Farmer Matt Romero gestures grandly toward a gleaming Kubota tractor the way a proud father shows off his newborn.
He talks like an auctioneer with a passion as palpable as the downy soil that buries our feet while he rattles off the names of heirloom cultivars. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was talking about a group of performance artists with colorful nicknames: Calliope and Nadia (eggplants), Benji and Russian Banana Fingerling (potatoes), Shisito (sweet Japanese peppers), Diva (cucumber) and the triple threat of Lipstick, Carmen and Cobra (tomatoes or femme fatales; it remains unclear).
While dreary statistics concerning the agroeconomy cast the shadow of a gigantic question mark on our nation’s fields, Romero’s spirited mission in biodiversity marks him as a crusader of agroecology. Ever the optimist, Romero, an Española native and proprietor of Romero Farms in Dixon and Alcalde, believes the critical condition of the fuel economy will benefit agroecology in the long run.
“Industrialized agriculture uses a staggering amount of oil and gas,” he says. “How much longer is that going to be economically viable?”
Romero, a former chef and an enthusiastic promoter of the Farm to Restaurant Project, has a special understanding of the challenges a restaurateur faces when trying to balance sustainable values with the market-driven need to provide a consistent product. Adhering to these conditions means that making a small profit at the end of the day is no small victory.
“When I drive up to Joe’s Diner to unload my truck, I park in front. Have you ever known anyone wanting a Sysco truck parked in front of their restaurant at midday on a Saturday?” he asks.
The Santa Fe Alliance is the mothership of the Farm to Restaurant Project.
“We have moved so far away as a culture from questioning our food sources,” Alliance Executive Director Vicki Pozzebon says of the project, which is just one of the Alliance’s programs for locally and independently owned businesses.
As president of the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute Board of Directors, Romero can be found at the farmers market every Saturday, waxing poetic about his legendary free-range chile eggs, available from late winter through late spring; the eggs are the ingenious brainchild of happenstance and creativity that resulted in suggestively rich flame-yolked eggs.
“People are sometimes afraid to try my eggs, because they look like they’re on fire,” Romero says. “Sometimes, the trick is to just get people to try something new. It makes the unfamiliar less intimidating.”
He embarks on the story of last summer’s white eggplants, the orphaned albino dwarfs of the season. “Nobody was interested in them, because of how they looked.”
When Chef-Restaurateurs Matt Yohalem of Il Piatto and Louis Moskow of Bistro 315 and Railyard Restaurant & Saloon bought out Romero’s supply and created nightly specials for the neglected eggplants, they sold better than any other dish on the menu.
“They were so sweet, tender and flavorful, but it was the chefs who brought them onto people’s plates,” Romero says. “That’s what’s wonderful about having an established relationship with the restaurant. There’s a mutual trust created when you both have the same interests at heart.”
Do farmers markets really need another promotional article glorifying the relationship between farmer and chef? The benefits of eating and buying locally are widely understood. Local food is fresher. By buying locally we help to support working farms and keep them profitable by recycling money into the community. We develop a familiarity and trust with the sources and growers of our food. It helps to preserve our farmsteads and cropland, thereby improving our quality of life. Today’s consumers are more aware and concerned about the sources of their food supply. The promotion of local foods serves both the restaurant and the farm, while helping to enrich our rural economy. So why does this exciting movement not have more chefs on board?
There are innumerable potential reasons, Romero and Pozzebon say. The discounts are marginal, to begin with. Farmers have to go directly to restaurants, which is not cost-effective for either party. Chefs are either buying market leftovers or rejects and may feel that they are paying too much for them. Granted, some chefs prefer to shop at the Farmers Market without officially participating in the program. For others, though, it’s simply not on the menu.
“And then there’s the matter of supply,” Romero offers. “Farmers need to keep up with demand, and that’s not easy.”
How we eat is very much about the whole enchilada. In a similar vein, the relationship between farmer and chef begins a chain of unconscious events that end with the response that great food elicits. All parts are inextricably tied together, and the proverbial circle is complete.
For information on the Farm to Restaurant Project and a complete list of restaurants involved, contact the Santa Fe Alliance at 505-989-5362 or isit the website.