Farmers, food retailers and restaurants serving fresh food have always had to keep an eye on the weather and that’s never been truer than today, as California’s four-year drought drags on and a frigid winter and unseasonably cold spring in the Northeast brings later harvests for many crops.
“The season’s about a month behind,” said Chelsea Strehse, one of three farm managers at Gravity Hill Farm in Titusville, N.J. “We got started on time with some things in our hoop houses, but the ground was still frozen in March.”
This week, the busy market boasted a bounty of fresh from the field fruits and veggies, including husk cherries, heirloom tomatoes, purple peppers and Asian eggplant.
Since the cool spring turned to hot, wet summer, different crops are reacting in different ways, she said. “It’s a great year for eggplants. They like it being hotter, and they’re holding up really well.”
The rain, on the other hand, is making it more challenging to grow the state’s famous tomatoes. Gravity Hill grows more than 20 varieties, four of which are available now. The frequent rain keeps the ground wet, raising the prospects for weeds and the pests and diseases they can bring, she said.
Gravity Hill is a 5-acre organic farm and farmer’s market that launched seven years ago. A growing number of the customers are drawn to the seasonal market because they’re seeking out local produce, she said, and many are open to trying exotic new fruits and veggies.
Local food sales hit $11.7 billion last year, up from $5 billion in 2008, according to the Agriculture Department, and the the words “local” and “locally” were on 11.3% of U.S. restaurant menus last year, according to Datassential.
Local produce is increasingly important to Mad Greens, a Colorado-based fast-casual salad and sandwich concept that just opened its first two eateries outside its home state. With the opening of two new Arizona units, Mad Greens has forged relationships with two local growers and it’s seeking additional ones, said Co-CEO and Chief Strategy Officer Marley Hodgson.
“We’ve partnered with Buckeye, Arizona-based Duncan Family Farms and Phoenix-based Abby Lee Farms for some of our produce,” he said. “We are indeed searching for additional Arizona partners and we have some exciting prospects in the pipeline.”
It’s not usually possible or cost-effective for fast-growing chains to source the lion’s share of their produce locally year-round, but Mad Greens is looking to maximize its locally sourced ingredients and products.
“We don’t have a specific percentage target, but in the future we would love to be able to say at least 50% of our produce is sourced locally,” he said.
Local sourcing becomes more important each day that California’s drought drags on. The Golden State grows two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts and a wide range of vegetables including lettuce, carrots, broccoli and asparagus. Drought-related agricultural losses this year are forecast to hit $2.7 billion, according to recent research by the University of California, Davis.
The drought hasn’t forced Mad Greens to significantly raise menu prices yet, but that may change, Hodgson said. “The longer this drought continues, the more its impacts will be felt. We’re expecting a 2-4% increase in fruit and vegetable prices this year, but as of right now the true financial impact has yet to be felt,” he said.
“We’ve always focused on local sourcing, but a major drought in such a centralized region responsible for growing a large percentage of the nation’s fruits, vegetables and tree nuts emphasizes the importance of local sourcing and trying to minimize the distance our food travels.”
A focus on local also allows chains to tweak their menus and cater to local tastes when it expands to new markets, and even have some fun with local folk tales, Hodgson said.
“[W]ith our Arizona-inspired Doc Holliday salad, the red grapes and the oranges are two ingredients that pay homage to Phoenix’s agriculture roots. The name of course, pays homage to the notorious gambler and gunfighter known best for the O.K. Corral showdown in Tombstone, Arizona.”
Have weird weather changes or California’s drought put more of a focus on local ingredients at your restaurant? Tell us about it in the comments.
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