Articles in Organic

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.

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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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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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A sign posted by Quivira’s guru Jim Barauski writes the tenets of Biodynamic farming for all to see. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Travel through Northern California and signs of the severe drought are everywhere. In suburban Healdsburg, front lawns are dead, flowers faded, home vegetable gardens finished weeks early. The same can be seen in Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa. The Russian River above Redwood Valley is dry.

An article in “The Press Democrat” in Santa Rosa reported a high school sophomore’s unique water fence concept, a fence that stores rainwater. Ingenious. But there’s been no rain to store for at least three months.

California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy, declining for many years at rates never seen before.

“Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. About half of the fruits and vegetables are grown in California. Without an improved management of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable,” says Miles Reiter, chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.

How are wineries faring in drought?

If the drought is endangering fruits and vegetables, what are its effects on the region’s vineyards?

Quivira and DaVero, two vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, have incorporated the practices of biodynamic farming.

Biodynamics is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. It stresses a holistic understanding of agriculture, treating all aspects of a farm, from soil fertility to the livestock, as interrelated. The principles, that agriculture seeks to heal the earth, were introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.

People tending biodynamic vineyards have spent years conditioning their soils with preparations made of fermented manure, minerals and herbs, and understanding the use of earthly and cosmic rhythms and cycles in creating a healthy farm.

Biodynamic farmers also pioneered some of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) ventures. CSAs began taking root in Europe and Japan in the 1960s, and the movement had come to the United States by the mid-1980s.

Biodynamic guru

Quivira Vineyards and Winery specializes in small-lot wines from varietals specifically matched to the effects of hot summer days and cool coastal nights on its soil.

Jim Barauski, the biodynamic guru for Quivira says, “Going biodynamic was a decision made with a conscience toward moving away from cultivation and building better soils. Anthroposophy is the spiritual science behind biodynamics. If we take something out of the soil, we put something better back in. We feed the microbiotic life with natural, time-tested techniques.”

The winery’s large demonstration garden is a real awakening. The herbs and berries are neatly arranged in beds, the signage hand-printed and not a weed in sight. The beehives — a design called Golden Hives — were designed for the health and development of the colony and to minimize the impact from human interaction (more frequent opening of hives weakens their health).

Vineyard manager Ned Horton says he quietly works with the bees and rarely, if ever, gets stung.

“The health of the bees has been challenged on many levels, and the difference in bien (one-being, or oneness, that describes a bee colony) has to be understood within the context of the global landscape and the current one-dimensional human world view. The challenges for the well-being of the bees reflect our own struggle in our striving for health and happiness. The bees are intended to support the gardens and herbs, and the gardens of course, support the wines,” Horton says.

Each year, Quivira also plants a substantial amount of cover crops, which helps conserve water use. These plants also decompose, fortifying the soil, and open pathways for worms that aerate the soil, eventually creating a balance or a homeostasis.

Winemaker Hugh Chappelle says, “The light from the environment falls into matter so there is some quality of light in the wine. The entire vineyard is, in a way, like a human being, so complex and so individual. But as much as possible, each living thing on the farm supports the other.”

Winery started with olives

DaVero Farms and Winery, started by Ridgely Evers and Colleen McGlynn in 1982, is a 30-acre farm on which the couple had planted one olive tree. In 1990 they began to import olive trees from Tuscany. Through the years, their olive oil has been acknowledged as some of the best in the world.

In 2000, the couple planted their first small vineyard in Sangiovese and then the rare Sagrantino, Italian varietals because the Dry Creek Valley’s climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean region, characterized by hot, dry summer days and cool nights.

In 2007 Evers and McGlynn began the process of converting DaVero to biodynamic. Mary Foley, the original soil manager, transformed the soil into a vibrant, healthy farm. Foley, however, moved to the Sierra and advises from afar; Michael Presley now has the job.

As the tour finished with a lunch and wine tasting, the temperature at the vineyard had hit 95 degrees.

Presley promised it would begin to rain on Sept. 22. “It always does,” he claims.

Having seen a series of seemingly magical transformations through biodynamic gardening at the wineries, anything seemed possible.

It rained on Sept. 18.

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Roasted Cauliflower salad by Colleen McGlynn, who started DaVero Farms and Winery in Healdsburg, Calif., in 1982. Credit: Katherine Leiner

Colleen McGlynn’s Roasted Cauliflower

Prep time: 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
Ingredients
1 head cauliflower
1 garlic glove
3 pieces of anchovy
1 wedge preserved lemon
Fruity olive oil
2 tablespoons golden raisins
2 tablespoons salted capers
Chili flakes, to taste
Handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped
Kosher salt and pepper
Directions
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Separate cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with a film of mild olive oil, salt to taste, spread on a sheet pan and put into 350 F oven for 10-15 minutes, or until browned.
3. Make a vinaigrette by mashing together the garlic, anchovy and lemon wedge into a paste. (If you don’t have preserved lemon, you can substitute the zest and juice of one lemon.) Put into a bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice and a “good glug” of fruity olive oil.  Stir together.
4. Combine the warm cauliflower with the raisins, capers, a pinch of chili flakes and chopped parsley, add to the vinaigrette.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Serve at room temperature.

Main photo: Quivira Vineyards and Winery’s Jim Barauski has posted a sign outlining the tenets of biodynamic farming. Credit: Katherine Leiner

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Garlic tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.

But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.

I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.

As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.

All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.

FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy

Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced

Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter

GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)

Aroma: Almost no aroma

Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action

Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding

GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)

Aroma: Strong, classic garlic

Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick

Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk

Brockman_garliclineup

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Garlic tasting lineup. Credit: Terra Brockman

INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington) 

Aroma: Mild garlic aroma

Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor

Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long

KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas

Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives

Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it

MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)

Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas

Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues

Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent

NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)

Aroma: Nice perfume.

Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering

Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted

RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)

Aroma: Spicy and earthy

Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed

Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.

And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.

Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman

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Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discusses permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

What is the connection between conventional food systems, erosion and global warming? Climate change accelerates as industrial agriculture, with its heavy plowing and application of pesticides, sends carbon into the atmosphere. This creates soil loss and depletes the amount of carbon the soil is able to store. The Monsanto-sponsored Green Revolution in Africa and Asia was bolstered by the idea that we needed to find a way to break out of nature’s boundaries to provide enough food for a growing population. Yet decades of synthetic fertilizer use and industrial-style monocropping have created diseased soils, broken ecosystems and social instability.

Raj Patel, who has written extensively about the need to shift our relationship to food, says the problem with the food system is not that we don’t produce enough calories to eradicate hunger. Instead, it’s that the system puts a priority on profit and institutional consolidation. The upshot: More than 1 billion people are malnourished and 2 billion are overweight.

Perhaps the answer lies in the dirt.

The earth beneath our feet contains billions of microorganisms — huge quantities of carbon in the form of bio-matter. Organic farming, permaculture and other regenerative food-growing strategies enrich soils and restore their ability to store carbon.

I have spent the past eight years documenting regenerative design around the world, deeply motivated as a new mother to find solutions to our global ecological crisis. I’ve used my anthropology background to put together a book, “Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide.” A catalog of 60 sites and an anthology of articles, it represents the work of a small army of about 100 contributors, including Paul Hawken, Vandana Shiva, Starhawk and David Holmgren. It includes projects in climates as diverse as the Dead Sea Valley in Jordan and the Amazon rainforest, inner cities as well as remote corners of Mongolia.

It also highlights permaculture training, which has been held in approximately 100 countries around the world. One innovative program in Israel, called the Bustan Project, brings Arabs, Jews and Bedouins together for courses. The courses combine teaching practical techniques of natural building, water catchment and traditional agriculture with peace building.

“It is connected to peace, in that we work the land together instead of fighting about it,” says Petra Feldman, a resident of Hava ve Adam, the permaculture center that hosted the training that I and my co-author Louis Fox attended in 2008. Israeli youth work at the center for a year as an alternative to military service. Petra’s husband, Chaim Feldman, began a collaboration with Palestinian farmers involving traditional agriculture. They have shared irrigation techniques, drought-resistant heirloom seeds and other permaculture practices that enable farmers with restricted land access to grow more intensively in smaller spaces.

“The closest thing in the world to the principles of permaculture I’m learning in this course are the principles of traditional Bedouin culture,” said Haled Eloubra, a Bedouin community leader and green architect attending the course.

Permaculture integrates traditional knowledge with appropriate technology, linking ancient and modern approaches. As an international movement, it reconnects native people with ancestral knowledge, as well as giving industrialized societies a framework to meet their needs more sustainably. Some call this approach permaculture. For many traditional people, as Nahuat-Mayan activist Guillermo Vasquez told me, “It’s a practice, a way of life.”

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

In Oakland Calif., “soil farmers” like Max Cadji hope to transform dirt tainted by decades of pollution. Credit: Louis Fox

Vasquez founded Indigenous Permaculture, an organization that partnered with residents of Pine Ridge, an Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota. There they developed a Wounjupi garden, a local food-security project using ecological principles. He sees permaculture movement as a form of cultural resistance and a healing process.

“This is the way to create a real Green Revolution and make change,” he told me.

Pine Ridge, long associated with native resistance, holds a unique place in the history of indigenous struggle. The reservation is among the most impoverished in the United States, with an adolescent suicide rate four times the national average, unemployment around 80% and many residents without access to energy or clean water. Although there is a good deal of agricultural production on the reservation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only a small percentage of tribal members directly benefit from it.

Local leader Wilmer Mesteth has been leading the development of the Wounjupi and systems for water catchment, grey water recycling, seed saving and composting. The organizers see local food security as a path to confront poverty and health issues such as diabetes, and have developed a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. A greenhouse has been built, medicinal plants are being cultivated and workshops are held for residents about perennial agriculture techniques. The harvest provides enough produce to give to families and elders in the community, and even share at an elders gathering in Montana.

Another advantage of biodiverse systems is they are more resilient. While grasshoppers destroyed many other crops on the reservation one season, the Wounjupi garden saw little damage, probably as a result of the permaculture technique of planting flowers that attract beneficial insects that prey on pests. “We’re seeing a major change in the soil due to the addition of organic matter,” Vasquez said. “It’s much darker and richer, and the vegetables are starting to grow really well.”

This kind of soil building also has larger positive implications. In her book, “The Soil Will Save Us,” Kristin Ohlson suggests that the ancient partnership between plants and soil microorganisms that created our planet offers hope for pulling carbon from the atmosphere and sinking it back into the ground. She documents a huge increase in the numbers of “soil farmers” within organic agriculture, and beyond.

In my part of the world in Northern California, soil farmers in the heart of Oakland are transforming soil tainted by decades of intense industrial pollution, building local community and creating social change at the same time. Oakland’s food security movement has brought fresh organic produce to what was a desert of liquor and convenience stores, and locals are raising bees that pollinate urban crops as well as provide local sources of honey.

The diversity of insect and bird pollinators is crucial to agriculture, and farmers require healthy ecosystems to grow food. Our choices about how our food is grown connect directly to issues of biodiversity, climate change and the survival of natural ecosystems across the globe. Organic and permaculture farms are significantly better at preserving agro-ecosystem biodiversity than conventional farming. With such systems, the number of plant, bird and insect species can often be 50% greater, so developing biodiverse systems should be a high priority. When we choose to eat locally-grown and organic foods, we are giving energy to a diverse and vibrant international cultural movement that is revolutionizing the food system.

And they taste better too.

Main photo: Bedouin community leader Haled Eloubra, left, discussing permaculture with a student at a course in Israel. Credit: Louis Fox

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Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots Credit: Sunny Young

Some volleys in the battle to make school food healthier can sting.

“I was told after removing chicken nuggets from the menu that I was taking all the fun out of school lunch, which was a pretty harsh thing to be told,” said Sunny Young, Program Manager of Good Food for Oxford Schools, an initiative to improve the nutrition of cafeteria meals and educate students and their families in Oxford, Miss., about better food choices.

AUTHOR


PamWeisz of Change Food

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

But, Young said, “We make decisions based on the welfare of our children.”

Young spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement, citing dire statistics demonstrating a critical need for better food choices.

Forty percent of Mississippi’s children are overweight or obese, she said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity is linked to heightened risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems and sleep apnea, as well as social and psychological problems.

“In order to change these really scary statistics, we need a paradigm shift in the way that we think about food and the way we eat food,” Young said.

She cited reasons for hope. A recent evaluation of Good Food for Oxford Schools, conducted jointly by the University of Mississippi’s Center for Population Studies and the university’s Department of Nutrition and Hospitality Management, showed that the program is having an impact.

“What we’re doing is working,” she said.  “It’s changing eating habits,” at school and at home.

The program has a three-pronged approach, working in the cafeteria, the classroom and the community.  In school cafeterias, she said, “We are transforming what the kids are seeing on their trays,” with menus featuring more fresh, local food.  The proportion of the cafeteria menu cooked from scratch grew from 30% to 75% during the 2013-14 school year.

That startling increase came from replacing overly processed items with whole food — for instance, replacing those sacrosanct chicken nuggets with baked chicken. Newly trained staff also replaced frozen foods with items such as pot pies and stir-fried foods. They tapped into recipes from TheLunchBox.org, a site started by Chef Ann Cooper, a longtime advocate for healthier school food (and Young’s boss before she came to Oxford).

The “Harvest of the Month” program in the cafeterias helps promote the use of more local food, with the added incentive of a sticker for younger kids who try something new.

But, she noted, “You can’t just put this food in front of kids and expect that they’re going to love it and eat it.”

That’s where the classroom lessons come in:

“We get them to touch and feel foods, Young said. “We bring in the farmer. We bring in chefs. They do cooking demos in the classroom. We really allow students to experience the joy of food.”

The district’s middle and high schools now have salad bars, and Young’s goal is to get them in elementary schools during the current school year.

The older kids’ incentives: more control over their schools’ food choices.

“Stickers and dressing up like a carrot doesn’t work so well,” Young said of the middle and high school crowd. “So what we’ve done is empower the students themselves.”

Young launched food clubs in the district’s middle and high school, where students cook, eat and learn together. The club also provides suggestions to improve cafeteria menus.

Oxford Elementary School students try broccoli flowers they have grown in their school garden plot. Credit: Sunny Young

Oxford Elementary School students try broccoli flowers they have grown in their school garden plot. Credit: Sunny Young

School gardens are also part of the program, and will be expanded this year thanks to an AmeriCorps-affiliated FoodCorps member now working with the program. Young is working to get schools to incorporate the gardens into the curriculum, but the gardens are already having an impact.  She noted that when a group of third-graders was asked last year to draw a carrot, all the students involved in the school garden program drew it growing underground, unlike the other children who simply drew carrots without any context.

Community steps up

The third piece of Good Food for Oxford Schools’ work is in the community. The program works with farmers markets and organizes community events, such as a Gospel Choir Showcase that featured choirs singing on the Oxford town square interspersed with messages about Good Food for Oxford Schools and food samples from the improved school menu.

Young’s goal for the school year is to expand the program to reach more kids and families.  She was recently named state co-lead for Mississippi for the National Farm to School Network.

She’s now working to connect programs across the state that are doing similar work, and is organizing a Farm to Cafeteria conference for later in the school year.

“The people of Mississippi have embraced this project,” Young said.  “Good food can change everything.

Main photo: Della Davidson Elementary School students enjoy lettuce for lunch from their school garden plots. Credit: Sunny Young

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

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The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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