Virginia agriculture officials are trying to get greater visibility for the state's products in restaurants, especially those in the District and Northern Virginia. Called "Savor Virginia," it's kind of a "Virginia Is for Food Lovers" campaign.
Dozens of Virginia's specialty food producers already have relationships with chefs and restaurant owners across the state and in the District. The new program is aimed at fostering more of those ties and giving the producers more credit publicly, akin to creating a Virginia brand.
"A lot of farmers, for example, have stopped growing tobacco and begun growing fresh produce," said Thomas N. Sleight, director of the marketing division of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "But those farmers are production-oriented, not market-oriented. We want to help them find markets . . . and focus more attention on the wide variety of Virginia food products."
Creating a demand for Virginia-grown produce is one way to do that.
The Savor Virginia program is an extension of the state's existing branding program, established in 1989, which identifies and promotes more than 500 processed and fresh foods that meet certain standards as "Virginia's Finest" (www.vafinest.com or www.vafinest.org).
Maryland is developing a similar program known as "Maryland's Best" (www.marylandsbest.net).
Although agriculture was Virginia's top industry in 2001 (agriculture and tourism usually battle for the highest ranking), traditional crops supported by commodity programs -- cotton, tobacco, peanuts, soybeans and corn -- represented about 80 percent of production. What are known as specialty crops -- fruits, vegetables, seafood, beef, poultry, Christmas trees and nursery plants -- made up the remaining 20 percent. But their share of the industry is increasing, and because these producers have no federal subsidies to fall back on, finding markets for them is essential.
Currently, there is no efficient way to match producers with buyers, Sleight said.
One step toward that end was a food expo in Washington in August for chefs and restaurant owners that featured some of the best-known chefs in Virginia and the District cooking foods from some of Virginia's larger producers.
Sleight said the expo "was designed to enhance Virginia's image in the lucrative D.C. market," which he described as tough to gain access to. It was followed by a Savor Virginia promotion this fall at Sutton Place Markets, featuring Virginia-grown produce.
Virginia officials hope a next step in the program will be placards on restaurant tables touting state products and even menu listings that note the area certain foods come from. And they hope to publicize restaurants that use Virginia products.
Many of the area's chefs are already true believers in the value of using local products. Not only is the flavor of local foods sweeter, but the products also arrive in better condition -- therefore, a higher percentage of them can be used.
J. Scott Webster, chef at Clyde's of Tysons Corner, said he loves to use seasonal crops from such producers as Westmoreland Berry Farm in Oak Grove in the Northern Neck.
"In season, we use their berries for everything: pies, cobblers, shortcakes. . . . We pretty much saturate the menu," Webster said.
Off season, such as now, it's hard to get the large quantities of produce from a local supplier a restaurant the size of Clyde's needs, Webster said. "This is not some 80-seat place." (Clyde's serves upwards of 500 meals daily.)
In contrast, Dale Reitzer, chef-owner of Acacia restaurant in Richmond, has developed a network of Virginia suppliers for everything from soft-shell crabs and a variety of fish to salad greens and chestnuts.
One farmer even brings Reitzer seed catalogues each year and asks what he would like to have grown.
High-end restaurants aren't the only eateries buying local. David Smith, chief cook at McLean's Three Pigs Barbecue for three decades, said Virginia's pigs are known for being the "sweetest in the world."
All the pork shoulders used in the restaurant come from Smithfield Packing Co. "We have tried other brands from other states, but we always come back to Smithfield," Smith said.
And alongside the barbecue are buffalo burgers from Georgetown Farm/Buffalo Hill in Madison in central Virginia. "We cook them over an open flame, and they taste just like other burgers, only they have less fat, fewer calories and less cholesterol," Smith said.