‘Farm to Table’ Dining & The Journey Fantastic Food Makes
Passionate local farmers are innovating the future of food by looking to its past
By Hannah J. Phillips
Photographs by Taylor Prinsen, Mackenzie Smith Kelley and Travis Hallmark
Once an outlier at a handful of pioneering restaurants, locally sourced menus are now the standard for success at Austin’s finest eateries. Many ingredients travel less than two hours from nearby farms to the tables at Comedor, Hestia, Odd Duck or Suerte. Making a reservation at one of these spots means sampling both the city’s best talent and its freshest local fare, sometimes harvested mere hours before first seating. But there’s more behind “farm to table” than proximity; the journey from pasture to plate is longer than it seems.
Every Wednesday morning, Ty Burk and his wife, Sara, wake up early to welcome their weekly delivery at Westfold Farm. Turning down a gravel drive off Ranch Road 12, Burk’s stepfather, Larry, returns from his early morning post office run bearing precious cargo. In his truck are 250 3-day-old chicks—four chirping crates full of fluttering, fist-size fluff and toothpick legs.
Upon arrival, the chicks will take their first feeble steps inside one of three insulated shipping containers, which Burk converted to the farm’s unique brooders. Pioneering a system to protect against predators and the elements, he fitted the containers with electricity, air circulation and watering lines. The chicks will spend their first three to four weeks in these brooders before transferring to the farm’s mobile-range coops. Here, they will grow to maturity over another seven weeks, rotating to fresh pasture daily. In all, the process takes about 10 weeks, nearly a month longer than large-scale operations.
“You shouldn’t go from chick to 5-pound bird in six weeks,” says Burk, noting the genetic side effects that outweigh the size benefits of Cornish cross hens from commercial brands. Sourced from a Pennsylvania producer, Westfold’s birds are a middle ground between commercial and heritage breeds, which can take up to 14 weeks.
“These birds are both more reliable and economical than heritage broilers, meaning we can be competitive in the market without sacrificing our values around sustainable farming,” Burk says.
These values are the major differentiators for farms like Westfold, which began as a backyard hobby before the Burks found land in Driftwood. The biggest challenge in scaling the business is just getting their message out into the world, to restaurants and consumers alike. On top of delivering to local chefs at Odd Duck, Tillie’s, Verbena and more, Westfold started selling at markets in Driftwood and Dripping Springs during the pandemic. Burk quickly refined his elevator pitch, condensing the benefits of locally raised chickens into two or three talking points around ethical farming and the resulting difference in fat, color and flavor.
“At the farmers market, you have maybe 30 seconds in that first interaction, so you have to learn how to craft the message in a way that’s compelling,” he says. “Any sustainable urban farmer is doing as much in education as they are in actual farming.”
Growing a retail base presents different barriers from building a book of local restaurant clients: If the average consumer’s roadblock is a lack of awareness around sustainability, the challenge with chefs is less about convincing and more about connecting in the first place. Though Burk first met chef Kevin Fink at a dinner several years ago, for example, the pair reconnected when Fink’s team served free meals to Austinites in need during the recent winter storm. Burk braved the frozen roads to provide hundreds of chickens for the initiative, and the menus at Hestia and Emmer & Rye have regularly featured Westfold Farm chicken ever since.
Opportunities to forge and cultivate these relationships are few and far between, which Burk considers the main factor keeping Austin from reaching its full potential as a first-class innovator of farm-to-table fare.
“Elevated food depends on elevated products, which in turn depends on finding more ways to bring farms to the forefront of the story,” he says. But farmers and chefs keep busy schedules, carving out careers defined by dedication and craftsmanship.
“With the level of passion and investment in their technique, both chefs and farmers are artists, and they’re highly dependent on each other to create,” says Trisha Bates, who founded Urban American Farmer in part to facilitate better communication between the two. An urban farmer herself, Bates’ overall mission is to bring communities into active participation in their local foodshed. For consumers, this means educating and equipping people to grow their own food; for restaurants and farmers, it means acting as intermediary, not only by connecting with suppliers but by staying up to date with their latest offerings.
“A chef can only create as bright a picture as the raw ingredients he has available,” she says. “If I can help expand that picture, their creativity opens up.”
For Bates, that expansion is especially important in a city like Austin, where chefs set the tone for what locals will cook at home.
“There’s so much education happening tableside, so when restaurants tell the stories behind ingredients and people start searching for those same things at the farmers market, you can generate demand in a community before supply is even there. When we do that, we create opportunities for farmers to step in and fill that demand.”
Bates saw this play out in real time after connecting the culinary team at Comedor with farmer Ben McConnell at Bouldin Food Forest. When Comedor first opened, Bates supplied the lettuce for its signature salad from her own plot in Central Austin. As her crop finished, Comedor took salad off the menu entirely until it could source similar ingredients. Consulting with the team’s vision for the plated dish, Bates asked McConnell to bring samples to the restaurant, and his greens were on the menu by the end of the week.
Blending the bold reds and bright greens of Bouldin’s speckled trout lettuce with dark beets and purple Broccolini from other local farms, the dish is both a work of art and a burst of flavor unrivaled by store-bought contenders. McConnell attributes this to the plant profile itself, achieved through a delicate process of countless variables in his permaculture approach to farming. Grounded in ancient practices and replicating patterns in natural ecosystems, the holistic land management method centers each design element around minimizing waste, human labor and soil disturbance. Like the process at Westfold, McConnell’s is a long-term strategy: From seed tray to propagation to greenhouse and finally to field tunnel, the salad at Comedor on any given night sprouted up to 12 weeks prior to plating.
“The result is a varietal of greens that looks like a giant flower: tender, delicious and nutritious,” says McConnell, describing his product with palpable pride. A former management consultant, McConnell, like Burk, refers to farming as “a hobby that got out of hand.” He first experimented with permaculture in his home garden in South Austin’s Bouldin Creek neighborhood.
“If you want to meet your neighbors, dig up your entire front lawn,” he laughs, recounting how his first neighborhood farm stand led to a second plot in a neighbor’s garden. As demand grew, McConnell eventually managed four lots across Austin before moving the entire operation out to 150 acres in Rogers, Texas. Today, he supplies to restaurants, CSAs, school districts, farmers markets and both locations of Wheatsville. He met Bates at a farmers market and bonded over a shared passion for the dramatic impact of locally grown produce.
“The difference in health, taste and even aesthetics when food is harvested and consumed within 24 hours is just tenfold,” he says. “The ability to have food almost instantaneously out of the ground is just transformative.”
Bates agrees, noting how the pandemic and recent snowstorm exposed the fragility of our modern foodsheds. “The last year has shown that we can change our habits almost immediately when we need to,” she says, reflecting on how chefs and farmers stepped up when larger supply chains failed—Burk’s partnership with Fink during the winter freeze a prime example.
But beyond food security, Bates believes people are slowly seeing the benefits of investing in local food systems beyond the restaurant: What you relish at Comedor or Hestia on Saturday, you can re-create on Sunday with a quick trip to the farmers market. As the world returns to some semblance of normality, she hopes to continue bridging the gap between chefs and farmers, but also between the wider cultural chasm of convenience and intentionality.
“As a community, we have the opportunity to reprogram our expectations around food,” she says. “We have to choose the battle for better habits that benefit both ourselves and our community. When we do that, we connect the dots between the health of our land, our restaurants and ourselves.”