June 2, 2016 — Foodies around the world want to be part of the local food movement where local food producers are connected directly to local consumers.
These locavores seem to have come to this trendy practice recently, but an Anna Maria Island restaurateur has been committed to using local food sources for almost four decades.
“We started sourcing local 37 years ago with local fish and crabs,” said Ed Chiles, owner of the Sandbar in Anna Maria, the Beach House in Holmes Beach and Mar Vista on Longboat Key.
It was not until Chiles got a call from Eric Geraldson about a farm of about 25 acres in Parrish being available did he decide to become involved in sourcing his produce locally.
“I saw there was an opportunity to get more integrated into the supply chain,” he said.
So Chiles got into the farming business three years ago and hired Geraldson to manage the place.
Hiring Geraldson was an easy decision since the 58-year-old Manatee County native has been in farming since he was a young child, helping his mother and father, along with his six siblings, on their farm.
The Geraldson Farms in Northwest Bradenton and on Perico Island were local institutions for more than 50 years.
When his parents retired, Eric Geraldson and brother Gary took over management of the farm and ran it for about 20 years before selling it to Manatee County to become a Community Supported Agriculture partnership.
It was during the time he was on his farm that Geraldson realized they had to diversify their crops because his customers wanted locally grown produce.
“Manatee County became more urbanized and people wanted to buy all their produce from us,” he said. “Until then we grew mostly tomatoes.”
Geraldson has brought his knowledge and years of experience to the Gamble Creek Farm, 14950 Golf Course Road, and now has son Ryan working with him.
The farm provides much of the produce needs of Chiles’ three restaurants, but his culinary staff had to make some adjustments compared to how they did things in the past, Chiles said.
“They don’t just tear open a bag (of frozen vegetables) anymore,” he said. “They have to do a lot more work in preparations.”
But with the trend in the restaurant industry shifting to locally sourced foods, creative people are asking to work for Chiles.
“They want to be involved with the local sustainability movement,” he said.
Along with the longer prep time, the kitchen staff has to be flexible, Geraldson said.
He sends out a list of what’s available and the chefs have to come up with dishes that they can prepare.
“But we can do things nobody else can,” Geraldson said.
If a certain product is not selling, they can change to something else the next growing season because of the size of the operation, he said.
One crop they cannot grow enough of, though, is the Seminole pumpkin squash blossom.
The stuffed delicacy has become very popular at Chiles’ eating establishments.
Although it takes extra time to prepare, his customers order a lot of them.
Geraldson has the squash blossoms picked and shipped to the restaurants within 24 hours.
“It’s only the male blossom,” he said.
Geraldson uses all of the modern farming techniques, from drip irrigation to hydroponics.
All of the salad greens are grown in white pots hanging from poles.
“We get four or five cuttings from each one before the stems are too tough,” he said. And the crop can be harvested standing up.
Chiles said he is sticking with locally sourced produce, but only hopes the public understands it costs a little more.
“Everyone talks about sustainability,” he said, “but are they willing to pay for it?”
Geraldson thinks they are.
“Local is a better product,” he said, “so it should cost more.”