Ouita Michel doesn't get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.
Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.
The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.
Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants' success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley's.
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The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.
Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.
Kentucky's local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state's Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.
Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner's salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey's restaurants.
About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel's tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.
Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O'Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state's largest certified organic farm.
"There is a seasonality to local food," Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.
Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.
"We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically," she said. "It's also better for the farmers, and it's just a more responsible thing to do."
Michel's newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewery in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.
"I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown," Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.
The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.
Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.
"We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is," she said. "It's just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we've had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market."
State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.
"If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns," she said. "Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers."