This article appeared in Triangle Downtowner Magazine on 5/15/2017. Read the original version here.
By Jill Warren Lucas
If not for a drought, one of the Triangle’s best-known events to celebrate sustainable farming might not have launched the Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary June 2-4 with events in Raleigh and Fearrington Village.
In 2007, with just weeks to prepare a proper welcome for Slow Food Movement founder Carlo Petrini, Portia McKnight was asked if she and partner Flo Hawley would be open to hosting a gathering on pasture land typically occupied by Chapel Hill Creamery’s cows and pigs. The event would challenge about 30 farmers and chefs to collaborate on creating dishes that made best use of locally raised, seasonal ingredients.
Oh, and there also would be hundreds of attendees, including farmers market advocates and fans of chefs destined to win prestigious culinary honors.
“Normally, a farmer doesn’t hope for a drought, but it helped to protect the pasture that day,” recalls McKnight, who has participated each year. “The fact that the soil was compacted and there was very little grass made it easier to say yes.”
McKnight recalls the excitement of chefs and their teams, some of whom spent the previous night on the land, cooking and helping to tend her animals. “It was a very heartwarming occasion,” she says. “And it sold out so quickly. One of our regular customers begged to help park cars just so she could be there.”
Andrea Reusing, who was named 2011 Best Chef Southeast by the James Beard Foundation for her work at Lantern in Chapel Hill, understands the buzz. Months before Petrini’s arrival, she attended his Terra Madre convivium in Turin, Italy, which also drew Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farm in Graham, Stanley Hughes of Pine Knot Farms in Hurdle Mills, and the late Bill Dow of Ayrshire Farm in Chatham County, which was North Carolina’s first certified organic farm. She returned home deeply inspired and with a stronger sense of mission about promoting sustainable farming.
“The picnic was basically about having those farmers who had been at Terra Madre pair with a local chef to create this meal,” explains Reusing, who has since opened a second acclaimed restaurant at The Durham Hotel, which hosted a Farm to Fork dinner last year. “It was conceived totally as a one-off to celebrate Carlo being here. We never imagined it would grow into what it’s become today.”
The nonprofit Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend has grown into a three-day event that consistently features top Triangle chefs, farmers, culinary artisans and beverage producers. This year’s keynote speaker at the June 2 Sustainable Supper is culinary historian and food justice advocate Michael W. Twitty, who has conducted extensive and deeply personal research on enslavement in North Carolina and across the South. His eagerly anticipated book, “The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South,” will be published in August.
As much as Farm to Fork is a thinking foodie’s delight, it also is a fundraiser. Proceeds support the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), which develops and promotes just and equitable food and farming systems that conserve natural resources, strengthen communities, improve health outcomes, and provides economic opportunities in North Carolina and beyond, and the PLANT Farm Enterprise Incubator at the W.C. Breeze Family Farm in Hurdle Mills, which incubates new farmers and offers training on small scale sustainable farming techniques.
CEFS Director Nancy Creamer says Farm to Fork not only helps beginning farmers prepare for lasting success but also creates and builds vital relationships among farmers and restaurants that need to source fresh ingredients.
“The benefit for both is exposure; the opportunity to create new markets and connect with a larger consumer base,” says Creamer, a professor of sustainable agriculture and community-based food systems at N.C. State. “It’s a great way to keep the community engaged and aware of what it takes to put food on the table.”
In addition to the many well-established chefs that regularly participate in the Farm to Fork Picnic there is a high-profile newcomer: Gabe Barker of Pizzeria Mercato in Carrboro.
Barker, a 2017 semifinalist for Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation, knew about Farm to Fork since his parents, Ben and Karen Barker of the now-closed Magnolia Grill in Durham, were involved in that first gathering for Carlo Petrini. He will partner with Peregrine Farms, which provided produce and flowers to Magnolia Grill back when he was a toddler who napped in the kitchen.
“They were instrumental in my parents’ success, and now mine,” Barker says of Alex and Betsy Hitt, who started growing spigariello, a sweet and peppery Italian green, at his request. “It’s a challenge to cook within the bounds of seasonality, but it’s also exciting to work with food at its peak.”
Barker says he is deeply grateful to the farmers who labor to grow the sustainable produce he and his peers transform into meals appreciated by diners across the Triangle.
“The kind of food I do depends entirely on the ingredients,” he says. “I have an immense respect for everyone in the food system, from the growers to the immigrant workers who pick the celery. I feel obligated to support them, and I’m glad to do this.”
As successful as the festival has become, Reusing laments that the term “farm to fork” has become a cliche in recent years. A stunning 2016 series, “Farm to Fable,” in the Tampa Bay Times revealed how unscrupulous restaurateurs were claiming false relationships with farmers and knowingly mislabeling ingredients as local.
“I think what’s important to think about is that every time we make a choice to support a local farm, we’re doing something really powerful for our community,” Reusing says. “Everyone has the right to healthy local food. The real challenge now is to expand access beyond farmer’s markets and food coops to our entire community.
“Ideally,” she adds, “this won’t have to be a fundraiser one day and can just be a party. We shouldn’t have to raise money to support new farmers because there would be plenty of them, and everyone would support them throughout the year.”
McKnight says Chapel Hill Creamery is happy to support efforts to attract smart, capable people to hands-on farming, as opposed to more lucrative adjunct businesses.
“We need to support the people who want to take their smarts and use it to work the ground, work with the animals, and produce the food,” McKnight says. “This program helps people who actually want to run the farm achieve their goal. As someone who hopes to one day retire from farming, I’m glad to know there will be people ready to step up and carry on.”
Tickets for 10th anniversary Farm to Fork Picnic Weekend events are available online at www.farmtoforknc.com.