July 23, 2007

Local Source Event Planning: SARE Conference, 2006

As local food becomes important to growing numbers of people concerned about sustainability, demand for local food at large events has increased. One example is the August, 2006 conference of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program; the planning committee decided that they wanted to serve almost entirely local food to keep the event aligned with the organization's mission.

Deb Deacon, a hospitality manager who specializes in local procurement for conferences, and Jack Kaestner, executive chef of the Oconomowoc Lake Club, were charged with planning the menu and pulling it all together. Kaestner has been buying steadily more of the food used at the club locally since 2002, with around 25% of their food budget now going directly to farmers who are often local growers.

Kaestner said that he'd seen conferences by organizations whose entire purpose was to talk about how to save farms and the environment, yet spend more effort arranging guest speakers and other extras than the generic food they sit down to eat. “For some reason, food has been relegated to this afterthought,” he said. “We think it's frivolous to spend a little extra on food, but what are you doing? You're supporting local farms, local food and local environments.”

Supporting Watersheds, Farm Diversity and Good Food

Part of the premium in buying local foods, Kaestner said, is that you can also help support a particular growing or production method.

Kaestner was emphatic about the positive impact of purchasing pasture-raised meat. “If you support local grazers, you're supporting your own watershed.” He said that an acre of land in pasture might lose a quarter ton of topsoil per year, while that same acreage in row crops could lose five tons of topsoil in a year. He said that this extra soil sediment and the phosphorus it carried could damage a watershed, and the soil compaction you can get with mainstream farming practices were bad for water management all by themselves. He said that land in pasture was “more like a sponge,” and so was “better for groundwater recharge.”

This is important when groundwater sources like the Ogallala aquifer, which underlies eight states in the Great Plains that contain some of the United States' most productive agricultural land, are being drained faster than they can replenish themselves through rainfall seepage. Compacted soil leads to more surface runoff, while spongy soil can retain more water and hold it in place long enough to find its way down to an aquifer. Also, irrigation needs are reduced in a soil that holds more water, so the land is less of a drain on groundwater resources in the first place.

Buying local can also support a diversified animal breeding stock; Kaestner gave the example of the Berkshire hog breed favored by some of his growers.

Kaestner said the Berkshire had fallen into disuse, because it does poorly in confinement, unlike most of the breeds eaten today. Yet he said that they thrive in a pasture environment, performing very well for producers who adopt sustainable pasture management. He said the older breeds also process better because they aren't as high-strung, making them easy to handle in the fields and when loading them onto trailers.

Chemicals produced in the animal's body when stress causes adrenalin levels to jump can adversely affect the meat, as Kaestner said, making it “taste livery.” But still, Kaestner said, it's important to work with the butcher as well. Much of the value of the animal can be lost in the processing, and butchers sometimes need to work with a chef to get used to providing consistent cuts and proper storage. Kaestner said that cryovac wrap, for example, costs $0.10 more per pound than shrink wrap. But, “you can lose half the meat if it's shrink wrapped,” so in the end it costs more to scrimp on the packaging.

Kaestner said that the quality you get from buying sustainably produced food is worth the effort. He said that often, the first time chefs crack a free range egg, the deep yellow to orange color of the yolks leaves them wondering if they can eat it. Yet, “people can taste that it's creamier, it's eggier. ... Once you taste them side by side, you know.”

With meat, Kaestner said, “confinement chicken breast or pork loin almost becomes a vehicle for a great sauce.” When you use pasture-raised animals, he said, “you can do lighter sauces because you've got a great-tasting meat.”

Kaestner has also changed his cooking style a little. He said that with older style cooking, with braising or stews, the flavor of the meat comes out better. But it's the gelatin that really impresses him.

“Gelatin is just real specific for me; you can see it, you can feel it,” Kaestner said. He can cook up a stock, refrigerate it, and see the difference the next morning. He said that his stocks “never used to gel right,” but that “once I started using the pasture-raised animals, it was like night and day.”

The Olympics of Local Food

Deacon came to call the 2006 SARE conference, “the Olympics of local food,” to go from a facility that used no local food to sourcing the vast majority of it locally. She said that her job was to shelter the conference center from getting lots of invoices, which is usually one of the largest concerns about serving local food. “There's more work involved to source locally,” Deacon said, “you just don't have the infrastructure in place that conventional foods would have.”

Kaestner said that, with companies like Sysco around, he can have virtually anything he wants delivered to his restaurant within a day. Buying local requires more forethought. He said that breakfast and lunch for 180 people could impact 2600 acres of farmland. He said that while they'd been able to keep the conference center's costs within their normal range, SARE had needed to pay for the time and expertise to make that possible.

“Too many chefs get killed with costs if they try to go one to one,” Kaestner said. Meat, he said, was a particular problem because organic meats often cost around twice as much. So he advised planning ways to use the whole animal, and again seeing that “the premium becomes that you're using sustainable, local food.” For the conference, he made use of Wisconsin's traditional bratwursts, substituted a steamship round cut for the more traditional roast, made a pork shoulder ragout instead of using a loin cut, and used meat from the whole roasted chicken for the free-range chicken salad.

Then, there's the facility. The first procurement planning meeting for the conference and its 600 attendees in November 2005. Deacon said that her first chance to look at the conference center, along with their banquet menu and typical food costs, came in January of 2006.

Deacon said that in the case of the SARE conference, a local food enthusiast that had been involved in the initial planning stages left the committee, and then the remaining members selected a site mainly on price. This posed some challenges when purchasing with an eye to the conference goals. For example, they'd wanted to get fair trade coffee, but the conference center had no brewing equipment, so they had to bring in bagged coffee.

Deacon said that if a conference is planned around local food, you ideally have more refrigeration space than freezer space, and storage for items like tomatoes that are best kept between full refrigeration and room temperatures. The kitchen of a local community college had to be approached to provide some of the needed storage. The cooking equipment can also be an issue. She said it was best to do local food at a facility where most of the food is cooked fresh, but the conference center kitchen mostly brought in pre-made or previously frozen food, so much of the cooking and preparation had to be done off-site.

“It's one thing to want local food, another to know what that means for the kitchen,” Deacon said, and “knowing what's in season, that's big.” She said that the culinary background she and Kaestner brought to the planning process was very useful. After finding your food sources and the facility, you have to take another look at the menu and make sure it lines up with what's available.

Multi-ingredient dishes are Kaestner's answer to the unique issues involved with buying straight from the grower. He said that serving dishes like a succotash or offering a “seasonal salad” or “seasonal vegetables” instead of listing a firm set of ingredients could help. If one vegetable isn't available because of crop failure or pests, something else can be substituted. When dealing directly with farmers, he said, “you have to cover yourself for production problems.”

Kaestner elaborated on the kinds of planning necessary. If you want potatoes and onions year round, he said that they need to be cellared, and that means the farmer has to plant different varieties than what they would to dig up and sell fresh. Kaestner has heard farmers who work with him say that it reminds them of what their grandparents did.

Deeply committed to providing that sort of consistent markets for growers, Kaestner was already used to meeting with the farmers who who provide local food to his restaurant. They're part of the year's menu planning process, working with Kaestner to figure out how much acreage to plant with a particular crop. Or sometimes, he said, the farmer will say that they want to try planting something new, and the restaurant is able to promise to buy it. Farmers develop a year round mindset, Kaestner said, and try growing perennial crops That experience was essential to working with farmers at the start of the SARE conference planning when they had to decide what to grow and in what quantities.

Deacon also said they'd gone further to be in touch with potential source farms and to keep the event goals in mind. For the SARE conference, they made sure that two of the source farms were Conservation Security Program enrollees in the Crawford watershed, which was featured in the event tours. One of the farms provided the strawberries that were frozen for later use at the conference.

Where they couldn't always find a local alternative, Deacon said they tried to consider the ethic of the conference in their choices. The wheat for the bread wasn't local, but they used a local baker. Other food was purchased from vendors at Wisconsin's Madison and Milwaukee public markets. The tea came from a local organic tea merchant.

Kaestner further pointed out that the work didn't end with getting local or sustainable food. He said it was important to have labeled food displays and better signage at banquet tables, “to further develop the link in people's minds about food coming from farms,” because otherwise they can forget.

In the end, all that hard work paid off. As Deacon said, “the people who attended the conference seemed very pleased with the food, so that was gratifying.”

Posted by natasha at July 23, 2007 11:30 AM | Food | Technorati links |