The History of the Farm to Table Movement

There’s no cut and dry definition of farm to table, but it boils down to this: the farm to table movement broadly refers to food made from locally-sourced ingredients, often natural or organic. Even though there isn’t an exact definition that restaurants have to adhere to in order to call themselves a farm-to-table establishment, those that self-proclaim the label can be found almost everywhere, from small midwestern locales to urban centers.

“Farm to fork” is another way to refer to the movement. You can also refer to it as Rutgers puts it, farm to fork is “a food system in which food production, processing, distribution and consumption are integrated to enhance the environmental, economic, social and nutritional health of a particular place.” While most of us see the term used in restaurants, it can be applied much more broadly than that.

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This is a brief history of the farm and its impact on our lives.

It’s impossible to talk about the rise of farm to table without discussing the fall of the processed food empire.

The success of packaged goods was a result Innovative innovations in food processing, storageThey were invented, and reached their peak with canned foods in the 1950s. The supremacy of processed food lasted until the 1960s, 1970s. At that point, the hippie movement—composed of people who were passionate fans of local and organic food—swept the States. “The counterculture is always ahead of what’s happening in mainstream culture,” says Lucky Peach’s Peter Meehan.

Within a short time, hippie food preferences started to show up in more formalized foodstuffs. Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, Berkley, California, in 1971. She was an advocate for local and sustainable agriculture. In 1979, Organically Grown, a non-profit organization, opened in Oregon. In 1986 Carlo Perini, an Italian founder of the Slow Food Organization, brought this movement to Europe. 

These are the principles that underpin farm to table

The ethical aspects of food production are the driving force behind the Farm to Table or Farm to Fork Movement, however you want to refer to it. Rutgers describes the four core pillars of this movement.

  • Food securityFarm to Table increases food security. This movement goes beyond just the food needs for individuals and families. Instead, it considers both the greater community’s needs with a particular focus on low-income households. “It has a strategic goal of developing local food systems,” the article notes.
  • Proximity.Farm to table is based on the idea that all components of a food chain (or restaurant) must be in close proximity. The goal is to develop relationships between the various stakeholders in a food system such as “farmers, processors, retailers, restaurateurs, consumers” and more. Furthermore, transporting ingredients between states and countries is less environmentally-friendly when you are close to them.
  • Self-reliance.Farm to Table aims to create communities capable of meeting their food needs. This eliminates the need to rely on outside resources and long-distance transportation.
  • Sustainability. The core idea here is that farm to table food systems exist in a way that doesn’t stifle “the ability of future generations to meet their food needs,” meaning that it doesn’t destroy resources in the process.

The farm to fork movement also has other goals, like improving health in communities and increasing food access across the entire region.

An outdoor picnic table set up with a barn in the background decorated with string lights.

Today, the farm to table movement

The farm to table movement, with its lofty goals and ideals for how our food systems and the restaurants that operate within them, wouldn’t have become what it is today without similar progressions in separate sectors. “Five years ago, the farmer’s market wasn’t as vibrant and it attracted just nine local farmers that sold a few different kinds of veggies. Today, there’s a fourfold jump, with 36 farmers who regularly show up with a dizzying array of eggplants, blueberries, pecans, home-churned butter and meat from animals raised on the farms encircling the town,” notes NPR’s Chief Business Editor Pallavi Gogoi.

Unsurprisingly, this was due to the associated environmental awakening which led to so much growth. Similar to the movement from farm-to-table, it also happened. They quickly became close friends and supported each other because of their similarities.

“Consumers who have been educated by movies like An Inconvenient Truth now pore over ‘food miles’ and ‘carbon footprints.’ The message seems to be: if you buy organic, you care about your own body; if you buy local you care about your body and the environment,” says Gogoi. She adds, “as many as 1,200 school districts around the country, from Alabama to Iowa, have linked up with local farms to serve fresh vegetables and fruit to children. Last year, Iowa’s Woodbury County mandated that its food service suppliers buy from local farmers.” 

What’s clear is that the farm to table movement is not a passing trend. It’s designed to change the culture around how we eat.

An overhead shot of a table setting with a plate full of fresh green vegetables.

What’s next: Fewer farms and a growing population

The U.S. had 76,212168 people in 1900. It grew to 282.2 million by 2000. This is because the average size of farms has increased 67%, but the number has fallen by 63%. A farmer could feed approximately 19 people back in 1940. 2013 saw 168 people being fed by one farmer. The days of small-scale agriculture are gone. We now have large-scale, machine-driven farming.

With increasing population, more people are looking for organic foods and vegetables, it is important that the farming industry adapts. This trend is expected to continue in restaurants, which will lead to a smaller gap between farmers and customers.

Technology can streamline your restaurant’s farm-to-table operations and reduce waste. Learn more about Small Biz Sense. Reach out to one of our experts.

Cyndy Lane

Cyndy is business journalist with a focus on entrepreneurship and small business. With over a decade of experience covering the startup and small business landscape, Cyndy has a reputation for being a knowledgeable, insightful and approachable journalist. She has a keen understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing small business owners and is able to explain them in a way that is relatable and actionable for her readers.