“As soon as I heard about your mission and found out it was for real, I wanted to team up.” — Farm to Fork Partner Matt Couzens of Horse Listeners Orchard.
As a Bon Appétit Fellow, my job is to travel to our campuses on the East Coast and share with students where their food comes from — and why they should care. I am frequently asked, “Does your company lose money by following all these sustainable sourcing policies? Aren’t these local, humane, and environmentally sustainable products more expensive?”
The answer is a complex one: Yes, the product might sometimes come with a premium, but the payoff is tenfold.
When I went to visit Horse Listeners Orchard in Ashford, CT, enthusiastic owner Matt Couzens provided some farm-view insight into how and why buying local pays for Bon Appétit and our guests. Matt uses the metaphor of a three-legged stool to explain how Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork program only functions when all three teams — Bon Appétit, local farmers, and supportive students — are equally invested. Our chefs get the freshest ingredients, the small farmers get a consistent buyer, and well-fed students develop an interest in maintaining responsibly sourced ingredients.
Yes, local tomatoes are competitively priced — sometimes more than ones from far away when supply is low, sometimes cheaper when harvests are abundant — but what’s more important is that in addition to flavorful, ripe tomatoes, we also help build a supportive community that feels good about the ethics and taste of their food.
For some, fresh produce in particular makes all the difference. Peaches bought from the average grocery store, for example, are picked hard as a rock because they don’t ship well otherwise. Some students had never had a perfect peach ripened on the tree and eaten the day after it was harvested until Matt came into the picture.
Horse Listeners was chosen last September by our Northeast guests and Bon Appétiters to receive a $5,000 Fork to Farm grant, one of 10 that Bon Appétit gave out. Matt put his grant money towards a hoop house and a new cold storage room. The hoop house will significantly extend his growing season for greens, while having more storage space means no longer having to haul his apples to an outside storage facility. On-site storage means cutting down on fuel, labor, and storage fees; thereby having a positive environmental impact and cutting operating costs for Matt.
When I visited a few weeks ago, it became apparent within minutes why Horse Listeners came out on top as a grant winner. Matt’s journey into the world of agriculture is a relatively recent one, but the extent to which he has been able to grow his business is a testament to his passion for “sustaining the earth” and creating the relationships necessary to support that mission.
After working for IBM for 32 years, Matt didn’t want to “just sit in a rocking chair,” so he purchased Horse Listeners Orchard in 2007. Since then, his hard work has resulted in a growth rate of 26%, in large part due to his partnership with Bon Appétit and desire to provide local products to the community.
Matt not only grows his own produce — apples, peaches, blueberries, and greens to Roger Williams, Wesleyan, and Lesley Universities plus the University of St. Joseph and others— and delivers it himself, but he also goes above and beyond to create relationships with students and other farmers to strengthen that three-legged stool.
At Wesleyan, Matt is the go-to guy for students who run a food co-op on campus. Although certainly not in his job description, Matt has put time and energy into encouraging student interest in local agriculture. He helps them find the products they need to run their program and provide affordable, local goods to students who want to be part of a more environmentally and socially sustainable system.
Matt has proven himself to be a true Bon Appétit ambassador who reminds us what “sustainable” truly looks like. As he puts it, “A lot of people say they buy local but don’t. Bon Appétit is sincere in supporting farmers… thanks to Bon Appétit, I could ramp up and service what I need.”
And thanks to Matt, we continue to strengthen relationships with our students and the community, while cooking up the freshest New England produce.