Farmers Diner | (Tod) Murphy's Law: Buy Local, Eat Local, and Prosper
Even when he did find customers, Murphy was competing with a price set by commodity meat producers on the vast feedlots of the Midwest. The question that started reverberating in his brain went like this: “How do you create a company that will take food off the farmer’s hands in the easiest way for him, and set it in front of the customers in the easiest way for them, and do it at a price point everyone can live with?”In fact, it’s pretty much the same question that the entire local-food movement, now burgeoning across New England, is asking: Can we figure out how to make a living for growers close to home while selling food at a price that people can afford?
Farmers are exploring dozens of different schemes. Some are small: growing specialty produce or meat for white-tablecloth restaurants. Others sound great but are somewhat out of the mainstream: for example, CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs, whereby customers pay the farmer a few hundred bucks in early winter; the farmer uses the money to plant a crop; and then the vegetables are divided every week among the shareholders.
More and more people are trying more and more approaches, and the successes keep mounting. Farmers’ markets are the fastest-growing part of the region’s food economy, and Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, harvests almost a tenth of its fresh food from the 120 acres of river-bottom farmland in its Intervale area.
Still, most New Englanders eat most of their meals at a distance: The average bite of food travels more than 1,500 miles to reach our lips. It’s cheap for the moment, but if you’re concerned about energy (it takes 36 calories of fossil fuel to haul one calorie of lettuce back East from California), or about sprawl or about taste, it’s a shame.
Murphy set out more publicly than anyone to reverse the trend: to make local food a reality for people who weren’t yuppies or hippies or teensy-tiny-baby-vegetable gourmets. He would make the French fry local. The Farmers Diner, he announced, would buy most of its food from within 50 miles of the kitchen door.
When the Barre restaurant opened in the summer of 2002, it drew all kinds of attention. Food writers from around the country came to eat, and they wrote glowing reviews. It didn’t hurt that Murphy is genial, and country handsome. (“Dealing with customers fits my Aquarian personality,” he says. “You don’t have to make a long-term commitment, but you do get to converse.”)
Tailing him for a day as he made the rounds of his suppliers showed the promise of the idea. You could start the morning in Strafford, say, at Rock Bottom Farm, where Earl Ransom’s cows were producing organic milk and cream on the land where he was born. (“I had to educate people that cream isn’t necessarily white,” Murphy recalled. “When the cows went out to pasture in the spring, the half-and-half changed color noticeably, and the waitresses were afraid people would freak.”) Then you could drop by the farm’s Strafford Organic Creamery, which was processing Rock Bottom’s dairy products, providing along the way the basic ingredients for that famous diner staple, the milk shake. Utterly delicious ice cream, too.
Or you could go up the road to Thistle Hill Farm in Pomfret, where John and Janine Putnam were making a gruyère-like cheese called Tarentaise, which they could have sold for $21 a pound in New York. “I totally subscribe to the idea of local,” said Janine. “The people around here should eat our cheese.” So it was neat that Murphy was using some of it in his ploughman’s lunch — a truly delectable ploughman’s lunch.
But the Barre operation had problems, and they could be summed up this way: too small. The diner itself had only 60 seats, and the kitchen was considerably smaller than any of the home kitchens you see in a magazine photo shoot. It was a cramped and greasy alcove, with no room for the machinery that might have made it more efficient. So French fries meant a guy cutting potatoes with a knife, which meant high costs, which meant that one day in the summer of 2005, Murphy put a sign on the door saying that he was shutting down for a month. A month turned into a year, and plenty of people thought Murphy was finished.