Flexibility is also key for Atlas Farm Manager Larson Weinstein, who runs a five-acre working farm in Finksburg, Md., for Baltimore’s Atlas Restaurant Group. Not many restaurants literally “buy the farm,” Weinstein admits, and it was an investment put to the test in its first growing season.
Atlas Farm began operations in early March, just before the pandemic, and while that might have seemed risky, it turned out to be an essential resource for the Baltimore community, serving as a food safety net for the restaurant industry as it faced temporary shutdowns and dining restrictions in the early spring and late winter.
“Our first crops of the spring were radishes and carrots, and we were completely shut down at that point, so we started doing an industry-wide grocery giveaway for any restaurant employees in Baltimore,” Weinstein says. “This farm also has become a lifeline and morale booster for the restaurant community. I’ve had dishwashers and line cooks come to work here for a few days, and it gives them something to do with their hands as we all navigate the pandemic.”
Atlas Restaurant Group has several restaurants and bar concepts, from the very swanky digs at The Bygone, a 1920s-style grill serving contemporary American and French cuisine at the top of the Four Seasons Baltimore hotel, to some very come-as-you-are bars and restaurants, like nautical-themed spots The Admiral’s Cup and The Choptank, both in Fells Point. Each place has been impacted by the pandemic, but Weinstein believes it’s the farm’s ability to save on food costs and resources that will see them to the other side. He thinks a restaurant-farming model adds equity and access to farm-to-table dining, too.
“Farm-to-table shouldn’t be for just some. My hope is that it will be for all,” Weinstein says. “And for people like me—a first-generation farmer, who wanted to farm but couldn’t afford to buy the land—this model of a restaurant managing a farm is a viable path forward.”
There’s also the sustainability factor that make this a winning model. Since the farm is located about an hour from Baltimore, it means fewer carbon emissions to transport a strawberry that might typically come from California or Mexico. Small-scale farming also helps move away from industrial farming practices that require intensive amounts of fertilizer or manure, which frequently end up as runoff in the Bay.
“Every acre of land we can take out of Big Ag and put into the hands of regenerative and sustainable agriculture is better for the Bay,” Weinstein says. “I grew up in Maryland, and in the ’90s the Bay looked a lot worse. We’re seeing the success of regulations and farming practices that limit runoff and improve the Bay’s water quality.”