May/June 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Joyce Mansfield
Photos by Matt Salvo
Partnership strengthens link between farm and fork
More online: Goat milk soap
Farmer Kathryn MacRoberts of Laughing Duck Farm provides more than just ingredients to Sacramento chef Chris Barnum: She also provides ideas and information, which Barnum says help him "get better at my craft."
Farmers markets are excellent places to talk to local growers about their products, and restaurants also offer opportunities for making the connection between food and farm. But that notion goes one step further at Localis in Sacramento, where edible plants grow and beckon attention.
Restaurant guests are encouraged to pick a sprig and take a taste, said executive chef and partner Chris Barnum, who regularly plucks from the planter boxes as well.
"There is nothing in Localis just for show," he said. "I'm a big proponent of not having things in the restaurant just because they are cool to look at. I want things that are edible and things that we use every day and every night in our dishes."
Tending Localis' planters is Kathryn MacRoberts from Laughing Duck Farm, located near Sacramento in Newcastle. MacRoberts met Barnum several years ago and appreciated his culinary curiosity.
"When I go into restaurants that I think I want to work with, I go in as a customer to try the food," she said, adding that she also brings quail or duck eggs as a gift for the kitchen. "I just see what their reaction is, and the ones like Chef Chris get all excited. I feel that they are a bit more flexible on what they would want to put on the menus, because I like to work with plants that maybe aren't as common."
Quail eggs take on a unique role at Localis restaurant in Sacramento, where they are preserved for use as a garnish, often in place of cheese.
Decorate to eat
The years-long chef-farmer relationship ensued, and when Barnum opened Localis in the summer of 2015, MacRoberts' participation was part of his plan.
"She was always going to be heavily involved," he said. "She's very knowledgeable about farming, animals and nature in general. She's been a big influence on me because she knows so much, so I can always learn from her and that's something that's important to me, continuing to get better at my craft."
MacRoberts, a farmer as well as a Master Gardener, immediately filled and continues to maintain Localis' planters with edible flowers and greens. She brings in herbs and plants that are displayed in Mason jars and used as menu ingredients. Her seasonal items, such as citrus or squash, serve as decorative, useable elements throughout the restaurant.
"There are so many plants of different colors and textures," MacRoberts said. "Some are big and robust and others are fine and frilly, so there's this whole smorgasbord of appealing things for people to see before they even see their food."
In addition to supplying Localis with produce from her farm's gardens and hoop house, she brings what she and Barnum bonded over to begin with: eggs.
The name Laughing Duck Farm stems from MacRoberts' childhood memories and also is partly representative of the many birds that provide eggs for her family, friends and clients.
Birds of a feather
Poultry represents a large part of the business at Laughing Duck Farm, where about 60 chickens and 50 ducks peck around parts of the 4-acre operation, providing not only eggs, but also pest control and fertilizer. The Placer County farm also cares for as many as 200 quail, plus some 30 rabbits and a few geese, turkeys and peacocks. Additionally, there are about 20 goats that MacRoberts milks for making soap.
MacRoberts is a certified permaculturist, one devoted to working with the cycles of nature and having an operation that is as sustainable and resilient as possible. Her priorities include education and "trying to get people to grow more food and eat healthy—and building a community around that," she said.
Toward that end, MacRoberts helped found the Placer Local Food Alliance and is also a member of Placer Sustain and Placer Grown. The three organizations bring consumers, farmers, retail establishments and restaurants together to promote the use of local food.
MacRoberts welcomes groups for tours of her farm and regularly speaks with local youth organizations, such as 4-H and Girl Scouts. She encourages her own children, Heather, 16, and David, 13, to be involved in the aspects of farming that interest them.
Even the name, Laughing Duck Farm, was chosen as approachable and family friendly, she said, adding that the "laughing" part stems from childhood memories.
"When I was growing up, some neighbors' ducks would come over and quack, quack, quack. We said they must be telling really good jokes because it sounded like laughing, and because we have tons of ducks, I thought that would be a great name for the farm."
MacRoberts grows animal food, called fodder or biscuits, in a space-saving hydroponic system, left. The soil-less vertical garden, which supplies nutrients to the plants through water, yields biscuits for her own farm and also to sell to other farmers, such as Jennifer Woodworth-Johnson, right.
One way MacRoberts has found to foster community connections is through a hydroponic system, which is a soil-less vertical garden that supplies nutrients to the plants through water. With it, MacRoberts cultivates animal food, called fodder or biscuits, which looks like small patches of unmown sod that grows in just six days. The system allows her to produce animal feed without having to buy or lease more land, and she also sells biscuits to other farmers.
"It's opened me up to have a regular way to communicate and maybe supply stuff for other farms, and then we have built other relationships, so it's been a great way to find other farmers and small farms to work with," she said.
Laughing Duck Farm is part of a cooperative of area farms that share poultry processing equipment and coordinate group purchases and seed swaps. MacRoberts is formally trained on breeding plants and collecting, saving and storing seeds, and her own plants are left to go to seed each season, perpetuating the natural cycle.
"I'm focused on building the community and making this whole area a better place," she said, which includes developing relationships between farmers and restaurateurs throughout the region. To inspire dialogue, she introduces new ways to use plants.
"I may bring something that the chef might not have used before, and I can make suggestions on different dishes or different options that encourage chefs to reach out to farmers to ask for things," MacRoberts said, citing fennel as an example. "There are lacy fronds as garnish, flowers for syrups and then seeds can be used; there are so many aspects of the plant. Even baby fennel. So instead of one product, the fennel bulb, we're now looking at five or six possibilities."
The décor of Localis is strictly functional. The chef decorates with edible items placed within easy reach.
Laughing Duck Farm supplies produce and eggs to a number of restaurants and Localis brings in fresh ingredients from several Sacramento-area farms, but MacRoberts and Barnum share a passion for taking farm to fork—as well as connecting food back to its origins.
"Instead of having me write a menu and say, 'OK, farmers, this is what I want,' I just ask them what they are growing, what's cool and what they have coming in the future—and then I base my menu on that," Barnum said.
He visits local farms as much as possible.
"It's good to set foot on the soil and actually pull something out of the ground and take a look at it, and taste things directly from the dirt," he said. "For me, it's really important to have that relationship where the farmers know that you understand the work that goes into the products they're giving you, and that you appreciate what they're doing for you."
It's a discussion not only between chef and farmer, but also with the guests who come into Localis, where Laughing Duck products and MacRoberts' planters ignite conversation.
"It gets people talking at the restaurant asking, 'What's this, what's that?'" Barnum said. "When we can tell them everything about it, it shows we're serious about true farm to fork."