Aug 6, 2019High-end agri-tourism: Taylor grows for chefs, wine estate guests
High-end wine estates, restaurants and boutique farm-themed hotels are becoming popular around the country.
While their growing operations themselves don’t resemble traditional commercial agriculture, they do generate substantial income from farm visitors who stay or dine there. And those agritainment or agritourism dollars would be welcome at many growers’ farm markets.
To see if traditional farm marketers can learn from the more ritzy end of agriculture, Fruit Growers News recently interviewed Tucker Taylor, the grower behind Kendall- Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, a four-acre operation in California’s Sonoma County that hosts farm-to-table dinners and other culinary-themed events.
Taylor, who has a degree from the University of Florida in environmental horticulture, previously designed and operated certified organic farms in Oregon and Georgia. He came to California to redesign the two-acre garden near The French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley. In 2013, he re-designed the 4-acre culinary gardens at Jackson Family Wines, which grow produce for an in-house culinary team as well as several talented chefs in and around San Francisco.
Fruit Growers News: Tell me a little bit about where you grow.
Tucker Taylor: Our culinary garden is approximately four acres of highly diversified specialty produce that is grown year-round in fertile sandy loam soil that has a very high content of organic matter.
FGN: What are some weed/pest control issues for your farm and how do you resolve them?
TT: We began planting diversified perennial borders around our culinary garden six years ago. It is always amazing to watch gardens come into balance with the attraction of beneficial insects and pollinators. We also use row covers to prevent damage from insects like flea beetles and cucumber beetles. On a rare occasion, we still have some aphids and will spray a soap solution to control their population. We have owl houses and perches for birds of prey to help control rodents, but we also set traps for gophers and voles. For weed control, we use a flame weeder and various hand tools.
FGN: Do you attend some of these events hosted at the gardens? What is your role at the events?
TT: When I redesigned the culinary gardens, it was with our monthly Farm to Table Dinner Series in mind. I attend most of these dinners as well as fundraising dinners in the garden for nonprofits. As one of the hosts, I answer questions about the culinary gardens and speak to the importance of fresh food in hopes of encouraging people to grow some produce at home.
FGN: Many growers host weddings and other events as part of their farm market operations. Is there any advice you can pass on to them?
TT: I understand the immense value of getting people into our culinary garden (or on a farm), so I am pretty understanding when I see footprints on a planting bed or notice that some apples have been picked from a tree. I hope that the experience of being in these places encourages people to think more about food production and hopefully inspires them to plant gardens at home or expand upon their existing gardens as well as support more local famers at farmers markets and farm stands.
FGN: How do you keep the gardens “presentable” for the guests?
TT: It takes a great deal of labor to try and always keep the gardens looking nice for our guests. Fortunately, I have a budget for landscaping the culinary garden as well as a budget for production.
FGN: On the other hand, how do you keep the guests from messing up the gardens?
TT: We do have a demonstration vineyard and wine sensory gardens where our guests are encouraged to smell the herbs and taste the fruits. Our guests are very respectful of our culinary gardens. I feel like the beauty of the gardens influences this mutual respect.
FGN: What pointers or advice would you have for growers looking to land some high-end chefs or restaurants as clients?
TT: Our main focus, when it comes to growing for chefs, is practicing consistency in quality, supply and, most importantly, communication. Most chefs understand that we are faced with ever-changing elements and that we do our best to have a consistent supply of produce of the highest possible quality, but when things go awry it always helps to communicate in a timely fashion so that they can make other arrangements.
FGN: How do you market your produce to elite chefs, and how do you retain them as clients?
TT: It helps to have a deeper understanding of what chefs are looking for and ultimately what they are going to do with each type of produce. I always try to talk with as many chefs as possible to gain more of an understanding of this. Through this, I come up with ideas to try and save time for these chefs through harvesting to spec of size, shape, color or flavor. We also consider ourselves “soil farmers” since that is the foundation of everything we do. If you have healthy soil that is high in organic matter, you have vibrant, nutrient-dense produce that has a longer shelf life.