The Magic Tree offers the option of substituting a locally sourced, grass-fed burger on any sandwich order. (Image courtesy of the Magic Tree)
By SEAN POSEY | Metro Monthly Contributing Writer
Not long ago, the farm-to-table and local food movement might have seemed like a coastal phenomenon, one more relevant to boutique eateries than to everyday dinner tables. However, the idea of locally sourced food is catching on throughout the country and in the Mahoning Valley.
According to author and food journalist Michael Pollan, “The average item of food in America has travelled 1,500 miles from the farm to your plate.”
That hasn’t always been the case. Until the early 20th century, the majority of food consumed in America originated within 50 miles of where it was consumed.
In the Valley, backyard gardens remained popular through World War II, and at its height, thousands of shoppers daily bought fresh produce from area farmers at Youngstown’s famous Pyatt Street Market.
Today, things are changing again. In 2009, the USDA launched the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, designed to expand federal support for building local food systems. Since 2008, the number of farmers’ markets has increased 68 percent, and increasingly restaurants are building menus around locally sourced foods.
Jim and Ely Pugh were among the earliest adopters of farm-to-table in the Valley; they’ve been buying local and organic for 30 years. The couple originally ran Lock 24 in Lisbon where Ely served as head chef.
They now own Ely’s To Go in Boardman. Ely’s started as a vegetarian restaurant, but is now completely vegan. Yet the couple estimates that 95 percent of their customers are non-vegetarians.
Not only are patrons entranced by the food, Jim Pugh explained, they want to know where they can purchase fresh, local produce.
“People want to know, ‘Where do we go to get on a list? Where can we get local, organic produce?’ So, we have to tell them, and they contact those farmers and take it from there.”
Ely’s largest supplier is Early Road Gardens, located on Youngstown’s East Side. However, they buy from numerous small farmers around the area—including Breezy Hill Farm in Alliance, Hickory Hollow Farm in Wellsville and Iron Roots Urban Farm in Youngstown.
Ely’s might be at the forefront of restaurants using locally sourced produce, but “the numbers are growing all the time,” said the Pughs.
Common Wealth Inc. has a long history as a non-profit working to provide quality affordable housing in the Youngstown area. They are also deeply involved in promoting and furnishing outlets for the expansion of local food enterprises.
Their latest endeavor, 30 Mile Meals, aims to create a “shared identity” for those involved in the local food movement. Common Wealth wants to get consumers sourcing more of their food from within 30 miles of where they live.
Those who partner with 30 Mile Meals gain access to a variety of services: publicity, mapping services identifying them to the public as being involved in some aspect of local food and entry to promotional events designed to raise brand visibility.
The USDA recently awarded Common Wealth a $100,000 Local Food Promotion Program grant to expand the reach of 30 Mile Meals. They also plan to open a café on Elm Street in Youngstown.
Many of the growers involved in farm-to-table are located in rural areas, but urban farms also play a key role. One of the fastest growing operations is the Iron Roots Urban Farm on Youngstown’s South Side.
Iron Roots is a 1.7-acre for-profit farm operated by the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. The farm itself has a central community-building component built into it.
“We are trying to increase food access and also educational opportunities centered around food,” said Danielle Seidita, the farm’s program coordinator.
Iron Roots sells to a variety of restaurants in the area, as well as at the Idora Farmers’ Market, the North Side Farmers’ Market and the Unitarian Universalist Church in the winter months.
The YNDC also offers free cooking, urban farming and business classes, at their offices and at the Humility of Mary Health Partners Kitchen located at 822 Billingsgate Ave. The extended season Idora Farmers’ Market currently operates every Tuesday and Friday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at the same location.
Seidita emphasized that classes are designed to “help folks who want to start a food-based business, whether that’s farming, cottage food or a restaurant.”
Phill and Sandy Reda’s Magic Tree Pub and Eatery is quickly becoming one of the hottest restaurants on the farm-to-table scene in the Valley. The couple, formerly owners of Vintage Estate Wine and Beer, opened the Magic Tree in the former Youngstown Sports Grille on South Avenue in Boardman three years ago.
“We wanted to do farm-to-table from day one,” Sandy Reda said. But it wasn’t until they hired chef John “Tank” Jurcisin in 2013 that they were able to commit to crafting a locally sourced menu.
“Two years ago, when I started, it was very hard to locally source about anything,” Jurcisin recalled. “Now I have farmers coming to me on a regular basis.”
The Magic Tree deals with close to 30 farmers on a regular basis. They offer a full farm-to-table menu every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“But we have locally grown on our menu every day,” Jurcisin emphasized. “We are probably 35 percent to 40 percent local on our everyday menu. Half the time people don’t even realize that when they are eating something like our meatloaf—that’s local.”
In 2015, the Magic Tree held its first farmers’ market, dubbed the “Magic Market,” in the restaurant’s parking lot. They plan to hold the markets weekly from May until November as a complement to the restaurant’s offerings and to emphasize Phil and Sandy Reda’s commitment to local food and farmers.
Things are changing on the local food scene. Community organizations, family and urban farms, restaurants and revitalizing neighborhoods are all starting to enjoy the fruits of the farm-to-table movement. Once more, fresh food is getting a fresh start as the Mahoning Valley looks to the local again.
Select Farm-to-Table in the Valley
Lime Tree Sandwich Gallery. Locally owned and operated restaurant serves contemporary American with dashes of ethnic. Some items, like the restaurant’s goat cheese, originate from a farm in Hiram. Monday through Saturday. 187 W. Market St., Warren, 44481; 330-395-5463.
Magic Tree Locally owned and operated restaurant features a farm-to-table menu Thursday through Saturday. L,D. Seven days. 7463 South Ave., Boardman, 44512; 330-629-2667.