Farmers providing restaurants with fresh, local produce

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Fruit grower Patrick Ryan met his wife, Rebecca, through his connection with a sous chef at one of the restaurants to which he sells produce.

While most farmers’ stories aren’t as dramatic as Ryan’s, many Virginia Farm Bureau members enjoy helping diners make the connection between farming and food when they sell their agricultural products to local restaurants.

“More and more of our farmer members are now marketing and selling food locally, which offers diners a fresher option,” noted Greg Hicks, vice president of communications for the Virginia Farm Bureau.

Ryan, owner of Ryan’s Fruit Market in Rockingham County, said he’s been selling to Harrisonburg restaurants since 2009. Today he, his wife and his parents, Carroll and Cheryl Ryan, sell to a dozen establishments, including the Local Chop & Grill House.

That restaurant’s Chef Colin Auckerman said there are many reasons to buy from and cook with local farm products; among them is helping diners make the connection between farmers and food. And, “more often than not, it’s a better product,” he shared.

Owner Jeff Hill said he and his partners bought the restaurant in 2009 and have been purchasing from local farms like Ryan’s ever since.

“The Valley is a hotbed of bountiful local farms and artisans, and I wanted to celebrate that,” Hill explained. The management team sought out farmers at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market and received recommendations for others.

Today the restaurant sources its ingredients—everything from beans to wine—from more than two dozen local businesses. “We don’t want to be trendy; we want to be authentic,” Hill noted.

Mike Cullipher, who is the co-owner of Cullipher Farms in Virginia Beach, said he has sold produce to a few restaurants since he’s been involved with the farm. “But in the last 10 to 12 years, chefs and restaurant owners have really gotten interested in buying local foods and have come to us.”

Cullipher operates a retail farm market on his farm in the Pungo area, and also sells at a Wednesday farmers’ market near Old Dominion University and a Saturday market near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. 

He said chefs often visit the markets and select fresh produce to use that evening in their restaurants. “They get to hand-pick every tomato, every pepper, every ingredient,” Cullipher shared. 

Kevin Sharkey, the chef and owner of 1608 Crafthouse in Virginia Beach, said local produce provides great quality and taste. He watches for the Sunday-evening emails Cullipher sends out telling chefs what’s fresh that week.

Cullipher said many chefs are doing everything they can to source locally. “The younger generation that’s out there spending their money, they’re the ones who care about local food ingredients. The millennials are more concerned with the dining experience and are willing to pay for it.”

Sharkey serves only Virginia oysters, sources his chicken from an Eastern Shore farm, obtains hot sauce from a Virginia Beach company and buys pork from a farm less than 100 miles away. “The quality and taste of fresh local farm products we buy is noticeably better,” he remarked. The drawback is in the consistency of the product and its availability.

That’s why Cullipher sends out a weekly list to chefs so they can plan accordingly. Of course, sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate. Recently he planted snow leopard melons—a cross between a honeydew melon and a cantaloupe, with white skin and green leopard-like spots. But this year’s excessive rainfall destroyed the crop.

Sharkey said the uniqueness and variety of local farm products is worth any inconsistencies. He said he wants his customers to have a culinary experience. Many restaurants, he noted, serve craft beer and want their customers to drink first and then realize they can order food. But at 1608, “I want them to eat handcrafted, fresh, local food first and then order a local craft beer.”

For more information:

Local Chop & Grill House:
Ryan’s Fruit Market:
1608 Crafthouse:
Cullipher Farms:

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