Burgers à la Thomas Jefferson

Tod Murphy is a famous restaurateur; Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine have published articles about his Farmers Diner. But the central Vermont restaurant gets its five stars not because of its matchless cuisine but because Murphy and his partners are determined to serve affordable food raised right in the neighborhood — within seventy miles. This, evidently, is a near-revolutionary act in the era of the fifteen-hundred-mile apple.

Murphy, forty-one, and his wife, Pam Van Deursen, left a retail coffee business in New York in 1997 to teach themselves how to run their two-hundred-acre sheep farm in Washington, Vermont. Raised by farming grandparents in Connecticut, Murphy was profoundly influenced by Wallace Stegner and, later, Wendell Berry. Some observers have suggested that he is carrying on Berry’s work, linking husbandry and yeoman farming to true citizenship and a vibrant democracy.

The original 50-seat Farmers Diner in Barre, Vermont, opened in July 2002 and closed in August 2005 (it was too small, Murphy says, to earn sufficient profits for investors). In the middle of 2006, Murphy, who is president and CEO of The Farmers Diner, LLC., opened a new 150-seat diner nearby in Quechee, Vermont. It was the next step in creating a model that can be replicated all over the nation and, for that matter, the world. In the process of learning to be a farmer and restaurateur, Murphy found he had to get into the meat-processing business, since consolidation has largely eliminated small-scale meat processors. The Farmers Diner has also spun off a nonprofit arm that will train farmers to be restaurant suppliers and assemble farm networks to supply other Farmers Diners. “We’ve lost so much,” Murphy says of the small farmers and the knowledge and infrastructure that supports them.

Murphy discussed the Farmers Diner in his kitchen last April with Orion executive editor Harlan C. Clifford.

Harlan C. Clifford: It seems from what I’ve read that you have a very different sense of the economy, a very different idea of business. How do you characterize what you’re trying to do?
Tod Murphy: What the Farmers Diner is about is, we’re trying to buy food nearby, as close as we can, to serve in a restaurant where regular folks come and eat. Wendell Berry described it as “democratically priced food.” One of the interesting things about the Farmers Diner is that our vendors can afford to eat there on a regular basis.

People love it when they come in. They love the story. There’s a sense of belonging to a place that people are really hungry for. There’s an authenticity to it — a sense that you could show up at some of these suppliers’ farms if you wanted to. And the food tastes great.

We’ve discovered we had this great idea — great because it had a lot of potential. Farmers Diners could be like Applebees, but we would like to grow our business by creating the opportunity for local folks to be involved. Like with this restaurant in Quechee — it’s a big enough buyer that we’ll need ten to twenty farmers producing 150 to 200 hogs a year. Now at that level of farming you have an industry. They could have their own producers’ group and the kinds of things that spring up from that — shared experiences and resources, a local auction, a few more skilled butchers. It’s very different from the traditional model where you would try to put up forty units and create an increased valuation for the company and then take it public and everybody internally makes a lot of money because you’ve created all this “book” value by trading on the stock exchange.

Our real interest would be to have lots of people wanting to do a franchise where they are. We would help them do all the things a big company does — tell the story, be able to compete against other companies, get some economies of scale, help with insurance, management — the things that make being an independent operator in the restaurant business just exhausting. And also help develop that supply chain. Ultimately we see ourselves as kind of an enzyme to start a reaction for more local food and rural redevelopment.

HC: The Farmers Diner seems to be very much driven by you as an individual. How do you solve the problem — what appears to be a problem — of having to have a really driven person at the center of every one of these diners?
TM: There’s this great expression, “A stand has a gathering impact.” I feel like what I am doing is standing in the elevator door, holding it open, until all the right people can get on the elevator and then we can go. The vision has never been one guy out doing it all. It’s always been, let’s have a team and let’s figure out how to put in place the things that will allow other folks to do this. So we really have been going to school. What are the issues? How intricate are the issues? How do you solve the issues? What did we try that didn’t work? Let’s go back and try that again, so that a Farmers Diner can show up in Boston, or the Hudson River Valley, or out in Madison, so we know the pieces of infrastructure we need to bring, know where the levers are that we need to pull to make it work, and people don’t have to go through this process of learning in a crisis. But it’s not dependent upon one incredibly passionate, wacko person. It is initially — somebody has to be that stand — and people gather along with you, and then you have an impact.

HC: When you talk about democracy, you see the pieces that make up Farmers Diner fitting with that.
TM: I think that’s part of the reason that it resonates with people. Most of our relationships, economically, are faceless and distant. And I think a lot of people would rather have their economic life be a relationship — as well as other parts of their lives. And from the democracy side — it’s so easy to quote Jefferson, but he’s right — it’s really hard, if you have a lot of independent landowners, to screw around with them. The ideal of the independent farmer is about being free from dependence upon centralized powers and suppliers.

HC: So how does what you’re doing address the larger problems that our society faces? Or doesn’t it?
TM: Everyone’s in angst over oil, but oil can go away. It’s such a small part of our history as a species, it can go away. But we can’t have food go away. Not an option. It’s that central. And so doing the diner just seemed the natural thing to do.

What are the other big problems? People breathe and drink poisoned air and water; they don’t have relationships with their kids; they feel totally powerless in the face of these big, huge forces. I don’t know how we address any of that. I mean, I think we do, but we didn’t start out that way. For example, we have a delivery van, and our next one is going to be biodiesel because we have all this Frialator oil. I will tell the story about it being an environmentally great thing to do; it’s also a great economic thing to do and it’s also a liberating thing to do — we’re not tied to a corporate petroleum deal. But we don’t do it because we’re trying to solve big dilemmas. We do it because it makes sense for us.

HC: The task of dealing with what’s in front of you seems to be a motivating factor for you; you focus on what you can change around you.
TM: That’s just how stuff shows up for me. They asked me to speak down in Boston at the IDEAS Conference at the Federal Reserve Bank. The hotel that they put me in was six or eight blocks away, so I was hoofing it over in the morning, and I went by a couple of T [subway] stops, and I was watching people huddled under their backpacks, coming out of the T, going to Starbucks, and then they’re going to their jobs. Then I went into the Federal Reserve where they have these displays set up about social history. They have the 1800-whatevers, and there’s a scythe, and reapers, and binders, and pictures of horses and stuff. So I stopped at the scythe to read the sign. It talked about how people used to be on the land, and it was awful, life was so hard, terrible drudgery, they had no teeth, this kind of thing. But “drudgery” was the word that struck me. I had just walked through a crowd of people who were the epitome of drudgery, people who are pursuing what is held out as “progress, living life.”

I didn’t know how to talk to this group of people; it was an august body of people. I asked, “How can you say that when I’m outside working with my scythe, outside where all these people are anxious to go for their two weeks a year — why is that still perceived as drudgery when shuffling off the T to go to your cubicle to make money to go pay the health club so you can go sit on a bike that doesn’t go anywhere and it’s called spinning class so you can feel good because you’re doing physical activity so you’ll have energy to go back to the cubicle — why is that not drudgery?”

HC:I get the sense that you have a really strong feeling of personal responsibility and personal accountability to the world around you. Where does that come from?
TM: There are two things we’re here to do in this life: to remember where we came from and to take care of the world around us. And I think they go hand in hand. If you look at the world around you, it needs help. If you consider your own proclivities, that kind of gives you a clue to where you could start to try to help. And I think through that process of contributing to the world around you where it needs help, you begin to understand who you really are and why you’re here. There’re a lot of traditions of enlightenment, of getting beyond your own petty concerns — spirituality or any of those things. The book of James says, show me your faith without your works and I’ll show you my faith by my work. And I think the idea is that you have to work out your faith. You have to work at being a contribution, at being responsible and showing up to do what you say you’re going to do. That is where any kind of spiritual transformation begins to happen.

There’s an evangelical bent to me. But I don’t want to evangelize only to the folks who can afford organic. I want everybody to be able to opt in. [At the diner,] everybody’s welcome, everybody gets it. Accountants and librarians feel connected — not everybody has to farm to feel connected to place. The whole community can feel connected to it, and when that happens, you begin to develop a sense of responsibility and obligation to your neighbors, which is largely lacking, which is not a thread in America anymore. It used to be, but it’s not anymore.

HC: You describe a citizenship that seems so at odds with the mainstream American culture. Do you feel you’re working out on the fringe or at the core?
TM: It’s a recent American mainstream that I would look juxtaposed to. In a historical context, I don’t feel like I’m at the fringe. You’ve got Emerson and people like that. In a present context, I don’t think many folks really feel that as citizens we are called to contribute to life by doing work that creates health and wholeness, because there’s not been a national figure who shows up with that message.

HC: Who do you think was the last one?
TM: Kennedy, with his “ask not” speech. The reason I think the environmental movement struggles is because we’re always against something. We’ve become so utterly against things as a culture. We don’t have people who say, here’s this great vision of where we want to go and we’re going there. And the reason we’re going is because there’s this great American value in being a contribution to the world and taking the moral high ground and being that city on the hill. Nobody talks like that. Not so that you would ever believe it.

HC: It would be nice to hear someone say that.
TM: And then to say the truth. Be willing to say the truth as they see it and take their lumps for it. But say it.

HC: You mentioned that you’ve had some conversations with would-be investors who couldn’t seem to get their heads around what you’re trying to do.
TM: I’ve shown up three of the last four years at Investors’ Circle [a gathering of socially responsible venture capitalists]. I’m a neophyte, that’s not my world. I went in with the presumption that we all care about the world, and we want to solve this problem, and I thought that we were all having the same conversation, but I didn’t understand the listening that I was speaking into. I was flabbergasted for the first two years. I didn’t understand that there was this incredible capacity to hold opposite thoughts in your head at the same time. We all do this. This is the human condition. It’s the reason you can put a Sierra Club bumper sticker on an SUV and never see the disconnect. Now I can understand it.

Like most things, investing is really specialized. You conform, that’s how you play in the game. It’s like you flip it on and you’re in investment mode. Then you go home and you love your kids, and you’re adamant that they are well and protected. But you never see that you just did a deal with whomever, who’s putting toxins into food or air or water. You just see that it is going to be a fifteenfold return. You’re going to go home to your daughter who’s got some kind of cancer as a result of that and never see the connection.

So at these investor meetings I would show up and say, “Here’s Farmers Diner and it got a decent enough return that you ought to pay attention, and we’re changing the world.”

And they would say, “I think you’re doing philanthropy and I don’t want to invest in that.”

“Well, no, we’re going to give you a return on your investment.”

And they would go, “It’s not good enough.”

“What do you mean? Against what?”

Paul Hawken talks about this disconnect all the time. He just gets ripped when people start comparing socially responsible ventures with how the NASDAQ is doing. He tells the story of how one time a bunch of businessmen said to him, “Make the case to us for socially responsible business. Make the case.”

And he said, “You make the case to me for destroying our environment, polluting our water, poisoning our children, increased rates of cancer. You make that case for me. Then I’ll respond and make the socially responsible case.”

I’m sitting in his camp so I’m going, Way to go, kick them in the ass. But I know now that most of those traditional business guys probably walked out of the room going, He’s idealistic. They totally didn’t hear him say, We’re killing ourselves, we don’t have any of the things we say we really value. Because we’re not asking those questions.

HC: What would you say success looks like for you personally, for your company, and economy-wide?
TM: Economy-wide, a nice first success would be to have the Wagner and Sherman acts enforced, to not have this ongoing consolidation. [Editor’s Note: The Sherman Antitrust Act, passed in 1890, is intended to limit corporate monopolies and restraint on trade; the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, protects workers’ rights to unionize and engage in collective bargaining and strikes.] This always sounds flippant, but I think it would be nice if in the South they had a southern accent and dressed differently than they do in the North and out West. Success would be the end of the pervasive mall culture and the oneness of so many things.

HC: For people who like iPod or Rush Limbaugh, explain — what’s wrong with that?
TM: I see our concept of living as being like in The Matrix, where we’re all in this pod and we’re just supplying energy to this beast, the economy, and we’re kind of doing it thoughtlessly.

HC: It seems you’re trying to create an alternative reality. Or maybe go back to a different, earlier, reality.
TM: In a humanist point of view, the ideal success would be that you can choose how you want to express yourself. And I think there are a lot of people who would like the choice of local food and being in relationship with their community and caring for one another. That choice has been severely limited. So now you really do have to opt out in order to choose deliberately to participate in creating health and wholeness in a place. The Amish are an example of opting out. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create a choice, available to regular folks, of being connected and being part of a community. So success would be to have that choice on a level playing field. That’s why I think the Sherman Act being enforced would be so great. Because we see consolidation across the board, I think we have the illusion of choice.

HC: You’re essentially working on an economic model of change, one that says I can spend a dollar, buy locally, and change society in good ways. Is that all I have to do?
TM: One of the worst things that ever happened was Bill Clinton saying, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Our entire measurement is economic. It’s like we’re only measuring with the odd numbers, we never use the even numbers, so it’s not really even a complete measurement. If you’re stymied morally, just default to economics. That is our religion. Every time I meet someone who is an economist, I say, “Oh, [you’re a] high priest,” and they’re very offended.

And so it would be great if people really thought they were voting with their dollars, but it sounds so glib, because we have lost most of the candidates we would vote for. Really, is it much of a vote between Exxon, BP, Shell, and Texaco? Look, it is our fault that the world is the way it is. It’s our fault because of the choices we continually make.

So if we would just spend our money differently that would be great. But what is beyond that? What is the call to be human in the world beyond that? If we had healthy communities where people took care of one another, paid attention to one another, argued with each other, got mad and swore at each other and still stayed in relationship with one another (because that’s what relationship is, it’s a mess) — if we had these local messes while we were working it out, then what’s next? That’s the spiritual question for everyone to deal with.

HC: You wrote in an e-mail to me, “The act of farming well changes the mind and the way of thinking.”
TM: We’re all so full of our own self-importance. And most of the stuff we do is petty bullshit to fill the time before we die. You know, there’s always the question of why does God let terrible things happen in the world, and people have always spent time trying to answer this question. Maybe one part of that answer is that God really just wants us to be in relationship. If we were willing to deal with that inconvenience 24/7 — instead of two minutes out of every day, and the rest of the day is all about ourselves — if we could be in relationship like that, that would be really good because then we would get outside of ourselves. Probably we would be closer to being in an enlightened state than we are.

Farming, when you do it well, demands that you be in relationship with life, outside of your self-concerns. The other morning I was going through my head what the day was going to be like. My thoughts were dominated by caring for my family, the sheep, the chickens, the cows, the ducks. I started laughing, because finally, after nine years [of farming], I’m frequently happier being had rather than having. And that is really what happens through farming because you’re had by life, if you’re doing it well. But that is a mind-altering experience. You have this transformation happen where you can relax into being had: okay, now the cows have me, my life is a consideration of the cows. It’s unremitting, but that’s life. To do it well you eventually are had by it. And it creates a very different citizen.

HC: You’ve written about how, in order to create a different world, the first people to change often have to sacrifice something substantial. What convinces people to change when change is hard?
TM: The force for change doesn’t always have to be some big terrible thing. The British finally felt that India was unpalatable because this skinny old guy was willing to keep going to jail, and enough of the people were willing to show up on the streets. South Africa is just fascinating. Their guy [Nelson Mandela] just went to jail and didn’t get to come back out. That stand has a gathering impact — taking a stand in a jail cell, on an island, with no cameras broadcasting his face anywhere. But he took a stand. So maybe the first movers of change aren’t really giving up anything, maybe they’re just quietly doing what’s required and creating in the world the strength of an idea.