“Farm-to-table hasn’t lost its meaning”, John Adams, the owner of Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters, assures me. “It’s reconnected people to food”, he continues. I met with John Adams and Amy Adams after a day they spend vending at the Olympia Farmer’s Market. Sitting down with them both, it became apparent rather quickly that they are practicing what they love. Although they may be critical of the food industry as a whole, they are steadfastly optimistic about the farm-to-table movement itself.

John has noticed that there’s a lot of pressure for processed foods in our culture. “If you consider the square footage of a supermarket”, he points out, “there’s less square footage in a market available for organic, locally sourced, and farm-to-table food in general. The food choices available in a supermarket lead us away from our connection to healthy food”.

He approximates that only 1.7% of our population is currently farming.  “We’re leaving behind our concern for the health of our person and planet”, John warns, “and moving instead towards time constraints, households with double incomes, and processed food.  As a result, our lifestyle choices are moving us further away from healthy food”. Not only is farming fading as a vocation, but interest in healthy food is fading, too.

Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters used to deliver to oyster bars in downtown Seattle; but they now use a local distributor instead. Although distance from the buyer isn’t ideal, John maintains that being removed from face-to-face contact with their customers hasn’t necessarily disrupted their ability to communicate with restaurants. Since oyster bars document where the shellfish comes from, the source of their food is still communicated to consumers.

For a smaller farm that makes a majority of its living vending through a farmer’s market, they’re doing pretty well. As a result of sustaining a steady level of product to meet the market’s demands though, the need for consistency changes the structure of their farming – which puts a cap on what they can do. In order to achieve consistency, Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters modifies their crop rotation patterns: diversifying the products between species while growing each crop at different times.

When I ask if consumers have a role in sustaining the farm-to-table movement, John answers, “If you had asked me two days ago, I would have said ‘yes’. But sustainability is not the responsibility of the consumer; it’s the responsibility of the restaurant (along with the supply chain that distributes to restaurants) or kitchen managers”.

Yet his wife feels otherwise, warning, “if it’s not driven by public outcry, it won’t last. And yet public outcry takes years. Larger businesses buy more beaches and have greater access to seed. It takes years for a movement to gain enough momentum to make a change – but by then the damage is deeply done”.

Fortunately, their solution is already implied above. “What we need”, Amy continues, “is more access to seed and land. Larger companies have a greater ability to grab that away from the small scale”. Once in position to grab from smaller farmers, Amy rebukes, bigger companies then “perpetuate their value of profit over anything else. Efficiency methods lead to profit, but result in cheaper labor, a larger carbon footprint, etc.”

I found myself wondering if the same farm-to-table standards, which Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters promote, can exist on a larger scale. How about supermarket chains that now carry products which advertise farm-to-table values? John is skeptical: “Walmart might be driving the price down for local farmers. That downward price pressure leaves smaller farmers with less land and less seed. Sure, larger companies can easily go the organic route and have it certified at Walmart. But is it still unprocessed? And how many middlemen are there? How many hands direct the effort?”

Both John and Amy question why farm subsidies tend to primarily focus on larger farms. Instead, they propose subsidizations to smaller farms through tax cuts and grants. Small farmers just don’t have the time and the labor to pursue both their farming practices and cost-saving elements. “It’s frustrating being part of an overworked and under-valued people trying to advocate for themselves”, John emotes. “It’s especially difficult”, he adds, “while living on the knife-edge between crop success and crop failure”. As self-advocates, small farmers simply can’t compete against lobbyists with PhDs. At the end of the day, John and Amy are just too overwhelmed to research grants.

Ultimately, Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters wants to promote “sustainability as a direction, rather than an end state”. This refocusing of attention emphasizes how we consume and interact with food, as well as how we interact with people.

In John’s words, the issue of organically raised product becomes “squishy and weird” for shellfish. Since shellfish get their food from a natural body of water, which carries minerals and input from other sources, there’s no promises or guarantees that the food is organic. And when you don’t know where your food gets its food from, the organic status of the final product is questionable. There are less reasonable assurances for shellfish than there are for soil-based produce.

So what do you do when your best measurement still complicates the bottom line? Well, John reasons, “if the whole farm-to-table issue was an easy problem to fix then it would have been fixed by now!” Unflinchingly resolute, John and Amy Adams are patient and faithful in the little things. As a 3rd generation farm, they’re concerned about leaving something positive behind for their kids. Pursuing farm-to-table values, for them, is about doing your best to live between the lines that you’ve drawn. It’s about the direction behind your intention. And their that-a-way objective, in itself, is enough for them to carry on.

Written by Todd B. Gruel