The Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau likes to boast that Fort Lauderdale is blessed with 3,000 hours of annual sunshine and a year-round average temperature of 77 degrees. That's great for the beach but not so much for crops.
"Florida is the hardest state to grow produce in," says Jodie Swank of Swank Specialty Produce in Loxahatchee. She and her husband, Darrin, have owned the hydroponic farm, which supplies produce to almost every farm-to-table restaurant in South Florida, since 2002.
The problem here is the heat that the chamber promotes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks South Florida among the hottest growing climates in the country. Growing most fruits and vegetables in such heat is a tough task.
That means it's also a tough place for a restaurant to offer farm-to-table produce.
Chances are you've eaten at a restaurant that specializes in farm-to-table cuisine or at least heard about the movement. In South Florida, the lack of local farms makes it a difficult thing to pull off, although a few hardy restaurateurs are at least dedicating portions of their menus to the effort.
Farm-to-table promotes the idea that we're all a bit better off when our food travels less distance to our plates. The average vegetable now travels 1,500 miles before arriving on your plate, according to a study conducted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa. The same study notes that 39 percent of fruits and 12 percent of vegetables were imported from other countries. The time spent in transit is valuable in the life of a vegetable. Once a tomato or carrot is picked, the clock starts counting down on its nutritional and freshness factor, not to mention taste. In other words, eat an ear of corn just picked off the stalk and you'll reap the benefits of better taste and nutrition.
Passionate people always find a way to make things work, and farmers like the Swanks work with what they have. And chefs like Dean Max of 3030 Ocean at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale work a vast network of farmers and small purveyors to have the freshest product available to them.
Dennis Max says farm-to-table doesn't always mean local. "The whole idea is to get ingredients as fresh as you can or as direct as you can," says Max. "We buy our bacon straight from the guy that has the hog. I'm getting produce from Swank Farms. At the same time, I'm not buying local only. I love great wine and good olive oil, and you're not going to get that locally. My customers get bored with eating just grouper and snapper."
There's also the challenge of the summer months in South Florida, when the sun scorches the ground and burns the crops. The Swanks don't even try to work against the sun. At the end of June, they send an email to their customers, inviting them to pick what's left of the crops for free before they close July 1 for about six weeks. When that happens, local chefs still try to buy as locally as possible, following the season up the coast to Central Florida, then Georgia. Chefs will also fly in produce from farms as far away as California, spending extra dollars on overnight shipping.
Buying into the farm-to-table concept also means the willingness of a chef to tinker with menus. Mother Nature is fickle, and that reflects in an ever-changing bounty. Chefs like Max are used to working with what looks good now, but flexibility comes at a price. Max explains he's usually at odds with his accounting staff. "They hate it because they would rather pay one check to one company. But we have clams from Cedar Key, red royal shrimp from Cape Canaveral, oysters from Vancouver. I have three different local guys for snapper and grouper. Structurally it doesn't work, having all these vendors. But the food is going to taste better when you get it on the table. Simple as that."
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Most weeks, even the farmers and purveyors don't know what they're going to have available for sale. With more than 200 different crops ranging from micro greens to tomatoes, Swank is never sure what's ready to be delivered. "Every Saturday and Sunday, I send out an email to all of my chefs listing whatever I have available for the week, and they let me know what they're interested in." Swank then delivers directly to the restaurant kitchens, starting with Miami on Monday, working her way up to West Palm Beach on Thursday before heading out to the West Palm Beach market on Saturdays, where the farm sells directly to the public.
Swank says the taste and nutritional value is worth the hassle of farm-to-table. "If you buy supermarket romaine lettuce, it has no taste and no nutritional value. It's probably been sitting on the shelf for three or four weeks. Now you try my lettuce. It's sweet. You don't have to put anything on it. It's delicious."
Most of all, you're supporting smaller companies directly tied to the community. "If I buy pork from a local farmer, he's paying taxes into the community," Max says. "Those taxes go to help my kid's school. He's eating in my restaurant. That helps me. It's a big circle."
Farming isn't easy. It's a labor of love. Eating farm fresh helps our bodies, our families, and our communities thrive. As Jodie Swank says, "If you don't support the local farmers today, they're not going to be around. Farming is all about passion, dedication, consistency, and love for what you do. And the love comes out in the flavor."