At the beginning of January I introduced myself as the Communications Intern for Chefs Collaborative. Now I get the honor of re-introducing myself as the Chefs Collaborative Farmer-Chef Network Coordinator. But let me stop before I get ahead of myself.

The desk that I sit at used to belong to Alida who organized our RAFT: Grow Out activities. While, sadly, our RAFT activities have come to an end, our relationship and involvement with farmers is only destined to grow. The stated goal of my work plan is to “Develop a vibrant community to develop and share best practices” by “building local and regional networks.” As we’ve seen before, at events like our Sustainable Meat Discussion, the change starts with putting people together. In the coming weeks and months I look forward to finding ways to connect farmers and chefs for mutually beneficial relationships.

Another legacy of Alida sits on the Desktop background. A picture of a drove of pigs. More than one person in the office fawns over the cute and seemingly smiling faces of these pigs. For me it seemed like a nice place to jump off opening a dialogue on Chef-Farmer interactions.

The pigs belong to Chefs Collaborative member and farmer Ted O’Harte of Brambly Farms. After three years of raising pigs Ted and his wife Sandra have “finally reached the stage where we can deliver meat on a regular basis.” So Brambly farms is trying to reach out and find chefs who are willing to work with them. I asked Ted a few questions so that all you out in our virtual community can see where he, as a farmer, is coming from, and also to help get the dialogue going.

1) Why do you farm?

I grew up on a large mixed livestock farm in Ireland.  After working on it for 5 years, my older brother inherited the farm and I got a passport (not much of a deal for 5 years work). When we  (Sandra lived three miles from my childhood home in Ireland) came to the USA farming was the last thing  we wanted to do, but after 15 years of construction work in Boston we managed to save enough to get our land / home in Norfolk. After several years of weekend land-clearing we were ready to get our first animals. It has simply grown over the last four years to our farm today.

There is a sense of pure pleasure when planning / hard work / and lots of luck come together and something is created –where nothing was there before. For example, when breeding large animals  (pigs or cows ) it is amazing to sit up all night and see a baby calf being born or lots of pigs arriving into the world. Our two youngest daughters get all hyped up when the baby rabbits arrive.

We decided to call our farm Brambly Farms, because farming has many tough hard days but eventually will yield a little sweet berry which makes all the hardship disappear. In Ireland and UK brambles or bramblys are the “slang” name for wild hedge blackberry bushes, a lot of thorns with very sweet berries for those brave enough to pick them.

But the best part of farming is when others, customers, private or chefs, feel good enough about our animals to buy them when they are harvested. It will allow us to keep doing what we really enjoy. I do not think it’s possible to get wealthy with a small farm such as ours…. but it’s nice to have stopped losing money.

2) What do chefs absolutely need to know about working with Brambly Farm?

They can be certain that they are getting the very best meat or produce that can be found in the area. That the supply chain will be the shortest, most direct possible (excluding pick your own operations) from the farm to the table. And because they can put a “face” on our produce they will know that in the unlikely event that something is wrong that we will do our best to correct it immediately. (The fear of an angry chef arriving at the farmhouse door will ensure we fix any problems… quickly.)

3) What have the biggest challenges been to working with chefs? What are the greatest benefits?

A general reluctance to believe that local farms can produce great product consistently.

A loyal repeat customer who is willing to take extra / surplus produce…  if the price is fair.

4) What are your goals for 2011?

To have approx 20 local restaurants who we consider are our customers and more importantly who consider us their pork and poultry farm supplier.

5) How do you see a food system in which farmers and chefs work more closely developing?

From our perspective it’s great working with CC.  It’s a way to connect with the best progressive chefs who share some of the same philosophies as we do here on Brambly Farms. Food should be wholesome. Livestock should be happy/ content and never have suffered. All our animals are allowed outside and are never restrained. Pasture farming is not the most efficient way to produce food/ meat. An enclosed shed with controlled environment and a single diet is better at mass producing lots of cheap meat.  But disease and health problems are impossible to restrict where high densities are raised…same in vegetables. So drugs and chemicals have to be used in these systems. And inevitably consumers will suffer because of intensive agricultural systems.  I’m sure you a ware of Mercer — the so called “super bug” which is extremely difficult to control with human medicines.  Simply put, we are what we eat, and we love our farms meat and love knowing how it was raised.

From a farmer’s point of view the hardest thing is raising an animal or crop and not knowing if it’s sold or not. If chefs could help remove some of this uncertainty (tentative pre-ordering) then better pricing should be available and a more consistent supply should exist too.  We plan about 14 months in advance here on this farm and we could take orders up to six months in advance, offering better pricing for long term orders.

I hope that you enjoyed Ted’s answers. I am always looking for ways to reach out to chefs and farmers alike so I implore you to be in touch.