|By Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel, Fort
Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
June 19, 2009--A simple question from a chef about farm-fresh produce is spurring a budding partnership between local farmers, hotels and restaurants in South Florida.
"Why can't our hotel serve the same fresh mango I can get from walking outside my backyard?," a chef in 2007 asked purchasing agent Geoffrey Sagrans at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach.
Sagran's search for answers led him to small farms nearby that grow specialty crops, including the micro-greens and vegetables produced by the Swank family in Loxahatchee.
Farmers Jodi and Darrin Swank say direct sales to hotels help them, offering a steadier clientele and better profits than selling through wholesalers or at farmers markets.
Today, the Swanks sell about 75 percent of crops from their half-acre farm to chefs, some marketed through the non-profit group Localecopia.com that Sagrans co-founded.
Localecopia.com now links about two dozen restaurants and farms in Palm Beach County. Member farms can post their offerings that week, so chefs can design menus with the freshest ingredients in mind, said group co-founder Rick Hawkins, purchasing manager at The Breakers.
"Buying food directly from farmers helps reduce our carbon footprint by saving in huge transportation costs and fuel," added Hawkins, known at the Breakers as the "green guru."
The farm-restaurant partnership reflects a new focus on eating local and fresh produce -- a goal long advocated by chefs seeking the most flavorful, nutritious items picked when ripe. Fresh foods transported long distances -- even organic ones -- are often picked green, so they can ripen during their trip by train, plane or ship.
In South Florida, finding enough locally-produced food to meet every menu need still remains a dream for most chefs.
Even The Breakers, which touts local foods, estimates just 10 percent of its produce is local, up from almost zero a decade ago, but still a small share.
That's because local farms hardly produce in the summer months of hurricane season, and most are too small to meet the large needs of restaurants for a wide range of items, hoteliers say.
Farm acreage in South Florida is shrinking, as land prices have soared from a decade ago. Overall, agricultural land dropped 2 percent in Palm Beach County to 525,658 acres and 63 percent in Broward County to 8,737 acres between 2002 and 2007, according to the latest Census data available.
But the remaining South Florida farmers are finding ways to boost returns from small plots.
The Swanks use high-tech hydroponics -- growing seeds without soil in a nutrient mix that they carefully irrigate in above-ground trays. The system allows for more controlled and dense production, using less water and fertilizers than conventional farming and producing more in less space, said Darrin Swank.
The growers can fetch about $20 for a clamshell filled with roughly half a pound of freshly harvested micro-greens.
Gabriele Marewski sells organic specialty items such as edible flowers from her five-acre Paradise Farms in south Miami-Dade County to high-end restaurants in the Miami area. She delivers nasturiums, starfruit or other hand-picked crops twice a week to clients and plans to offer mushrooms soon.
Key to her rising sales: reliability.
"You have to have the product well packaged, with good quality and delivered on time," said Marewski, who also shuns wholesalers "It takes a level of commitment."
To strengthen the partnership, some hotels, including The Westin Diplomat in Hollywood, are trying to help farms expand. The Diplomat seeks more tropical fruits grown locally for its menus and cocktails, including the purple dragon-fruit, said Sean Bradshaw, who directs the hotel's food and beverage operations.
The Breakers is looking to buy local beef, starting talks with ranches further north in Florida.
Chefs say consumers could help too, making more requests for local produce to encourage purchases.
Farmers such as Nancy Roe in Boynton Beach hope the partnership will open more markets for local produce beyond wholesalers and retail fairs.
"Talking to chefs," said Roe from her 12-acre Green Cay Produce farm, "will help us plan our crop and do a better job in supplying what they want."
Doreen Hemlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5009.
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