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High Plains Farm Tour joins restaurant industry, Lubbock area growers

LUBBOCK, TX (August 31, 2010)—The High Plains Farm Tour, sponsored by the Texas Department of Agriculture, was the first of what growers and restaurant owners hope will be a regular, thriving event. A group of about 35 local chefs and restaurant owners learned fresh, tasty produce could be found right within county lines.

Although they attend the same church, David Cea, co-owner of Orlando’s Italian Restaurant and Caprock Cafe, said he did not realize how much squash Bernie Thiel, owner of Sunburst Farms, produced every year. “I had no idea that (Thiel) was probably one of the largest if not the largest growers of squash in the state of Texas,” Cea said. “The other farms that we went to — I didn’t even know they existed, so (the tour) was very informative; I learned a lot.”

All afternoon Monday, the tour-goers toured the facilities at Apple Country Orchards, Pullen Produce, the South Plains Food Bank GRUB Farm and Llano Estacado Winery.

Apple Country Orchards featured samples of fruits and vegetables from its farm in addition to items grown in other area farms. The growers had their own brochures containing all the products available at their farms throughout the year that may be purchased by restaurants and chefs.

At the end of the tour, the growers, restaurant owners and chefs gathered at Llano Estacado Winery for a food and wine tasting.

Texas Tech Catering prepared several dishes — squash gratin with corn, roasted sweet potatoes with rosemary, meatballs with peach barbecue sauce — that showcased some of the produce from the farms on the tour.

McPherson Cellars and Pheasant Ridge Winery wines were also provided.

Although many of the restaurant owners and chefs said they would not be able to purchase produce directly from local growers, their eyes were opened to the possibility.

The tour gave restaurant owners and producers the opportunity to meet and build relationships even if that did not necessarily mean the restaurants would start buying from the local farms.

What was important, Thiel said, was creating the interest and spreading awareness of locally grown products beyond cotton to the restaurant industry and public.

Cea discovered Watson Foods, which supplies 90 percent of food for his restaurants, does support local producers. Also, buying items in Lubbock and the state could reduce transportation costs, which is a good incentive for those food suppliers, he said.

While they may be required to buy from large food corporations, Paul Willems, proprietor for Outback Steakhouse, said if these farms continue to flourish, they may eventually have enough to supply those big corporations.

Sherry Pullen, owner of Pullen Produce which grows non-certified organic items at Treegrace Farms in West Lubbock, said her yields are increasing every year. She doubled her number of community-supported agriculture members this year to 30 and hopes to double it again next year, as well as sell to restaurants and the public.

“I pick fresh daily and all of the other farmers here — they pick every day and work so hard to make sure that it’s good and fresh,” she said. “It tastes so much better than something that is shipped in.”

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