From Farm to Table
How Texas A&M AgriLife is making a healthy impact on this growing social movement.
- Written by Kara Bounds Socol
- Photography by Hayden Spears
- Jun. 29, 20205 min read
It’s not always easy to be a farmer in Tarrant County.
Known for the cities of Fort Worth and Arlington, tourist draws like the renowned Fort Worth Zoo, Six Flags Over Texas theme park, and the homes of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers sports teams immediately come to mind.
Vast fields of corn and watermelon do not.
But the health-focused farm-to-table movement that has captured the imaginations of agriculture producers and foodies alike is alive and well even in Texas’ urban counties, where “farms” often consist of small plots on the edge of town. It’s up to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialists like Laura Miller ’86, a commercial horticulture extension agent for Tarrant County, to ensure that those wanting to be part of the movement are equipped to succeed. One way she’s doing so is by teaching growers marketing strategies for their produce.
Assisting growers can be a daunting task in an area where farming resources—starting with available land—are severely limited. On the flip side, potential customers are abundant. Those who frequent the year-round Cowtown Farmers Market and patronize local farm-to-table restaurants provide a vigorous consumer base for Tarrant County food producers.
“There’s definitely a greater demand for locally grown produce than there is a supply,” Miller said.
While Miller readily admits that some young people who approach her about becoming farmers have a romanticized idea of what the lifestyle involves, she’s still encouraged by the way the farm-to-table movement has generated a renewed interest in growing crops and producing food.
“Farm-to-table” is a term that’s hard to nail down. To some, it means a novel dining approach embraced by trendy restaurants whose menu offerings sourced directly from local producers. To others, the concept isn’t new at all: It’s found in Saturday farmers’ markets across the state, in roadside produce stands and in pick-your-own fruit and vegetable operations.
A modern take on “farm-to-table,” however, typically refers to a social movement—one that assumes a cleaner, safer, fresher and healthier way of consuming food.
The farm-to-table movement is supported by a plethora of grassroots organizations and by its own caucus in the Texas House of Representatives. Bills friendly to small food operations frequently appear before the state legislature, helping not only urban farmers, but also those selling baked goods, craft beers and honey at farmers’ markets, direct to retailers, or from their own homes or shops.
“An increasing number of young people are interested in farming,” Miller said. “The new focus on locally grown foods and healthy lifestyles is definitely making farming more important to this age group.”
Connecting Agriculture to Health
Texas A&M AgriLife efforts to support farm-to-table endeavors are but one cog in the wheel of a much larger initiative to facilitate good health through agriculture. Overseeing this broad effort is Dr. Patrick J. Stover, vice chancellor for Texas A&M AgriLife, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research.
Stover explained that in the mid-20th century, developing a sufficient quantity of food was essential to combating hunger worldwide. The resulting food system was therefore abundant, affordable and high in caloric density. While this system proved successful in its intended mission, it came with the unintended consequences of obesity and related health conditions. Treating diet-related chronic diseases now costs Americans some $1 trillion per year.
“We once viewed agriculture as providing food, fiber and fuel,” Stover said. “But consumers have increasingly changed their view of the food system. Now, there’s an expectation that food should promote human health in a way that increases quality of life and reduces health care costs. This expectation is driving consumer preferences, especially among young people.”
In response, the pendulum is swinging from food quantity to food quality, Stover said. Texas A&M AgriLife is at the forefront of this movement, from research taking place in laboratories and fields to technology helping today’s farmers to classroom instruction for agriculture’s next generation of producers.
Texas A&M AgriLife is working to develop the board-approved Institute for Advancing Health through Agriculture, which will support the college’s commitment to aligning food and well-being. This massive endeavor consists of three major emphases. The first, responsive agriculture, entails working with producers to develop foods that both enhance human and environmental health and, importantly, increase agricultural profitability. The second, healthy living, focuses on encouraging technology usage to motivate health-related behavior change. The third will establish an agriculture, food production, nutrition and health systems evidence center, which will include an analysis of the food system’s effects on health, the environment and the economy.
“We are focused on giving producers new tools to increase the quality of food and improve the environmental impact of food production,” Stover said. “We are determined to better align our state’s agriculture products with positive health outcomes and consumer expectations.
“It’s an exciting time to be in Texas,” he added. “There’s no place better positioned to align agriculture with human health.”
Are you passionate about the farm-to-table movement? You can support Texas A&M AgriLife’s work in connecting agriculture and health by giving to its excellence fund at give.am/AgriLifeExcellence or by contacting Allyson Tjoelker ’02 at email@example.com or (979) 458-7929.
In 2013, Amanda ’18 and Brian Light began offering “full moon dinners” at their Brazos County farm. Three years later, they added Ronin Farm & Restaurant in downtown Bryan to their farm-to-table venture, directly supplying up to 80% of the produce and all of the pork and chicken on their constantly-changing menu. The remainder comes from Texas agriculture producers.
“At the core of our mission is to reconnect people with their food,” Amanda explained. “It’s a practice we’ve lost over the years, and it’s vital to long-term health. When a vegetable is picked three weeks before it’s shipped and then it takes another three weeks to get to your plate, you lose the benefits that you have when it’s picked yesterday and walked into the restaurant. By raising our own food, we’re starting with a more nutrient-dense, fresher, tastier product.”
Brian, Ronin’s chef, agreed. “A large factor in the number of unhealthy people we have in this country has been caused by our food, but we believe this situation can also be solved by our food.”