USDA-funded program grows bond between local farms and restaurants

By Dan Schwartz

Morris News Service – Alaska

Cyndi and Craig Ramm opened the Corner Café in Soldotna not long ago. They said they want to use more than 75 percent organic ingredients and, when possible, buy local produce.

“We don’t want to support a big company out of Seattle,” Cyndi Ramm said. “We want to support the business down the road.”

For cafés and restaurants, though, buying local often costs more and the required produce quantities may still be growing when the order is placed, said Mykel’s Restaurant & Lounge Owner and Manager Alice Kerkvliet.

However, the Alaska Grown Restaurant Rewards Program aims to promote more cooperation between local farmers and restaurants, said Amy Pettit, marketing manager for the Alaska Division of Agriculture. Pettit spoke Jan. 16 at a Soldotna and Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon in the Kenai Visitor & Cultural Center.

“We feel like there’s a disconnect between the two business,” Pettit said, “and we’re throwing this out there trying to get the connections made.”

The program reimburses restaurants up to 20 percent for what they spend on Alaska-grown produce from Alaska Grown members. Meat, dairy and seafood are not covered under the rewards program.

This year the program has $35,000 in its coffers from a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant. It started in 2012 with $30,000, Pettit said.

Mykel’s already uses about 20 to 25 percent local produce annually, chef Denise McCamon said. Kerkvliet said they have not signed up for the program yet, but they will.

“Who wouldn’t like that?” Kerkvliet said.

Linda and Stephen Albers said they sure would.

The Albers own Dandelion Acres, a farm outside of Kenai. They grow mostly spinach, kale and chard.

So far they have only been selling to co-ops, farmer’s markets and those who stop by.

But growing for demand can be difficult, Linda Albers said. Sometimes people back out of orders they have placed, she said, dumping the crop on the family.

Other times they waste time and lose vegetables when they try to sell their produce at farmer’s markets, Stephen Albers said.

“When you don’t know (how much people need) and you bring your stuff to a farmer’s market, it’s pretty frustrating,” Stephen Albers said.

“And you feel like you just sat there and wasted a day when you could be working,” Linda Albers added.

The program would allow the Albers to grow the specific crops and quantities for restaurants without fear of them backing out, Linda Albers said.

The advantages for the partnership are obvious, Judy Fischer said.

Fischer owns an organic farm in Cohoe that supplies her family, friends and neighbors with vegetables.

She said locally grown vegetables are healthier because a large operation’s priorities are to increase profits and efficiently ship produce throughout the country. A small farm’s priorities, she said, are in the health and taste of the crops.

Buying local also reduces the community carbon footprint and ensures local food security, Fischer said.

“We need to start thinking about long term local security as we start thinking about feeding the community,” Fischer said. She thinks droughts and other natural disasters will begin to kill Lower 48 crops. “Who’s to say what’s going to happen in the future?” she said.

For the rewards program to work for farmers and restaurants, Fischer said the community still has a lot of work to do.

McCamon said she does not have the time in a day to drive to individual farms to collect her produce. And farms do not have a centralized location to drop off their crops for customers like McCamon to pick up. McCamon said a centralized location to pick up produce would be easier for her.

For the Ramms, the rewards program is just another incentive to support their community.

They have not yet applied for the program, but they plan to, Craig Ramm said.

“We’ve lived in the community for the last 25 years and they’ve always supported us,” he said.

Dan Schwartz is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.