Stronger links sought for local growers, eateries

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WALLA WALLA -- Four local chefs showed guests at a Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce dinner event Wednesday just what can be done with the ingredients that grow and are produced around us.

Mixed greens, freshly made pasta from milled flour and homegrown eggs, sauce made with beef from a local cattle ranch, artisan bread and fresh peach cobbler. As guests dined on the local dinner hosted by Waterbrook Winery and served with its Walla Walla wines, a panel of growers and chefs chewed on various ways to build awareness of the community's bounty and its untapped potential as a culinary and agritourism destination.

"Obviously we have a long tradition of agriculture in this Valley," said Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer and moderator David Woolson.

But, he continued, there's a growing movement in food, stirred on in part by the proliferation of nationally syndicated cooking shows, books, the locavore movement and other trends. The "Plow to Plate" discussion Wednesday explored whether Walla Walla can build a portion of its economy on the growing culinary scene fed by the land around it.

"There is something going on around food like I've never seen," Woolson marveled.

It leads one to ask is it real? (Yes, the panel concurred.) Is it sustainable? (Yes, again.) Can it be used to build more interest in the community? (Certainly.) What needs to be done to make that happen? (On this subject, the conversation could have gone all night.)

Though the needs of growers and restaurateurs vary, most were united on several key challenges: the need for more labor, more consumer awareness about food and a deeper understanding about why there's a cost difference when buying local.

The difference in buying a tomato from a mega-retailer that got it's produce from a mega-farm versus buying it from the farmer down the street is a matter of price and taste, he explained.

"It's cheaper to get it from the big boys, and it's probably healthier to eat the cardboard box" in which it came, Kline quipped.

Amy Dietrich of Frog Hollow Farms said pricing is one of the toughest obstacles with consumers, who can find green peppers for 69 cents apiece at big box stores. "It is hard to compete with a large entity," she said. "For flavor and quality, there's no comparison at all."

If she could offer side-by-side tastings of her homegrown produce she said there would be no competition. But educating the masses is part of what's needed in creating a culture that embraces food and its potential.

In Walla Walla, the restaurant scene has sizzled in recent years as a complement to the wine industry. This year the community was in the running as one of Rand McNally's top small towns for food. It hosts numerous winemaker dinners, the downtown Feast Walla Walla event showcasing chefs and local wine, and had a whole month dedicated to culinary classes and experiences in the first ever February is for Foodies event.

The topic is one of four major visions for the Chamber under its new Chamber Works Project initiative. The organization has chosen the creative economy, digital Walla Walla, a Hispanic Business Roundtable and the Plow to Plate concept as areas where it can serve as a catalyst in community, cultural and economic development.

For Woolson, the potential for the farm-to-table and agritourism concepts was never more clear than a recent morning when a visitor from California walked into the Chamber office with an unusual request. The man came from Los Angeles, Woolson said. He wanted to know where he could tour a feedlot.

The attention to food is not simply due to the proliferation of reality cooking shows or celebrity chefs -- though that doesn't hurt, panelists said. It's also a natural evolution for a Valley renowned for its wine. With it follows fine dining. And with that comes a demand for healthy local ingredients.

"It's about sense of place, is what it really comes down to," said Darcey Fugman-Small, co-owner and general manager of Woodward Canyon Winery, which opened a small restaurant over the summer. Fugman-Small marveled that many of the visitors to the Lowden property have been known to take pictures of the nine raised garden beds outside the eatery. Though not uncommon here, for urban dwellers they can be a new concept.

Ultimately panelists concurred that building a reputation as a farm and culinary destination starts at home by getting the food into the mouths of locals.

It's been one of the most satisfying endeavors for Dan Thiessen, director of Walla Walla Community College's culinary program Wine Country Culinary Institute. With 20 new students started in the program this week, Thiessen said his goal is to bring food to the masses. That includes serving fresh asparagus at a long-term care facility where for 30 years the vegetable was served from a can. Or having vegetable tastings at an elementary school where students are invited to help create their lunch menus.

"It's not just about our passion. It's about turning on a light bulb for someone for whom the light's about to go out," he said.

"When we said 'plow to plate' we didn't mean 'plow to bone china.' We meant 'plow to mouth.'"

Finding ways to build on the farming and food will be an ongoing endeavor, Woolson said. But, he reminded the crowd as he borrowed a quote from marketing professor and tourism professional C. Michael Hall: "Unless people stop eating and drinking, it is unlikely (the food movement) will ever stop."

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