What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

Purslane-1I've long wondered what it would be like to dedicate a week to eating only wild-foraged foods and this has been my week to give it a try.

The foraging experience is vastly different depending on the season. Early spring is abundant with fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, and savory mushrooms. Late summer has an array of ripe fruits and tree nuts. But mid-summer, while lacking in tender greens and beefy fungus, serves up a main course of berries - strawberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, serviceberries, elder berries, and huckleberries. I timed my week-long foraging experience to coincide with this wild-berry buffet. 

I have some broader inquiries to make about the experience but here are some initial observations about the week.

1. It takes time: The first four days of the week all started with a couple hours of picking huckleberries in the mountains around the Spokane. My rule has been to pick only enough for each day, so each day has arrived with nothing in the cupboard. In this sense it's the ultimate slow food. I've enjoyed the quiet time in the mountains for reflection each morning but the time required would make it difficult to fit into my non-sabbatical rhythms.

I could imagine making one day a week a forage day, sampling what nature offers up and intentionally making time to head out into the wilderness.

2. I'm surprised I'm not more hungry: My daughters' softball tournaments later in the week led to afternoon foraging, which meant going long stretches without any food. To my great surpise my cravings have been minor during these long stretches. Early in the week I was cranky and hungry, but with six days under my belt my hunger has subsided. Last night I actually had leftovers from dinner. 

I find this to be true every time fast. The first couple of days are miserable but after getting over that hurdle there is a quiet contentment that comes over my body and mind. At first I rebel against the limitations as a small crisis, but then the crisis passes and the limitations become a path to a strange peace. I suspect that this experience is what compels religious ascetics. 

3. Berries get old after awhile: It seems like a dream come true to eat your fill of huckleberries every day but I'm kind of sick of them at this point. Thankfully I discovered purslane, a nice-tasting wild green that grows abundantly in our garden. There is a poisonous lookalike (spurge) that grows right alongside it so you have to be careful, but it is fantastic in a little stir-fry. It is also renowned for containing more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green vegetable.

I also discovered an old apricot tree on conservation area land in Spokane Valley. I have avoided gleaning from working farms but the apricot tree is wild at this point so it's fair game. Because the tree isn't being watered the fruits are small and the sugars are concentrated. Wow! The best apricots ever.

The purslane and apricots are good examples of the tasty but hidden abundance that surrounds us. 

I've also eaten thimbleberries, serviceberries, and tiny strawberries.

4. There is enough: The first couple of days were filled with urgency. I wondered if I could gather enough each day to sustain me. I even picked strawberries the size of sunflower seeds, thinking that they might be all I would have for the day. I now know, at least this time of year, there is enough. Huckleberries are the perfect example.

Spokane is part of what I'll call the Huckleberry Belt. You go anywhere in the mountain regions of Eastern Washington and Montana and you'll find that huckleberries are a cultural icon. Red-fingered pickers sell them at stands on every corner in tourist towns and high-end boutiques carry lines of huckleberry soaps, make-up, and gourmet candy.

Whole families in this region dedicate summer-weeks for camping and picking berries, filling coolers with them for jams, pies, and the freezer. Everyone has their "secret spot" for picking and no one is too eager to share the details of the location. It's one of those, "I'd tell you where we go for berries but then I'd have to kill you," sort of situations. 

There is a strong culture of scarcity around this legendary berry, primarily because it only grows in the wild. Despite their best efforts, hortculturists have failed to cultivate huckleberries for commercial growing. Like morel and porcini mushrooms, farmers can't grow them and package them for Costco. It's a wild plant and you have to go into the wild to harvest. Go here for more background on this. 

This wildness lends itself to the sense of scarcity that surrounds the berry. If a food doesn't grow in crop rows or through industrial practices, we can't imagine there is enough and so we sneak around to keep others out of our patch or some even pay $80/gallon plus $35 shipping to buy them online.

Well I'm here to bust the myth of scarcity that surrounds the huckleberry. My foraging week has led me to the mountains almost every day and every place I go is packed with berries. Huckleberries are everywhere. They are not scarce, they are abundant and there is enough for everyone in the Inland Northwest to harvest till it hurts - your back and your tummy. (I've learned that it is actually a little uncomfortable if you eat too many.) If you live in Spokane there is no need to drive to the Canadian border to your families secret spot. Just drive 30 minutes to Mount Spokane and hike around a little and you'll find your fill. 

In a cruel irony it is often our fear of scarcity that leads us to degrade natural places to grow crops or harvest timber which leads to actual scarcity. Haiti is an extreme example of this but the truth holds everywhere. Our fear of scarcity is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An alternative posture to a fear of scarcity is to live in wonder of the abundance of what nature offers up. Foraging has helped reinforce this perspective in my life this week.

5. Be careful: For every edible in the wild there is often a poisonous lookalike. Only eat what you know and rely on more than one source of information to identification. For example, my primary ID book says that purslane doesn't have a poisonous lookalike, but all my other references point to spurge as similar to purslane. I'm grateful to the clarification provided by my these sources because in our garden the spurge grows right next to the purslane. So close that sometimes I'll grab a handful of purslane and a spurge plant is mixed up in the harvest. 

I'll follow up with more observations later in the week.

My Take on Ethics of Eating - More grace needed in current food debates

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Last week I was a panelist on an Ethics of Eating event at Sante' restaurant in downtown Spokane and today's edition of the Spokesman Review has an article on what transpired. The in-person event, pictured above, was organized in response to a heated virtual debate on Facebook over the fact that Sante' serves foie gras. You can look on the Sante' Facebook page for a run down of the debate. Local TV news even did a story on it. Here's one of the critical comments posted on Faceboook:

You will never have our business/patronage because I now know you serve foie gras. And we will never recommend your restaurant to local friends or out of town guests. In fact, we will tell them about your inhumane offerings and I'm sure they will decide the same, as our friends are all animal caring people. In your quest to serve haute' cuisine and be a Cosmo restaurant, you have shown us that you have made unethical choices to seek your customers. With many other dining options, our money will be spent elsewhere. Shame on you for putting money above the suffering of ducks and geese.

I personally really enjoyed the event, especially hearing from Jeremy and other leaders in the Spokane sustainable food community. There were not any strident critics in the audience but there were some good questions from vegans about the justification for killing animals when other alternatives are available. I explained that I find those arguments a lot more compelling than I used to, although I am not yet convinced. I appreciated that the audience expressed a genuine desire to learn about food systems and the my fellow panelists responded with a gracious desire to inform and inspire people to learn more. I guess the big surprise was that the in-person event was such a pleasant dialogue compared to the rancor and bitterness of the online lobbing of accusatory grenades. The online ethical debate around food has taken on an almost religious character, with the puritans on one side and hedonists on the other.

This is one of the reasons I have been compelled to explore actual religious traditions around food. I have suspected that the religious-like debate around food systems might actually have something to learn from actual religious food practices. We've spent the last four months following kosher food laws and Orthodox fasting rules. We celebrated the end of the Orthodox Lenten fast last Saturday with the midnight Pascha service at Holy Trinity Orthodox church. 

I plan on writing extensively about what we have been learning but there is one aspect of the Pascha service that I found especially helpful for current debates around food. In the Orthodox church the fasting rules for Lent are very strict. On most days there is no meat, no dairy, no oil, no fish, no eggs, and no alcohol. On days where there is an evening celebration of the eucharist the strict rule is that you abstain from all food and drink until receiving the communion elements at the evening service. We followed these rules closely but there is a wide range of observance in the Orthodox church, with many loosely observing the rules and many not observing them at all. One of the ethical questions around these food rules in the Orthodox church is how to deal with the diversity of practice given an ethical ideal. This is the same question that faces locavores, slow-food advocates, vegan evangelists and the rest. 

At the Pascha service I learned how they deal with this diversity of practice as they prepare to gather around tables and celebrate the Paschal feast. Their approach is summed up in their reading of the famous sermon from St. John Crysostom which opens with these words:

If any be a devout lover of God,
  let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast.
If any be a faithful servant,
  let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
  let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have laboured from the first hour,
  let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third,
  let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have come after the sixth,
  let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth,
  let him not hesitate but draw near.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh,
  let him not be afraid because he comes so late.

For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour
  in the same was as him who has laboured from the first.
He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.
First and last, receive alike your reward.
Rich and poor, dance together.
You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.
The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.
The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry.

When it comes to sharing in the abundant feast of lamb that follows the Paschal service they make no distinction between those who come first and those who come last, those who fasted strictly and those who didn't fast at all. (See Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard for the theological background to this.) My orthodox friends model this approach throughout Lent by not talking openly about their individual fasting practices so as to avoid pride and the divisions that it cultivates. In the midst of the most strict food rules I've ever encountered they somehow manage to offer grace instead of judgment. 

The fullness of the gospel expressed in the invitation to the table at the Paschal service can't be reduced to a simple lesson, but it does offer a provocative vision of what it looks like for a community to gather around food practices, which might be helpful for food activists filled with religious zeal for their cause:

Instead of identifying all the people (or chefs) that they'll never share a meal with, how about a grace-filled invitation to gather around the feast table, seeking community and relationships, knowing that these relationships are the foundation for more ethical practice.

Instead of exalting the puritans and hurling accusations at the unfaithful, how about an acknowledgement that we are all sinners caught up in a fallen food system. 

Instead of prideful proclamations of approved practices, how about a humble stance that lifts up ideals but avoids creating a culinary class system. 

I'm glad for the face-to-face gathering at Sante' last week. It felt like a generous invitation to gather around the table in the diversity of our practices to learn and grow together. I look forward to more such conversations.

"Project Hope" in Spokane Teaching At-Risk Youth Urban Gardening & Life Skills

Project Hope is a great model program in Spokane teaching at-risk teens life skills through urban gardening, backyard chickens, farmers' markets, and landscaping. Project Hope was initiated by a group in the west central neighborhood, with Salem Lutheran Church as a key sponsor. It's yet another example of how churches are leading the way in these kinds of earthy outreach endeavors. Here's a recent TV report

http://swfs.bimvid.com/bimvid_player-3_2_7.swf?x-bim-callletters=KREM

Battle Over World's Coal Supply on Track to Go Right Through Spokane

image from www.treehugger.comPhoto by Paul K Anderson

It's seems a little strange to be talking about coal as an issue in the clean hydro-and-wind-abundant state of Washington. After all, lawmakers recently passed legislation that will make us the first state to be free from coal-fired energy. But a coal battle is brewing around the potential of Washington ports becoming major outlets for shipping Wyoming's Powder-River-Basin coal to China. According to the Wyoming's Trib:

Peabody Energy has completed a deal to ship Powder River Basin coal to Asia via a planned export terminal in northwest Washington.The deal with Seattle-based SSA Marine will allow St. Louis-based Peabody to ship up to 24 million metric tons of coal per year via the Gateway Pacific Terminal near Ferndale, Wash.The port would be Peabody’s West Coast hub for exporting Powder River Basin coal to Asian markets, Peabody said in a media release Monday.

Another coal export terminal proposed in Longview in southwest Washington has drawn environmental opposition. That Millennium Bulk Logistics terminal would be a joint venture between Australia-based Ambre Energy and St. Louis mining giant Arch Coal Inc.

The problem for Spokane is that our abundance of railroad tracks would serve as the major artery to transport the uncovered coal cars, with their clouds of toxic dust, to the coast.

Leaders in Spokane are mobilizing to keep the coal trains out of Spokane and are hosting a gathering next week:

What:  Spokane Happy Hour event to learn more about Coal Hard Truth
When: Tuesday, August 23rd 6-8 p.m.
Where:  Rooftop of the Saranac Building, downtown Spokane, 25 W. Main (http://bit.ly/qRP4Y3)

For some, lentils are "like Kryptonite" - National Lentil Festival in Pullman Aug. 19-20

image from dwp.bigplanet.com Last week at the farmers' market someone responded to the prospect of buying a package of dried lentils by saying, "I couldn't do that. Lentils are like my Kryptonite." A few years ago I might have agreed with him but during our year of local consumption I learnd to LOVE lentils. We started our local eating binge in January without any of summer's harvest stored up for the winter so we were forced to turn to local offerings, which included an abundance of lentils. We put them in soups and burritos and salads and I came to really appreciate them.

I learned that they come in beautiful colors like gold/orange, green, red, and black. (In an ironic twist, it turns out Kryptonite also comes in gold, green, red, and black) I also learned that the Inland Northwest is most prolific lentil-producing region in the US. So it should be no surprise that Pullman will be hosting the National Lentil Festival this weekend.

According to the USDA:

Lentils were probably one of the primary domesticates (as were wheat and barley) on which Neolithic agriculture was founded in the Near East about 8,500 years ago. By the Bronze Age, they had been disseminated throughout the Mediterranean region, Asia, and Europe. Lentils were introduced into the United States in 1916, near Farmington, Washington. The commercial production of U.S. lentils today can probably be traced to that introduction of a single landrace.

Lentils are grown in our region as a cash crop, most of which is exported to regions of the world where people don't see the little legumes as a mortal danger. According to the USDA:

Lentils contribute significantly to farm economics in the Palouse and the United States as a whole. The lentil crop, during the last decade, averaged over 54,400 metric tons with an approximate value of $31.7 million annually. About 80 percent of U.S. lentils are exported. Principal markets for Palouse-grown lentils are Spain, Peru, Ethiopia, and Venezuela.

But lentils are also used by farmers as a vital ingredient in successful production of wheat and barley which are the staples of area farmland. The lentils, like all legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil, thus requiring less application of chemical fertilizers on the cereal crop that follows it. They also help reduce the pesticides needed in subsequent crops and reduce erosion. 

One secret of living in Spokane is that the local pea & lentil processors like Spokane Seed have small retail operations where you can buy peas and lentils directly from the warehouse. If you've experienced Kryptonite-like effects from green lentils, I recommend trying the smaller darker colored varieties.

Joseph's Grainery, a local Colfax farmer and retailer, has an excellent website with information on how to cook with lentils. They've even got Youtube videos.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvgkilH5sjc&w=480&h=303]

They also make a lentil flour which we've been selling at the farmers' market this summer. It's a gluten free alternative to wheat flours.

And if your children's superpowers are suffering from the thought of eating lentils, the US Dry Pea & Lentil Council has a recipe for lentil chocolate cake and even some cartoon characters.

image from www.pea-lentil.com
And did I mention that lentils are cheap and they last forever? What's not to like?

Shepherd's Grain Wheat Co-op Still Stirring National Food Conversations

Steptoe4
I write about Fred Fleming and the Shepherd's Grain wheat co-op in Year of Plenty. I wish I could claim to have made them famous but the truth is that national media outlets have been doing stories on them for years. When they are interested sustainable wheat farming, Shepherd's Grain and their no-till farming methods have been a go-to source of information. They have even been featured on CNN

The latest story comes from Helene York and the Atlantic Monthly. She is intrigued by SG's partnership with ADM, a company usually touted as the arch-enemy in conversations about sustainable food. York sounds a little conflicted as she writes:

I came away from my weekend with some complicated questions. Can locally baked bread be called "artisanal" if the wheat is from cooperatively farmed wheat fields that end up processed by ADM? What if the opposite were true: if the wheat were milled in an employee-run facility but came from the commodity markets? 

Perhaps the lesson is that there's no one path that can suit every region, especially now, with consolidation having left producers with only a few scalable choices. ADM may have bought up most large-scale mills over the last century, giving groups like Shepherd's Grain nowhere else to turn. But if a plant manager takes a political and operational risk, and makes it possible for a co-op that grows wheat responsibly to survive, is that bad? 

Re-regionalizing our food system will surely mean creating new alliances, some with small entities wishing to grow bigger, some with large entities whose ways we often (rightly) criticize. Perhaps the most sustainable solutions will be those forged by individuals who need each other's support and resources, at interim steps along the way, regardless of the size of the entities they represent. 

I wrote in a previous post about the nature of this unusual partnership between an "artisanal" co-op and a mega-corporation. My post was sparked by a conversation with Fred Fleming and his words, "Hello, my name is Fred and I'm a recovering conventional farmer." I wrote:

I had a chat with Fred about the Inlander editorial that was critical of their efforts. My response is here. Paul Haeder’s basic gripe is that they use Round Up to control weeds and that they invited a rep from ADM to a farming summit who had never been to an actual wheat field. Hint Hint Hint - Shepherd’s Grian is in bed with ADM, the agricultural death star, the evil industrial food complex. What Paul didn’t understand in his critique is that it’s not ADM that has Shepherd’s Grain in its tractor beam, it’s Shepherd’s Grain that is drawing in and converting ADM.

According to Fred, the Spokane ADM mill on Trent that processes almost all the flour in our region, is the only ADM mill in the country that allows a grower like Shepherd’s Grain to process their flour separately. Fred explained that this unusual arrangement has captured the imagination of ADM’s management and as a result Spokane’s mill is seen as a kind of model of the future. In a world where everything is rapidly commodifying, in Spokane, flour is decommodifying and consumers like that and that makes corporate offices of multi-national corporations take notice. It’s actually quite remarkable and it’s all happening right here in Spokane.

In order to innovate more sustainable food practices, it’s going to take folks like me and you stepping forward and saying, “Hello, I’m a recovering conventional consumer.” But it’s also going to take farmers like Fred because consumer demand only goes so far.

Picture: Palouse wheat fields as seen from Steptoe Butte.

Debates Around Portland Oregon's Public Market Helpful to Spokane's Public Market Effort

image from www.ams.usda.gov Neighborhood farmers' markets are popping up across America. According to the USDA, there has been a 250% growth in the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. (1,755 in 1994 to a total of 6,132 in 2010). The growing popularity of farmers' markets is leading many cities to try and reestablish permanent public markets like the Pike Place Market in Seattle. After a ten year effort, locavore-passionate Portland is close to opening one of the most high profile market initiatives in the country. Their proposed James Beard Public Market is stirring up a debate that is helpful for other cities like Spokane as we look to the opening of our own public market on June 2. 

The Oregonian reported this week that while most growers and advocates for local food support the market, there are some reservations and questions.

So what do local farmers and their backers at these markets have to say about a permanent public market? Is it a competitor, business booster, or something in between? That depends on whom you ask, but most seem to support the idea — with caveats.

The two main caveats mentioned in the Oregonian article have to do with the feasability of the business model and the what I'll call the "Pike-Place-Market-Envy Problem."

First, the business model:

Farmers market manager Eamon Molloy wonders whether a permanent market that’s costly to build will ultimately serve local farmers and food artisans’ needs. “I’m concerned that we’re going to build a shrine to food rather than a place where customers can go to buy it,” says Molloy, who runs the Hillsdale and Lloyd farmers markets. “People don’t make a ton of money at this. Food is by nature a low-margin business.

Second the Pike-Place problem:

Trevor Baird of Baird Family Orchards agrees, saying the regulars who buy his Dayton-grown peaches week in and week out will always be there. A public market along the lines of Pike Place Market in Seattle offers something altogether different. “I love Pike Place (Market) for the spectacle of it,” says Baird. “I’m not going to get strawberries there. The vendors there are wholesalers — they’ve got some nice produce, but they’re not farmers and they don’t pretend to be.” 

Not all the vendors at Pike Place are "high stallers" as farmers' market purists call them, but in order to fill the shelves of a year-round market with the tourist cache' of Pike Place, many of the fruits and vegetables on offer at the Seattle market are imports from far-off places. Florida oranges and bananas from South America mingle with Washington grown items. 

This is a very different approach from a neighborhood farmers' market. According to the rules of the Washington State Farmers' Market Association, markets like the one in Millwood that I help run cannot sell bananas and California strawberries. Everything must be from the region and while there are allowances for some wholesale selling, there are strict limits, and farmers impose a lot of pressure on market managers to keep wholesale product from competing with their direct-from-the-farm product. 

A permanent public market with high overhead costs will have a difficult time in Spokane if they limit the produce and fruit to only what the regional climate has to offer. Its offerings will likely mirror what Full-Circle farm is doing with their fruit and veggie boxes. A mix of unique local offerings and wholesale goods that are similar to what is available in a grocery store. While Pike Place Market can maintain its aura even as they sell wholesale stuff, it remains to be seen whether something like the Spokane Public Market or the Portland market, for that matter, can pull that off. Others have tried and are trying with mixed results.

The folks in Portland are hoping for a hybrid model.

According to the James Beard Public Market website, the goal is a market with the “vitality” ofPike Place or Granville Island Market, but with “the primary focus on connecting local growers and food producers to local customers.” 

Pike Place Market is a cultural and economic icon that is the envy of cities across America. Probably every city that looks to start a public market uses Pike Place as a reference point, but I cringe when I hear someone say that the new public market on Second and Browne will "one day rival the Pike Place Market." Spokane's psyche is scarred from years of finding itself on the short end of comparisons to Seattle, so in my opinion we are really setting ourselves up for problems when we build that into the vision for the new Market. 

This story reported by GOOD about the other Portland's foray into Pike Place Market envy should serve as a cautionary tale:

After a visit to the bustling Pike Place Market in Seattle, a financial adviser for philanthropist Betty Noyce (the late, ex-wife of the Intel microchip founder) suggested that she fund a new public market in Portland, Maine, in order to revitalize the downtown. Noyce went on to finance the $9.4 million Portland Public Market, which opened in 1999 with 23 food vendors. Over the next seven years, farmers lodged complaints about poor access, the market struggled with a high vendor turnover rate, and two high-end restaurants there failed. In 2006, the market closed, after Noyce's foundation reported annual losses of about $1 million.

Several vendors launched a subsequent campaign to "Save the Market" and a year later, a new, slightly renamed, Portland Public Market House-a smaller, unsubsidized building filled with four permanent vendors (three of whom own the building) and a community kitchen-opened on a square adjacent to the city's once-a-week outdoor farmers' market.

I am hoping for the success of the new market. It would be a great addition to the local food scene, and best of all it would be a boon to the local farmers I know and support. It won't be a Pike Place Market, but hopefully it will be a unique and wonderful expression of the Inland Northwest's farms and food. The site currently shows the market opening this Thursday, June 2. 

 

First Morel Mushroom Sightings of the Spring in Spokane

Morels After a couple weeks of looking for morel mushrooms in Spokane wilderness areas I finally came across two blonde beauties today. I've seen an abundance of poisonous false morels so be careful if you're on the hunt. I won't reveal my new secret area but I will say that I found them near the Spokane River. They tasted delicious. They are hopefully the first of many this season. If you can't find any yourself, Mo at the Millwood Farmer's Market will hook you up. The market starts May 18.

Rocky Ridge Ranch Accepting New CSA Members from the Spokane Area for Summer 2011

image from www.rockyridgeranchspokane.com Here's the scoop from Gary and So at Rocky Ridge Ranch about the upcoming season of CSA offerings. They are my favorites. Go here for more background on CSA programs. 

Just a reminder to let you know we are taking new applications for the CSA Programs for this Summer starting  the first week of June. If you're interested please visit our web site and check out these programs.We still have 15 openings for the Produce/Eggs program "Cooler of TheBest" and about 5 openings for the Variety Meats program. Also we welcome our many prior customers for Beef, Pork and Poultry to contact us and place your Pre-Order for this year. It's agood idea to place your order now as demand has been high and we areoften sold out later in the year. We are looking forward to hearing from you again this year.

Gary and So are featured farmers in my book Year of Plenty. The Millwood Farmers' Market, that opens on May 18, is one of the pick-up spots for their CSA boxes. The Millwood Farmers' Market opens for the summer season on May 18 and is currently open on Wed. from 2-6pm for the winter season at the Crossing Youth Center.

Year of Plenty at Barnes & Noble, in The Pacific Northwest Inlander

I'll be at the Spokane Valley Barnes & Noble tomorrow, Saturday April 9 from 11am to 1pm and at the Northtown B&N from 2-5pm, signing books and talking about chickens, turning lawns into vegetable gardens, and anything people want to chat about. I would love to see you.

In other YoP news, there is a nice article, Faith on a Plate, in this week's Pacific Northwest Inlander about Year of Plenty

"Year of Plenty" Book Release Celebration, Sat. April 2, 2pm at Auntie's Bookstore

I'll be at Auntie's Bookstore tomorrow, April 2 at 2pm. Along with signing books, I'll speak on the Mezzanine about the process of writing the book, and offer some thoughts about the importance of telling the story of our experiences in the Inland Northwest. Second Harvest Plant-A-Row for the Hungry will be there giving away seeds, and Spokane Community Garden folks will be there doing a seed planting activity with kids. It should be fun and I'd love to have you join us. 

Pumpkin Patch Community Garden Up and Running for 2011

Pumpkinpatch
We had a great work day today at the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden in the west valley of Spokane. As you can see from the picture even the little guys were putting their muscles into preparing the soil for a new growing season. We added 12 more beds today, giving us a total of 42 10x4 ft raised beds. If you're interested in having a garden plot this summer there are still some openings. Go here to find out how you can be involved. If you're not close to the Pumpkin Patch go here for a map of all the community gardens in Spokane.

March 26 Earth Hour Event in Spokane Calls Faith Communities to Care About Environment

I'll be at this event on Saturday signing books and enjoying the conversation. Here are the details:

The Faith and Environment Network’s annual Called to Care event will take place on Earth Hour Day, Saturday, March 26, 2011, beginning at 4 pm at the Cathedral of St.John the Evangelist, 127 E. 12th Avenue, on Spokane’s South Hill. Earth Hour is an event initiated by the World Wildlife Fund in 2007 in Sydney, Australiawhen 2.2 million individuals and more than 2,000 businesses turned their lights off for onehour to take a stand against climate change. At Earth Hour 2010 a record 128 countries and territories joined the global display of climate action in celebration and contemplation of the one thing we all have in common – our planet. It included the Earth Hour event offered in Spokane by the Faith and Environment Network.

This year’s annual event will feature
• a panel of artists and naturalists discussing our observation, awareness and mindfulness of theenvironment,
• a presentation on the Dark-Sky movement which seeks to preserve and protect the nighttimeenvironment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting,
• a time of music, readings, and meditations from various faith traditions, and
• turning off of lights in the Cathedral at 8:30 pm in observation of Earth Hour.

A light supper will be provided. A donation of $15 is suggested for the event, but all are welcomeregardless of donation. For further information please contact Evita Krislock (220-6532) or Thomas Soeldner (607-7115).

Spokane Chicken Revolution: Spokane Valley Passes New Law Allowing Backyard Chickens

Here's the report from last night's meeting of the Spokane Valley City Council regarding keeping backyard chickens:

Tonight the City of Spokane Valley unamously passed a Motion to Approve the raising of chickens by the residents of City of Spokane Valley! In a nutshell, this means that City of Spokane Valley residents can keep one hen per 2,000 sf up to a max of 25 hens, no roosters, and the coop has to be at least 25ft from a neighboring residence. There was only one change to the original Motion to approve, and that was, instead of saying "chickens to be rendered incapable of flight", it was revised to say "chickens to be contained within the subject property". Hopefully, the passage of this new ordinance to allow the raising of chickens in the City of Spokane Valley will assist with the passing of a similar ordinance for Spokane County.

Way to go Spokane Valley. You now have the best chicken ordinances in the Inland Northwest. The County Commissioners were supposed to bring this up last night at their meeting but I missed it. If anyone attended or saw the meeting last night, let me know what was discussed. 

If you're interested in being a part of an ongoing movement to allow chickens in Spokane County go here to become a friend of our Facebook page. 

CSA Vegetable Box Programs Growing and Evolving Ctd. - Full Circle Farm and the Mega CSA

In a recent post I pointed out the growing popularity of CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture) programs where consumers sign up with a farmer to receive a weekly "subscription" of food, usually a box of seasonal vegetables and fruits. They have grown in popularity because they are a boon to farmers, for whom cash flow is king, and they help consumers simplify the process of acquiring healthy, local, and in some cases, organic food. Go here to the LocalHarvest site for a more detailed rundown of how the programs typically work. 

The rise in popularity has led to growing pains, with farmers and customers sorting out expectations and relationships (see previous post), but there is another notable development - the rise of the mega CSA. As the Spokesman Review pointed out in yesterday's food section, Full Circle Farm in Carnation, WA, is expanding their delivery footprint beyond their current Seattle and Alaska markets to include Spokane. 

I spoke with Frank Paganelli, the Chief Operating Officer of Full Circle Farm, to get a better understanding of the business. The fact that they have a C.O.O. is the first clue that Full Circle is not a traditional CSA. In fact, as Frank explained, while they started as a traditional program, bound by the limits of the seasons and a single farm location, the business now delivers year-round, and no longer limits the food to local sources. So in the winter months boxes are filled with organic items from Mexico and California. Pagonelli explained that when summer rolls around, up to 90% of the food items are sourced from the Pacific Northwest region, but bananas and other non-local items are still in the mix.

The owners of the farm started moving in this direction because the traditional mode was a limited business model. They hated to send away workers and customers during the off season when local vegetables and fruits were in short supply. Paganelli said, "Customers want purpose all year round," when it comes to their food choices, so Full Circle has sought to bring that purpose to customers, one box at a time, 52 weeks a year. This has meant straining the definition of "purpose" usually attached to a CSA. In fact Full Circle has moved away from using the term "CSA" to define what they are doing.

The page on their web site that still comes up under the heading "CSA" on a Google search explains the shifting language:

Over time what was called the Full Circle Farm CSA program has evolved in response to the call from members new and old alike: more good food to your table. Our farm fresh produce delivery program networks with organic growers to provide members with a robust year-round offering to balance the crops from our own fields.

This changing language is also evident in the Spokesman article from yesterday describing their Spokane presence. It is described as a "farm-to-table delivery service" instead of a CSA. They are "Farm-to-Table boxes" instead of CSA boxes. They openly state that the boxes "include produce grown at Full Circle Farm as well as fruits and vegetables from an international network of other organic growers." Full Circle has shifted the definition of "purpose" to emphasize certified organic as the thread that holds it all together, and while they still seek to interpret the farmer relationships through printed materials that accompany the box, the connection to a local farm and farmers is no longer the defining center of what they are doing. 

Paganelli explained that they don't see themselves competing with traditional CSA programs that keep a laser focus on the direct farmer relationship. He said, "We're competing with the QFC's and Albertsons." In Spokane that would include Huckleberries. 

There has been some backlash to this shifting business model at Full Circle. A quick tour through their Yelp! page shows a steady stream of customers who were under the impression it was a more traditional CSA program sourcing exclusively from local farms. One commenter wrote, "Surprisingly little in the boxes is actually local. Strawberries from Mexico, fruits from California....We're not interested in supporting big farms from far away, even if they are organic." Another reviewer commented, " Everything delivered was stuff you'd find in a grocery store." From what Paganelli said, the company is working intentionally to move away from the CSA label, and more clearly set expectations, especially during the winter months when local supplies are limited. They still have a page at LocalHarvest listing their services as a CSA. 

Despite the growing pains, business seems to be booming. Spokane already has 14 sites to pick up boxes. They are well staffed and appear to have some serious capital funding supporting their expansion efforts. And there are plenty of customers delighted with their service. One reviewer from Seattle on Yelp! wrote,

I have been a happy, satisfied customer of Full Circle for over two years.  I love that I can customize my box when I am inclined (special recipes in mind, etc), and when I do not have time to go online and select each item, I still know that a beautiful box will arrive each week...I LOVE FULL CIRCLE!

Another commented;

I will admit that Full Circle Farm (FCF) does not conform to the "strictest" definition of a CSA. I will also admit that produce from Central America, even produce certified as organic, makes me nervous. But in defense of FCF, I recognize that they strive to provide the very best produce delivery service they can.  Their customer service is bar-none and they have always been very helpful over the phone....I happily give my $35 to FCF, even if they're delivering produce from California, rather than to the grocery store where sourcing information is not as transparent.

Full Circle is a new breed of food marketing and delivery, somewhere between a CSA and a grocery delivery service. They are stretching the brand of farm-to-table, and I'll be interested to see how their emerging business model plays out in the coming years. Here are some words of advice to Full Circle that I think will be key for the success of their expansion efforts in Spokane:

- Do your best to integrate your offerings with unique items from farms near Spokane. I was told they are looking to do this in the future, but for now they are just working to get their delivery systems in place. There is a unique and growing local food movement in the Spokane area and efforts to enter the market should be aimed at not just luring customer dollars and establishing market share. In order to have credibility as something more than a grocery-delivery business in this community there needs to be investment in farmers and farms in this region. There needs to be capital investment to accompany market share. 

- You say that you are not competing with existing CSA's but there is one CSA in Spokane that already follows a hybrid model very similar to yours. The CSA program through Fresh Abundance has a year-round vegetable box program that sources items locally when possible, and when not possible they include organic items. Both programs are around $35 per week. Fresh Abundance has been investing in the local food scene in Spokane for many years, so I hope that Full Circle won't undercut their efforts. I also think the marketing materials need to be as clear as possible that Full Circle is different from what someone like Gary Angell at Rocky Ridge Ranch offers. If you use the word local, make sure that you define that clearly. Most folks who use the phrase, "local food" around here have Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho in mind.

- Most farmers in Eastern Washington do not have the resources to get officially certified as organic, but they do follow organic practices. Given this reality I think you should be willing to flex on the "certified organic" label in order to embrace our local food system. For example, I don't see any reason why your boxes couldn't include lettuce from C&S Hydro Huts. Stewart is not certified organic, but is meticulous in the way he follows organic practices. I think this makes good marketing sense even if it does force you to compromise on your commitment to "certified organic" in some cases.

What Full Circle offers is not my cup of tea. I like direct relationships with local farmers. I like eating seasonally. The "certified organic" label is much less meaningful to me than having the food sourced from local farms and farmers. But I don't doubt that there is a market for them in Spokane and that there is room for their offerings in the Spokane food scene. I just hope that what's good for their western Washington business is good for local Spokane businesses and farmers.

"Year of Plenty" Availability and Events in Spokane

Several folks have asked me where to buy a copy of Year of Plenty in the Spokane area. I just got word from Sun People Dry Goods that they have a bunch of copies that just arrived. They are located on Browne and 2nd Ave in downtown. The Corner Door Bookstore in Millwood also has a copy in stock. I'll be signing copies at SPDG tomorrow so let them know if you want a signed copy.

There are currently three events scheduled in Spokane around the release of YOP. 

April 2 at Aunties Bookstore, 2 pm - Spring Gardening Celebration
This will be a fun event celebrating gardening in Spokane, done in partnership with Second Harvest Inland Northwest and Spokane-Area Community Gardens. I'll do an author Q&A and book signing at 2 pm. That afternoon there will also be a Second Harvest Plant-a-Row for the Hungry seed giveaway for growing food to donate and kids gardening activities organized by Spokane Area Community Gardens.

April 9 at Barnes & Noble in Spokane Valley, 11 am - Spring Gardening Celebration
This event will be similar to the event at Auntie's. This may also include a Bookfair, with Second Harvest benefiting from the sale of books related to the event. Stay tuned for more info.

April 28 at the Book Parlor, 7 pm - Community Book Discussion & Reading
This will be a more extended discussion around the themes in the book as they relate to the Inland Northwest. Go here to RSVP on Facebook. 

New Proposed Laws for Spokane County to Allow Beekeeping in Residential Neighborhoods

We've been making progress in the Spokane area when it comes to chicken laws. The City of Spokane Valley looks set to approve new laws allowing chickens in residential neighborhoods. The new ordinance will have it's final reading on March 22 and based on the tenor of the meeting earlier this week, it looks like it will be approved. Our group of chicken activists is currently meeting with Spokane County Commissioners to garner their support to change the laws in Spokane County. You can help the cause by emailing the commissioners and letting them know you'd like them to ask the Planning Department to take action - tmielke@spokanecounty.org , mrichard@spokanecounty.organd afrench@spokanecounty.org. Go here to join the Facebook group and stay up to date on the Spokane Chicken Revolution.

While the Spokane chicken revolution has been unfolding in a public way, the move to change beekeeping laws in Spokane County has been quietly progressing behind the scenes for over a year. 

Here are the current laws regarding beekeeping in the Spokane area:

In the City of Spokane, Beekeeping IS ALLOWED as an accessory use on single-family residence lots.  View the Ciity of Spokane Beekeeping Ordinance can be found here.

The City of Spokane Valley municipal code provides an even broader use for beekeeping - allowing up to 25 hives on a residential lot.

icon City of Spokane Valley - Residential Zone Permitted Uses

icon City of Spokane Valley - Supplemental Use Regulations for Residential Zones

icon City of Spokane Valley - Definition of Beekeeping

Beekeeping is currently not allowed in residential areas in unincorporated Spokane County. Apparently the current laws are problematic in a number of ways, and so for the last year local beekeepers have been working with the County to improve the ordinance. According to Jerry Tate, who is among Spokane's beekeeping experts, the new and improved ordinance will come up for its final reading in April, and it includes a provision allowing up to two boxes on residential lots. While I haven't seen the ordinance, like the other area ordinances, it probably requires that you have to take a class and be a certified beekeeping apprentice before you can keep bees, and you likely will have to register your boxes with the County.

Did Seattle and Portland Get Their Foodie Inspiration from Eastern Washington?

At least that's what Jeffrey Sanders claims in a recent Op-Ed at the Seattle Times. 

The roots of the contemporary food movement in the Northwest run far deeper than Seattle's hastily tilled parking-strip gardens. The movement is more geographically dispersed and firmly established than most of us realize. Most surprising, despite its coastal image, its birthplace is not Seattle or Portland. This region's food movement pioneers originated in ... Eastern Washington.

He goes on to explain that the 1974 World's Fair in Spokane started a conversation that sparked the proliferation of P-Patch community gardens in Seattle, and the formation of Northwest Tilth, and Oregon Tilth, two pioneering organizations in organic agriculture and whole-earth ecology. Most significantly, Sanders points out, these conversations east of the mountains planted the seeds that eventually led to the Organic Agriculture degree program at Washington State University.

Sanders concludes:

...if we can look beyond the Interstate 5 corridor for a sense of bioregional identity, the contemporary food movement still has the potential to connect east and west, city and country, and hopefully in a way that is more equitable and, one can hope, a little less precious.

There is irony in the fact that the modern food movement tends to be culturally centered in trendy, urban neighborhoods, when it's actually farmers and universities in rural areas that are pioneering sustainable practices in agriculture. Given the urban-centrism of the conversation, it too easily reflects some of the well-worn prejudices against country folks that led to derogatory labels like "redneck." (Until I read Wendell Berry's commentary on this and other labels like it, I never made the connection that these terms originated as ways to socially alienate farmers, especially in the south. Someone has a red neck because they are out in the fields working all day.)

These prejudices play out in more sophisticated ways in today's debates, where crunchy urban centers are painted as the centers of virtue when it comes to sustinability, and rural farmers are painted with a broad brush as Round-Up loving, earth-raping, titans of agriculture. Neither caricature reflects the reality on the ground. I have yet to meet a farmer who doesn't care for the land and the food it produces and our big cities have at least as many vices as they do virtues when it comes to food consumption.

As someone who lives on the east side of the mountains, and writes about food and culture, I share Sanders' sentiments.  There is a need for a more dynamic east-west interchange along I-90 that is at least as vital as the Seattle-Portland alliance that runs north-south along I-5. As he points out, this connection has been a key to past innovations in the Pacific Northwest food landscape, and holds potential to do the same in the future.

h/t Bike to Work Barb