Full Plates

CZ All-American

As Maine’s farm-to-table dining scene continues going gangbusters, can the state’s farms keep up with the tables?

[dropcap letter=”I”]t was only a couple of years ago that chef Ben Jackson could supply the kitchen at Drifters Wife, a 28-seat Portland restaurant, by biking to and from a local farmers market, filling some shelves and a lowboy fridge with whatever he’d found. A few days later, when it was time to restock, he’d pedal to another farmers market.

By last year, though, Jackson was doing considerably less cycling. The restaurant had already moved into a larger space next door when Bon Appétit named Portland its “Restaurant City of the Year” and put Drifters Wife on its annual “Hot Ten” list of the country’s best new restaurants. Even with twice the seating of the old place, Jackson saw lines out the door. “It was shocking,” he says. “And hard to maintain.” He needed to figure out how to continue sourcing locally, but on a larger scale.

The case of Drifters Wife is extreme, but Maine’s entire farm-to-table restaurant scene seems fixed on an upward trajectory. So popular is the model that some in the industry worry that restaurant growth is beginning to outstrip farms’ ability to keep up. “There are two sides to the trend,” says Noly Lopez, food-and-beverage manager at Frontier, the restaurant/café/cinema in Brunswick. On the one hand, diners’ fondness for menus heavy on local products is great both for restaurants and the farms they partner with. On the other, restaurants are bumping up against the limits of what they can source from nearby. “It’s hard to find any farmer that can supply you with 40 pounds of garlic on a given week,” Lopez says.

Beth Schiller, the new board president of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, grows salad greens, herbs, and other veggies at her Dandelion Spring Farm, in Bowdoinham. It’s hard for farmers like her to scale up, Schiller says, without additional labor and capital, both of which are in short supply on Maine farms. One thing that would help, she suggests, is for providers, vendors, and consumers to rethink pricing. “The amount we pay needs to be in better alignment with the real cost of both growing and preparing food,” Schiller says. Whether diners are willing to absorb higher costs is an open question — a $17 burger might fly in Boston, but it’s a steep tab for many Maine diners, even if the beef is sourced just down the road. The reality, though, is that small, local, often organic farming entails higher per-unit costs than at big-ag operations, and Schiller thinks some degree of cultural shift is crucial.

Whether diners are willing to absorb higher costs is an open question — a $17 burger might fly in Boston, but it’s a steep tab for many Maine diners, even if the beef is sourced just down the road.

“When we pay the real cost,” she says, “it’s going to make it sustainable for both farmers and restaurants to increase their scale.”

Even then, there’s a more elemental challenge: Other major farm-to-table dining hubs — say, New York City or California’s Bay Area — simply have more nearby farms with longer growing seasons. The farm-to-table movement has always been tied to seasonality, but here, chefs have to spin clever uses of root vegetables for half the year.

“Buying produce in Maine means buying ingredients that are hyper-seasonal and constantly changing,” says Finegan Ferreboeuf, co-owner of Steelbow Farm, in Norridgewock. One possible workaround is for restaurateurs to find greenhouse growers who can supply out-of-season produce — at Frontier, for example, Lopez serves local romaine year-round thanks to an aquaponic farm, Springworks, in Lisbon. But if bunches of restaurants suddenly want year-round local romaine, there isn’t yet enough grown in-state to go around.

Maine chefs looking for volume must cast a wide net to find everything they need. “Sourcing local is not a one-stop shop,” Ferreboeuf says — though some of those would be helpful. In the past, Lopez has used a wholesale distributor to help streamline sourcing at Frontier. These distributors pool big quantities of a variety of products from farms across the state. Maine doesn’t yet have many large-scale distributors of local produce, but as it becomes harder for chefs to micromanage their buying, Lopez thinks more such middlemen will step in to help restaurants find consistent supply.

For now, Schiller believes the key — much as it ever was — involves cultivating relationships between farmers and restaurateurs. Maine farms can scale up to meet demand, she says, but first, “we all have work to do to communicate our needs and expectations.”

At Drifters Wife, the past year has changed how Jackson works with local producers. Now, he meets directly with farmers and fishmongers at the restaurant four or five days a week, then carefully plans his menus around their delivery schedules. No matter how complicated the logistics become, he says, his fundamental principle doesn’t change: “Don’t buy food from strangers.”