How South Florida Emerged As A Farm-To-Table Market
We were behind cities like San Francisco and New York, but with innovative foragers and farmers, South Florida has finally emerged as a farm-to-table market. Now, fresh is here to stay.
Proud urban farmer Tamer Harpke yanks a bunch of sprouts from a small pot. He places them into the palm of his left hand and holds them out carefully, hoping a gust of wind doesn’t blow away his prized possession.
“This has taken me two years to perfect,” he says.
Aaron Grauberger, co-owner of Market 17 restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, reaches out and takes a few of the tiny, nearly fluorescent green leaves, which look torn, like a tree after a windstorm. The stalks are delicate and almost white.
“Oh wow,” Grauberger says, as he lets the flavor roll over his tongue. “Celery.” The tiny sprouts taste like an entire bulb of celery hearts, green, fresh and almost floral.
Harpke moves on to the next pot, pulling out more greens for Grauberger. Some have a hint of anise or garlic or an overwhelming bite of pepper. There are rich colors, English racing green or sports car red, and flowers with all the crunch of a chip. This is the specialty of Harpke Family Farms, an urban farm that grows microgreens that will likely end up looking like garnish on top of a dish at a fancy South Florida restaurant.
Grauberger is the co-owner of one such restaurant, a foodie destination with the goal of finding locally grown ingredients whenever possible. Back when Grauberger and his sister, Kirsta Grauberger, started Market 17 in 2007, that wasn’t so easy. While farm-to-table eating had become the norm in San Francisco and New York, few farms in South Florida grew produce or raised seafood and livestock that could supply a restaurant with everything it needed.
Now, though, hundreds of farms have opened across the state. Perhaps more importantly, companies that serve as middlemen are finally making it possible for Florida restaurants to create dishes using locally grown produce.
Those middlemen are often called foragers, who work to find local farms and then get their products to restaurants. Emily Rankin started her foraging company, Local Roots, five years ago after a career as a restaurant chef. What she found is that many Florida farms were growing the wrong things.
“I could get all the onions and collard greens I wanted, but that wasn’t what the chefs wanted,” Rankin says.
So she began a system where chefs could pre-order vegetables. The farmers would then plant crops based on the orders—exactly what restaurants needed. Her farmers switched to colorful greens, heirloom tomatoes, rainbow carrots, Romanesco cauliflower and baby beets.
(Chef DeShields chops carrot greens for a salad.)
Once the pre-ordered produce is picked, her goal is to get it to chefs within 24 hours—that’s far faster than major restaurant supply companies, which Rankin says often deliver produce that’s days or even weeks old.
“We exist to help get farmers connected to restaurants as fast as possible,” Rankin says. “Most chefs can’t go trucking around to a bunch of farms, and most farmers can’t go driving all over, so that’s where we come in.”
Working from her home in Orlando, Rankin originally supplied only the Interstate 4 corridor. Last year, she bought out South Florida’s biggest forager company, Farm to Kitchen Miami, and she’s now looking to open a Fort Lauderdale station to help cover South Florida. She supplies 120 restaurants from 60 producers from Tampa to Miami, bringing to kitchens everything from oyster mushrooms to honey.
“We exist to help get farmers connected to restaurants as fast as possible.”
Rankin’s company sells only locally grown products, but for restaurants that want organic products that may or may not be local, there’s another forager: Sarasota-based Global Organic Specialty Source Inc. It began as a pet project of Mitch Blumenthal, who got into the farming business simply by growing organic blueberries on his 10-acre property. He added other fruits and vegetables, and soon had enough produce to start selling the extras. The company then started buying from other organic farms to help increase supply.
(Tamer Harpke arranges microgreens that will be delivered to local restaurants.)
Now, the $30-million-a-year company sells produce across the entire southeast, from North Carolina to Louisiana. Global Organic gets its produce from 200 farms, 50 of which are from this region, says Ronni Blumenthal, Mitch Blumenthal’s sister, who serves as the vice president of administration for the company. Since the company started, they’ve seen a “tremendous uptick” in farming in Florida. But perhaps more importantly, they’ve also seen an increased demand in places they wouldn’t have expected at first.
“We have a lot of interest now from all over, in rural areas and places where people didn’t buy organics just a few years ago,” Ronni Blumenthal says.
Back in Fort Lauderdale, Grauberger first got interested in a farm-to-table restaurant after his sister made a trip to Napa Valley in California.
“She couldn’t believe how the restaurants were all serving things that were grown right nearby,” Grauberger says. “So we decided to try it here.”
When they first opened, there were no foragers supplying South Florida, so acquiring local produce meant making trips to farms throughout Florida, picking up strawberries in Plant City and cucumbers in Belle Glade.
(He uses fresh composted soil to grow the farm’s microgreens)
Now, they have a steady supply of produce coming from multiple farms throughout Florida. But protein remains the big problem—Florida farms produce chicken, beef and pork, but Grauberger says it’s tough to find consistent quality. Market 17’s wild game now comes from Texas, flown in by UPS.
“No matter how hard we try, and we’re thinking about this all the time, we just can’t get everything from local farmers,” Grauberger says.
Nationally, Florida ranks eighth for agricultural exports, with more than $4 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But more than half of the state’s farmland is dedicated to sugarcane and citrus. Bell peppers also take up a majority of the land. The rest isn’t diversified enough to supply restaurants and supermarkets with everything they need.
This lack of diversity results in a state that’s among the top in farm production but 41st in producing local food, according to the locavore advocacy group Strolling of the Heifers. But at least it’s getting better: two years ago, Florida ranked dead last.
(Tamer and Claire Harpke of Harpke Family Farm)
Even with this increase, there still aren’t enough local farms to supply local restaurants and supermarkets with everything they need, says Jason McCobb, who owns a 4.5-acre farm between Boynton Beach and Lake Worth. McCobb, who goes by “Farmer Jay,” sells his own produce and also builds sustainable farms for homeowners and restaurants. His projects at The Breakers and Farmer’s Table in Boca Raton supply the restaurants with a steady supply of produce and herbs.
“It’s getting a little better in this area, but the problem is still just finding local farms that are growing the right things,” McCobb says. “We just have to get smarter with our food.”
That starts, he says, by thinking more like New York City. There, urban farmers have taken over vacant lots and rooftops for community gardens. Considering that much of South Florida is already built out, McCobb says our farming future is likely in finding those urban lots for mini farms such as apartment complexes with community gardens and restaurants with produce growing on patios.
Harpke’s property, the one that specializes in microgreens, couldn’t be a better example of finding a forgotten piece of land in the city and turning it into a farm. It’s directly in the flight path of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, so close in fact that Harpke often has to pause when speaking to let a plane roar overhead.
“I look at what we have now and it’s finally … ,” he pauses to let a Southwest jet scream above, “ … it’s finally happening here."
(Chef DeShields prepares a dish using locally grown vegetables from Harpke Farm.)
Harpke took over the property three years ago after a career spent supplying restaurants with Italian wines. When he first started, he and his wife, Claire Harpke, threw some heirloom tomato seeds in planter bags and figured it would be easy. But the soil was dried out and stripped of nutrients, and his tomatoes wilted.
They switched to the microgreens, growing them in rows of pots under semi-clear plastic to keep the hot Florida sun from wrecking the precious crop. It quickly became their thing, and now Harpke specializes in the farming and marketing, while Claire Harpke handles deliveries, straight to restaurants throughout South Florida.
It works now because of the soil, which Harpke works on constantly, mixing in year-old mahogany chips, chicken droppings and the compost from the microgreens. During the tour with Grauberger, Harpke reaches into a planting bag full of soil as dark as cocoa. “You see this?” he asks, turning it over between his fingers. “I know exactly what’s in here.”
(Fresh carrots from Harpke Farm)
Where to Eat Local
Look to these restaurants and farms for fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
1850 SE 17th St., Ste. 109, Fort Lauderdale, 954.835.5507, market17.net
Co-owners Aaron and Kirsta Grauberger are among the pioneers of farm-to-table eating in South Florida, and Market 17 chef Lauren DeShields puts out a menu that specializes in highlighting those local ingredients.
1901 N. Military Trail, Boca Raton, 561.417.5836, farmerstableboca.com
Co-owner and chef Joey Giannuzzi became famous among healthy eaters with his Green Gourmet restaurant before closing it to open the Farmer’s Table, which features organic produce, juices and even coffee.
169 NE Second Ave., Delray Beach, 561.381.9970, maxsharvest.com
Going beyond just the promise of local products, Max’s Harvest boasts meat from humanely raised animals, including Wagyu cows from Clewiston and heritage pigs from DeLand.
900 Silks Run, #1740, Hallandale Beach, 954.464.2333, adenagrill.com
The meat served at Adena Grill comes from Adena Farms in Ocala. There, animals roam freely across more than 90,000 acres of ranchland and are raised without hormones or antibiotics.
1201 W. Dania Beach Blvd., Dania Beach, 954.924.6801, thepatchgarden.com
A project of the Dania Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, The Patch is a 1.76-acre farm on what used to be a blighted spot used as an unofficial dump. Since the soil is too contaminated, former engineer Dion Taylor, who rents the property from the city, uses 4,000 grow bags to plant produce. Locals and restaurants can invest in plots or buy produce at weekend farmers markets.
Owner Jason “Farmer Jay” McCobb is a true believer in the local food movement, speaking at schools and at community meetings. He builds farms for restaurants and homeowners, and offers his consulting services for someone looking to grow backyard produce.
Swank Specialty Produce
14311 N. Road, Loxahatchee, 561.202.5648, swankspecialtyproduce.com
In business for more than a decade, Swank is now a local produce giant, with 350 products and delivery to restaurants from Orlando to Miami. Swank’s name has become so big, many restaurants now boast of its ingredients by name.