In this era when consumers want to know how many “food miles” their carrots traveled and restaurant menus list the distance from farm to fork, restaurant owners are increasingly putting in their own farms on rooftops, abandoned lots and nearby agricultural plots.
The trend has caught on with high-end, Michelin-starred restaurants in California such as The French Laundry in Napa and Manresa in Los Gatos as well as more casual places, such as Pauline’s Pizzeria in San Francisco and the Fremont Diner in Sonoma.
The growing number of restaurant farms is welcome news to new farmers like Rose Robertson, 28, who, like many new farmers, is trained but without a plot of land to call her own. After interning for a year at a farm in Santa Barbara, Robertson knew she wanted to farm but also knew she did not want to be a cog in a large-scale farming operation. She worried that at a big farm, workers like her would end up, “spending your whole day picking beans,” she said.
She found a job managing the one and a half-acre garden at Ubuntu, a high-end vegetarian restaurant in Napa. The owners and staff of Ubuntu describe the garden as the heart of the restaurant, not just a side project. In the summer months up to 90 percent of the produce served comes from its garden.
“The chef says he’s not the chef,” said Robertson. “That the gardeners are growing the food that dictates the menu.”
Ubuntu’s owner, Sandy Lawrence, set out to create that dynamic, and says the importance of hyper-fresh produce is heightened because the restaurant is vegetarian. With the increasing number of young people flocking to agricultural training programs and farming internships, Lawrence never worried about finding eager farmers to employ.
“The reason we’ve been so confident is we’ve always had loads of young people who want to work,” she said. In addition to Robertson, another full time gardener and two part time workers, the garden has an internship program that attracts a constant stream of willing volunteers.
The trend represents a different kind of job opportunity for young people trying to break into agriculture in regions like the Bay Area, where land prices are prohibitively high. The average plot of cropland in California sold for about $9,000 an acre in 2010, according to USDA data, compared to about $4,000 an acre in Iowa, or $800 an acre in Montana, the cheapest state. Prices can go much higher in the Bay Area, though–a plot currently for sale in Sebastopol, Sonoma County is priced at about $21,000 per acre.
American farmers are getting old–in 2007, the average age of a farmer was 58, compared to 39 in 1945. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farmers under 45 decreased by 21 percent. Still, in recent years, more young people have shown interest in farming and policy makers are working to recruit and incentivize new farmers. The latest version of the Farm Bill allocated $18 million for training new farmers.
Several Bay Area farms offer apprenticeships and internships for new farmers, mostly based around organic or biodynamic methods. But it is still difficult for many of the young people who complete the programs to get a paid job farming when they finish, which makes restaurant farms an appealing option to some.