Resilience: Through the Eyes of a Farmer and a Chef

“We live in a rhythm of an ever-changing world.” This was the reply from Alex Zeidner, owner and farmer of Folks Farm & Seed, when asked why he thought farmers were particularly good at adapting to change, even during the most trying times.

Zeidner, 28, farms the same plot of land he grew up on, located just north of downtown Fort Collins. Even though the land was not used extensively for agriculture when he was a child—the last time it was irrigated was in the 1960s—in March 2019 Zeidner made the decision to pursue farming full time. He saw an opportunity to heal the land and to pursue a career that would allow him to constantly learn new things. In the year since he launched the farm, Zeidner has played the role of farm manager, machinist and, most recently, digital marketer—just to name a few.

Folks Farm & Seed is committed to providing the community with high-quality produce, but they are also dedicated to saving and producing regionally adapted seeds. By adapting seeds that are better suited to their environments—like Colorado’s short growing season with sporadic changes in temperature, cools nights and hot days—they’re able to produce better yielding crops.

“Breeding crops to be drought resistant, produce stronger root systems and effectively mine nutrients makes them more resilient.” he says. “These seeds are a metaphor for my business: If we want the seeds to be adaptable, then the business should be, too.”

When it became apparent that Covid-19 would dramatically change the landscape of our existing food system, Zeidner did what any good regionally adapted seed (or farmer) would do: He adapted to his new environment. He focused on how to create direct-to-consumer sales by developing an online ordering system through his website, so getting produce to customers became a more efficient process. Orders were placed a week in advance; he picked the orders and prepared them before customers arrived. The monetary transaction was completed online, limiting contact with customers. It was a lot less work than setting up a stand at a farmers’ market. In fact, this new system worked so well, he plans to continue online ordering as an option for customers.

That meant customers were adapting, too. Ordering directly from farmers became easier and felt safer than making a trip to the grocery store. While the link in the food chain between farmer and customer seemed to grow stronger, a shift was also happening at restaurants.

Chefs—the really good ones, at least—have always been closely connected to farmers. They understand that impeccable ingredients make their work that much easier. Kevin Grossi, owner and executive chef of The Regional in Fort Collins was one of those chefs. He began his restaurant career as a dishwasher, working his way up the ranks, but always felt a deep connection to farmers and where his ingredients came from. He opened The Regional in 2018, with a focus on homestyle American food prepared with the best local ingredients. When Covid-19 struck, he quickly shifted his restaurant from a favorite dine-in spot for locals to a takeout and delivery model.

Like Zeidner, he took to digital channels, creating an online platform for customers to place orders, learn about special menu items and give them an option for purchasing gift cards. One of the additional challenges he faced was driving traffic amid all the digital noise. How could he stand out among the other restaurants who were all attempting to do the same?

Grossi, leaned into his cooking style. Working directly with farmers, he was able to get creative with side dishes. Offering a rotating daily vegetable allowed him the creativity he loves as a chef, and also kept customers interested in what he was offering. He created family meals, or larger-format options like lasagna, that might not have otherwise found their way onto his menu, and he partnered with a local co-op to create takeaway meal-kit options also designed to feed a family. Grossi hoped that these adjustments would be enough for him and his staff to survive.

By making small changes to their business models, they positioned themselves so they were in rhythm with the changing world. But what made them particularly good at adapting? What gives farmers and chefs the tenacity to work grueling hours, live on meager wages and overcome a barrage of obstacles?

Grossi, like Zeidner, attributes this ability to adapt to the very nature of his business. Having worked his way up through kitchens he had the opportunity to learn a vast number of skills that were necessary to running a restaurant. “Wearing many hats” is a term that both Grossi and Zeidner use frequently when describing what has helped them to be successful during challenging times.

The ones that really have what it takes, the ones that are “just a little nuts,” are committed to what they do. No job is too small. The dishes must get done, the equipment must be repaired, you’re going to get your hands dirty. Perhaps it is that commitment to doing whatever it takes that drives them forward—pushing them to adapt to meet ever-changing demands, coming back stronger, more resilient.

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