Food and Farming
A Conversation with Brendan McGill of Hitchcock, and Friends of the Farms.
By Erin Hill
Erin: Who do you farm with?
Brendan: Our company farm is a collaboration with Kevin Block, who used to own Sol Farm. Kevin was someone that I bought pigs from and at one point he proposed that if we were to take over financial control that would allow him to get up to scale and meet certain size requirements that allow him to farm full-time. We get endless, beautiful, best-pork-in-the-world out of the effort of doing this together. We lease his old property, he lives and works there on the farm… We have limited vegetable production there too, so we’re looking at getting a couple of WOOFers this summer.
E: Does all of what Kevin produces go to you?
B: Yea. We got some funny comments from some farmers when we started raising our own vegetables but the fact is that now, at our scale, we’re using so much produce that we couldn’t practically grow all our own without a very serious program. From my understanding we were the largest account with Persephone farm / Farmhouse Organics / Tani creek (when they were in business). Most of these guys can have 10 pounds a week of salad greens available for us; Bruciato, in the summer, can use 40 pounds, so we’d be maxing out several different farms... We really aim to support, or champion the smaller, newer farms: Patchwork Farm on Bainbridge, Winter Creek farm in Poulsbo.
E: With the farmers that you do work with do you ever ask them to grow specific things? Or is it that they tell you what is available?
B: A little bit of both... Bruciato can buy more basil than anyone has grown locally. We have a thing with Farmhouse Organics this year where they are going to farm basil in a hoop house for us because we can go through pounds and pounds of it. But I try to go with what farmers are into. People come up with stuff and we can say, “more of that for next year”. It’s almost easier to react to what’s in the field so we’re not married to it. Farmers are like artisans. You try to respect what everyone makes and pay what they want for it, if we can. Just, be good patrons.
E: Has anyone ever come in with something like, 500 pounds of blueberries, and you have to figure out what to do with it?
B: Yea, we’re actually doing a lot of that right now at the Commissary. We have this 3000 square foot production facility on the island that we’re growing into. It was originally for making all our pizza dough and pasta but its been handy with the fermentations and preserves. When cabbage is in season we’ll buy 400 pounds at a time. We can take 400 pounds of cauliflower and fill 55 gallon drums to make pickles. We started our giardiniera in glassjars at Bruciato, but those weren’t keeping up with demand, so we had to scale it up at the Commissary. Now we can say ‘I’ll take 200 pounds of your cauliflower, 100 pounds of your celery and 100 pounds of your carrots and make giardiniera by the 400 pound batch….. Those are some of the ways we’re able to say yes when farmers have a lot of something, and make it happen and try to price it appropriately. The whole point is to actually buy a lot of farm food.
E: How do you get through the winter? Without just serving pickles?
B: Outfits like Red Dog in Chimmacum are year round, and have the storage. Rutabagas, fall radishes, sun chokes, beets, carrots... They have produce available, they have staff, they don’t stop during the winter months. I’ve done some adventuring around in nordic countries and a lot of it is storage vegetables, ways of making preserves and winter foraged items. So if you gave me a wild mushroom from the winter, some rutabaga, some vinegar we might have put up, an herb salt… you could make really delicious food that’s locally derived. And I’m not so strict I won’t buy a bag of herbs from Charlie’s Produce… We’re still a neighborhood restaurant.
E: So for your restaurants you don’t have hard and fast rules? You haven’t drawn a circle around Bainbridge and said, like, all my food has to come from within this area?
B: It gets a little silly.. I mean, we sell tonnage of local food. If you do this thing where you say “It’s within ten miles, or it’s not local because it’s from Chimacum and not Bainbridge.” I mean, there was this great duck farm I was loving from Puyallup, to me that’s all very local. I would meet her in a parking lot and she would transfer the ducks into our van cooler.
E: It’s still relationship based.
B: Yes. Everything we’re talking about (the benefits) around local food, our process serves that. She’s paying first world wages to people in this economy, and there’s no middle man, and it’s all direct. We’re looking around for the best stuff we can buy that can handle our scale. We will patronize the smallest local farmer and then also go to the big guys.
E:: It doesn’t seem like there is the agriculture in place on Bainbridge to support your restaurants, let alone the other demands of the island.
B: Exactly. I think that’s because it’s becoming harder and harder to do. I moved here to be a part of an agricultural community. Friends of the Farms is doing its part to keep some of these operations alive, which is why I love your organization. But the economics of.. There isn’t a farm-labor pool hanging around here. There isn’t the housing. The options change all the time. It was so personal.. Losing Max from Tani Creek Farm dealt this huge blow to what was possible with my restaurants.
E: What were they doing differently?
B: It was organic/biodynamic. The amount of love he put into his soil was incredible. The amount of nutrition he was able to create… the food was different. And he was able to push me as a chef because he would decide to grow peruvian tubers or ginger/turmeric…and I could go learn to cook some cool stuff with that. It was real Bainbridge food. We’re just hoping more young farmers come along and decide to do cool stuff.
E: Do you see a missing link in the education component, in terms of getting young people to consider agriculture?
B: I think if you were going to try and start a farm, you wouldn’t do it on Bainbridge Island... Who wants to be a farmer when your neighbors don’t want farm next door? It’s an uphill battle. I still feel like we are in better shape than almost everyone else in the region for having access to local food. This is the only place I know where the farmer’s market is right there (just a few miles from most farms who serve it)... The farmers can drop off an order to our restaurants on their way to the market. My colleagues in Seattle don’t enjoy the access to the farm community that I get.
If I was trying to make a message to the young would-be farmers on BI I would say: grow more diverse foods. Create a niche. There aren’t a lot of people trying a lot of heirloom varieties. I think taking some risks… heirloom chicories, tubers, hybrids, runner beans, plants at all stages of the growth cycle, berries, etc. What Russell is doing with the mushrooms is unique and amazing. I see a lot of the same varietals from different farms; I would encourage young farmers to create a name for themselves by taking risks with their methods and seed-selection. Bring something we haven’t seen to the market!