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.

World Trade Organization Tells U.S. Consumers They Aren't Allowed to Know Food's Country of Origin

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2sgaO44_1c]

A recent ruling from the World Trade Organization has got me feeling like I need to initiate an "Occupy Your Grocery Store" movement. The WTO has declared that current U.S. food country-of-origin labeling laws for meat and produce are "illegal." Bloomberg News reports:

Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unfair costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. Judges agreed that the policies meant beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.

The article goes on the share the perspectives of farmers and industry insiders who lament that the program is "costly and cumbersome," and that the costs "far outweigh any benefits."

This may seem like an obscure, niche debate but I think it goes to the heart of the current crisis in food systems around the world. Industrialists insist that food is nothing more than a commodity that can be reduced to a product with nutritional content, a hunk of chemicals and proteins with a profit margin. In their ideal world a food item is not connected to anything--no farmer, no land, no community, no country, no watershed, no carbon footprint, no pesticide, no herbicide, no low-wage farm worker, nothing. The industrial food system is most efficient when the journey from farm to table is an undiscernable mystery, and the champions of this industry will keep pushing for more efficiency, as if it hasn't already been pushed too far.

I'm reminded of the John Muir quote from My First Summer in the Sierra where he observes: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

The problem with the industrial vision of storyless food is that it defies the truth that it is, in fact, "hitched to everything else." It's hitched to the endangered thin-brown line of topsoil that covers the earth. It's often connected to lies and deception (See "Most honey you buy at the store isn't honey"). It's part of huge debates about water wars and environmental destruction (see California water wars). Beef often has a sordid web of connections to things like heavy metals, antibiotic residues, clandestine cloning, ammonia soaking, and even fatalities

Food is more "hitched" than most things which is why the move to further separate consumers from the origin of foods is so disturbing. 

Wendell Berry sums up the current conundrum of consumers when he writes about our troubling ignorance about the ways our consumer items are "hitched":

...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance and vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.

Berry concludes, and I tend to agree, that the best way to respond to this situation is to nurture "prosperous local economies." According to Berry, "Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice." In other words, buying from local farmers and producers is the best way to know the story of the items we buy. Instead of relying on a beauracracy of labeling rules, he says we need to take things into our own hands and develop relationships with people. If enough consumers start moving in this direction, demanding meaningful knowledge about the items we buy, then maybe industry representative will take note and respond.

Supporting local farmers like Rocky Ridge Ranch that was featured in the Spokesman Review this weekend is a great way to take a step in this direction. The Spokane Public Market and the Millwood Winter Farmers' Market, 3-6pm on Wednesdays at the Crossing Youth Center are other options worth considering. Consider making local farmers and producers a part of this year' Christmas shopping plans. 

Girls Scouts Unveil "Locavore" Badge

image from www.thefoodsection.comAlongside Architecture and Water Fun badges, Girl Scouts can now get a Locavore badge by learning about local food and cooking up a meal with local ingredients. According to Alisha Niehaus, Executive Editor, Program Resources:

"All of our badges reflect what today’s girls said they wanted to know about -- girls are interested in what they eat and how it affects their health and the environment, so the Locavore badge gives them a chance to delve into those issues in their communities....Plus, what’s more fun than making your own food, and truly knowing it from farm to table?"

Neihaus points out that there is a strong history of food-related badges with the Girl Scouts, including a Canning badge from the 1920's. 

It might be time for the Boy Scouts to get with it and bring back their Beekeeping badge, (Go here to sign the petition) or their Poultry Farming badge. They already have a Gardening merit badge.

In another sign of the trend, a local Boy Scout chose to make a nice dual compartment compost bin for the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden as his Eagle Scout project. 

The heart of the local food movement is about developing a healthy connection to where your food comes from. It's hard for me to understand why some people are so concerned about it. It's as American as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and apple pie (made from organic, locally grown apples). 

"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

UC Santa Barbara Study: Local Food Consumption Doesn't Reduce Carbon Footprint

All the locavore haters will be dancing with joy at the results of a new study done by UC Santa Barbara. The premise of the study is that if any place can pull off a truly local food economy it should be Santa Barbara County that ranks as one of the top vegetable producing counties in the country. A professor and students set out to see how local Santa Barbara County's food system is, and to understand the carbon impacts of local food vs. non-local food. The results are surprising.

The researchers found that more than 99 percent of the produce grown in Santa Barbara County is exported, and more than 95 percent of the produce consumed in the county is imported, some of it from as far away as Chile, Argentina and New Zealand. The study also found that, surprisingly, if all produce consumed here was grown in the county, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions less than 1 percent of total agrifood system emissions, and it would not necessarily affect nutrition.

"Most of what's grown here is shipped out," Cleveland said while standing in a tomato field about a mile from the UCSB campus. "And most of what's eaten here is shipped in. That just seems crazy."

This is the same kind of craziness we discovered during out year of local consumption. Our biggest "that just seems crazy" moment was when we were told that we couldn't get local Darigold cheddar cheese because most of it was shipped to Wisconsin.

Here's another interesting tidbit:

"I talked to a manager who was very excited about his local fruit, Santa Maria strawberries," Radka said. "But he said he got all of his strawberries from the warehouse. I asked him where the warehouse was, and he said that it's not in the county. Turns out it's in the Bay Area. So strawberries from Santa Maria are transported by truck to a warehouse in the Bay Area and then trucked back here to be sold in stores."

The authors of the study still advocate for local food systems, despite the CO2 findings, but they say that local food systems should not be the goal but the means toward the end of improved nutrition and sustainability.

Greenhouse gas savings has never been the primse motivator for my advocacy of local food systems and these findings don't come as a surprise to me. I've heard them before. I think it's important to note in this conversation that the current far-flung food system is highly dependent on cheap and abundant supplies of oil. From fertilizer, to pesticides, to diesel fuel for semi-trucks and tractors. The main reason the transport of food is only 1% of total agrifood emissions is that there is so much fuel used in the rest of the system. When oil prices spike there are a lot of food companies that would love to shave 1% of their fuel expenses off the bottomline.

Here are some of my arguments for a local food system:

1. It helps develop relationships between farmer and consumer.

2. It helps build connections between consumers and land and farming practices.

3. It educates people, especially children, about where their food comes from.

4. It promotes seasonal eating.

5. It disrupts our assumptions that we can have whatever we want, and we can have it now.

6. It connects us with the seasons.

7. It connects us with a place and the story of a place, helping us shape a hopeful future community story.

What about you? What are your reasons for supporting local food.

Consumers and Retailers Wrangle Over the Definition of "Local Food"

The AP has a nice piece of reporting on the emergence of "local" as the newest hot commodity in food labeling and marketing.

The No. 2 official at the Agriculture Department recently got a real-life lesson in the loose definition of the trendiest word in groceries: "local."

Walking into her neighborhood grocery store in Washington, Kathleen Merrigan saw a beautiful display of plump strawberries and a sign that said they were local produce. But the package itself said they were grown in California, well over 2,000 miles away.

The popularity of locally grown food — which many assume means the food is fresher, made with fewer chemicals and grown by smaller, less corporate farms — has led to an explosion in the use of the word "local" in food marketing. It's the latest big thing after the surge in food marketed as "organic," another subject of continuing labeling controversy.

But what does local mean? Lacking common agreement, sellers capitalizing on the trend occasionally try to fudge the largely unregulated term. Some grocery stores may define local as within a large group of states, while consumers might think it means right in their hometown.

The emerging debate is around how to define local, and whether there will be a consensus definition that guides the industry. Some states are proposing new rules for governing the use of the term "local" in marketing food, but it seems unlikely that there will be a federal standard. According to the article:

Whole Foods Market says a food cannot be labeled as local unless it traveled to the store in seven or fewer hours by car or truck. Wal-Mart labels produce as local if it is from the same state where it is sold. Supervalu, which operates some Albertsons stores, Jewel-Osco and other supermarket chains, defines local as within regions that can encompass four or five states. Safeway defines local as coming from the same state or a one-day drive from field to store. Many retailers just leave it up to individual store managers.

How do you define "local" when it comes to food?

"Superbug" Book - Agricultural Use of Antibiotics Helped Create Drug Resistant MRSA

Manure-lagoonimage: Manure Lagoon at a swine CAFO

In conversations about agriculture and health, I think the issues raised in the book, Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA by Maryn Mckenna, need to be front and center, especially as it relates to CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the use of antibiotics as a growth enhancer in animals. The book explains:

Food animals get many drugs for many reasons. They get them for disease treatment. They get them for disease prevention....Food animals also get antibiotics for "growth promotion," a metabolic mysterious process that has made possible the entire high-volume, low-margin business of industrial-scale farming....The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that, of those 29.5 million pounds of antimicrobials given to animals every year, only 2 million of them are actually intended to treat disease. The rest, almost 80% of all antibiotics used in the United States every year, are "non-therapeutic."

The process makes human-medicine experts furious. From their point of view, farmers are routinely practicing antibiotic misuse: giving drugs in the absence of disease, and giving them in such small doses that they kill off only vulnerable bacteria and leave the Darwinian battleground clear for the tough ones. Making it worse, many of the animal drugs are identical, or closely chemically related, to drugs used in humans to combat disease.

Mckenna explains that there has been a great debate through the years as to whether or not these agricultural practices are directly leading to drug-resistant bacteria that endanger humans. The ag. advocates have argued for decades that the direct link had not been demonstrated. Mckenna points out that, technically, this was correct for many years. Scientists had a hard time putting every piece of the puzzle together to prove the link because the chain of events spanned decades and a very complex processes of transmission. In 1976, Dr. Stuart Levy of Tufts U. was able to finally prove the link between drugged chickens and transmission of disease to humans handling the chickens. According to Mckenna, this led the EU to ban the use of a particular drug as an animal growth promoter.

The author makes a strong case that CAFOs have contributed to the spread of MRSA, one of the most problematic, multi-drug-resistant bacteria.

By the time MRSA ST398 arose in Dutch pigs in 2004, though, it seemed that the focus of the argument had shifted. The contention was no longer that the practice was safe for the humans who took care of the animals, or for those who ate their milk, meat, or eggs: instead, it was that it was economically impossible for agriculture to stop. In CAFOs, antibiotics were the only way to keep livestock healthy long enough to efficiently put on weight.

Mckenna outlines the problem with CAFOs and the way they contribute to the spread of MRSA:

From a microbiological standpoint, the problem with CAFOs is not just the drugs given to the animals, or the vast number of animals, which increase the chances of a resistant germ evolving, or the miserable crowding that creates a perfect setting for passing resistant bacteria from one animals to another. It is also what those animals leave behind: more than 300 million tons of manure in a year, twice as much as comes from all the humans in the United States....On a small-scale farm, the manure would be sprayed on cropland, but there isn't a lot of cropland near CAFOs. Instead, there are other CAFOs, clustered in tightly defined areas....With nowhere to spray it, the manure is stored on farms in enormous lagoons. Some gut bacteria survive in manure, and so there are bacteria in lagoons. Some of them may be resistant bacteria, carrying resistance genes that are available for other bacteria to acquire. If any antibiotics are being used on the farm, there will be antibiotic resistance in the manure as well, putting additional evolutionary pressure to develop resistance on whatever bacteria are present.

Two words that should have never been joined together in a sentence - manure and lagoon.

This is another example of the deferred costs to the environment and human health built into the current food system. The more I learn about the industrial animal food chain, the more it seems like a complex house of cards, full of potential weaknesses that could collapse the whole system. If you're looking for a way to respond as a consumer, I recommend eating less meat and sourcing the meat, eggs, & milk you do eat from local, small-scale farms. Getting your own chickens is also a great idea. (Book plug: Year of Plenty has a whole section on how to get started raising chickens.) A good rule of thumb - if the farm that produced this meat, milk, eggs has a manure lagoon than it's a good idea to find another source.

Go here to see a map showing the concentration of factory farms in the US.

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As Agribusiness Grows, Farmers Get Less and Consumers Pay More

The Globe and Mail had a story last week that caught my attention titled, "The Fat Cats of Agribusiness." The article references growing concerns about large corporations muscling their way into the food chain, but observes that not much is being said among effected nations because they have become so dependent on these mega-corps. There is one report from Siva Makki at the World Bank in 2008 that sounds the alarm.

The market share of the biggies is on the rise, leading to questions about the potential abuse of economic power. In 2004, the top four suppliers of agrochemicals had a 60% share of their market, up from 47% in 1997. In the seed market, the four biggest players had a 33% share in 2004, up from 23%. In some specialized sectors, concentration is much higher. Monsanto’s worldwide share of the market for transgenic soybean seeds, which are easy to protect against weeds, was 91% in 2004...

Is the concentration harming or helping farmers? Makki’s research suggests that farmers are getting ripped off. As sales and prices rise, agribusiness giants are capturing a disproportionate share of the profits. Take coffee. The proportion of the retail price received by the main coffee-producing countries (Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Vietnam) declined from one-third in the early 1990s to a mere 10% a decade later. Could this be because the top four coffee traders and roasters had 40% or more of the market? Producers of cocoa, tea and bananas are also getting relatively smaller financial hauls as agribusiness clout increases.

Makki’s conclusion is obvious: “The market power of international trading companies” is widening the spreads between what consumers pay for food and what farmers receive for their product.

So the trend is that farmers get a much smaller share of the consumer's dollars and even if consumers start paying more at grocery store, the corporations pocket the increase. In other words everyone loses except for the corporation. There are a whole series of other problems with this system including animal welfare, food quality, and food safety to name a few.

Over the Christmas break I read Michael Lewis' book, The Big Short, and was aghast at the inefficiencies and ineptitude in the financial markets. The recent trend has been for large corporations to treat food commodities like any other financial asset that is traded in the markets, only with food it's more than someone's 401k or home mortgage that's on the line. With food it's people's health and in some cases, ability to survive, that is at stake.

The best way I have found to respond to these troubling trends with food and agriculture is to buy local, and buy direct from farmers. They deserve a lot a much larger share of the consumers' food dollars than they are getting in the current system. Go to LocalHarvest.org to find a local farmer near you.

Sante Restaurant in Downtown Spokane Offers Healthy Mix of Local Food

Sante1 Sante is the French word for health. Jeremy Hansen, owner and chef of Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie exemplifies a holistic health in the way he runs his pioneering establishment next to Auntie's Bookstore in Downtown Spokane.

Jeremy grew up in Spokane and has been in the restaurant business since he was a young teenager, cutting his teeth at the Mustard Seed and other area kitchens. He eventually attended Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland where he not only honed his skills as a chef, but formed a philosophy of food and community that eventually gave birth to Sante.

Sante is remarkable for the way it sources foods locally. Hansen is pictured above processing the half of a steer that was just delivered that morning by Gary Angel of Rocky Ridge Ranch. Most of the beef and other meat at Sante comes from this nearby farm. Jeremy points out that not only is Gary's beef superior in quality because of the feed and care Gary provides, processing beef in this way also makes good business sense. By cutting out the middle-men he makes a good profit, Gary get's a good price and a reliable market for his beef, and the consumer gets a choice meal at a reasonable price. This is a great example of Jeremy's uncompromising pursuit of holistic health. Everyone wins, including his employees who apparently are paid well above average for Spokane area restaurants.

Sante2 Sante is not only a restaurant, it is a Charcuterie, which is the area of cooking that involves preparing meats like the sausages, bacon, and prosciutto ham pictured to the left in the restaurant's display case. Jeremy was telling me that he really had trouble making good prosciutto with the pork that was available through commercial channels. He said, "When I used Gary's Berkshire pigs it came out comparable to the finest hams available in Europe. The quality really is dependent on what the animals eat. When we eat animals we're really eating what they ate." All of the items in the displays case are not only used in meals for diners, they are available for bulk purchase. They even make their own mustard which I saw being prepared in the kitchen. I imagine the steady stream of income from these items is the envy of every restaurant in Spokane.

There is one other unique aspect to Sante that was a great surprise to me. While it is in many respects a fine-dining establishment, the space they've created is warm and welcoming, even to a guy like me who wants to plug in a computer and do some work while he eats. They have a counter with outlets and stools that connects the restaurant with the book store and free wifi. I had the toasted-cheese sandwhich that included an egg and a couple of slices of their house bacon. It was fantastic and was in the Red Robin range of prices.

Needless to say I'm impressed. While many talk about the virtues of local and sustainable food, Jeremy and his wife took their life savings and are turning those virtues into a sustainable business. Spokane is a healthier city because of their efforts. If you're giving a gift certificate for Christmas this year, Sante should be high on your list of candidates. They are open for breakfast and lunch, 8am to 5pm, 7 days a week. They are open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday till 9pm.

 

Study: Buy Local = 73% $$ Stays Local | Buy National Chain = 43% $$ Stays Local

Buylocal

It makes sense intuitively that when we buy from a locally owned store, that more money would stay in the local economy. Well, it turns out there is hard empirical evidence to support that intuition. A study commissioned by Michigan's Local First showed quite a contrast:

A 2008 study of Kent County by Civic Economics — commissioned by Local First — determined that just a 10% shift in consumer spending toward locally owned businesses would result in an estimated $140 million in new economic activity, 1,600 new jobs, and $50 million in new wages. 

According to Civic Economics, when West Michigan consumers choose a locally owned business over a non-local alternative, $73 of every $100 spent stays in the community. By contrast, only $43 of every $100 spent at a non-locally owned business remains in the community.

Click on the above chart to enlarge and see more detail.

Washington State Artisan Cheesemaker's Battle with FDA a Case Study in Food Safety Debate

image from estrellafamilycreamery.com The New York Times has done a great service by writing a story on the Estrella Family Creamery in Washington State, as an example of how the current national debates about small farms and food safety land in the real world. (Go here, here, and here for background)

The Estrella family, pictured to the right, left the city to make world-class artisanal cheeses. Here's how Kelli tells their story:

In 2001 we left home and business for an abandoned dairy on 164 acres. They laughed at our young family and said it couldn't be done, and I'll admit I had my fears! My faith was put to the test during the blood, sweat and tears of the early years. But we started with three cheeses and now have a list of 18, and at last the farm even feels like home.

Sometime last year I noticed that there was a lot of food on our table and some empty chairs, so we adopted 3 more kids from Liberia. Together the kids are learning that hard work won't kill them, and that the pursuit of excellence in our craft and careful nurturing of the creatures placed in our care yield a tremendous reward. Over and over at our farmers markets and in our emails they say thank you, thank you!! And they tell us stories of some of the finest moments of their lives that were enriched by our cheese. We are so blessed.

We hope you enjoy the fruit of our labors as well, and thank you. 

Since establishing their cheesemaking operation with 36 cows and 40 goats they have gone on to win a a series of awards that would make any cheese-maker jealous, and a loyal base of customers at farmers' markets and Manhattan restaurants.

But according to the Times, recent actions of the FDA threaten to shut down the whole operation after they found the presence of listeria in her cheese and in the building where the cheese is aged. They did a thorough clean-up of the facility but the FDA found the bacteria again:

Last month, the F.D.A., which does not have the power to order a recall (the food safety bill in the Senate would give it that authority), went to court, saying the “persistent presence” of listeria meant all of Ms. Estrella’s cheese should be considered contaminated. In response, a federal judge sent marshals to effectively impound the cheese, preventing her from doing business.

No one is arguing that the Estrella's shouldn't have a safe product, but there is a debate about the role of the FDA in overseeing small artisinal operations vs. the large industrial cheesemakers.

“If the F.D.A. wanted to shut down the U.S. artisan cheese industry, all they’d have to do is do this environmental surveillance and the odds of finding a pathogen would be pretty great,” said Catherine W. Donnelly, co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese of the University of Vermont, referring to the listeria testing at cheese plants. “Is our role to shut these places down or help them?”

Kurt Beecher Dammeier, owner of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, an artisan cheesemaker and retailer in Seattle, said the F.D.A. needed to work harder to understand artisans like Ms. Estrella. “The F.D.A. comes from an industrial, zero-defect, highly processed, repeatable perspective, and she comes from a more ancient time of creating with what she gets,” he said. “I’m not sure they can really even have a conversation.”

The key question is, do we want a food system where there is room for artisanal operators, or do we want a system where only industrial, highly processed foods are legal? There is concern that without the small farms amendments in the Food Safety Modernization Act, the American food system will be so inflexible, small farmers will be unable to comply. Just as the American food landscape is beginning to localize and diversify, the Food Safety act could undo the progress that has been made in recent years.

The Bill that passed cloture was essentially tabled this week when big ag lobbyists rallied legislators to halt the passage of the bill because of the small farms' amendments.

h/t Northwest Food News

UPDATE: For another, less sympathetic, take on the situation go here and here.

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage - Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

I reported earlier on the fears that the Food Safety Modernization Act now before Congress could put small farmers' out of business and send a destructive ripple through the burdgeoning local food movement. Yesterday the bill passed a cloture vote in the Senate which means it will likely soon be passed and put into law. The amendments to lower the negative impact on small farmers are still up in the air, and it sounds like there is an epic battle going on right now among legislators, big food lobbyists, and locavores.

Huffington Post yesterday even went as far as to say "Locavores Hold Up Food Safety Bill in Senate." They've subsequently changed the headline to "Local Food Advocates", but yesterday it was all about those pesky, food-luddite locavores who were gumming up the works. I guess we officially have a Locavore Lobby in this country now.

Grist has been all over this so I'll turn it over to them:

Two very important amendments to the bill are currently the subject of fierce lobbying by industry. We've already extensively discussed the Tester-Hagan amendment, which would exempt small and very small farms and food processing businesses (defined as those that make under a certain amount of money, and that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales like farmers markets or CSAs), from some of the bill's requirements.

It's worth noting that such direct sales of agricultural products totaled just $1.2 billion in 2007, or 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales, according to the USDA. That's the tiniest drop in the bucket, but it's growing fast every year -- sales are up 105 percent in the last decade, double the rate that overall agricultural sales have grown.

Which may explain why agribusiness groups considers such small operations enough of a threat that they're taking the legislative route to block any further growth.

If you want to get your food wonk on, go to Grist and read up on the whole interesting process. Here is a good place to start:

Will the Food Safety Modernization Act harms small farms and producers?

Grist reports that it's still not too late to call your Senator:

There's still time to tell your senators that you want them to ignore these industry lobbying groups and pass a bill that will better protect all Americans from food-borne illness and known carcinogens in their food. Call them today: Go to www.Senate.gov to find your representatives' contact information or call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Because if you've read the 20,000 words of debate that Grist has published about this bill, you hopefully agree with our panelists that the system it will create, though concerningly vague in places, will be better than the one we've got now.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article, While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn't going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn't seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino's marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino's for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberal Huffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.” 

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.” Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying "Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas," adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I've done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn't sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss, "ace New York Times Reporter" didn't do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that's been done on the story, I'm the only "reporter" that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn't have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn't speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I'm baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn't.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I'm flattered that the "So Good" food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I'll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn't take the "tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza" bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don't believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don't believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That's why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don't follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It's actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus' commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.

Poor Locavore's Almanac - Low-Income Family Goes Local, Shares Their Story

One of the enduring critiques of locavorism is that such efforts to eat local via farmers' markets, food co-ops, and CSAs are a luxury of the well-off foodie elites. The naysayers have been quick to point out that low-income families with limited resources cannot afford to be so picky about the source of their foods. Advocates for industrial agriculture often point out that the industrialization of food has led to increasingly lower percentages of disposable incomes spent on food as illustrated below. They argue that it's counterproductive to lead people down a path that will necessitate more money. Go here for a reponse to such arguments.

image from www.ers.usda.gov

One problem in the debates is that we have all kinds of anecdotes but not much hard data on the financial impact of going local. During our year of local food, we didn't keep good financial records. Given this reality I'm pleased to see that a low-income family in the Northwest has taken on the task of going local and tracking in detail the financial implications. Here's the way Charlie describes his family's experiment:

I’m a student at a small college in the Great Northwest, majoring in Environmental Studies, and this blog is part of my senior year project. I’m taking a year-long look at the American food system from a user’s point of view. I’m trying to answer the question of whether a busy, low-income family can transform its diet from the conventional, industrial-agriculture model to one that is more locally-sourced, and hopefully more sustainable.The family in question? Mine.

I started out specifically to examine the environmental impacts, both small-and large-scale, that this transformation would generate. I soon realized that the economic and social implications would be every bit as important, so I will take a long look at those as well. This project will last for at least the forthcoming school year, so I should have plenty of time and space to find out whether it is feasible for a poor family on a tight budget, without benefit of a garden or chickens or much else in the way of external resources, to dramatically localize their eating.

Thanks for taking this on Charlie. I look forward to seeing how things unfold. Go here for his Poor Locavore blog.

Here's an example of what they're discovering;

Another apple-related expenditure happened the weekend before last. We went apple-picking north of town and came back with 50 pounds of Cortlands for…wait for it…twenty dollars. Oh, yes, we did. Even figuring the cost of gas to get up there, it came to 60 cents per pound. We even got to press our own cider for $4 per gallon, not that it lasted long. So, those apples are going to get stored, stashed, chopped, frozen, baked, stewed, sauced, and eaten all winter, and cheaply enough that I might be able to buy a food mill or a corer-peeler to help me process them.

Wal-Mart ramps up efforts to buy local food

Wal-Mart continues to make larger bets on going local and more sustainable as reported this morning;

In the United States, Wal-Mart will double the percentage of locally sourced produce it uses, to 9 percent, the company said. Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state. Still, the program is far less ambitious than in some other countries — in Canada, for instance, where Wal-mart expects to buy 30 percent of produce locally by the end of 2013, and, when local produce is available, increase that to 100 percent.

In emerging markets, Wal-mart has pledged to sell $1 billion of food from small and medium farmers (which it defines as farmers with fewer than 20 hectares or about 50 acres). It will also provide training for the farmers and their laborers on how to choose crops that are in demand as well as the proper application of water and pesticides.

Go here, here and here for previous posts on Walmarts efforts to go local.

Food Fight, Ctd - Haiti an Important Case Study in Local Food Infrastructure and Food Security

The food fight continues (go here, here and here for previous installments of food fight) with Adam Ozimek's assertion that the push for local and organic foods in schools is more about using schools to advance progressive values vs. advancing educational objectives.

He says that if the goal is to get kids to eat more vegetables, then teaching them how to prepare frozen vegetables from far off places is a much better way to accomplish that goal.

(He doesn't seem to be aware that programs to teach kids and parents how to prepare healthy meals are already up and running. Here in Spokane County we have the Food Sense program, which is a model program, and I'm sure they use their fair share of frozen vegetables.)

The evolving debate has people lining up on one side saying that industrial food produced and shipped from far off places is best and an over-emphasis on local and organic is dangerous, while others are lining up on the other side saying that an over-emphasis on global food distribution is dangerous and local/organic food is best. The argument seems to focus mostly on the merits and benefits of each kind of food system, but I'd like to see more debate about which is more dangerous. In other words, which system has a bigger down-side for local communities?

I'll leave it to others to outline the perils of an overemphasis on local and organic food systems, but I'll take a shot at outlining two of the looming dangers of a global industrial food complex.

An over-reliance on a few genetically modified seed stocks is a classic case of putting all of our eggs in one basket. A story this week about Monsanto's souring prospects is a bit foreboding;

Sales of Monsanto's Roundup, the widely used herbicide, has collapsed this year under an onslaught of low-priced generics made in China. Weeds are growing resistant to Roundup, dimming the future of the entire Roundup Ready crop franchise. And the Justice Department is investigating Monsanto for possible antitrust violations.

Creating a dependence on importing cheap food can decimate local communities as illustrated most recently in Haiti. A report out this week explains the predicament;

"Currently, U.S. rice subsidies and in-kind food aid undercut Haitian farmers at the same time as the U.S. government is investing in Haitian agricultural development," said Philippe Mathieu, Oxfam's director for Haiti.

"The international community must abandon these conflicting trade and aid policies in order to support the growth of Haiti's fragile rural economy."

I was talking to a friend last week who works for an agency trying to help develop a sustainable agricultural base in Haiti and he explained how the influx of cheap imports over the years put local farmers out of business, so when the earthquake hit, there was no way for the country to feed itself. It was completely reliant on cheap imports, and in many ways still is. Here's how the situation was reported back in March;

Decades of inexpensive imports – especially rice from the U.S. – punctuated with abundant aid in various crises have destroyed local agriculture and left impoverished countries such as Haiti unable to feed themselves.

While those policies have been criticized for years in aid worker circles, world leaders focused on fixing Haiti are admitting for the first time that loosening trade barriers has only exacerbated hunger in Haiti and elsewhere.

They're led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton – now U.N. special envoy to Haiti – who publicly apologized this month for championing policies that destroyed Haiti's rice production. Clinton in the mid-1990s encouraged the impoverished country to dramatically cut tariffs on imported U.S. rice.

"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10. "I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."

Haiti is an extreme example, but it points to the devastating effects of a country or region that relies completely on importing cheap foods from elsewhere.

Spokane Area Farm to Offer Winter CSA Meat and Vegetable Subscription

image from www.rockyridgeranchspokane.com Living in a northern climate means short growing seasons and extra challenges finding local sources of food during the winter. This year Rocky Ridge Ranch, a farm small sustainable farm in Reardan, WA, is going where no other Spokane area farm has gone in helping consumers with this dilemma. They are offering a winter CSA program.

CSA's are a wonderful innovation in local food but it's likely you have no idea what a CSA is. They are basically subscriptions for a weekly supply of fresh local fruits, veggies and meats. Go here for previous posts that will help bring you up to speed and go here for a first hand account of someone's experience with a CSA. CSA's are a win-win for farmers who need steady reliable cash flow and consumers who are often too busy to hunt down local sources for food.

Rocky Ridge Ranch produces some of the areas best meat, eggs and produce so this is a great opportunity.

Here's the description they give of a typical weekly delivery;

Meat
Chicken or Roast (beef or pork or lamb.)
Beef Steak, or Pork or Lamb Chops, or Beef, or Pork Cutlets
Sausage, Bacon or Links
Ground Beef or Beef Stew Meat or Ground Pork or Ribs
Soup Bones, etc. as available
(Substitutes of comparable value may have to be made from time to time.)

Produce
Salad Mix or Spring Mix or Spinach
Salad onions or radishes
Lettuce, or Winter Greens
Beets,or Carrots or Potatoes (Stored or fresh)
Squash or Cabbage ( Brassicas we succeed with.)
Herbs (dried or Fresh.)

Go here for the full run-down.

Food Fight, Ctd - In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

A recent Chicago Tribune article had one of the more thorough treatments of the debates between industrial agriculture pragmatists vs. local food idealists.I was intrigued to hear about an upcoming book;

...economist Hiroko Shimizu and University of Toronto geographer Pierre Desrochers are finishing a 2011 book, tentatively called "In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet," that argues locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that, among other problems, ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food and to the economic health of developing countries.

Food security can suffer if "you put all your eggs in one local basket and something goes wrong," Desrochers said from his Toronto office. "I also have a problem when local food activists want to promote food that is either not economical or cannot compete with foreign food in that area."

Go here for a brief article of the same name by Shimizu.

The whole Tribune article is worth a read but I should clarify one point regarding the use of food stamps at farmers' markets. The article offers that as a counterpoint to farmers market elitism but early reports are that while many markets take food stamps, few consumers are taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, this has been true at the Millwood Farmers' Market where we haven't had a lot of food stamp transactions this summer.

Go here for my response to these debates.

Idaho Potato Commission: Local Food Movement a Threat to Idaho Potato "Global Brand"

image from consumingspokane.typepad.com

Picture: Mashed potatoes from last year's potato harvest featuring the natural colors of the potato flesh.

Northwest Food News has a great report on how local food advocates and the Idaho Potato Commission recently butted heads in the Idaho legislature.

A resolution was brought before the ag committee simply proposing that the Idaho legislature endorse local food. In response to this rather tame, teethless proposal Frank Muir, the CEO of the Idaho Potato Commission stood up as the lone opponent;

Well Mr. Chairman, Representatives it will probably come as somewhat of a surprise that the Idaho Potato Commission is here to testify in opposition to HCR-56 and on the surface I would be shocked too because it sounds positive, in support of the grower, in support of eating locally and the problem that we have with this is that Idaho Potatoes is not local.  Idaho Potatoes is a global brand.

He went on to explain that the growing emphasis on locally grown food led Walmart to shift gears;

The largest retailer in the country discontinued Idaho potatoes in 5 distribution centers – not 5 stores – 5 distribution centers.  Not because Idaho potatoes wasn’t selling; it was because they were now focusing on buying from the local farmers.

There are several fascinating aspects to this development. For one, stores as big as Walmart are shifting gears in the way they distribute food. I've always said that any substantial shift toward local food would take change at the large retailers and it looks like that is actually happening.

The other interesting aspect is that this shift creates dilemmas for places like Idaho that have low populations and high production of food. A big portion of the Idaho economy is built on exporting milk, potatoes and other agricultural products. When McDonald's in Seattle starts bragging about using Washington grown potatoes that's a problem for Idaho potatoes. They can't compete with that. People that have gone to great lengths to nurture "global brands" are coming to grips with a new marketplace that values local brands.

The whole story is worth a read or listen. If you're interested in local food in the Northwest, Northwest Food News is a must follow on Facebook or Twitter.