“We don’t own the land, but have borrowed it from our grandchildren.”
El Gaucho Corporate Executive Chef Ken Sharp was at the forefront of the movement to source local products for his menu ingredients. In keeping with our model to use the best tasting products in the world, Ken looked to partner with a local supplier. “I wanted the best,” he simply explains, “and to know where our ingredients are coming from.”
Kurt and Kole Tonnemaker desired the same partnership, but after several failed attempts at breaking into the food service industry and finding a model that worked, they shied away from Ken’s persistent requests. It took a couple of years to convince them that Ken was serious, and they agreed to give it a trial run with heirloom tomatoes, a short growing season of only six weeks. That was six seasons ago, and now Tonnemaker supplies El Gaucho, along with 40 other area restaurants, with 3.5 million pounds of seasonal, organic produce annually – an impressive feat from a 126-acre farm.
The Tonnemaker farm is truly a five-generation labor of love. Located in the Columbia Basin in the Frenchman hills, Kurt and Kole’s grandparents purchased the virgin land in 1962 from a Korean War Veteran who obtained the land through a government lottery system available to veterans from the Korean and Second World War. Another government program built the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project in the 1930s, making water available to nearby farmlands through a canal system fed from Grand Coulee Dam. The 60-year-old system still irrigates the nearby soil that sees only 6-7” of average precipitation a year – and most of that comes from snowfall, not rain.
The first plantings on the farm were conventional (vs. organic), consisting of cherries, pears, and apples, and were marketed locally. In the mid-1980’s, Kole and his grandmother made a pivotal decision to move the farm away from conventional agriculture. IPM (Integrated Pest Management) systems were introduced to minimize chemical pesticides, a process that can take years. In 1997 Kole & Kurt entered the annual vegetable sections into the organic program, adding additional sections each year. The transition process takes a total of three years. The first section to enter the organic program was certified organic for the 2001 harvest, with all 126 acres were finally certified organic in 2006.
Today, Tonnemaker grows over 100 varieties of tree fruits and a huge array of vegetables, including an impressive 300+ varieties of peppers, and over 40 varieties of tomatoes and 20 squash, just to name a few. They are also expanding in Western Washington, having recently secured a purchase agreement on 14 acres in the Sammamish Valley, just south of Woodinville. After taking a year to prep the land, 2015 was their first year planting, including squash, tomatoes, lettuce, flowers, sweet corn and herbs.
Kole recalls the days of watching a semi-truck loaded with his harvest, head down the road with no idea where it was going, or in whose hands it would end up. He’d wonder if the consumers valued their product and how much was it worth.
“Once it was on that truck, we had no more control,” Kole recalls. “The responsibility was in someone else’s hands, which was disheartening.” Sometimes, it would take up to 13 months to be paid, as some of the supply was exported internationally, and it took that long to go through the chain of buyers and brokers.
Thanks to the evolution of selling direct to consumers, today, the produce that is picked on Tuesday is boxed up and delivered by Tonnemakers’ own trucks to restaurants in Seattle on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Friday afternoons, potentially making it onto consumer’s plates by dinnertime.
“It’s more worthwhile and rewarding to us to have the relationships with those who are consuming our products,” he explains. “That’s why we’re grateful to Ken and El Gaucho for their determination in developing a partnership with us, and creating the model to sell direct.”
El Gaucho is proud to highlight Tonnemaker squash on our menu this month, featuring four fabulous preparations on our fresh sheet. Come in to try Delicata Squash Fall salad, Butternut squash soup, Buttercup squash as a side dish, or Spaghetti squash pasta, a vegan dish.
You can also visit Tonnemaker Farms in Royal City, Woodinville, or purchase their produce first hand at a variety of farmer’s markets in the area or through their seasonal CSA*.
*CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and usually refers to a subscription for a weekly share in a farm. Subscribers register and pay for their share in the off-season when farmers are planting their crops, but have little income. The subscriber receives a weekly “share” of the harvest during the harvest season. Tonnemaker’s CSA runs July-November and is 100% fruit. It’s delivered to drop-sites around the Puget Sound region every week. For more information, visit the Tonnemaker’s website: www.tonnemaker.com/csa10lbclubfull.html