Tod Murphy’s Dream
May-June 2006
od Murphy grew up in a Connecticut farming community. After thirty years of work in the food distribution industry, the longing for green pastures and fresh air pulled him back to his farming origins. He bought some land in Vermont and began to raise sheep. The nostalgia for country life eventually faded and reality set in: unless you can provide colossal volumes, market access is virtually impossible. All was not lost! Murphy grabbed his sheep herder’s stick and gathered around him a small team of believers and undertook a rather auspicious project, the Farmers Diner restaurant, which opened six years ago.

Right on Main street in Barre, Vermont, with some 8,000 residents, Murphy opened his no-frills family restaurant. And I’m sure some of its particularities would make you smile. The restaurant sells t-shirts with the inscription: “I prefer butter to margarine because I trust farmers more than chemists”. Furthermore, they provide an explanation as to why whipped cream isn’t naturally snow white. The walls aren’t decorated with posters of Marilyn and Elvis, but with pictures of farmers. Because, as you see, beyond the needs of Tod Murphy’s company, the Farmers Diner has turned into a project for acknowledging the role of farmers and the local farming community.

They say that the average meal travels thousands of kilometres before reaching our dinner table. In fact, Alberta beef, New Zealand lamb, California vegetables and tropical fruit are now part of our daily diet. An economic and ecological aberration for sure. At the Farmers Diner, over 65¢ of every food dollar purchased is spent within a 100 kilometre radius. The Farmers Diner focuses on fresh food and fair compensation for farmers. The menu is simple and affordable, the most expensive item is a hot turkey sandwich for $7.95. Besides, it’s for a good cause: the restaurant is helping to revive the local economy. Highly praised by the New York Times Magazine, the Farmers Diner attracts students and eco-minded individuals from all walks of life, as well as some serious looking men in business suits. Seventeen employees run the restaurant. Well… they did until recently.

The latest information is that the restaurant is closed for restructuring. Too small to be profitable, the Farmers Diner must expand its premises and find new suppliers. Well, if Murphy has to seek financing options, he may as well adjust his plans. What he is now proposing is a network of restaurants that would get their supplies from regional producers and take advantage of greater savings and still provide small-scale producers with an essential and much needed market opportunity.

Is Tod Murphy a hopeless dreamer? Maybe, but his gamble has a lot of logic to it. The small farmer is barely able to access supermarket shelves and consumers are becoming increasingly demanding and concerned with the food they’re ingesting. So, Murphy’s philosophy is to place both parties together in premises that are ever more popular with consumers: the restaurant!

According to a study submitted to Cornell University, each million dollar of annual sales for this type of restaurant saves 10 tons of CO2 emissions, supports local agriculture, and creates new jobs. From the perspective of sustainable development, these are social and environmental fallouts that should be considered when evaluating the project’s cost effectiveness. But, let’s be realistic: investors will undoubtedly be sceptical and Murphy will have quite a challenge in front of him. Will they take him seriously? Will he be forced to chop off his ponytail and wear a tie (the sacrifices are indeed endless!)? Will he be able to manage his company’s growth without compromising the incredible work that has already been accomplished? So many questions remain… but count on me: I’ll be keeping an eye on things.

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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