Articles in Agriculture
I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.
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Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.
Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.
The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.
The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.
A hundred-year drought
A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.
Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.
Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.
In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.
Three rivers, now no rivers
One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.
Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olives and grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?
The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.
Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.
After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.
In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.
Between a rock and a hard place
Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.
But Birch is in a bind.
Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.
Looking to the future
The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.
Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.
To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.
Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.
To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.
In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.
And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.
Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch
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.
ZESTER BOOK LINKS
By Juliana Birnbaum
& Louis Fox
North Atlantic Books, 368 pages, 2014
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.”
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.
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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
I have met the next generation of bread.
I’m more than a little susceptible to hypnosis by wheat, but if you believe in bread, what Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn are doing might mesmerize you too. If you doubt bread, their story might make you reconsider.
Tucked high on a hill in Vermont, Elmore Mountain Bread makes a future that I think will last. Marvin and Heyn bake sourdough bread in a wood-fired brick oven, which is standard operating procedure for artisan bread. However, they also mill their own flour.
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Wheat and gluten are the latest bull’s-eyes in the American game of dietary roulette. Remember when eggs, butter and red meat were reviled? Some people are finding their way back to bread through small-scale bakeries and long sourdough fermentations. The next road on the path back to bread might be bakery milled grains.
“We want to make the best bread we can, and it’s a no-brainer that milling is a part of it,” Marvin said as she filled a rack at a small supermarket with fresh-baked loaves in paper bags. The birds on her arm tattoo flew as she worked. A small tag on the rack announced that the flour was freshly milled. A little red stamp of a millstone on the bag gave the same notice. The change is much bigger than these words and signs show.
The day before, Heyn poured grain into the hopper above the stone mill he had built. Every half hour, a timer went off and Heyn or Marvin left the bakery to scoop flour from the rectangular bins attached to the sifter. The sifter allows them to remove a small portion of the bran, and bake with a very white — yet nearly whole-grain — flour, using almost the whole kernel.
A few bakeries now milling their own flour
Research on how milling affects the nutritional value of flour is minimal, but wheat processing is being scrutinized as celiac disease and non-celiac wheat sensitivities are investigated. A handful of bakeries across North America are choosing to mill their own flour in pursuit of peak flavor and nutrition.
Elmore Mountain Bread is remote, near the edge of the state’s fabled Northeast Kingdom, but the bakers are not isolated. America lacks a formal apprentice system for bakers, so good bread advances through a network of online and live resources, such as King Arthur Flour’s baking school and the Bread Bakers Guild of America. Bakers get to know one another by email and by traveling to see one another’s setups.
Miller-bakers Julie Lomenda from Six Hundred Degrees Brick Oven Bakery in Tofino, Canada, and Dave Bauer from Farm & Sparrow in Candler, N.C., came to see the Vermont bakery on separate visits, and they got the couple thinking about milling.
Closer to home, Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne, Vt., mills for its baking. In the spring, Heyn and Marvin’s son Phineas gave them the impetus to start.
“One of the only things he ate every day was baguettes,” Andrew said. “As I was doing the ordering, which was typically 30 bags of white flour and two bags of whole wheat, I realized that this was refined foods. Organic, but refined.”
Heyn and Marvin wanted to use whole grains but remain loyal to their customers and product line, which was thoroughly artisan but did not feature whole grains. The bakery began 15 years ago, and they’ve owned it for a decade. Through that cross-continent network of bakers, Heyn designed a mill that would suit all their goals.
The brainstorming took place largely on email. Cliff Leir from Fol Epi in Victoria, Canada, sent pictures to Heyn of the mill he had built. Heyn collaborated with bakers Fulton Forde and Bryn Rawlyk, who also wanted to build their own mills. The three worked out details for a rustic, simple machine in a very 21st century fashion, without ever talking on the phone.
The metal work was more tangible and local. Friends who live down the road from the bakery fabricated the framework for the millstones. Iron Art had made the door for the bakery oven, and helped make the oven loader too. The sifter they bought ready made, but Heyn is about to make a new set of screens to better regulate the sifting.
Six years ago Heyn brainstormed designs for the next generation of wood-fired ovens with mason William Davenport of Turtlerock Masonry Heat, incorporating ideas from the Masonry Heater Association. Davenport built the oven for Elmore Mountain Bread, and its features are now common in micro-bakeries. Turtlerock is no longer in business, but former apprentice Jeremiah Church is still building ovens.
All of this tinkering, until the mill, has been to serve efficiencies. Heyn has an engineering mindset, and as he’s engaged in his work, his brain is always working out improvements in their system. Marvin has been an eager partner in this thinking, because she wants to minimize wear and tear on their bodies in what’s a very physical job.
The mill adds rather than subtracts work, but the two of them are gung-ho about this latest innovation. Even though the grains cost about as much as the organic flour they were using, the difference in product is worth it because they want to make the best bread they can.
Elmore Mountain Bread delivers about 500 loaves three times a week in a small radius near Stowe and Montpelier. The bakers still use roller milled flour to make a focaccia served in restaurants, but that is only about 20% of their production.
So far, they haven’t figured out an effective way to announce the difference in their main ingredient. Aside from the little millstone graphic and note on the bag, they don’t have much direct contact with their buyers. This is the way it is for bakers. Even in a retail setting, customers don’t want to chat about what’s in a loaf, the way someone might linger over ingredients while sipping a beer.
I am hoping that this will change. The media are a big voice in the popular campaign against bread, and positive stories about flour are rare.
For now, the bread speaks for itself, though I might serve as a ventriloquist. I didn’t taste any Elmore Mountain Bread before it started milling. Usually I’m all pancakes, all the time. But these loaves made me forget the griddle. The flour smelled so fresh and fieldy, and the breads were hauntingly tasty. I have a new enchantment.
Main photo: Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn divide and shape dough at Vermont’s Elmore Mountain Bread. Credit: Amy Halloran
Sonoma County conjures up pastoral images of California’s bucolic wine region — vineyards and creameries tucked along back-country roads dotted with farm stands and rustic garden shops, cows grazing in pastures, herds of sheep roaming in meadows.
And then there’s the other side of the Sonoma wine region, the rugged, extreme coast that hugs the Pacific Ocean. The newly established Fort Ross Seaview appellation is ensconced in this pocket of the larger Sonoma Coast American Viticulture Area, or AVA.
Perched on mountainous terrain, Fort Ross Seaview’s fog-blanketed vineyards appear to cling to sunny mountain ridges, some as high as 1,800 feet, pushing through the dense fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean.
The areas above 900 feet are blessed with a longer duration of sunlight and are in fact warmer than the surrounding land below. This warmth, combined with the tempering effect of a cool maritime influence, creates a perfect growing season for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, varietals widely planted in the region. The grapes enjoy gradual ripening with no dramatic ups and downs, which results in balanced sugar and acidity levels. Although noted for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the region is also planted with Zinfandel, Pinotage and Rhône varietals.
The wines of this extreme coast are low in alcohol and packed with bright fruit flavors, complex minerality and bracing acidity.
Sonoma County AVA the newest in popular wine region
On a recent visit to the Sonoma coast, I trekked out to visit this isolated and challenging site that received its own AVA in 2012. The Sonoma County AVA brings the total for the county to 17 appellations.
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Fort Ross Seaview’s 27,500-acre appellation includes 18 commercial vineyards, and more than 550 acres are planted to vineyards by such noted vintners as Marcassin, Martinelli, Peter Michael and Pahlmeyer. The area has five wine labels, among them the region’s pioneer, Flowers & Winery.
The AVA’s only tasting room open to public is at Fort Ross Vineyards. Coming from Sebastopol, it took us more than an hour to get to Fort Ross Vineyards, the first destination on our trip. The drive along Highway 116 that connects to Highway 1 was spectacular, taking us through the hamlets of Guerneville and Monte Rio along the Russian River. The dramatic coastline winding through the coastal town of Jenner brought us to the Fort Ross tasting room, which is tucked away in the mountainous landscape between the towns of Fort Ross and Cazadero.
San Francisco-based owners Linda and Lester Schwartz purchased the 975-acre Fort Ross property in 1991 and later planted 50 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage. With Jeff Pisoni on board as winemaker, they launched their first commercial release in 2000.
The 32 different parcels of small vineyards are perched at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 1,700 feet. The tasting room is enveloped by evergreens in a forest-like environment and sits at an elevation of 1,000 feet.
As we tasted the lineup of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a mid-August afternoon, the fog hung thick below the tasting room’s terrace. We were clearly above the fog line.
We savored the three different styles of Pinot. The 2012 palate-caressing, drink-now Sea Slopes showed hints of strawberry, while the 2010 signature Fort Ross Pinot reflected the region’s terroir, with layers of complexity, smoky blackberry notes and firm tannins. Lush with cherry notes, the silky-textured 2009 Reserve Pinot was indeed cellar-worthy.
Chardonnay mirrors the coast
The zesty 2012 Chardonnay had bracing acidity and minerality reflective of the extreme coastal terroir. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, the Schwartz family paid homage to its signature Pinotage grape (a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault) and imported the budwood. Grown in the cool, coastal climate, the 2009 Pinotage showed a Pinot Noir body but with rustic brambly notes.
Our next stop was at Flowers Vineyards, renowned for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Walt and Joan Flowers pioneered this rugged area when they planted these two varietals in 1991 at the Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Vineyard, and they released their first commercial vintage in 1994. The winery is now owned by vintner Agustin Huneeus of Napa Valley’s famed Quintessa Winery.
Rising up just 2 miles from the rugged Pacific Ocean cliffs, the Flowers property is breathtaking. The vineyards, heavy with fruit, are spread out on elevations ranging from 1,150 feet to 1,875 feet. Our guide and host Michelle Forry informed us that this mountainous range was at one time a sheep ranch till the coyotes wiped them out.
Flowers follows organic and biodynamic practices on its 80 acres of vineyards, 30 acres on Camp Meeting Ridge and 50 acres on Sea View Ridge. The entire mountaintop ranch totals 648 acres.
The well-known San Andreas fault runs nearby, Forry said, and its geological movement has influenced the Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge vineyards. Through time and cataclysmic events, the ancient rocks and weathered marine and volcanic soils have helped control vine vigor, resulting in distinctive coastal minerality with bright fruit, signature characteristics of Flowers wines. And it’s this expression that has made me a longtime fan of Flowers’ wines.
Pinot Noir with a lovely finish
We tasted the 2011 vintages of Pinot Noir from the two estates. The Camp Meeting Ridge Estate Pinot showed bright red fruits accented with acidity and minerality. The Sea View Ridge Vineyard had a deep brick color (due to the volcanic ash in the soil) laced with cherry notes and a lovely lingering finish.
The classic sea-salt minerality of Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard was reflected in the 2011 Chardonnay, layered with cardamom and citrus fruits. The 2012 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay also showed the signature minerality laced with pear and apple.
Because the AVA is just 2 years old, you might not see the Fort Ross-Seaview name on bottle labels yet. In fact, Flowers does not intend to use that appellation name on its labels.
“For us we are Sonoma Coast first,” Forry said.
Main photo: Grapes from the morning pick at Flowers Vineyards. Credit: Courtesy of Flowers Vineyard
When I first met Pascal Baudar he was driving a stripped-down red Jeep Wrangler with a bad muffler. Not exactly your typical image of a professional forager tiptoeing his way into the wild.
We were heading north toward the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles with a shopping list of stinging nettles, sycamore leaves, elderberry, rabbit tobacco, white clover and small ants. Try finding those items at your local Trader Joe’s.
Pascal is a certified master food preserver with a passion for the flavors of California. He’s the real deal and the culinary community in Los Angeles knows it. Chef’s eager to create uncommon and flavorful gourmet dishes rely on Pascal’s local food sources and his ability to provide unique ingredients with rousing flavors.
His partner, gourmet chef Mia Wasilevich, shares his passion for a cooking lifestyle based on self-reliance and sustainability. Together these soul mates created the Wild Food Lab Dinner Party series — the perfect opportunity for experimentation and culinary exploration. The items on our shopping list were the last bits and pieces Mia needed for their next big wild-food dinner party at the historic Zane Grey Estate in Altadena. What could be more intimate or more Californian?
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Thirty people were about to share a 10-course wild food dinner hosted by Gloria Putnam and Steve Rudicel, founders of Mariposa Creamery. The evening began at 6 with mountain vinegar shrub cocktails on the back porch. The kitchen was alive with action. Mia worked with a handpicked group of four chefs skilled at multi-tasking. Posted on the wall was a course timetable. Moving around each other like ninjas, they sliced the duck prosciutto, clay-baked the trout, prepared the quail, braised the goat and rolled fresh chevre.
Gloria kept a crew of six servers plating and waiting on guests. Steve, a restaurateur, directed a wine pairing that included Chardonnay from Slovenia, Chenin blanc from Loire Valley, Champagne Delamote Brut Blanc de Blanc, and a rare Vigneti Massa Derthona Timorasso from Italy.
Pascal served as the master of ceremonies. As he introduced the wild food elements in each course and fielded guests’ questions, his French accent lent a stylish tone to his foraging expertise. With the approach of the final course — elderberry frozen custard with candied buckwheat flowers and coconut milk flan — the guests grew louder. A hearty round of applause arose for Mia and Pascal as the group toasted the flavors of California.
Main photo: Foragers’ feast: Goat leg braised in forest floor and mugwort beer, parsnip chips, wild watercress. Credit: Seth Joel
I remember the moment very clearly. I was moderating a panel discussion after a special screening of “Food Inc.” in September 2010. More than 300 people had come for this free weekday screening. The staff at Boston’s Museum of Science, the hosts of the event, had told us to expect maybe 30 or 40 to attend.
During the presentation, a woman stood up and proudly announced she was working on a farm-to-school program with primary school students in Dedham, Mass. A few minutes later, another good soul described her curriculum teaching kids in Cambridge about edible gardens. A third woman offered up her school gardening program in Milton. I paused, and then asked, “Do any of you know each other?” Nope. Nope. Nope.
How was this possible? A distance of less than 20 miles separated the three thriving initiatives, but there was no cross-fertilization, no sharing of successes and strategies. Each one was a good-food activist toiling away in her own private silo.
That’s when I conceived the idea – and more important, the need — for Let’s Talk About Food. So many people, organizations, websites, meet ups and special programs are aimed at mobilizing a shift in our food system, and each one is dutifully tending or protecting its tiny bit of turf.
Let’s Talk About Food based on simple premise
My big idea was pretty simple: Let’s get everyone talking together. Let’s get the myriad initiatives aimed at ensuring better food out of their tidy little silos and into one big tent.
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If we start to work together, stimulating and sharing, connecting with like-minded souls, we can leverage our impact and move a lot faster to our goal — a healthier food system. Whether our individual passion is school food, cooking, animal welfare, sustainability or GMO labeling. Whether we agree with each other or not. Whether we care about the oceans or obesity, food security or food waste, or wonder what the heck happened with the farm bill. We need to be talking to each other, and to the public — the people who buy groceries, hate the food their kids eat at school, and hope they are feeding their family food they can trust.
We need to bring the experts, the advocates and the public into the same conversation. If we don’t, we are just talking to ourselves and a tiny group of like-minded people. To grow a food revolution, we need to go beyond the usual suspects.
I know there’s a problem. We all have egos. All the organizations and individuals who work in the food space feel a little protective and perhaps a little competitive about their turf, but we have to get beyond that. There isn’t one single recipe to change food in America. We need to come at it from every angle, inviting in every sector of society.
So, I started Let’s Talk About Food in 2010. It’s a tiny organization with one employee — me. I’m working for free and wondering what happened to all the smart lessons I learned in business school. I am a lapsed restaurant owner and was a reasonably successful journalist in Boston. I’m nobody special, not particularly well-connected and certainly not rich enough to take on the volunteer post I’d given myself.
You can find out more about the Let’s Talk About Food mission and its events and initiatives at www.letstalkaboutfood.com or on Facebook or Twitter (@LTAFood, #talkfood).
The annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival kicks off with a Vote With Your Fork Rally on Sept. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Trinity Church in Boston. The free festival will be held Sept. 27 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Copley Square. Visit the Let's Talk About Food Festival page for more information.
Since starting Let’s Talk About Food, I have curated, with a handful of volunteers, more than 60 public food events in and around Boston, all aimed at bringing experts and the public together. Each event was more successful than the last. We started with that first screening of “Food Inc.” at the Museum of Science and marched forward, leveraging the expertise in our own community, forming collaborations with museums, hospitals, science fairs, law schools, public health schools, an aquarium, churches, libraries, and state and city governments. Event by event, step by step, we formed partnerships with local media, such as our presenting sponsorship with the Boston Globe and with our public radio station, with magazines and local nonprofits, so the community knows what we are doing.
We’ve tackled diverse and specific topics, including “What’s Up with Food Allergies?” “How Do We Sustain the Fish and the Fishermen?” GMO labeling, the farm bill, the economics of aquaculture, the ethics of food and food labeling, and we’ve asked important questions: Can New England feed itself? How close can we get to sustainability? We even sparked a group of people who are now collaborating on an action plan for a regional commissary for healthy school food in Massachusetts.
Festival attracts thousands
Our annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival attracts more than 15,000 people who come together in Boston’s Copley Square for one spectacular day to engage and learn more about food — and have fun in the process. We have a huge demonstration cooking stage where chefs and “expert conversants” are paired, we have an open-air seminar that we call The Endless Table and co-create with the Museum of Science. We have hands-on cooking for kids, an edible garden, an ask-a-nutritionist booth and our Kitchen Conversations project — a mobile recording studio that invites people to come into our cozy kitchen and share a food story or memory. We have chefs, cookbook authors, fishermen, farmers and foodies of every stripe.
We don’t have a single agenda, and we don’t provide any specific answers to the questions we pose. Our goal (and note, in four years we have moved from being a “me” to becoming a “we”) is to get people talking. Our philosophy: Engage the mind, and you spark the change. Because talking about food leads to action about food.
Let’s Talk About Food is based in Boston because that’s where I live, but the idea of a community-wide conversation about food should not be confined to my hometown. Any city in America could have an organization like Let’s Talk About Food. I’d be glad to help you get it started where you live. Like a simple recipe, it’s an idea that is easy to share.
Silos keep grain safe, but they don’t store all the ingredients to make a full meal.
Main photo: Boston-area kids try their hand at making healthy lunches while chef Jody Adams works in the background at the Let’s Talk About Food Festival 2013. Credit: Courtesy of Let’s Talk About Food
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.
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.
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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.
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.
I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.
Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.
Agribusiness central to region
Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.
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Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.
Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.
The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.
Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”
Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.
There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.
World Ag Expo
One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.
The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.
The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.
Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison