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Business connects island farmers and chefs

To help farmers and chefs connect, Vito Zingarelli founded WhidbeyFarm2Chef. - Courtesy of WhidbeyFarm2Chef
To help farmers and chefs connect, Vito Zingarelli founded WhidbeyFarm2Chef.
— image credit: Courtesy of WhidbeyFarm2Chef

A new business is working to connect farmers with chefs to help put island-grown foods on the menus at regional restaurants.

WhidbeyFarm2Chef has made this simple concept its mission in an effort to promote sustainable farming and local agriculture.

As an agricultural distribution network, WhidbeyFarm2Chef will serve as a clearinghouse where producers can market their products to be delivered to local and regional chefs. It will help farmers focus on farming and chefs on cooking, said Vito Zingarelli, founder of WhidbeyFarm2Chef.

As a first exchange between farmers and restaurateurs, Matt Costello, chef at The Inn at Langley, will host a “producers’ dinner” Monday at his Chef’s Kitchen Restaurant at the inn.

Costello will use locally-raised farm products to prepare dinner for more than two dozen island farmers.

Other chefs have agreed to prepare a course for the dinner, including Paul Sarkis of Village Pizzeria in Langley, Susan Vanderbeek of Oystercatcher in Coupeville and Tim Goeken of Island Chef in Langley.

Costello he knows there are many more farmers across the island who could supply The Chef’s Kitchen Restaurant. By helping organize the event, he’ll have an opportunity to meet more farmers – and participating in the exchange will help strengthen the island community.

“The economic cycle is what I’m talking about,” Costello said. “This is about keeping the area viable. It just makes sense to have a vibrant economy of locals.”

Prices of island-grown foods may be higher when looking at the price of an individual piece of produce, but Zingarelli said chefs have told him that fresher, higher-quality foods — produced just a few miles from the restaurants — keep their quality longer, so there is less waste. That makes paying a higher unit price worthwhile, he said.

Also, Whidbey Island, and South Whidbey especially, has a strong market for organic, high-quality foods.

The dinner is a testing ground for WhidbeyFarm2Chef. And Zingarelli has been part of an ad hoc group providing leadership on agricultural profitability, sustainability and land stewardship issues for the island community.

“It’s a community building event,” he said, adding that the exchange between producers and chefs will hopefully help both of the important island industries.

“It’s the first step – solving local issues locally,” Zingarelli said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s imperative that we go this direction.”

Zingarelli said initially only fruits and vegetables would be offered through the exchange, but the plan is to expand to promote Whidbey Island-raised meat and other produced and foraged products.

Costello said he already uses mostly local seafood, meats, cheeses and produce in his kitchen.

“It’s about the whole circle of where food comes from,” Costello said. “There are a lot of different foods that you don’t realize are grown right here.”

Agriculture has played a large part in the island’s history and it is essential that farming remains a critical part of the economy and culture, Zingarelli said.

In recent years, the amount of farmland on the island has dwindled considerably.

In 1997, Island County was home to 389 farms totaling 19,408 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In just five years, the number of farms decreased 11 percent to 348, and the total acreage dedicated to agriculture declined by 23 percent to 15,018 acres.

“That’s alarming,” Zingarelli said.

To reverse the trend, farmers need to have a reason to continue farming and expand the amount of land they till. This, in turn, requires farmers to connect with a larger market.

Zingarelli sees a potential market for farm goods in the region’s restaurants.

“In talking to Whidbey Island chefs and farmers, I learned that they haven’t connected totally,” he said.

Zingarelli said farmers need to be working their land and don’t have much time to call local restaurants to push their products.

If the farmer-to-chef concept is a success on Whidbey Island, he wants to connect island farmers and their goods to chefs throughout the Puget Sound region.

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