How to Make Farm-to-Table A Truly Sustainable Movement

Chef  Dan Barber says the farm-to-table movement that he helped build has failed to support sustainable agriculture on a large scale. To do that, he says in a Yale Environment 360 interview, we need a new way of looking at diverse crops and the foods we eat.

Renowned chef Dan Barber is synonymous with the farm-to-table movement. His two New York restaurants feature organic ingredients grown or raised on nearby farms, including the one that surrounds his Hudson Valley restaurant.

So it’s striking that in his new book, The Third Plate, Barber mantains that the movement he has championed hasn’t gone far enough. It has failed, he says, to create markets for the diverse crops that a sustainable farm needs to maintain a rich, healthy soil.

Dan Barber

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Barber, who has won numerous awards for his cuisine, says that if the farm-to-table movement is to truly support sustainability, end the rise of monocultures, and produce delicious food, it’s the table that must support the farm, not the other way around. And that, he says, calls for a new way of cooking and eating.

Yale Environment 360: There’s a moment you describe in your book when you ask yourself, Is a restaurant menu sustainable? And at the time, your restaurants were certainly practicing farm-to-table. So what led you to ask that question of yourself?

Dan Barber: I was pushed into questioning how sustainable my menus were based on some experiences I was having writing the book. I set about writing the book based on these farm-to-table ingredients that I was especially excited about — wheat was one. So I found a farmer [Klaas Martens] who was growing incredible wheat called emmer wheat, and my goal at that point—this is dialing back about ten years ago — was to take an ingredient, like wheat, that had this sort of jaw-droppingly delicious flavor and figure out how it was grown, or in the case of a ham, how it was raised, and write about that recipe — the recipe before it hits the kitchen — and by way of that recipe, talk about sustainability and all the principles of farm-to-table and how to follow through on that in the context of a restaurant menu.

But I went to Klaas’s farm [in upstate New York] to learn this recipe of wheat and I was standing in the middle of a field and all of a sudden discovered that he was growing very little wheat, and that instead he was growing a whole suite of lowly grains like millet and buckwheat and barley, and leguminous crops like Austrian winter peas and kidney beans. He was growing a lot of cover crops like vetch and clover. And they were all very meticulously timed and spread out among the 2,000 acres that I was standing in the middle of. And that’s when I sort if had this agricultural epiphany. But it led to this gastronomic epiphany, which was that here I was as a farm-to-table chef waving the flag of sustainability and realizing that I wasn’t supporting most of the farm. In the case of Klaas, he needed these lowly crops and cover crops and leguminous crops because his soil health needed it to grow wheat. You couldn’t get the wheat unless you grew all these other crops. And you had to time it in this way that brought the fertility to the soil to give you this incredible tasting wheat.

“I realized I needed to look at what truly supporting the farm meant and extend it to the menu.”

So it’s at that moment I realized I was sort of the emperor without any clothes, and I needed to look at what truly supporting the farm meant and extending it to the menu. How do you change the architecture of the plate to reflect that kind of support? And I started to realize that a traditional menu, especially a menu in the Westernized conception of a smallish first course followed by a very large protein-centric plate of food for your main course, was not a way to support the whole farm.

e360: You mention Klaas Martens, who talks about “the language of the soil.” What kind of battle did Martens have to fight to restore the health of his farm soil after years of using chemical fertilizers and pesticides?

Barber: He kind of becomes the hero figure in the book. He was a very conventional [farmer] — they call them “nozzleheads,” who are guys who spray problems away, the problems being pests, fungal problems, or wheat problems. There’s a different cocktail of chemicals to deal with each of those problems. And he was no different. And then he was, as he said, poisoned one day. His body sort of stopped working. He was going to lift a sprayer, and he couldn’t lift it. And so he started to realize that he was being poisoned by these chemicals, and he and his wife came that conclusion by the end of the day. And the next day, they dropped the chemicals just like that, and they went to organic.

“The pursuit of great flavor always has attached to it great agriculture.”

So the struggle was to bring fertility back to the soil. And to do that is, I agree with you, it’s a real battle. You’re battling weeds and pests and fungal disease and all the other things that nature throws at you in the course of a season. But the biggest struggle is to create enough tilth and health in your soil that you can produce a strong crop, which means you make money off of an acre. And so Klaas talks about the language of the soil, which is learning this language and responding to what the soil is telling you it needs to grow, what it needs to be fed in order to grow these great tasting crops.

e360: You talked about cover crops that are needed for the health of the soil, and you ended up creating one item on your menu that supports those cover crops. Tell me about Rotation Risotto.

Barber: Rotation Risotto came out of that visit, that epiphany in the field. Here I am the farm-to-table chef and yet I’m supporting only the wheat crop, which is actually, from a soil fertility perspective, a very expensive crop. It takes quite a bit of energy and fertility from the soil, and so you need all these other crops to move around in the meticulously timed way that Klaas does his rotations to give you the right kind of soil health. I wanted to create a dish that celebrated those rotations and didn’t celebrate the wheat. And so Rotation Risotto was an attempt to do that, which is to say, celebrate all these uncoveted crops, or ignored crops — buckwheat, millet, ryes, and cover crops, too, which you can eat. You know, cover crops and these lowly grains, and to a certain extent leguminous crops, they’re all there in his [Martens’] rotations to give that soil health, but he loses money or breaks even or just makes a little bit of money on them because there’s no market for them. Either they go into bagfeed to feed animals — so we do end up eating all those grains and other seed crops that I mentioned in the form of eating meat, which is a highly inefficient way to experience the value of these grains. Or he plows them under for soil health. But he’s not really making money on it. And he’s considering it a sunk cost, the costs of doing business in an organic system.

But what if we — eaters, chefs — started to support those crops? That’s a true support of a farm-to-table system. I was just passing in the dining room and one of the diners said, “What’s Rotation Risotto.” And so I thought the waiter fielded the question really well. He said, “You’ve heard of the expression nose to tail eating of an animal. Well, that’s the credo of the farm-to-table movement. You eat the whole animal and not just the loin or the tenderloin.” And then he added, “This is the nose to tail eating of the whole farm.” I thought that was a very good way to describe the system of supporting the whole farm.

e360: And your diners thought it was delicious?

Barber: Luckily, yes. all these grains are lowly and uncoveted. But that’s not to say that they aren’t delicious.

e360: You write that good cooking is an ecological act. I’m wondering how many of your colleagues have the environment in mind when they create their menus.

Barber: I’m articulating ideas that the larger populace of chefs are probably not thinking consciously of but are practicing ”¦ A chef may or may not be driven by the longing to support the whole farming system or the longing to support ecological resilience. But it sort of doesn’t matter is what I’ve realized. Because if we are pursuing lowly uncoveted ingredients for the best flavor, we are by definition supporting the right kind of agriculture. Barley and buckwheat that tastes truly delicious have to be grown in the right kind of soil. And they have to be the right kind of seed. And they have to have been rotated with other crops. Otherwise you don’t get that flavor. So the pursuit of truly great flavor always has attached to it great agriculture, which by definition means it’s truly sustainable

e360: In the book you write about your visit to the Extremadura region of western Spain, which produces a number of high-quality agricultural products while farming in a way that, as you put it, “acts quietly on the land.” You paint an idyllic picture of free-ranging animals fattening up on only what the land provides, replanting trees, harvesting sustainably, and you ask, “Could this become the template for the future of agriculture?” But considering the current state of U.S. agri-business in which yield and efficiency are prized above all else, I wonder how you envision getting from point A to point B.

“Where we’re at now is a crossroads. What do we do for the future to produce good food?”

Barber: American agriculture is actually quite inefficient in terms of diversity. Take what the dehesa, let’s say, the system of agriculture that’s within Extremadura, produces. If you were to compare the amount of corn that was harvested from Iowa on a hundred acres versus the amount of corn that was harvested from the dehesa, the hundred acres of corn will in Iowa will always beat the hundred acres of corn in a mixed agriculture system. But it’s an unfair question. Because if you were to compare tonnage, the Extremadura on a hundred acres produces a lot of things. It produces barley. It produces pigs. It produces sheep and grass-fed cattle and ultimately cheese. And it has oaks that you get corks for wine. Now if you add all that up, well, a hundred acres in the dehesa far outstrips anything that Iowa produces in a hundred acres—soy and corn included.

So the issue we’re really talking about is you have to eat that diversity. Otherwise the gains of all that diversity aren’t realized. So the problem with the efficiency of American agriculture is that we are eating a ton of grain-fed meat, which is where 60 percent of that soy and corn is going. Or we’re feeding it to our gasoline tank. So you are producing a lot of one thing — corn, or soy, or if you’re in Kansas, wheat, or if you’re in Florida, tomatoes. But that’s not efficiency.

One way to spiral out of this is to look at supporting real rotations, real diversity that ends up producing more food — not less food, more food. The problem is that it becomes more expensive because the distribution becomes more difficult. It’s much easier to delivery a hundred acres of corn to a grain elevator than it is to deliver all the products that I mentioned in my example from the dehesa. You have to have different distribution channels. Well, that adds a lot of cost and that’s where we get into a problem in terms of efficiency. And that’s a whole different different problem, one which I think can be solved by people demanding diversity.

Where we’re at now is a crossroads. What do we do for the future to produce good food? Do we put the pedal to the metal and look to genetically modified crops to increase harvest yields of these monocultures? I’m not suggesting that we look back to a simpler time of, you know, Shaker villages. I’m talking about catapulting us into the future of good cooking by looking at ecological niches, and then applying lots of modern technology, including seed technology.

e360: Well, you make a point in the book of saying that innovation has an important role to play in agricultural sustainability. There’s a lot more to it than just preserving heirloom tomatoes.

Barber: Yes. For example, there are a lot of breeders out there who don’t practice genetic modification of crops. They practice Old World breeding, but with modern technology — with genome mapping, for example, where you can identify flavor traits, and nutritional traits, and pest resistance traits, and a large harvest possibility for vines on fruit sets that allow a farmer to grow new varieties that have Old World flavor genetics with New World pest resistance, which means very simply that the farmer actually makes money growing these. Whereas heirloom and heritage breeds tend to be much more expensive because the yields are much lower. That is a nostalgic way to look at the future of food. That doesn’t make sense to me in a growing population and in a population where we have such unequal distribution of calories. We ought to be looking at new varieties that can take advantage of what a good farming system can produce and produce a lot of it with good flavor and good nutrition.

e360: The title of your book, The Third Plate, refers to your proposed shift in the way Americans eat, one that’s more environmental. The first plate is meat-centric. The second plate is also meat-centric except the cow was grass-fed and the vegetables are organic. Tell me about the third plate.

Barber: Well, the third plate would change the architecture of the plate. It’s asking too much of the land to carry in terms of costs to produce that seven ounce steak twice a day seven days a week. So what to do? Well, at the restaurant, in the vein of that Rotation Risotto, I created a carrot steak. And a carrot steak, coming into this fall season, is a carrot that’s been in the ground since spring. It grows very large, and once the freeze hits they become super delicious. And we cook the carrot like we would cook a steak actually. We roast it in a pan and then in the oven. We flatten it under a brick sometimes to make it actually resemble a steak. We carve it table side like a steak. And we serve it with an oxtail marmalade. To me, it feels like the future of good eating.