership have been diversifying as this concept matures.
An innovation in our neck of the woods that extends the CSA model is now Restaurant Supported Agriculture (RSA), currently being piloted by the Tilian Farm Development Center with eight food and restaurant businesses in town, from tiny Darcy's Cart to the powerhouse Zingerman's Deli and Roadhouse, and even Food Gatherers.
The Restaurant Supported Agriculture I'm talking about is not just the chefs you might see at the farmers' market (like Brandon Johns of Grange Kitchen and Bar, Maggie Long of Jolly Pumpkin and Duc Tang of Pacific Rim) picking up fresh produce on market days. I'm talking about restaurants signing up at the beginning of the season for a weekly share of the farm's produce, just like a regular household CSA — only bigger.
Dan Vernia, former chef de cuisine at The Raven's Club, says that another other thing that's different about the Tilian RSA is that a restaurant working with larger volumes has additional options because harvest "availability sheets are sent out from the farm at the beginning of each week... Unlike a traditional CSA, we can order as much or as little as needed, based on our expected sales volume and the supply from other farmers. This flexibility is important."
Rodger Bowser, chef and managing partner at Zingerman's Deli, says the RSA model appealed to him because "It allows Zingerman's Deli to get into different farms that I couldn't get into before. It got the grower to think about doing business differently, to expand their customer base."
And it's succeeding because "the farm has worked my purchases into their model. It forces the conversation of 'well — what kind of stuff do you want?' We talked about the parameters of what we could and couldn't take. I'm not looking for bunched carrots or three pounds of zucchini — I'm looking for high volume greens." Bowser says they need at least 80-90 pounds of about 10 different greens per week at the deli, year round.
Rachel Beyer is the Tilian Residency farm manager who has been driving the tractor and running the irrigation lines to be able to provide a weekly delivery of those fresh lettuces, pak chois, komatsunas and mustard greens to Zingerman's, and the kale, broccoli and spinach for Food Gatherers. A recent grad of the MSU Student Organic Farming Program, the blonde and sweet-faced Beyer is the first farmer to set up and occupy the two-year Tilian Residency program, which is intended to be an ongoing mentored CSA business which will help support the Farm Incubator.
The Farm Incubator was Tilian's first program. Set up two years ago (in partnership with the Food System Economic Partnership and Selma Cafe) on land owned by Ann Arbor Township, it currently houses five separate hands-in-the-dirt start-up farm businesses. This year, the Residency Program (which Tilian describes as analogous to a medical residency) was created to give a newly trained farmer the opportunity to run a CSA farm business with the guidance of farmer mentors on the Tilian board. Running this three-season CSA business will provide income for the residency farmer and annual capital for Tilian to support bringing new farmers into their new farm incubator program every year.
Rodger Bowser says "the real hands-on (of farming) is actually growing the business. The residency will do that without immediately having to go buy a farm after school." Programs like the Tilian Incubator and residency are needed because the average age of the American farmer is now 57 years old, and according to the Huffington Post quoting Department of Agriculture statistics "for every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older." Perhaps most alarming is the long-term knowledge that is disappearing because real-life experience and training that used to be passed down generationally, says Rodger Bowser, "is not happening on the farm any more."
Beyer says running the residency farm "is challenging for me. Because I ran this farm with just one other person, to do all that we're doing to make the crop plan, grow and harvest the food, go to markets, and then send out the order of the available harvest on Sunday nights, get the order back, print up receipts and do the delivery — it's hard to keep track of."
Especially this year. She says "farming is really hard work and I would hope that people think deeply about what went into their food when they're eating and shoppingl; it really takes a lot of effort to put good food on the table."
Beyer observes, "When you're farming on a small scale, things can be unpredictable. Any restaurant making this serious commitment has to be flexible as they buy down the food they've pre-purchased — for example, we don't have lettuce right now. It does take a lot of money to grow food on a small scale on an organic farm. But our product will always have the highest quality and better taste. You have to choose what you value the most."
Vernia says that for The Raven's Club, the RSA with Tilian "allows our venue a sense of community support that the staff can feel proud of. Hopefully, this excitement will be passed on to our guests and enhance their dining experience."
Bowser says he knew that his staff's experience of cooking from scratch, and his confidence in Rachel Beyer's skills as a farmer made him feel that the RSA wasn't a big leap for the deli.
He says, "The best thing is that it gives them cash up front, and we didn't take on much risk." For community and food security to work, "we have to trust each other and love each other. I gave them two grand, but I knew I would be getting it back somehow."
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.