Articles in Agriculture

Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

If you ask me, perfection is overrated. I give it an 8.2. You can obsess and compulse until you’re just the right shade of blue in the face, but to create an artful eyeful that requires little primping, preening or pruning? That’s a 10.

Store-bought flowers in a vase are fine — I love the blooming things as much as the next hibiscus hugger. But when you make the meal with your own two hands, shouldn’t your centerpiece complement your handiwork? You don’t have to Martha-size it and grow your own tulips, turnips and twine. But why not throw together something quick and fresh that says “I am an eco-chic entertainer.”

Farm-to-table centerpieces that you can eat the next day are creatively fulfilling and less landfilling. Seasonal root vegetables, fruits, herbs, pumpkins and squashes will do all the heavy lifting for you. Well, most of it, anyway. You need at least one good eye. But don’t let it stray into OCD territory. Think fashionista farmer, not perfectionista mogul. Remember, Martha’s not invited.

Believe it or not, Martha’s not the originator of ornamental fuss. Holiday centerpieces go way back before the decline of carbon civilization.

Centerpieces through the ages

The Romans used decorative leaves, branches and foliage in elaborately designed containers often made of ceramics and rock crystal.

Aristocratic tables in the Middle Ages were said to be so crammed with food, there wasn’t room for centerpieces, although at Christmas, centerpieces may have included pastry and marzipan shaped like people, animals, scenes or decorative objects.

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Swiss chard centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tables from the 17th-century featured silver or gold platters that showed off the host’s wealth and status with whole animal heads or a cooked peacock with its colorful feathers adorning the platter.

Whereas the 18th century introduced silk and porcelain flowers, the 19th century donned fresh flowers, foliage, fruit, candelabras and molded puddings and jellies. Throughout both centuries, centerpieces were often vertically constructed using pyramids of food on tiered dishes called epergnes.

By World War I, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage, but during the 1960s and ’70s, flowers and grasses made a comeback.

Today, in the era of climate change and environmental consciousness, I proclaim it the age of the sustainable table with the eco-chic, farm-to-table centerpiece.

Seldon_SlideShow_Carrots

Seldon_SlideShow_Carrots
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Carrot centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

10 tips for creating a farm-to-table centerpiece

1. Don’t buy food for a centerpiece that you won’t eat afterward. Wasting food is not eco chic! (Note: make sure to add water to a vase if you’re using leafy greens.)

2. Celebrate the season with local, seasonal produce. Don’t even think about buying fruit from Chile!

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

Tandem of herbs. Credit: Adair Seldon

3. Don’t make the arrangements so tall that you can’t see your guests (except for the uninvited ones, so keep some long fennel or chard in the fridge, just in case).

4. You can line up multiple small (and short) arrangements along the center of the table. Who says a large, dominant one is always the best choice? I think Maria Shriver would agree.

5. Use glasses, jars, vases and vessels you have around. They don’t have to match.

6. Don’t spend money on crap you don’t need (or won’t eat)! Remember those landfills!

7. If you’re going to add store-bought flowers, buy them at the farmers market and make sure they were grown without pesticides. Cut flowers full of pesticides at the table may spur someone’s allergy. Just sayin’.

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

Radish centerpiece. Credit: Adair Seldon

8. Don’t do doilies. You might as well wear an Elizabethan collar. Trust me. Neither are the eco-chic look you’re going for.

9. No stacked cookies with twine around them. Can you lay off the Pinterest for one lousy day?

10. If someone admires an arrangement, be generous and gift it. Less pressure to use up all those rutabagas (see tip No. 1).

When you create your own farm-to-table centerpiece, you’ll be an eco-chic badass. And that’s a good thing.

Main photo: Triad of farm-to-table centerpieces. Credit: Adair Seldon

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Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

On a long trip across America’s heartland, I spotted a pair of button eyes peering out at me from a passing semi truck full of livestock. The pig that I had locked eyes with was probably being taken to slaughter. I lost count of how many large-scale animal-transport trucks I saw while traveling Interstate 80 through farm country, each carrying animals, including turkeys for Thanksgiving, shoulder to shoulder, listless as wet carpet.

Those images made for a stunning contrast when I arrived at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich., owned and operated by Kate Spinillo and her husband, Christian.

It looked so peacefully perfect that it might well be an artist-created movie set, from the goats sitting on a kiddie playhouse in a pen nearest the road, to the sweet yellow house with the wrap-around porch, to the pigs eagerly grunting and munching on leftover jack-o’-lanterns and enjoying scratches behind the ears, to the acres of oak and hickory that stretch out at the furthest reaches of the property.

Theirs is the idyllic farm that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) want you to picture when they advertise industrially-raised meat, the same type of  animals that were being transported in those interstate semis. But that sort of advertising is an illusion that attempts to mask the reality of how mass-market animals live and die.

The Spinillos say that putting the finest product out to market begins and ends with happy animals. Selling direct-to-customer and as part of a meat CSA, Ham Sweet Farm provides heritage breeds of pork, beef, chicken, turkey and eggs to their community, including restaurants and a food truck. Amazed by the fact that they are able to maintain their operation while they both work full-time jobs outside the farm, I asked Kate how Ham Sweet Farm came to be.

“It started simply enough, with both of us working on farms, more as an outlet and interest than anything else. But once you start, it gets into your blood. You want the work, the challenge, the tangible reward at the end of a day of work and problem-solving.

“It’s as much about the relationship you have with the land you’re working on or with, as it is about the animals you’re raising or the produce you’re growing. It all falls together into one panoramic picture of the way you want to live your life, and also the way you want the food you eat to live its life.”

While we were enjoying a drink on the front porch and taking in the cornfield across the street, the gang of turkeys strolled in front of us, seemingly with a group goal or destination. With an arresting blend of humor and salt in her voice, Spinillo pointed out the difference between pastured and CAFO turkeys.

“Our turkeys are pretty friendly, and like to climb out of their mobile fencing to parade around the house, the driveway, the shop, various barns, our neighbor’s house, the mailbox and occasionally our front porch.

“The toms also like to get out and torment our big Blue Slate tom, ‘Phil Collins,’ but the joke is on them, because he is a permanent resident of the farm. Being heritage breeds, they retain their abilities to fly, so some of them roost in the trees or on top of our garden fence posts at night. Industrially-raised turkeys grow so fast and have such large breasts that they can hardly walk, let alone fly, toward the end of their lives.”

She explained the turkeys consumers find in most stores are broad-breasted white turkeys, which take about 5 months to raise before they go to the butcher. The Spinillos’ birds, by contrast, hatch in the spring and grow for about nine months before slaughter. They’re smaller than typical turkeys you find in the grocery store. Butterball would consider them “average,” Kate said.

 

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

Turkeys roaming free at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

“The flavor of our turkey last year, though, was phenomenal. One family worried about the smaller size of our birds, and so purchased an extra breast to serve on Thanksgiving … no one ate it, because our pasture-raised turkey was just that good.”

In an age where some stores put turkeys on sale for as little as 50 cents a pound, the cost of a pasture-raised bird — $9 a pound for a whole turkey — might seem shockingly high to some, but it takes into account the value of what it takes to bring the animal to market.

“Other than pigs, which we are raising to three times the age of the average CAFO pig, turkeys are our greatest investment. Seventy percent of the cost of a Thanksgiving turkey is to cover hard feed costs; the other 30% should theoretically cover the cost of the bird itself, processing, equipment, and your time.”

The percentage is theoretic, she said, because of the amount of human labor it takes to care for them daily for nine months is quite great.

Deeply committed to being a part of the local economy, the Spinillos understand well that not everyone can afford their meat, and go to great lengths to meet the needs of their customers, even arranging payment plans and deliveries for families who need those options. Still, it causes them to flinch when someone tries to imply their product isn’t worth the price.

“People see your heritage bird pricing and balk, but they forget that a turkey is good for multiple meals,” Kate said. “Thanksgiving dinner, leftovers, and then you make soup and stock from the bones. Turkeys should not be a disposable dinner, and we don’t price them like they are.”

Spinillo suggests that one of the easiest and most budget-friendly ways to support a small farm like theirs is to learn to make use of less-popular cuts.

“What’s frustrating is that people love the idea of the farm, they love coming to visit, and I think they love the romantic idea of purchasing directly from the farm raising the meat (or eggs or produce). But everyone wants the cuts that they know — steaks, belly, eight-piece chicken.

“The parts that we cannot GIVE AWAY are things like poultry feet and necks (duck, chicken, turkey), gizzards of all kinds, pork and beef offal (liver, kidney, heart, tongue). These all represent some of the best and most nutritious eating on the animal, as well as the cheapest cuts, but much of it we end up eating ourselves because we cannot give it away, let alone sell it.”

Slow Cooker Turkey Neck Bone Broth

Prep time: 5 minutes

Total time: 24 hours

Yield: 8 cups

Ingredients

1 turkey neck

Any other bony pieces, including feet or tail

1 onion, halved

1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks

10 whole peppercorns

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

10 cups water, or enough to generously cover the ingredients

Directions

1. Place all of the ingredients in a large slow cooker and heat them on low for 4 to 6 hours.

2. Pull out the turkey neck and any other bones that may have meat attached. Pick off the pieces of meat and save them for another meal. Return the bones to the slow cooker and let the bone broth cook on low for an additional 20 hours.

3. Strain out the bones, vegetables and spices. Let the bone broth cool to room temperature before storing it in the refrigerator. It should be quite gelatinous by the time it is chilled. Bone broth also takes well to being frozen and can be a go-to for holiday meals.

Main photo: Turkeys at Ham Sweet Farm in Williamston, Mich. Credit: Kate Spinillo

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Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.

With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.

When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.


But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.

Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.

Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.

People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.

Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.

Author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

“A Taste of Molecules” author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.

Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.


The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.

“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”

Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”

Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

For the boudin mixture:

1/3 pound white boudin with pecans

1/4 pound black boudin with raisins

A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)

For the apple compote:

2 cooking apples

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

For the mead sauce:

2 cups veal stock

1 1/4 cups mead

Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)

Directions

1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.

2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.

3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.

5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:

  • 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
  • 1 tablespoon mead sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cold compote
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies

Notes
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.

Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the  launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

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The hilly terrain of Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

 It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.

Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.

Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.

California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.

“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”

There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.

The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”

Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.

Cain Vineyard's 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit:  Janis Miglavs

Cain Vineyard’s 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.

“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.

That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”

Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.

How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.

Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.

Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

* * *

 Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:

Cain Five ($125)

Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.

Cain Concept ($75)

Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.

Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.

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Portland chef Jason French goes the extra miles to buy local on his custom-made market bike. Credit: Ben Leonard

Four months ago, I opened the first farm-to-table restaurant in eastern Oregon. Besides the expected headaches of managing money (what money?), juggling staff schedules (i.e., no-shows) and equipment failures (hello, electrical fire), I’ve thought a lot about the term “farm to table,” as in, What does it really look like in action?

It’s now common for restaurants in every major city to tout local food. Some prominent chefs have even suggested that the “locavore” trend is tired. But from where I stand — in the hub of Oregon’s bread basket — it’s clear that we have a long way to go to connect eaters with their food sources. Just like the early days of recycling, if every homemaker, cook, foodie and caregiver in every household makes basic shifts in how they buy, use and prepare food, we can build a bona fide system of sustainable agriculture: the ultimate goal of the farm-to-table movement.

As a new chef, it’s dawned on me that I learned much of what I now employ to localize my menu from years of feeding my family at home. Far from what many believe, the practices I follow are not expensive, labor-intensive or terribly exotic. Distilled to five habits, they are easy and effective ways for anyone to adopt a farm-to-table way of life, starting right now.

Buy direct on a regular basis

Sure, you can forage for wild mushrooms, fish for trout or raise your own egg-laying chickens, but leveraging local food stems from your purchasing power. While typical restaurants order everything from lettuce to pork chops from one big supplier, I purchase directly from several ranchers and growers every week. You can do the same by replacing an item or two you ordinarily purchase at the supermarket with a product from a favorite farmers market vendor, a local rancher or farmer or even via a source on the web. Here’s the key: Don’t do it just once, do it over again, weekly, monthly or annually. By becoming a regular customer, you know you’re getting great quality, and small-scale producers earn their livelihood.

Adapt every menu

Local eating involves shifting our thinking about what we prepare and when. Or, in the words of Ned Ludd’s chef Jason French, “Our menu is driven by the farm.” He has learned how sensitive family farms are to the whims of nature. “It works against us sometimes, but it connects us to the farm cycle.” The question to ask before deciding on a recipe is: What is available now? If it’s tomato season, by all means, make a BLT, but if it’s November, a kale Caesar will not only taste better but will be more economical. With practice (or a quick web search), you can readily find and learn seasonal substitutes for your favorite recipes.

Lynne Curry

Author Lynne Curry harvests fall nettles for pesto. Credit: Lynne Curry

Use whole animals, whole plants

One of the unexpected benefits of cooking with fresh, locally produced foods is how nearly every part of the plant or animal can be food (or compost). When Country Cat’s executive chef Adam Sappington butchers whole hogs, he masterfully repurposes the bones, meat, fat and trim. At home, you can practice whole animal eating by cutting up a whole chicken: Bones become soup, breast meat fills chicken quesadillas and thighs and legs get braised. The principle also applies to vegetables: From radish tops to beet greens, there are many edible parts for salads and sautés, and the scrapings from carrots, onion skins or corn cobs become a quick stock for the best vegetable soups.

Use your freezer wisely

Think about what’s in your freezer. Did you know you could replace the freezer-burnt contents with a quarter share of grass-fed beef, flats of strawberries or bags of basil pesto? At my restaurant, the chest freezer is like my food federal reserve. Stocked and regularly rotated, it enables me to offer more local farm-raised foods for more months of the year to more people. Freezing your food is the most convenient, no-mess way to extend the local eating season all the way through winter — although I encourage anyone to try other preserving options, including canning, pickling and fermenting.

Choose progress over perfection

Making a lifestyle from an ethic of local eating does not commit you to the 100-mile diet. Iconoclastic chef Leather Storrs builds his Noble Rot menu from a rooftop garden above the Portland skyline, but he asserts that purely local eating is a fallacy. There are times of the year when it’s downright challenging to choose what’s seasonal. In many ways, farm-to-table is an intentional effort to eat from within our own food shed to whatever extent we choose. So, start small and slow with one item you regularly buy — be it eggs, beef, bread or lettuce — and you’ve already joined the change.

Main photo: Portland, Ore., chef Jason French goes the extra miles to buy local on his custom-made market bike. Credit: Ben Leonard

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Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan

A change is underway. Farmers of color — historically rendered invisible, though permanently woven into the fabric of America’s agricultural heritage — are increasing. The first farmers in this country, that is Native Americans and African-Americans, are the backbone of the nation’s agriculture history. Some farmers of color have endured — cultivating the land with skill that comes from generations of ecological knowledge and animal husbandry practices.

Women of color farmers, in particular, are overlooked, nationally and globally. Yet these farmers struggle with the same challenges any other farmer faces, plus a legacy of institutional exclusion and gender bias. So what are some of the demographic statistics of farmers of color and women farmers in the United States? Who are they, where are they and what do they have to say?

Credit: Sarah Khan

Credit: Sarah Khan

The mothers of Mother Earth

Sandra Simone of Talladega County, Ala., is an award-winning organic farmer who used to be a jazz singer in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It took many years for my husband’s words — ‘We need to own our ancestors’ land’ — to click,” Simone said. “All I wanted was to get out of rural Alabama as a teenager. I never thought I’d return, let alone own land and farm it, organically and sustainably.”

There have always been two faces of farmers in the United States — those of color and those who are white; that is, the ones in the fields and the ones on packages, in the magazines and on commercials. But if farm advocate Cynthia Hayes and farmers Janie Dickson, Beverly Hall and Simone have their way, those faces are about to change.

FARMERS OF COLOR


 A three-part series to make visible the lives of the invisible

Part 1: Data, maps and a history of exclusion from land ownership

Part 2: Female farmers of color

Part 3: In moving pictures, farmers of color talk about their work, challenges and dreams in three short videos

Going organic, in color

Farmers who decide to create organic and sustainable farms might find that the load gets heavier or lighter, depending on their story. Trust is the core issue for Cynthia Hayes, the founder of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, or SAAFON in Savannah, Ga.

“Our farmers who wanted to go organic felt isolated and had no hope that local USDA government agencies would help them figure out the loan processes,” Hayes said. She has been privy to too many stories of farmers’ lack of equal access to USDA services. “We had to fill the gap, help our farmers manage the officials, the forms and the bureaucracy.”

Over time, Hayes saw that the majority of SAAFON’s clients were women — African-American and Native Americans farmers who wanted not only to reconnect to the land but also reclaim the rich agricultural and culinary traditions that indigenous and enslaved people offered.

Female farm operators statistics

Females make up 14 percent of all principal operators and 30 percent of all operators, according to the USDA. But what are the percentages of women of color farmers by race, and where do they farm in the country? Within each racial category (which includes both men and women), the gender breakdown reveals a relatively higher percentage of female operators compared with their white female counterparts. For example, 30 percent of Native Americans are female operators.  They are followed by 21 percent of multiracial female operators, 20 percent Asian, 19 percent Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, 14 percent African-American and white and 12 percent Latinas. Despite obstacles and challenges, many farmers of color, including women, farm and survive despite historical exclusion. Below are a few of their stories.

Sandra Simone: Of voice and vetch

Simone, a jazz singer, returned to the soil of her roots. Her life moved forward once she bought back a fraction of her ancestor’s land in rural Alabama. Watch and listen to Simone tell her story.

 Janie Dickson: She’s got the share and the crop

“My parents sharecropped. But often we’d miss a week of school just ’cause the owners did not feel like settling up the bill. That’s the kind of power they had over us,” said Janie Dickson of Dickson’s Organics in Effingham, S.C. Dickson runs her organic farm with her husband, Rocky. Like Simone, Dickson vowed she would never farm. Dickson’s mother reminded her of her sharecropping days, “We got the share and they got the crop,” Dickson said, laughing. Despite her vow, Dickson always had a backyard garden where she’d grow collards, beans, turnips, okra and much more.

Before retirement, she yearned to have folks taste the difference between a jet-lagged, store-bought vegetable and a just-picked one. “This time around I farmed, on my own terms, on my own land, growing what I wanted, harvesting when I wanted, and plowing it under when I felt like it,” she said.

The Dicksons used to farm conventionally. “It got to the point where I’d jokingly tell my friends I was going out to poison the collards.” In 2006, she was rummaging through her attic when she stumbled on an organic farming magazine from 1986. “I got the message,” she said. Today, their six-acre property has a road dividing the land into two parcels. Her husband had no desire to let go of what he called his “miraculous fertilizers and pesticides,” but they decided Janie would go organic. Her plot blossomed. They ditched the chemicals. Then Dickson met Hayes, of SAAFON, got certified as an organic farmer and leased 10 acres of organic land while their property transitioned to organic.

Like other female farmers across the country, Dickson faces daily challenges: negotiating gender bias, finding good and reliable farm help, getting produce to the markets, reworking the business plan and affording farm equipment. However, she faces an extra challenge — the need to persist with local USDA officials to get equal access to information on all aspects of organic farming for small business farmers. “Sometimes persisting just feels like a full-time job,” Dickson said.

Beverly Hall: High heels sinking into the dirt

Beverly Hall, a Native American farmer in Shannon, N.C., started the nonprofit group American Indian Mothers to take care of the elders. “It’s not right when your people are choosing to buy medicine over food. I grew up farming and canning, and I had strayed from the circle and my values,” Hall said. “I returned to self-reliance and to the land in 1995. And I marched myself right into the fields, with my high heels sinking into the dirt, to get advice about how to start farming.”

“My mother could not talk about our native traditions, it was forbidden; but we still had to farm, so we held onto some of our farming ways of corn, beans and squashes,” Hall said proudly.

An ingrained self-sufficiency — a do-it-yourself, take-care-of-yourself-because-no-one- is-going-to-do-it-for-you attitude — are what permeate Simone, Dickson, Hall and Hayes’ thoughts and actions. “My ancestors’ blood and sweat courses through this Southern landscape,” Simone said. Resolute, she looked out the window from her self-designed and self-built log cabin and declared, “That’s why I returned, for good.”

Hayes and SAAFON are not going away anytime soon, nor are the spirited Simone, Dickson and Hall. Each woman educates children in their communities by creating farm programs, inviting experts to lecture or organizing local farm co-ops that bring together like-minded farmers to share ideas about what niche crops to grow, how to get rid of a particular pest or just help one another.

Dickson wishes that when she was growing up she had asked her sharecropping mother more about the secret garden she tended deep in the middle of the woods, far from the sharecropper’s eyes. “We’d visit it, quietly, and tend to it,” Dickson said. Now, though, Dickson’s garden is out in the open for all to see and learn from, on her own terms.

Main photo: Sandra Simone. Credit: Sarah Khan

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Coppa Cafe’s bounty of locally foraged mushrooms includes king boletes, aspen boletes, blewits, slippery jacks, oysters, velvet-footed beeches, corals, lobsters and what might be a relative of the very rare Caesar’s mushroom. Credit: © Seth Joel

A popular guidebook advises “fussy big-city epicureans” to tone down their expectations for dining in Flagstaff, Ariz. Time for a rewrite! Husband and wife Brian Konefal and Paola Fioravanti are the classically trained, sustainability-minded chefs who are changing minds at Coppa Cafe, starting with everything from fresh bread and ponderosa pine-infused butter to pasta flavored with mesquite.

After years of training in Europe, followed by a stint under chef Daniel Humm in San Francisco and New York City, Konefal decided in 2011 that it was time to bring Fioravanti — a pastry chef whose own impressive résumé includes a gig with Joël Robuchon — back to his home state of Arizona to start a restaurant featuring locally sourced food. Their Flagstaff bistro is not, however, in the historic downtown area so popular with tourists. It is tucked away in a strip mall along South Milton Road — the main drag through town leading from Interstate 40 to the Grand Canyon. In short, Coppa Cafe is a discovery.

The larder and the grow room

At 7,000 feet above sea level, the local ecoystem has posed challenges for indigenous people and settlers for millennia. The weather is cool and even cold eight months of the year, and Konefal summed up the harsh reality of the Flagstaff winter as his predecessors might have: “If we have no larder, we have no kitchen.” In the storeroom that he keeps at 65 degrees, he dries, smokes, brines, pickles and ferments foods to preserve them at the peak of their freshness.

Konefal started with what he knew: the 18-month process of air-curing pork shoulder in the Italian style to make coppa, also known as poor man’s prosciutto — and so the cafe was named. Then he added a chorizo-style sausage using native Navajo-Churro sheep instead of pork. His Coulommiers cheese, customarily made with cow’s milk, is here made with goat’s milk because goats thrive in the backyards of the Colorado Plateau. Meanwhile, Tammy Kelly of  Kelly Beef, who raises grass-fed beef in the Williamson Valley north of Prescott, supplies choice cuts for Konefal’s diced steak tartare.

But the chef has learned to be sensitive to the production capacity of independent suppliers. For example, when I visited Coppa, quail was off the menu because his quail breeder was on vacation for three weeks. And when he ran into difficulty sourcing microgreens such as the sweet pea tendrils and sunflower sprouts he uses to add tang, crispness and surprise to his dishes, he started to grow his own indoors. In a perfect demonstration of his commitment to local and sustainable ideals, Konefal gives 40 pounds of compost a week to an innovative local company called Roots, which makes the super-premium organic growing medium that he then uses to tend his greens.

Locavores and foragers

Other organic produce comes from local farms connected through the Flagstaff CSA, from tepary beans and Hopi corn to nopalitos (cactus pads) and the earthy, nutritious greens known as lamb’s quarters. But in their search for ingredients, the couple spreads their net far and wide. Longtime Flagstaff residents who consider locavorism a necessity rather than a fad come to Coppa to share their own work. They’ve planted fragrant red roses for Fioravanti to use in sorbet and dropped off elderflowers to decorate her most popular dessert, the Raspberry Dome. Recently, Konefal was delighted to be given a pale-pink jam made with Queen Anne’s Lace and is incorporating it into a new dish. He has been invited to pick peaches in the abandoned orchards at Lee’s Ferry, a 19th-century settlement across the Colorado River 120 miles north of Flagstaff. And when we met, he was waiting for a call from Sedona to let him know whether wild blackberries were ready for harvest. Friends and family contribute too. Konefal’s brother, who owns local hot-sauce and mustard company RisingHy, lends his resources, and his mother helps pick olives from the ornamental trees planted all over Phoenix. A family friend recently sent preserves made from the prodigious bounty of the fig tree in his garden.

Such forays into foraging are not without risks. For instance, the warm days, cold nights and monsoon rains of late summer provide the perfect growing conditions for innumerable varieties of wild mushroom — not all edible. Konefal recalled the moment earlier this year when he believed he had found a highly prized Caesar’s mushroom (Amanita caesarea), but those mushrooms are not known to exist in the United States. So was it the Amanita jacksonii (sometimes called the Slender Caesar)? Or one of the 10 toxic species of Amanita? It proved to be nontoxic, and he has taken  to affectionately calling his new ingredient the Amanita caesarea Coppa — while keeping its growing location a closely guarded secret.

At 34, Konefal still has the infectious enthusiasm of a schoolboy. Standing in front of a table of colorful screwtop jars, Konefal discussed the ancient chemistry of preserving fruits and vegetables. He inspected his kombucha culture, tested the progress of the vinegar he was making with orange and yellow baby carrots, and checked a jar of mustard seeds fermenting with lemon. But his face lit up as he swirled a dun-colored liquid around in a white plastic bucket — the makings of hard cider featuring apples scavenged from the tree by a nearby Discount Tire outlet. A perfect local concoction — in this case designed to sustain the chef himself through a long winter of hard work. Even as we left the dark, cool storeroom and stepped into the blazing Arizona sunlight, Konefal turned back: “Oh, hang on — I forgot to ‘burp’ the tomatillos.”

Main photo: Coppa Cafe’s bounty of locally foraged mushrooms includes king boletes, aspen boletes, blewits, slippery jacks, oysters, velvet-footed beeches, corals, lobsters and what might a relative of the very rare Caesar’s mushroom. Credit: © Seth Joel

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Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary Gregory

Wine production in Puglia has undergone an extraordinary transformation in the last decade or so. The original focus of the region was to provide wines for blending, to mask the deficiencies of more famous names from further north (Chianti and Valpolicella come to mind). Once the DOC laws were tightened up, however, that market was lost and farsighted winegrowers saw that something had to be done if the region was to have a future.

They began to appreciate that they had grape varieties with an original and distinctive character of their own. The first time I went to Puglia, about 20 years ago, it was almost impossible to find a bottle of Primitivo, one of the most important grape varieties of the heel of Italy. People were only just beginning to realize that Primitivo was the same thing as Zinfandel; Carole Meredith had not yet completed her research linking it with Croatia, across the Adriatic sea. Now, it is firmly established that Tribidrag is the parent of Primitivo and Zinfandel.

But Puglia is not just Primitivo, which is its most expressive in the hills of Manduria and Colle di Gioia. There is also Negroamaro, a rich red variety with intense black fruit, and ripe flavors, grown extensively in vineyards around Salento in the central part of the heel of Italy. Further north, adjoining the Abruzzi, where I recently spent a couple of days, you find Nero di Troia, also called Uva di Troia (named for the village of Troia, not the Troy of Greek legend).

The key DOC for Nero di Troia is Castel del Monte, which takes its name from the 13th century castle built by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, not to defend anything, but to assert his authority. It is dramatic and awe-inspiring, even on a rather grey autumnal day, with the white stone fading into the grey sky. It was often used as a hunting lodge and for that reason, falcons feature in the local iconography.

Il Falcone is the name of a groundbreaking blend of Nero di Troia with Montepulciano, which has been made by Rivera since 1971. They were one of the first to bottle their wine in the region when the prime focus was bulk wine. The estate of Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli was another pioneer, again first bottling their wine in the early 1970s. Today they produce Il Rinzacco, a finely crafted Nero di Troia that is fermented and aged in oak. A vertical tasting of five vintages showed wines with elegance and fine tannins, and none of the heady alcohol levels that you can find further south.

Cefalicchio's vineyard in Puglia. Credit: Courtesy of Cefalicchio

Cefalicchio’s vineyard in Puglia. Credit: Courtesy of Cefalicchio

Puglia wines are relative newcomers

The other two estates that I visited are relative newcomers to the market and classic examples of just how much Puglia has developed over the last few decades. They may be old families with a history of farming olives and vines for several generations, but only as the demand for bulk wine has disappeared have they put their wine in bottle. Torrevento started bottling in 1989, and Cefalicchio decided to build a cellar in 2001.

Nero di Troia is quite unlike any of the other red grape varieties of Puglia, in that it is refreshingly low in alcohol. Primitivo, on the other hand, is characterized by a high level of alcohol. Geography explains the difference. Puglia is 400 kilometers long but only 50 kilometers wide (about 240 by 30 miles), so that most of the vineyards are relatively close to the sea. The relatively shallow Adriatic has little effect on temperatures, but it does bring wind that cools in summer and brings snow in winter. Winters are much cooler in northern Puglia than at the bottom of the heel. And Nero di Troia ripens much later than Primitivo and Negroamaro, withstanding well the searing heat of August. It has big berries and is a tannic variety with a lot of juice, but may lack acidity. The best wines have some appealing fruit, violets and red berries.

Torrevento’s cellar, where French oak barriques sit opposite modern concrete vats. Credit: Courtesy of Torrevento

Torrevento’s cellar, where French oak barriques sit opposite modern concrete vats. Credit: Courtesy of Torrevento

Since 2011, Castel del Monte boasts a DOCG for wines made from Nero di Troia alone, that are riserva and therefore can only be bottled after two harvests. These include Torrevento’s Vignale Pedale, which comes from one large plot of vines, and Ottagono, which is another smaller individual vineyard. Both have the benchmark characteristics of fine Nero di Troia, with a firm tannic structure balanced by elegant fruit.

Inevitably, Puglia has not avoided the temptation to plant the so-called international varieties, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, even though their suitability to the warm southern climate is highly questionable. You only have to compare Cefalicchio’s Totila, made from Nero di Troia blended with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, with its pure Nero di Troia Romanica, which is so much more satisfying and Italian in flavor. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn with the success of the so-called super-Tuscans, but happily Puglia is coming to value its own indigenous varieties, as Tuscany has done. As Puglia comes of age, it will realize that Nero di Troia, Primitivo and Negroamaro can stand alone. Do go and try and them. You will be richly rewarded.

Main photo: Castel del Monte in Puglia, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George

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