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Dinners at the Farm, Chef to Table and Outstanding in the Field dinners are magical and fun affairs, starting with cocktails and passed hors d’oeuvres, often followed by a tour of the farm and a talk about sustainable growing practices. Then a four-to-six-course meal is served at convivial communal tables beneath a big open-air tent. Even the farmers are wowed. “The whole time I felt like I was in a movie,” says Goddard, “Even though I’ve been on the farm a long time, it was a total transformation. It was elegant, but with a farmy feeling.” As for the weather, no worries. Even a downpour can generate excitement and camaraderie. The tent’s clear plastic sides are rolled down when it rains. “It was really cozy,” says Goddard.
The food—just-picked, caught or butchered—is amazing. River Tavern’s Jonathan Rapp visits the farm a week ahead to see what’s in season. “They’ll cook whatever is before them,” says Lord. “That’s great for farmers. The chefs always make something fabulous.” The hyperlocal aspect makes a big difference, chefs say. “You’re 10 yards away from where the strawberries are growing,” says Miller, who is also executive chef of Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford. “They haven’t sat in a crate on a truck. They taste better.” (Fresh produce typically travels over 1,500 miles from farm to plate, according to studies cited by the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.)
Beneath all the delicious fun, there’s some serious business. And a new—or very old—form of marketing based on relationships. When Jonathan Rapp created the Dinners at the Farm in 2007 with chef Drew McLachlan and farmer Chip Dalhke of Ashlawn Farm in Lyme (both are now pursuing other interests), it was to create a celebration, a “cool event that would get regular people thinking about local food,” he says. But as the idea caught on, Rapp realized Dinners at the Farm was “an exciting new platform” to promote a three-way partnership among his restaurant, local farms and nonprofit beneficiaries.
Dinners at the Farm has done that and more. To date, while earning nearly $500,000, it has bought more than $95,000 in wine and produce directly from Connecticut farmers and vintners. Plus, it has donated more than $45,000 to Connecticut Farmland Trust (CFT)—the organization devoted to protecting the state’s working farms—CitySeed and Working Lands Alliance, and this summer plans to donate $10,000 more. Max Restaurant Group donates a portion of its farm dinner profits to CFT and Simsbury Land Trust.
Beyond the direct contribution, the dinners help connect people to issues of sustainable agriculture and land preservation.
“People exposed to these dinners have gone on to support us and others financially,” says Henry Talmadge, executive director of the Connecticut Farmland Trust. Farmers’ markets, farm stands and restaurants using local products “have made land preservation interesting to a new group of people,” he says.
Erin Wirpsa Eisenberg, executive director of CitySeed (which runs four farmers’ markets in New Haven), is a huge fan of Dinners at the Farm. “It’s a great way of connecting what we do collaboratively in Connecticut with the general population,” she says. “We’re all trying to increase the numbers of people who are buying locally and improving the local economy. These dinners give us an opportunity to talk to people who might not know a lot about local food. It’s a way of ‘getting people in the door.’”