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Local farmers celebrated at Farm-to-Fork event


By TAMARA SCULLY
AFP Correspondent

JOHNSONBURG — Lovers of farm-fresh food flocked to the first of this summer’s Farm-to-Fork dinners, held at Sweet Jane’s Café on Aug. 1 here in Warren County.
The local non-profit Foodshed Alliance is hosting these fundraising dinners, where the food is locally-grown, the farmers are the focus, and the chefs are among the region’s best.
At each event, farmers are celebrated for their  collective vital roles in growing healthy food in the northwest corner of New Jersey, providing area residents with a healthy, sustainable local food system.
Louis Tommaso, of LL Pittenger Farm, whose lamb was a featured entree, farms just five miles away from the restaurant.
He praised the food, atmosphere and the message of the event.
While the event did carry a $100-per-ticket price tag, $35 of that was a tax-deductible donation to the Foodshed Alliance.
“It was worth every penny, just for the quality of the food itself,” Tommaso said of the event.
The piano music by Andy Wasserman, guest speaker Sister Miriam MacGillis, of Genesis Farm were also featured at the event.
It was the culinary skills of Shelia Gaynor, owner and chef at Sweet Jane’s Café, which stole the spotlight, according to Tommaso.
Gaynor has based her business around home-grown food, fresh-picked and locally-sourced, which is then used to create unforgettable meals.
The fundraising dinner emphasized this message, as guest enjoyed a selectionof appetizers, salads, soups, entrees and desserts, all grown locally.
“I try to keep things relatively simple,” Gaynor said of her cooking style. Raw ingredients, grown with as little chemical input as possible, from sources as local as possible.
For the dinner, a vine-ripened tomato salad with homemade mozzarella, accompanied by peach or cucumber soup, demonstrated how simple produce could become gourmet fare.
“It’s always been my intention” to use only local, natural ingredients and to do so in a way that conserves natural resources as much as possible, Gaynor said. The biggest challenge, she added, “is the cost of local produce.”
Gaynor is working with the Foodshed Alliance, utilizing its farmer-chef program to facilitate direct purchasing from local farms. She also buys grains from the local natural foods store, and grows much of her own herbs and produce on site, as well as at her home garden nearby.
She said she uses the Foodshed Alliance’s Blairstown Farmers’ Market as a test market, bringing new ideas — like her risotto and zucchini tarts — to a booth there, which both gives her a way to test new dishes, and allows the Foodshed Alliance to demonstrate “cooking local” skills to market customers.
The result: Increased local food sales for the farmers.
Forty-one patrons filled the intimate venue to capacity.
Before the sit-down dinner began, Kendrya Close, executive director of the Foodshed Alliance, spoke of the difference between the price farmers are paid when food is purchased directly, versus the portion they receive as a part of the commercial, conventional food-buying system.
From a return of 90 cents per $1 for direct purchases, to 21 cents from the grocery store, the local food purchase benefits not only the farmers, but the local economy, Close said.
Farmers hire local help, purchase local supplies, eat at local establishments and stimulate the local economy without burdening municipalities, as farms require much less services (schools, emergency services, etc) than do residential developments.
After the guests were wined and dined — specially selected wines accompanied each course, from appetizer to dessert — MacGillis spoke about peak oil and the need for conservation of all of our natural resources, as well as the vital role of local food systems.
Close introduced the farms and farmers who provided food for the meal.
Frank Arena, of Arena Farms in Knowlton Township, provided the vegetables, Roman Osadca of Valley Fall Farm, Johnsonburg, provided the garlic, and Louis Tommaso provided the beef and lamb from his Green Township farm. Bob Best, Jr. of Best’s Fruit Farm provided peaches, and Dennis Liiro of Sal Lee Farm provided eggs, chicken and farmstead cheeses for the event, but were unable to attend.
“The dinner truly exceeded all expectations,” Close said.
The upcoming Farm-to-Fork dinner at Donaldson Farms, in Mansfield Township. on Sept. 11 is a smaller-scale, more intimate event than the previous Foodshed Alliance celebrations held on this farm each September.
This year, the dinner is a 60-person, limited-seating event, and is exclusively catered by chef Mike Carrino, owner of Restaurant Passionne, in Montclair. The food, of course, is all grown by local farmers, including Greg Donaldson, Tommaso, Best, Liiro and the Community Supported Garden at Genesis Farm
Carrino worked directly with the farmers to utilize in-season selections for the upcoming Farm-to-Fork dinner’s menu, as he does at Restaurant Passionne.
Carrino travels regularly to the farms, counts the farmers as his friends, and has free access to roam around their places, acquainting himself with the animals, the crops and the landscape.
The farms from which he sources his food are his “zen spots,” connecting him with the food web, and keeping him firmly on solid ground in a busy 24-hour world of restaurant ownership
“Commodity has taken over,” Carrino said. “People here have completely lost the connection with where their food comes from. We need to stop, back up, and take it back 50 years.”
He aims to showcase just how delectable local food can be with the five-course, plus appetizer and dessert, meal he has created in conjunction with the farmers for the dinner.
The Foodshed Alliance is also in the beginning stages of organizing a Jersey City buying club, where local farmers will cooperatively work to deliver pre-ordered food to club members weekly.
The non-profit is also working with Sustainable Blairstown on a farm-to-restaurant campaign, where local restaurants commit to spend a specified dollar amount each month on local food, in exchange for advertising and promotion.
Despite a loss of grant funding after the 2008 season, along with a change in leadership, the Foodshed Alliance is still going strong as it approaches its 10th anniversary.
Operating on a shoe-string budget, it continues to perform grass-roots advocacy developing unique programs advocating local farms.
Tickets to the upcoming Farm-to-Fork dinner at Donaldson Farms, to be held on Saturday, Sept. 11, are available via the Foodshed Alliance’s website at www.foodshedalliance.org.