Under a pair of protective awnings, peppers, beets, basil and tomatoes small enough to fit in red solo cups have sprouted. “We start it off from seeds,” Megan explains, easing a tomato out of its cup to show off its network of pale roots. “Look at that. Tomatoes root all along their stem. See? They look pretty good.”
The sun hasn’t burned away the 9 a.m. chill at Pure Land Organic, a McKinney farm owned by Megan Neubauer and her father Jack. They grow produce: onions, garlic, lettuce in various forms, carrots, blackberries—you name it, they’ve tinkered with it out in the terraced farmland which has been cut into the side of a hill. A small pond, full from a season of rain, irrigates the entire farm, fed by Honey Creek which meanders through the back acres of their property.
“It’s taken time but we have a really nice little ecosystem here,” Megan says, looking out over the land. “You can find ladybugs, praying mantis, lacewings, hummingbirds. We have mockingbirds lay their eggs in the tomatoes, every year we have killdeer and geese. Little bitty rabbits.” Certain insects and animals are helpful to have around and eliminate the need for pesticides. There are even breeds of wasps that can be cultivated and will eat insects that normally attack peaches.
“[Six years ago] I was a petroleum engineer, crazily enough,” Jack explains. “Meg’s area was biology. She was running a research lab at Southwestern University.”
“It’s all science and engineering so we have the right skills,” she adds. Bees from the property next door hum around a potted lemon tree. Rows of thornless blackberry bushes will yield 200 pounds per row in the summer, and families will drive out to gather them and eat them fresh. The peach trees have fuzzy green baby fruits already.
“We grow what grows well,” Jack says. “We grow different varieties of the things that work best for us. We’ve settled down into tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic.”
Megan estimates that it will be six more weeks before the first carrots are ready to be picked. “Farming is a long game.” She plucks a few weeds from around the Easter-green carrot tops. “But we work with really flexible chefs. A chef who values farm-to-table is flexible by nature.”
Nelson Carter of Cartermere Farms has a similar attitude. A collection of blue barns with white trim at the end of a long gravel road, the Carter family primarily raises animals with a slightly smaller focus on organic produce. Lambs and ewes lay in the fields, chickens roaming beyond them. A three-week-old bottle-fed lamb named Penelope bounds alongside us as we peek in coops where 600 Poulet Rouge chicks—a French breed known as the champagne of chicken—huddle under heat lamps. Sandwich, one of the Cartermere rams, watches from his pen, and one of the four barn cats flashes in and out of sight. (Of the four barn cats, two are identical. They’re both named Jonathan.) It’s a pastoral scene plucked straight out of a Robert Frost poem.
“Even I fell for the romance of it all at first,” Nelson admits. Providing for hundreds of chickens, sheep, beehives, bunching onions and other produce is perpetual, backbreaking work. A couple of years ago, the floods were bad enough that Nelson and his wife, clad in bathing suits and bee veils, waded in waist-high water to hoist the hives above the waterline.
A brief time spent living in Italy forever changed the Carter family’s relationship to food. “We were the typical American family. Microwave dinners and fast food,” he recalls. “In Italy, you go to the grocery store and everything is fresh. We go to the seafood counter and of course there’s octopus and squid and on top of it there was a 12-foot-long swordfish, tip to tail. We had to learn how to cook. Over the years it became one of our favorite things to do.”
At their height, Cartermere Farms can source food for as many as 20 local restaurants. Like Megan and Jack at Pure Land Organic, Nelson works closely with a group of seasonally-minded chefs in downtown McKinney, who Megan calls flexible by nature and Nelson calls “artisans.”
“Here we eat food like it’s a fuel,” he explains, Penelope, the lamb, trotting at his heels. “Food in most of the world is a part of the community. That’s what these chefs understand. Food should be an experience that brings people together.”
Jeff Qualls started cooking at 14. According to him, he didn’t waste a lot of time doing anything else. “My grandfather grew these wonderful tomatoes,” he recalls one of his first food memories. “I remember at the end of the tomato season he had this magic broom and he’d make all the kids beat the tomato plants with this magic broom. He said that was how you made good tomatoes: beat them back into the earth.”
Fast forward 20 years and Chef Jeff has opened Rye, a 41-seat restaurant on Chestnut Square in McKinney where he spends 80 hours a week. With a rustic interior and a reverence for local history, Rye specializes in craft food like Cartermere Farms Heritage Chicken Fricassée, so popular he’s never been able to take it off the menu. He got to know other downtown McKinney residents, notably Angela Shackelford who owns Harvest with Rick Wells of Rick’s Chophouse, and Robert Lyford of Patina Green Home & Market.
“Farm-to-table means I can tell you a story about every item on the menu. This farmer gives me these greens, so I made a dish centered around it. You get what you get and when it’s out of season, you get something else,” Andrea Shackelford says. A farmer as well as a chef, Andrea excels at familiar home-cooked meals served with undeniable style. “When Robert opened his doors seven years ago, people were looking at him like he was crazy, trying to make a living off of vegetarian sandwiches…but I can tell you business is doing well. People want this stuff.”
Ask any local farmers about who they source and these three chefs will be some of the first names out of their mouths. Robert, Andrea and Jeff all opened restaurants with a commitment to local sourcing and frequently come together to support each other and their farmers. They hold three symposiums a year, gathering chefs and farmers together to talk about the hardships and payoffs of local sourcing, and are involved with the Collin County Master Gardeners. In fact, one of Jeff’s new hires has completed a Master Gardeners course and will be growing products for Rye’s kitchen.
“I knew there were some farms, but I didn’t realize how much there was until we started. You see this network of small farms in Texas multiply…I don’t try to dictate what they grow. I’m not a farmer,” Jeff says, proving he’s exactly the kind of customer that Megan and Jack of Pure Land Organic like to work with. Jeff’s goal is to locally source 80-90 percent of what he serves. He gets mushrooms and garlic from one farmer. Bibb lettuce from another. Duck, duck eggs and chicken eggs from yet another. He gets about 50 pounds of persimmons a year from a lady who still prunes her father’s old persimmon tree. Of course, they can only take so much. If Jeff can’t take a farmer’s entire supply, he calls Robert or Andrea; and they return the favor, collaborating to build a network of local like-minded farms.
“If I can tell my staff that this is Cartermere chicken and it gets dropped off by Nelson Carter twice a week, that it’s a heritage breed, all natural, free range—it’s an easier sell for them. For the customer, it tastes better. They have this image in their head of this chicken from right up the street which has had a good life. And it sets the stage for what’s to come. Stuff coming out of the back of the truck doesn’t do that,” Jeff explains.
Chefs committed to seasonal, local menus learn to balance their own creativity with running a business and the natural growing cycles of North Texas. Jeff, Andrea and Robert often call up their usual farmers and ask what will be sprouting six weeks out to get an estimate of how many pounds of chicken, kale, peaches and persimmons they can expect. Rather than building a menu and ordering out for ingredients, they begin with what is in the ground right now and what will be harvested in six months. This mindset creates a different dining experience than what consumers have come to expect at chains like Sonic and Starbucks, who are among the majority of corporations who have successfully marketed on a simple platform: your drink, your way, every time.
While these chefs try to keep their most popular menu features available, it’s a simple fact that overall, their menus must change with the weather—literally. They devise clever ways to utilize one product across the menu in very different ways to make the most of what they get.
“Red fish,” Andrea says, for example. “That’s about using the whole product in one dish, leaving nothing to waste. It’s super simple but it all works together.”
“Duck, for example,” Jeff offers. “Breast for entree. The legs we confit and make a rillette which we use in the cheese board. Duck eggs are used for the lyonnaise and we roast the carcasses to make a duck stock for duck jus, the sauce for that dish. We take the livers and make a pâté. That’s the only way I can make that dish work: use the entire animal.”
Some chefs are understandably wary of committing to a full farm-to-table experience. Andrea calls keeping up with the farmers “a job in itself,” and from duck to dill, every ingredient will be more expensive because it’s all organic, produced by small teams on 20-acre farms. It takes drive to keep up with a changing menu, and an artist who sees the challenge as a boon, not a burden.
So what’s the payoff?
“If any of us have a soul,” Andrea says, “the payoff is having customers. They’re going home with something healthy in their belly. No pesticides; we know those farmers don’t use pesticides. It was probably just picked out of the ground a week ago. And all the money spent in the restaurant goes to those farmers. If we spend money in the community, that community gets stronger. And the payoff for me is getting to use incredible ingredients. The chefs I work with, we’re all artists. We want the best ingredients we can get because that’ll make the final product look and taste its best. We’re all sort of like junkies. We just want to keep making things that are awesome.”
For farm-to-table enthusiasts, North Texas is a good place to be. A 2012 census of farm growth per acre reported that statewide, even around ever-trendy Austin, farms were either shrinking or unchanged over the past five to 10 years with one exception: here. In the seven counties surrounding DFW, farms are actually growing in acres and numbers. There is plenty of supply.
There is also demand. These days, foodies trend towards local, organic, sustainable practices and across the country, customers and consumers are asking: what are we putting in our food? Interest in local, chef-driven concepts is on the rise; it’s why Front Burner Restaurants like Whiskey Cake, Sixty Vines and Mexican Sugar have done so well. They offer a wide variety of cuisines and proudly showcase their partnerships with local farmers and artisans. In fact, Front Burner’s Chef Franke credits their local sourcing with their success: “The residents of Collin County and surrounding counties have shown that they have bought into our stance on local sourcing and it’s proven in our year-over-year sales growth. Guests love to see all of the different cities, counties and areas that we support in our local sourcing and they keep coming back for more.”
At the end of the day, the farm-to-table life is about community. Farm-to-table restaurants operate based on what’s grown locally and what a neighborhood chef wants to make—meaning a farm-to-table restaurant is shaped by the unique community it is built in and the space in time where it operates. It’s vital to a city’s life to support individual, loyally local restaurants and farms.
Seasonal, sustainable dining is on the rise. Slowly but surely, perhaps we are changing what we expect from our restaurants, thinking beyond one great meal and choosing to patronize restaurants that run on better practices. Perhaps the generations who grew up on TV dinners are craving a better way to eat.