– Michigan
By Todd Chance

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – What does “farm to fork” mean? What does it look like?

With so many restaurants claiming to use local products to encourage the sustainability of our economy and planet, this phrase has been getting tossed around more than a Caesar salad lately.

Copyright 123RF Stock Photos

So, I decided to find out exactly what it looks like to eat a “farm to fork” meal. And I invited readers to come along. A few weeks ago, I asked you to submit a comment on that answered the question: “When you think of Michigan, what types of food come to mind?”

The answers I received were incredible. Examples included picking blueberries as a summer job, neighbors sharing zucchini and other produce from their gardens, and numerous references to farmers markets. I was drawn into a reader’s childhood memory of pitting cherries in the basement, given tips on how to can foods to enjoy them year round, and even saw the menu for a reader’s wish for a last meal, comprised entirely of Michigan made foods (including a Founder’s beer).

It would be an understatement to say that there is a desire to eat from what we plant, grow and harvest right here in Michigan. For some, it’s a passion.

I randomly chose three readers who posted comments and took them on a “Farm to Fork Tour” a couple of weeks ago. This article, along with the great photos and video from MLive photographer Matt Busch, should give you a complete picture of what that phrase actually means.

The three winners were Kristen Accorsi, Elizabeth Smigiel and Brad Fitzgerald, who each brought one guest.

Fitzgerald brought along his 6-year old daughter, Maya, who got a double dose of fun with the trip being her first limo ride. Dadd’s Limousine provided our transportation.

We all met on a cool Saturday morning to start our tour in front of what would also be our final destination, Bistro Bella Vita. The restaurant is one of the many proud of its local farming connections. Nearly every window at the front of the restaurant has a graphic that not only lists local ingredients used, but also the farms from which the food comes.

Brad Teachout, general manager of Bistro Bella Vita, gave us our itinerary. You could tell Teachout has a passion for local farms and a personal relationship with the farmers we would meet. It’s more than just a business relationship.

Our first stop was Earthkeeper Farm in Kent City, where we met Rachelle and Andrew Bostwick. With orange juice in mason jars and fresh baked donuts waiting for us, we had a great start to our tour. The Bostwicks also gave us an overview about what it takes to be a certified organic farm.

It may seem obvious to mention that a farmer has a personal connection with his or her land, but when Rachelle Bostwick talks about the farm’s crops, she assigns them emotions. She says her tomatoes and eggplant “were happy this year.” I liked that.

The Bostwicks grow more than 50 crops with more than 150 varieties on eight acres. The rest of the land is used for cover crop and pasture.

“We don’t have crop insurance, so diversity is our insurance,” Rachelle Bostwick said.

They are a USDA Stellar Certified Organic Produce farm, which means they have to meet many regulations to make sure their crops are chemical free.

She gave us a quick example of this with how Earthkeeper Farm dealt with aphids: “Which are these little green bugs that eat everything and they’re very menacing. We used neem oil, which is an extract from a tree. It’s fine for humans, but when you spray it on a bug, they die.”

They also released 19,000 ladybugs to help with the aphid issue.

“The ladybugs actually eat the aphids,” Andrew Bostwick said. “Then, the beneficial wasps mummify the aphids’ bodies and lay eggs in them. Then the eggs will hatch and there are more beneficial wasps.”

It’s a good bug vs. bad bug battle the Bostwick’s are waging. Their job is to try and keep it balanced.

Earthkeeper Farm takes it one step further by using biodynamic farming.

In Rachelle Bostwick’s words, the definition of biodynamic farming is “taking into account a very holistic picture. So it’s not just the microcosm of the seed and the plant but it’s also about the planetary alignment, moon phase, and all of these sorts of things. But they have good effects.”

“We don’t fully understand everything. We (humans) like to think that we’re the master of this piece of land but really we’re just trying to hold on to it. It’s like having a child. Sometimes the land says ‘No way, Mom. I’m doing my own thing’. We just try and keep it under control. The farm is an ecosystem in and of itself if it’s nurtured that way. And that’s what we strive for.”

While Maya and I played with some newborn farm kittens, we all walked out to the fields.

If you’re picturing rows of crops with finely tilled soil separating each row, you’d have the wrong image. There are weeds everywhere.

Rachelle Bostwick calls them “green manure.”

“If you think about them as ‘pre-compost’ material that’s basically what they are,” she said. “You don’t want so many that they choke out the crop. We’ve lost crops to weeds before like most organic farms have, but there are more menacing things in my life than weeds.”

The backbone of this farm and many others like it are members of its CSA, which stands for community supported agriculture. Local people become members of the farm, pay a subscription fee and receive a weekly share of the harvest. It’s like your own personal farmers market. You can become one on their (By the way, if you received a smaller portion of sun gold cherry tomatoes in your share this month, it’s because I couldn’t stop eating them straight off the vine.)

If you’d rather get your hands dirty, you can also come live and work on the Bostwicks’ farm. By searching WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), you could apply to spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months working right alongside the Bostwicks. Who knows? You might be inspired to start your own organic farm.

We left with a huge basket of freshly picked fruits and vegetables. The heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, kale and basil among other goodies were scheduled to make an appearance on our plates later that afternoon at Bistro Bella Vita.

From Kent City we traveled to Ingraberg Farm in Rockford, where we met up with farm owner Helen Lundberg. Raised on the farm, Lundberg has been tending this land her entire life.

Ingraberg Farm is 14 acres of chemical free farming but is different from Earthkeeper Farm as they work with a major supplier to collect produce from a variety of growers and other locations around Michigan. So if restaurants are unable to get a specific item due to local weather conditions, they can usually get that item from Ingraberg Farm, which acts as a wholesale middle man between the restaurants and farms statewide.

Lemon cucumbers, golden beets, watermelons, tomatoes and corn were on the docket for the tour. Out in the fields, we learned about crop rotation and different types of soil.

“Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are all within the same family,” Lundberg said. “So wherever you have them planted you cannot follow with the other two. Otherwise there seems to be a susceptibility of the same types of diseases to affect the next year’s crop in the soil. It’s just a good farming practice to rotate.”

We spent a good hour picking through rows and rows of produce and ended up with a couple of baskets of bounty. The candy striped beets were a big hit. Lundberg treated us all to a small keg of Michigan maple syrup – an even bigger hit.

Hungry from the tour, we arrived at Bistro Bella Vita to a beautifully set table complete with freshly cut sunflowers and a special tasting menu that featured many of the items we had just picked. Chef Aaron Van Timmeren came out and introduced the courses.

There were four courses as follows:

  • First Course: Heirloom Tomato Salad including the local lemon cucumbers we had just picked
  • Second Course: S&S Lamb Ravioli with our fresh kale
  • Third Course: S&S Beef Ribeye
  • Fourth Course: Panna Cotta

At the bottom of the menu was a listing of the local farms the ingredients came from. In addition to Earthkeeper and Ingraberg Farms, there was Mud Lake, Curnick’s Flower Farm and Fulton Street Farmer’s Market.

Each of the courses was paired beautifully with a wine. They even made a special berry drink for Maya. We were treated like royalty with presentation, service and the quality of the food all being top notch. The servers could tell you which farms certain ingredients were from and were as involved in the education of the “farm to fork” concept as the general manager and chef. But that’s something I’ve come to expect from any of the restaurants associated with the Essence Group, which also owns The Green Well and Grove on Cherry Street SE near Lake Drive.

For me, and hopefully those lucky enough to go on this tour with me, it was an enlightening experience. Cutting into a lemon cucumber, tomato or beet that we had literally just picked from the earth put a new perspective on dining. I’ll never look at a plate of food in quite the same way.

When you see restaurants offering up a “farm to fork” meal, ask them about it. It’s more than just a marketing tool to sell you a dish. In some cases, it’s a source of real pride. Those associated with the process will be eager to tell you how locally grown products not only help our area thrive but seem to taste better as well.

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