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Food Fight: Local Ways

Putting local food on the table

Part 3
Food: Local ways


When I lived on a farm in the Missouri Ozark Mountains, one of my favorite places to visit was up by the spring where tall pines circled a half-buried square of flat stones, once the foundation of a house. Neighbors told me that home had been built more than a hundred years ago by the Coonts family, who made their living by a combination of small cottage industries: fiddling at weddings, growing some of their own food and foraging wild plants and fruits, hunting wild deer and turkey -- and probably at times a furtive enterprise involving copper coils and corn mash.

Visiting that site I would wonder what their life had been like. Probably hard at times, keeping the stone fireplace stoked with wood in winter, hauling water from the spring, but also no doubt rewarding in ways forgotten today. Were the days filled with hard work along with a heady feeling of self-reliance? What were the evenings like, sitting on a porch made of hand-hewn logs under pines that reached high into the clear, star-dazzled skies?

Maybe I unduly romanticize their life. Given a choice, wouldn’t they gladly have traded those inner satisfactions and aching muscles for a chain saw, electric lights and cook stove or compact pickup truck? Probably. Yet maybe not.

For a cash crop, the family, like most Ozarkers, raised tomatoes on the hardscrabble, sun-washed hillsides and sold them to the local cannery in town -- 18 miles away -- providing the dollars needed to buy sugar, coffee, cloth and fiddle strings. Today the site of the old tomato cannery in town is occupied by a Wal-Mart and a big chain supermarket. The tasteless tomato sitting there on the supermarket’s produce shelf has traveled in its short life maybe five or 10 times the distance the Coonts family traveled in theirs.

My brother still lives on that piece of land. To make a living on his remote farm he must drive 140 miles a day to and from the nearest city in order to work as a house builder. He buys his food at the supermarket that stands where the local cannery once supported the local economy.

I call this the Parable of the Well-Traveled Tomato. It seems emblematic of both the problems with our food system today and the way to a more sustainable and just one.

Worldwide over the past decades, thriving local econ-omies have been replaced by national and even global systems -- and we both gain from it and pay for it in the coin of loneliness, lifeless food, fertile farmland plowed under by developers, songbird decline and a hundred other losses. Can the traditional community and the family farm, those age-old life supports, withstand the onslaught of newer and newer technology, industrialization, global trade and extravagant consumerism? Can we have a flourishing food system completely severed from both nature and local connections?

Globalization and technology are not going to go away, nor should they, but surely there are methods available to preserve economies that have served humankind for centuries, reliably producing tasty and nutritious food for our tables.

America’s most eloquent and prolific defender of traditional rural life, small-scale farming and the civilized practices of hearth, table and home is Kentucky poet and farmer, Wendell Berry. Berry’s many books and articles offer viewpoints and strategies that can help us navigate a sane and just way through to the future, between the sirens of consumerism and the clashing rocks of industrialization and globalization.

Berry writes: “A sustainable rural economy will depend on urban consumers loyal to local products.” He counsels us as far as we are able to make our lives “dependent upon our local place, neighborhood and household -- which thrive by care and generosity -- and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage. … We are talking about an economy that will always be more cooperative than competitive.”

“In the food system today, what we need are economies of location rather than economies of scale,” Br. David Andrews of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference told NCR. “Because of widespread food scares and tasteless supermarket wares, the wisdom of buying food that is grown organically has sunk in. What needs to happen next is for consumers to realize the equal importance and urgency of buying locally as well.”

If we want to reduce the widespread environmental damage caused by our food system, if we want food that is safe, nutritious and tasty, if small family farms are to survive, then new ways to get re-involved in our own local economies must be devised, according to Andrews.

Such alternative food systems are emerging all over the United States and Europe and in Asia and Africa; they are entrepreneurial, green and regional. In these systems, people buy local food because they trust it. Big companies capture some of the market because people want variety, but largely food needs are supplied from within the area.

Some examples: When the World Trade Towers collapsed on Sept. 11, local farmers who had just delivered their wares to the nearby New York City Green Market lost their trucks. French farmers protest against U.S.-style fast food and agribusiness methods while raising food the traditional way for local cafés where the asparagus smothered in tangy sauce couldn’t be fresher. California chefs spend weekdays scouring nearby farms for the freshest greens for their city menus. Dakota Pasta Growers Cooperative, owned and operated by its wheat farmer members, has become the third-largest pasta company in the United States. A large water authority in southern Germany now pays farmers to convert to organic because those subsidies are cheaper than buying a new water treatment plant. A tea plantation in Kenya sets aside 10 percent of its acreage as natural forest or conservation areas to preserve local biodiversity.

It’s what a sustainable future looks like.

Minnesotans will still eat bananas; Texans will still garnish their fruit salad with kiwis. But as fossil fuel becomes scarcer and its supply more problematic, common sense recommends the re-creation of local and regional food supplies.

Below we spotlight five small food enterprises in a two state area of the U.S. heartland, in Kansas and Missouri, where the local “yokels” have devised new ways of producing and distributing quality products while maintaining a regional connection. Multiply this one location by thousands; look around your own backyard and you will find their like.

Know your local farmer

By late March this year, Missouri farmer John Kaiahua had already sold his 2002 harvest. While his starter plants were still emerging from potting soil in his small greenhouse, families around Kansas City, Mo., were mailing him checks for subscriptions for the year’s crops.

A new way of producing and delivering food that has taken hold in many areas today is called Community Supported Agriculture -- CSA. It’s an idea that started about 30 years ago in Japan, where community farms are called teikei, meaning “putting the farmer’s face on food.” The concept branched to Europe before migrating to the eastern United States about 20 years ago. Today, there are an estimated 1,000 CSA farms in the United States. It’s an innovative strategy to connect local farmers with nearby consumers, developing a regional food supply and a strong local economy together. In contrast, 85 to 90 percent of each American’s food supply comes from beyond the borders of his or her own state.

In Community Supported Agriculture, the subscriber pays a fixed amount to a local farmer up front in February or March. In return, she can expect to receive 24 or more weeks of fresh organic produce beginning in April or May and ending in late October or November. Each CSA is administered in a slightly different way. Sometimes the produce comes in a box that can be picked up at a central, convenient location. Other CSAs involve farmers driving their produce-laden trucks to a central market where customers can pick what they want from the truck beds.

The advantages of CSAs are many. Subscribers get quality produce first, the freshest pick, the best selection, and it comes before the farmers’ markets open on Saturdays. Subscribers receive an astonishing variety, depending on what’s in season. By participating, subscribers support a family farming operation that is ecologically and environmentally sound, locally focused and sustainable. By paying for food in advance, the farmer avoids borrowing for seeds and other start-up costs. There’s a slight risk, if poor weather produces poor harvests, but CSA farmers are usually so diversified the risk is minimal.

Best of all, consumers know the people who grow their food. Customers share potlucks, visit the farms, peruse their organic certification papers and techniques. There is a trust in this mutually supportive relationship that can’t be duplicated. Farmers get a fair return for their labor. Consumers get fresh, tasty, nutritious and safe food. Farmers have total control of their land and equipment. They choose the crops that will be planted and the price they will ask for a share. Some farmers rely totally on income from subscriptions while for others it’s only part of their operational budget.

John Kaiahua and his wife Judy run J.J. Farms in Raytown, a Kansas City, Mo., suburb. John is retired from the Marines. His “farm” spreads over his spacious backyard, and over a number of half-acre backyard plots he leases from neighbors. In this limited space, John and Judy grow enough produce to feed 40 local families and to sell at the local organic farmers’ market.

A native of Hawaii, John likes the fact that he is cultivating the earth naturally. “I plant in half an acre what most people plant in one full one,” he boasted, referring to his technique of staggering double rows of crops crowded so close they are able to create their own shade, preventing sunburn and discouraging weeds. John and Judy take great pride in their produce, which is rich with minerals and vitamins. Their buyers usually get their produce the same day it is picked. “A lot of agribusiness produce has to be picked when it’s still green so by the time they transport, it’s ripe,” John told NCR offhandedly. By contrast, his produce is fresh and mature, which translates into some of the finest eating imaginable.

Annual farm visits sponsored by the Kansas City Food Circle, an organization that links consumers in the city with local farmers, include visits to John and Judy’s farm.

“I love the whole CSA concept,” said one of John and Judy’s customers, Vicky Combs. “By supporting local family farmers, we’re keeping people on the farm. We’re eating locally. All those trucks on the highway delivering from far away to the big supermarkets are a huge strain on the environment. And John and Judy’s produce tastes just wonderful, so fresh! CSA is all about knowing where your food comes from and having a relationship with the farmer. We trust J.J. Farms with our lives really.”

Farming patchwork-style

Most of us can’t live on produce alone. The same problems that plague small local vegetable farmers trouble the meat producers as well. Like the CSA concept, new ways and means are emerging in the meat production sector.

Through the agency of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a number of central Missouri hog farmers joined forces in 1994 and inaugurated a cooperative they called Patchwork Family Farms.

A big, vertically integrated hog operation, Premium Standard Farms, had just moved into the state. “It became apparent that we needed to go about some ways of becoming economically independent,” said Rhonda Perry. She and her husband, Roger Allison, have helped develop the program. They are one of 12 families who produce hogs for Patchwork.

The largest operation in the program has 100 sows, according to Perry. All 12 families raise their hogs outside. They are allowed to have farrowing houses, but not full confinement. They also are committed to avoid heavy use of antibiotics.

Patchwork farmers market directly to 30 restaurants and grocery stores in the Columbia, Mo., area. They also go to inner-city churches several times a year, and each month, they deliver food to 1,100 Missouri families.

Their goal is to make small farms viable once again. The farmers in the program are guaranteed no less than 15 percent above market hog price and no less than 43 cents per pound. During recent record low hog prices, these farmers put $35,000 more in their pockets than farmers on the open market. Many derive all their income from the farm now.

“Six firms control 75 percent of the market in the hog industry,” said Mary Hendrickson, rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia. “The only way for small farmers to compete here is to cooperate in a Patchwork-type arrangement.”

In 1997, Patchwork earned $60,000 in gross sales. That figure doubled in 1998, and hit a quarter million in 1999. By cutting out the middleman, this project has kept more money in producers’ pockets. The group is currently looking at ways to get into the larger Kansas City and St. Louis markets. “It gives farmers hope,” said Perry.

Tastes great, too!

Assembly-line beef production and processing offer a product that is lower quality.

One can taste the difference easily on biting into a freshly grilled kabob of free-range chicken or pork, then sampling the wares from a factory poultry or hog farm.

Missouri farmer David Schafer and his wife Alice Dobbs were working in the travel industry when Schafer’s father suggested they rebuild the family farm near Trenton in northwestern Missouri. Their small farm consisted of 500 acres, half in woods, half in pasture. Schafer and Dobbs moved onto the farm about 15 years ago and began to bring it back to life. They decided to use the rich pastureland to raise meat for the local markets.

Pasture rotation is the keystone of their farming approach. It reproduces the natural migratory patterns that helped create the prairies in the fist place. The diverse, natural diet and stress-free environment give Schafer meats their delicious flavor. They sell primarily through subscriptions and at the nearby Kansas City Farmers’ Market. They ship beef and chicken to customers by Federal Express.

“Madison Avenue couldn’t have dreamed up an easier product to advertise,” said Schafer. “Our meats are produced in a natural environment, using no chemicals, no antibiotics, no pesticides, no hormones, heart-healthy, beneficial to the environment, helps build soil and promote diversity, humanely treated, strengthening local economies, and, oh yes, tastes great, too!”

Their animals forage on a fresh “salad bar” every day, sleep on a grass bed every night, and there are no chemicals or unnatural products in their diet, according to Schafer. They use a “graze and rest” technique devised in New Zealand that optimizes land usage.

David and Alice, together with a few other farmers in their area, started the Green Hills Farm Project in 1988 as a way for farmers in northern Missouri to share information and learn together to improve their land management. The project now has about 100 members. Participating farmers attend seminars, share information and expertise with each other and share marketing resources. “It helps fill research gaps,” Schafer said. “The state extension services weren’t giving us any helpful information, so we decided to do it ourselves.”

Not the company store

Once that healthy produce and tasty meat is raised, how does the consumer in the city get her hands on it? New ways of marketing and selling local food products are emerging as well.

In Kansas City, Mo., organic gardening enthusiast Heather Hands began growing wheat grass as a health food two-and-a-half years ago. Now she is proprietor of a store that sells only local products, and director of a marketing cooperative that sells locally grown produce to area chefs and restaurants.

During a U.S. Department of Agriculture conference on food security for local farmers that Hands attended, discussion turned to the need for a central organization to provide a connection and distribution service between local growers and restaurants. As her wheat grass venture bloomed into a full-fledged business, Hands decided that providing that link herself would be a natural offshoot. She established Local Harvest, a cooperative for local growers that markets and delivers their produce to local restaurants.

Also, she opened a store at Kansas City’s downtown Farmers’ Market that sells local food products exclusively. A stroll through her store is a tour of local farms. In the freezer are free-range chickens from farmers who live no more than 20 miles from the city limits. Shelves are piled high with value-added products made from local fruits and vegetables: salsas, barbecue sauce, apple butter, jellies and jams. Cut flowers from local gardens adorn the counter.

“The store provides a market and showplace for local food products, but the volume buying is being done by local restaurants,” Hands told NCR. “Chefs want the freshest produce. Many menus now contain information about where their raw ingredients and meat comes from. We develop an ongoing relationship with the chefs, get to know their needs and match those with the local harvests.

“There are a lot of challenges when restaurants work directly with local farmers,” Hands said. “Drought and rain can devastate one farmer who has been supplying a restaurant.” However, by working through Local Harvest, restaurants can be assured of a consistent supply of the freshest produce while farmers can increase their income by more efficient marketing.

Another of her ventures is the Society of Urban Producers (SOUP), a nonprofit organization that teaches families in the inner city about sustainable agriculture, nutrition and organic farming and lets them sell the excess produce they grow to Local Harvest. “Last year we had neighborhood kids growing herbs for us and getting excited about what they were learning.”

Shelter for the spirit

Kathy Marchant lives on the West Side, a mostly Hispanic area in Kansas City, Mo., not far from the City Market where Heather Hands located her store. About 15 years ago she found herself obsessed with a nearby hilltop intersection where the broken windows of neglected storefronts gazed out on vacant lots littered with weeds and trash. Kathy’s dream featured a store and a café on that corner, and the eventual renaissance of a neighborhood that had once been vital, splashed with color, fun and verve.

She took her savings and with her partner bought and restored two of the spacious corner buildings. The corner of 17th and Summit came to life again. She opened one building as a grocery store, naming it City Garden. Carrying the usual line of grocery items, City Garden also featured organic grains and produce. In the other room Kathy installed skylights, refinished the oak floors and sandblasted the interior brick walls. This area became the Bluebird Bistro. Small tile-top tables with tiny pots of dried flowers fill the attractive space. In the restaurant, chef Zoe LaGrece uses produce from local farmers to concoct delicious and nourishing vegetarian entrees for the customers who come for lunch from nearby downtown office buildings.

Soon after the store opened, Kathy and staff transformed the vacant lot across the street into a garden. A picket fence, draped with ivy, encloses it. In the summer, raised beds sprout kale, eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, okra, carrots, turnips and beets. Small beds harbor spicy arugula, parsley, basil and cilantro. Green beans and snow peas hang from trellises. Grapevines climb the walls of a small gazebo. Marchant hires homeless people to tend the garden and harvest the vegetables throughout the summer to supply the bistro’s kitchen.

Marchant said that all of the store and restaurant staff live within eight blocks. The commute to work is done mostly on foot or by bicycle. Members of the counter staff call the local neighborhood kids by name when they come in after school for healthy and tasty treats. The store and restaurant are a marketplace for nearby farmers and growers.

Kathy Marchant’s efforts brought jobs to the homeless, vitality to a neglected city neighborhood, nutritious, tasty food to city dwellers and badly needed income to nearby farm families. The corner of 17th and Summit became a shelter for the spirit, a grace, a blessing and a way to move forward.

This sampling of local enterprises that are nothing less than avenues of reentry into a sustainable and just local economy reveals a lively spirit of small-scale elegance and generosity. These business enterprises and others like them around the nation and world point to a future of hope, a place where our children can grow and flourish. They mean good eating ahead.

Rich Heffern is NCR opinion editor. His e-mail address is rheffern@natcath.org

Reading list:

Sustainable communities and local economies

Berry, Wendell, The Hidden Wound, Northpoint Press, 1989.
-- Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays, Pantheon, 1994.
-- The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books, 1996.
-- What Are People For? Trafalgar Square Press, 1994.

Jackson, Wes. Becoming Native to This Place, Counterpoint Press, 1996.

Logsdon, Gene. Living at Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream, Chelsea Green, 2000.

Nabhan, Gary Paul, Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods, W. W. Norton, 2001.

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002