Not long ago, farm-to-table eating was a niche idea, practiced by those with the money and leisure to source their own local meat and produce. Nobody ate nice dinners in a field, farmers weren’t local celebrities, and there were no well-known urban farms that could bring freshly grown food to life in front of people’s eyes on their daily commutes.
Yes, Columbia has seen a swift rise in farm-to-table eating over the past decade, thanks to the efforts of many in the food and farming industry in the Midlands. But there’s still room for more, according to industry insiders.
A big player in the upswing of farm-to-table eating in Columbia is Vanessa Driscoll Bialobreski, whose company bears the name Farm to Table, or F2T as it’s known these days. The company has evolved from doing a few dinners into a major event production company.
Bialobreski moved back to Columbia from Asheville in 2009 and started working on what would become the current version of F2T.
“When I lived in Asheville, everything from fine dining to a burrito place had local food in it, so you got used to it,” she says. “When I moved back to Columbia I realized I’d been in a bubble — not a lot of places had local, organic or sustainable produce or meat on the menu, so that’s why I started doing what I did.”
There are two key contributors to the growth of farm to table eating: the restaurants bringing locally grown produce and meat into their kitchens, and the people bringing these same items into their homes for daily meal preparation.
Vista restaurant Motor Supply Co. Bistro, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, was an early farm-to-table pioneer on the restaurant side. Motor uses its daily changing menu to make the most of local produce and meats.
“We used to have to go hunt for local farmers,” says owner Eddie Wales. “I used to say, ‘I wish there was a local farmer growing this certain vegetable,’ and now farmers come to us.”
Statewide, more than 300 restaurants now participate in the state Department of Agriculture’s Fresh on the Menu program, which promotes restaurants who buy locally sourced ingredients through their app of the same name.
Chefs continue to be excited to use locally grown products, but there are still a few barriers — and believe it or not, money is rarely the issue.
Availability of the amount needed and distribution are the two biggest issues chefs run into when trying to secure locally grown ingredients, though they acknowledge it is getting better.
“Food companies like Sysco and US Foods are getting on the trend, which is a much easier way of ordering, especially with a small crew,” says Jeanne Velie of Juniper, a small restaurant in Ridge Spring that specializes in modernized Southern dishes produced from food grown as close to the restaurant as possible.
Jeanne and her husband Brandon, Juniper’s chef, also say food hubs are growing in importance for giving restaurants more access to better distribution from smaller farms. There is not one near them in Ridge Spring, so they do not use one, but hope to in the future.
As for farm-to-table eating at home, farmers markets are the most popular way for people to bring the farm to their own table.
“Thinking back to a change in shopping habits [over the past decade], people now include farmers markets in their weekly routine, they are more plugged into where their food comes from,” says Ansley Turnblad of the state Department of Agriculture. “The Certified SC program has built up local eating over the past 10 years but it can only continue if people are asking for local ingredients.”
People have to want to eat locally grown food, and ask for it at their local grocery stores if they want it to be available there. The need to go to several different stores or vendors to get locally grown foods isn’t as convenient, and often keeps people from choosing locally grown options.
There is still a future in farm-to-table eating and plenty of more room for growth, Bialobreski says.
“I think our country has farther to go, and I’d like to keep the momentum going through education,” Bialobreski says. “There is a good core group of people in Columbia who care about local food, sustainability, and how it relates back to the environment.”
She points to Anson Mills and Adluh Flour as key components of Columbia’s food culture, companies whose products people specifically seek out because they are local — even people who aren’t part of the farm-to-table scene.
And from the restaurant side, Motor Supply Co. Bistro chef Wes Fulmer points out that it’s up to chefs to support the locally grown products they want by ordering more.
“When we find something good, we keep supporting it,” Fulmer says.
And that connection, whether it’s just because it’s local, or because the consumer has met the farmer or gone to the farm, is part of what keeps people coming back for more.
As Turnblad of the Department of Agriculture says, “It makes a peach sweeter when you know who grows it.”