Know Thy Zucchini

Locally sourced produce used to be available only at farmer's markets, but consumer demand is changing that. Locally sourced produce used to be available only at farmer's markets, but consumer demand is changing that. By Tyler Thigpen

Monday, June 3, 2013

Photos by Lucius A. Fontenot

Robin Farms, a 42-acre family-owned farm located in Church Point, is a familiar name to folks interested in the slow foods scene in Acadiana. Chefs regularly purchase Robin Farms produce for their restaurants, the LSU AgCenter has experimental pepper and tomato plots on the land, and consumers rely on the farm as a source for locally grown fruit and vegetables. Owned and operated by Brandt and Jamie Robin, it was established almost 15 years ago, and the couple is continually increasing their farm operations as well as their presence in the local foods community. Brandt, a board member for the Louisiana Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, has been selling at Acadiana Farmers Market for 22 years, while Jamie opened an on-site farm stand in 2009 to accommodate the increasing demand for their vegetables.

"Our produce business has grown every year and we sold our produce mainly at the farmers markets and to Super 1 Foods," says Jamie. "We are now expanding our business to several restaurants. Many of our customers like the idea that we sell to restaurants and [want to know where their food is] coming from."

Pimon Thai has been purchasing Robin Farms peppers and other produce for 10 years, while local eateries Jolie's Louisiana Bistro and Saint Street Inn began regularly purchasing the farm's fruits and vegetables approximately two years ago. Saint Street Inn is currently featuring Robin Farms squash (among other local farms' produce) in its farmers' market sandwich, while Jolie's uses the farm's vegetables in their fried green tomatoes, watermelon, caviar salad and more. Additionally, Great Harvest Bread Co. incorporates Robin Farms zucchini and strawberries in their menu when seasonally available.

"As a member of this community, we think it's important to use local ingredients as often as we can," says Michelle MacFadyen, co-owner of Great Harvest Bread Co. "For example, all of our yeast breads are made with Bernard's Acadiana honey instead of sugars. When fruits and vegetables are available from local farmers, we do our best to incorporate them in the menu. It's not easier [to process fresh produce], but it's the right thing to do.  We have a positive impact on our community, on our environment and on our bodies when we eat fresh and local."

Two recurring concerns driving the growing local foods movement include consumer interest in where foods are being grown and prepared and an increasing demand for freshly harvested food items. For these reasons, slow foods eateries - restaurants that regularly buy locally grown foods from producers like Robin Farms - are gaining popularity throughout the United States.

"It's important for me to support local food eateries," says Lacey Hebert, a mid-wife, ecologist and mother. "Not only am I helping support my friends and neighbors who run them, but I'm supporting common values that we share; i.e. the importance of eating good, fresh, local food that doesn't take two weeks, 1,000 miles, and excessive fuel consumption to get here."

Robin Farms shares these values and is interested in providing produce for more restaurants in Acadiana. "Most consumers are out of touch as to where [restaurant and store] produce supply is coming from," says Brandt. "When a restaurant and store buys from us they know that their produce has been brought to them within hours of harvest and assures first quality freshness."

In addition to working with restaurants to provide fresh, local menu options, Robin Farms is offering their first community-supported agriculture (CSA) share this spring/summer and fall. The program allows consumers to pay in advance for a weekly subscription of 10 to 12 weeks of fresh, seasonal produce. In Acadiana, Robin Farms, Gotreaux Family Farms, Mark and Mary's City Farm, EarthShare Gardens and a collaboration between Helping Hands Farm and Bayou Farm all offer CSAs to the public. The shares provide consumers with a regular source of local produce during the growing season and, in return, consumers provide revenue in advance to the producers.

"In vegetable farming, you make most of your money in the summer months and make enough money to get by the rest of the year," says Jamie. "We decided to offer this CSA to help us out with the expenses of the season, and in return our CSA members receive the freshest produce we have available and they have first option on our specialty crops."