Eat Fresh & Local in St. Croix Today, Friday

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On a recent afternoon, Jeff Klemetsrud walked out of the kitchen at Savories Bistro in Stillwater holding one of the reasons why he and his wife/business partner Kristin buy as much of their food from local farmers as possible: a plate piled high with green beans, fresh from the refrigerator.

“These were picked two weeks ago,” Jeff told me, half in amazement. “They look like they aren’t more than two days old. The commercial stuff spoils in three days.”

The beans had come from Big River Farm in Marine on St. Croix, and indeed, they looked to me like they had just left the fields. The Klemetsruds say the quality of the product is one reason they consider locally produced food one of the key components of their business.

Today and tomorrow, Savories will join 21 other St. Croix River Valley restaurants in showcasing local foods during the 2009 edition of “Dine Fresh Dine Local.” This is the second year for St. Croix River Valley Dine Fresh Dine Local, which is sponsored by the local chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local. During the event, St. Croix Valley residents and visitors are invited to dine out at participating restaurants and enjoy locally produced vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy products, honey, bakery goods and more.

This year’s event is centered in two areas of the St. Croix Valley: Stillwater/Hudson, and Taylors Falls/St. Croix Falls. Dana Jackson, a Land Stewardship Project staff member who is coordinating the local Buy Fresh Buy Local chapter, says 18 restaurants from throughout the Valley participated in the event in 2008. Since then there has been a huge increase in demand for locally produced foods, according to Jackson. The result has been a jump in the number of area farmers who are interested in supplying those eateries.

“It’s exciting to see the growth in the region’s local foods movement just within the past year,” says Jackson. “I think eaters would be surprised at what’s available right here in the area.”

One of the sources of that food is Roger Browne of Rising Sun Farm in River Falls. Rising Sun has been providing wholesale produce to a few local grocers since the mid-1970s. But Browne said he also likes selling to local restaurants like Savories because of the way they highlight the hard work farmers put into raising the food.

“Some of these restaurants and chefs have come to really appreciate the difference in flavor local food provides,” Browne told me recently while taking a break from harvest.

Browne says having local restaurants showcasing locally produced foods helps increase the demand for these products in other outlets, such as food co-ops and supermarkets.

“It’s all about people having the opportunity to really see what they’re eating and taste the difference,” he says.

Browne and an increasing number of producers in the area have been able to expand the variety and quantity of what they can provide local eaters by utilizing innovative techniques such as hoop houses and raised beds to extend the season.

For the Klemetsruds, the growing availability of food produced right in the Valley means they’ve been able to expand their locally-sourced options considerably in recent years. Jeff says that when Savories was launched back in the early 1990s, “You had to know somebody who knew somebody to get a phone number” in order to find local food.

“But in recent years we’ve been able to expand our products that are local,” says Kristin. “And the variety and quality is better.”

Today, at the height of the growing season, as much as half of Savories’ menu is made up of local food. In the winter, local products can be available in the form of storage crops like potatoes and onions, as well as meats and cheeses.

But sourcing from local farmers is not without its challenges.

“The biggest disadvantage is making the connection with the farmers at the right time,” Kristin says.

Given the vagaries of the weather and delivery schedules, it can be tricky to match the availability of local produce with the demands of a restaurant kitchen. The Klemetsruds try to make up for this by maintaining regular contact with farmers via phone and e-mail, as well as by keeping their menu flexible and in-tune with seasonality.

“We can kind of come up with the menu and then tweak it depending on what the farmer has,” says Jeff.

Ideally, the Klemetsruds would like to have a more formal ordering and delivery arrangement for getting local products on a consistent basis. Jackson says that’s one of the issues that will be addressed Nov. 12 at a special Buy Fresh Buy Local farmer-buyer workshop in Stillwater.

But for now, the owners of Savories say any inconvenience of sourcing locally is outweighed by the benefits, some of which are more intangible than others.

“One of the farmers will bring his kids in with him when he makes deliveries sometimes,” says Jeff. “I love that.”

Adds Kristin: “It’s about the quality of the ingredients, but it’s also about supporting my community.”

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