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Farm to Plate: Wayward Seed Farm changes the way we eat

By
From the Fall 2013 edition

Wayward Seed Farm is leading a local produce revolution. By selling its sometimes offbeat organic offerings directly to both area chefs and consumers, Wayward hopes to change the way we eat, one palate at a time

It’s early Saturday morning at the Worthington Farmers Market, and the tents and the temperature are quickly rising. As the Wayward Seed Farm booth is assembled in the House Wine parking lot, Jaime Moore arrives with her upbeat personality and several cups of Silver Bridge coffee for the team.

Her partner, Adam Welly, un-ironically wearing a John Deere cap, is already deep in conversation with a passerby, discussing the need for broad-based education in the local foods system.

For the next three hours, Welly speaks nonstop to customers, espousing his farming and management philosophies, explaining the sugar content of beets and what three weeks of rain will do to a lettuce crop. (“Nothing good,” he says.)

Moore, on the other hand, is solving problems. Too few pint containers for snow peas? She asks other farmers for extras. An employee with a misplaced wallet? Moore spreads the news, and suddenly it seems half of Worthington is on the lookout.

Moore accommodates. Welly convinces. Or, as Moore says, “Adam is arrogant, but I round him out.”

It’s a complementary relationship between these passionate organic farmers, who want to change the way we eat.

Self-described “serious food people who got into farming,” the owners of Marysville-based Wayward Seed believe they can shift consumer demand by selling uncommon local vegetables, such as lacinato kale and frisee, through their weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, at farmers markets and directly to area chefs. The basic idea is to not only make unfamiliar foods easily accessible but to help remove the intimidation factor many feel when faced with produce they don’t know how to eat or prepare.

“We’re trying to lay a foundation and grow products that push the envelope and get people eating differently,” Welly says.

Their strategy of influencing demand works, says Local Matters president Michael Jones.

“They’re figuring out [that] the best way to transform the food system is to educate the people who are going to be the end users of the product: the consumers,” he says. “Restaurants, grocery stores and farmers markets—it’s the demand that is going to drive the supply side of it. It’s that real catalyst for change.”

Seven years ago, when Wayward was just getting off the ground, the pair had to beg restaurants to carry their product. Now, in a world where chefs can effortlessly pre-order Californian and Mexican produce and have it shipped directly to their back doors, some of the top chefs in the city are opting out of the quick fix. They’re taking a little extra time (and paying a little extra money) to count Wayward Seed as not just a produce provider but a partner.

Growing A Business

Ask the pair from Fremont, Ohio, about their work history and you’ll learn there’s not much within the dining world the two haven’t done. Welly’s been a busser, server, cook and restaurant manager. Moore, a hospitality management grad from Ohio State, has managed a golf course and worked as a hotel kitchen line cook.

But it was their experience as diners eating throughout the United States that helped inspire the Wayward Seed owners to venture into the farming industry at age 25.

“Our early meals at Blackbird with Paul Kahan out of Chicago were really important,” Welly explains, “because he was very regimented about being very seasonal during the winter. That was transcendent for me. I felt like we wanted to really see chefs do that here. And we still do.”

Wayward Seed Farm started with a $1,500 credit-card purchase of seed, fertilizer and a few small tools. Welly and Moore borrowed equipment from other farmers and spent the first year testing every variety of seed they could get their hands on, as well as creating a foundation for growing by hauling manure compost to their small plot in Sandusky County. There, they grew more than 100 certified organic varieties of salad greens, root vegetables, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

Their initial goal was to sell directly to restaurants. But they soon saw a need to connect not just with chefs but also directly with consumers. So they began selling to home cooks, too. In their first four years, before they could afford machinery and ample staff, Welly and Moore would stay up every Friday night working in the fields, headlamps on to guide their way, to prep for the next day’s farmers markets and CSAs.

Through his side gig at cheese stand Curds & Whey in the North Market, Welly had access to the city’s best chefs, as well as a window into the seasonality of food. At first, the Wayward team envisioned themselves artisans. “I was doing charcuterie. I was making bread. I was fermenting things,” Welly says.

But in 2008, they moved being from artisans to strictly farmers after a visit to Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin. It was there Welly met his hero, longtime organic farmer Richard DeWilde. Seeing that someone could profitably grow 100 acres of organic vegetables—and provide organic produce to more than 1,500 families through CSA subscriptions—inspired Welly to commit to farming.

“He ruined me,” Welly recalls. “He is one of the great examples. He’s showing that you can pay your employees health insurance and run a legitimate business. And he’s organic. Maybe we’ll never be as big, but at least we know what the mountaintop is, and it’s important to strive for that.”

To Market, To Restaurant

While Welly is in the field planting, harvesting and washing produce, Moore works the retail and restaurant scene. If a chef or buyer wants Wayward Seed produce, they have to go through her.

Not every restaurant in town gets considered; the team is selective. Moore believes “the farmer is as important as the chef.” And she admits they don’t make the process simple. “We don’t have inventory. We don’t have a price list.”

While they give every restaurant a try, they rely on steady regulars, such as Alana Shock of Alana’s and Richard Blondin of the Refectory, who understand Wayward’s methods and offerings. And the farmers shy away from selling to restaurants that only use the relationship for marketing purposes, making tiny orders and advertising Wayward Seed Farm sourcing on their menus.

“I’m looking for someone who understands the immense amount of effort and craft that went into [our produce],” Welly explains. “If they care and can pay on time, then we’ve got a real shot to work together.”

The majority of Moore’s communication with restaurants is done through text message, a process initiated by chef David Tetzloff of G. Michael’s. In a fast-paced kitchen (or a fast-paced farm), phones and email accounts are frequently neglected. Quick messages, such as “Bring me fennel, a lot of it,” do the trick. It’s up to Moore to determine what quantity the chef means, but she’s proven adept at translating. For example, she knows Tetzloff orders his produce by the pound, but it’s understood that if he orders 5 pounds of something, Moore can round up or down based on availability.

The texts work both ways. When bad weather forced the farm to close up shop at the Dublin Farmers Market on a summer Wednesday, Moore was able to arrange for two of her restaurant customers to purchase all the excess produce.

And then there’s Wayward’s Mobile Market. On Tuesdays, Moore loads up her 14-foot box truck with vegetables pre-bagged and ready to tempt and inspire chefs around the city. She starts at the Refectory (because Blondin doesn’t text) and makes a loop of her regular or would-be customers: Alana’s, Z Cucina, Basi Italia, The Rossi, The Hills Markets and G. Michael’s. Chefs and buyers step inside the truck to find produce lining the walls and stacked high in black plastic bins. With the ability to see, touch and even taste that day’s produce, the chefs dictate their orders and return to their kitchens.

“I take all that I can get,” admits Blondin, who orders regularly from Wayward.

During these 12-hour days, Moore will bring in $1,000 to $2,000.

She relishes the relationships. “I think there’s something to be said about the restaurants we work with,” she says. “They see you come in [to dine], and they come out and thank you. Talk about mutual respect and the idea that we’re equals. It’s wonderful.”

Wayward’s first restaurant client in 2006 was chef Rick Lopez of the former La Tavola in Powell.

Now at Knead in the Short North, the chef gave Wayward Seed Farm a shot in part because of his relationship with Welly.

“He’s really intense about [farming],” says Lopez, who experimented in making pancetta with Welly before the farm existed. “He’s a guru now. Back then, he was coming into his own, but he still had the best varieties. He took the time to come in and ask what I wanted, and he’d plant it for me. You know he cares about what he does, and is not doing it to make money.”

The nature of working with Wayward Seed means chefs have to be flexible and have control over their menus. With different produce arriving every week, there’s never a constant. But the farmers’ favorite chefs know how to adapt and even embrace the challenge.

For example, when Moore once arrived at the Refectory with apples from Eshleman Fruit Farm, Blondin had to consult an apple chart because he was unfamiliar with the variety she brought.

“Talk about a humble chef,” Moore says. “Most chefs would never admit they didn’t know what kind of apple you were offering them.”

At Alana’s, Welly appreciates the simplicity coming out of the kitchen. “I feel like the food is very not-manipulated. She lets the food speak for itself,” Welly says. Moore adds, “That’s why Alana’s works, because she doesn’t have a regular menu.”

And then there are the restaurants where they get to see their impact in the kitchen, like at Z Cucina in Grandview. “Z Cucina is getting there,” Moore says. “[Chef Jamie George has] slowly worked that menu from a standard, very basic menu to a changing rotating seasonal menu with a tasting menu on Tuesdays.”

The Future of Farming

In 2007, Wayward Seed introduced the ground cherry to the Central Ohio palate. Now four or five other farms grow and sell the native sweet and tart cherry-tomato-shaped fruit, and it occasionally finds its way into grocery stores and onto menus. With one goal accomplished—bringing attention to native species—the pair is prepared to tackle more food-system hurdles.

First, with the nationwide appreciation of regional cuisine on the rise, they want to help define Ohio fare. “How do we redefine what was once considered ’meat and potatoes?’ ” asks Welly, who wants chefs to develop menus geared toward local agriculture. “We have this ability to have spectacular-quality food. It’s what we’re trying to get these chefs to do—to break some rules. Let’s start developing our own thing here.”

Moore and Welly agree that to do this, consistency is key. Welly believes growing crops on a larger scale, so that they’re more accessible, will help. For example, he says Ohioans are already sweet corn, summer cabbage and Brussels sprouts people. The demand for kale is on the rise, and, if Welly has anything to say about it, colored carrots and beets are next (he plants both en masse every year).

Another ambitious goal is to introduce consumers and chefs to American fair-trade farming: simply paying the real, unsubsidized cost of food. This exists today in their CSA program, where consumers pay $600 a year for 25 weeks of produce.

But organic farming alone is not lucrative for the Wayward Seed farmers. To make a living wage, Moore runs the Worthington Farmers Market year-round and also picks up shifts at The Candle Lab.

“If we devalue the people [who grow our food], it’s not good,” Welly says. “We have to place real financial value on what an American rural, sustainable farmer should make. The products should be priced [so farmers are not] scraping the bottom and living in abject poverty.”

It’s quite possible that the ability to accomplish these goals is in sight.

“I continue to be impressed with the drive and the passion and the amount of energy that the two of them put into this,” says Local Matters’ Jones. “They’ve maintained a great sense of integrity as they’ve done it. I hope they’ll be able to do even more.”

Moore recognizes it’s a collaborative effort. With fellow farmer friends at four markets, 200 loyal CSA members, hundreds of weekly market customers and chef partners throughout the city, the two have plenty of allies.

“I think the chefs are here, the talent is here,” she says. “Columbus is at that moment where it’s really trying to accept some new things.”