Hundreds of nearly identical little tomatoes sit in tight rows at the grocery store. While they look flawless, they taste ... well, they don't have much flavor at all.
Just as the porn industry has cheapened sex, and blogs have cheapened journalism, factory farms have cheapened dining out.
This lack of flavor—coupled with the chemicals, additives and practices necessary to produce factory-farm food on such a large scale—has led to a rise in popularity of homegrown, organic products amongst foodies and the restaurants they frequent.
But precious few restaurants actually use truly local foods in any meaningful way.
"(Some restaurants) use the local thing as a hook, and they put it in where they can afford to," says Laurel Loew of Agua Linda Farm, near Amado. "I think that a lot of restaurants have really been gung-ho, really want to do local—and they've got great ideals—but then the reality sets in, and they stop doing it. They still might say they're doing it, and maybe one dish on the menu is local, but it's more of a gimmick than an actual reality."
Laurel and her husband, Stewart, took over the 63-acre farm, on the fertile soils of the Santa Cruz River, 16 years ago, with the intention of providing Tucson restaurants with authentic local produce. However, they transitioned into tourism and CSA (community supported agriculture) partnerships when they realized that the restaurant venture was not enough to sustain a livelihood.
A handful of motivated chefs in Tucson hope to change the use of local food from gimmick to reality—but it requires a shift in mentality, culinary practices and business strategies to do so, because whereas massive food companies like U.S. Foodservice offer consistency, using local farms can be unpredictable.
Vanessa Bechtol, executive director of Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, notes that "there are a lot of conveniences in the (corporate food) market that make it so chefs don't have to do as much. There's this new line of chefs who are trying to go back to that original chef training—knowing what to do with a whole chicken versus a pack of frozen chicken breasts."
Bechtol mentions Maynards Market and Kitchen and Janos as two restaurants that are local leaders in the movement—that have the motivation to partner with local farms and make the adjustments necessary to do so.
"If you're going to use local products, you might have to (at the) last minute change what you're going to do for a special, because that product didn't end up coming in, or there wasn't enough of it," explains Addam Buzzalini, executive chef at Maynards. "You have to be able to think on your toes, and plan for the worst and hope for the best when the produce comes in."
Another problem is cost. Factory farming creates cheap and consistent food—resulting in higher prices for the real, fresh, local thing.
"The customer needs to understand: If they want to buy local, they have to take the commodity price completely out of it and look at it as an investment in their community," says Stewart Loew.
Because of higher labor costs, a lack of specialty equipment and delivery issues, buying from small local farms usually means increased expense and effort; thus, chefs and owners—and their customers—have to be vested in the philosophy behind the movement.
"It leaves less of a carbon footprint. It gives back to the economy, and we get to use real food," says Buzzalini about using local food purveyors. "We try to use organic products here as much as possible, and not use the chemical-laden crap that nine out of 10 restaurants use, where every pepper looks the same, and every tomato looks the same. Local produce just tastes better in general. ... Plus, we're keeping the economy alive here and helping the small guy as well."
Due to the lack of well-greased processes, local farmers and local restaurants are still trying to build concrete business relationships. Most of the networking is done by word of mouth.
"It's a hunting game," says Stewart.
Yet another challenge the local market faces involves education—keeping consumers in the know regarding differences between locally grown food from commercial farms, and locally grown food from organic and family farms.
Currently, a massive distributor, like Dole, could set up a small storefront in Arizona and then call itself a "local provider." Some legal efforts to make a distinction do exist, such as the Arizona Department of Agriculture's "Arizona Grown" certification. The efforts are noble, but thus far are doing little to help the small farms on the Santa Cruz River, due to the lack of a publicity campaign and broad parameters in the verbiage of the law.
Despite the challenges, some local chefs and farmers do think a solution is possible.
"I think all of us higher-end chefs in town would like to be at 100 percent (local). Getting all of our eggs and chickens the old way—going back to what it was like 100 years ago, but putting it on a massive scale—I don't think it's unrealistic," says Buzzalini. "I just think that there's an extremely tight squeeze by the multinational corporations on farmers that it makes it hard for them.
"That's another reason why the more people we can get on board to do local farming, the better for all of us. We're basically telling (large corporations), 'Fuck you. We're doing it this way.'"