Oh What a Night!

This past week I was asked to participate in Town and Country R.C. & D ‘s Go Green Convention as a break out speaker in one of their after lunch sessions.  I gave a 30 minute talk on our Earth Victory Garden project that was essentially a shortened version of the one I gave to several hundred at the MREA.  As before, people are very interested in living more sustainably, and the “systems thinking” of linking various aspects of our homes to reduce wastes while improving soil and food quality.   Hopefully as things settle down I will be able to set up a Page on the system to be used as a reference.

After the breakout session, all 300 of us headed over to a The Lake Club, which is a members only Yacht club that just happens to house Chef Jack, who is the most important driving force in our local Slow Food Movement.  He typically spends over $60,000 annually supporting local farmers for his restaurant alone.  1/50th of that money has gone to my Yukon and Carola potatoes this year, and he had said a month or so ago that he had hoped my harvest would hold out as he wanted them on the menu for the banquet.  When we all sat down, each table had a marker reserving that spot for a “Celebrity Farmer”.  This conference had pulled in some Big Hitters like John Ikerd, so my mind started racing to the likes of Joel Salatin and others.  Mark Sheperd- a powerhouse of the the Midwest Permaculture group was already in attendance and I couldn’t wait to see who else was here to see what I could learn from them.  When Chef Jack came up I grabbed his ear to see if he could hook me up with some intros to these mystery farmers.

When I asked him who they were, Jack was flummoxed for a minute.  Then he said “They’re *you* Rob… your potatoes are on the menu!”  The “celebrities” were all the farmers who had contributed to the meal -and in a room full of celebrated authors, VP’s of Fortune 50 Corporations, and leaders in state and regional Sustainability non-profits we -the farmers- were the Guests of Honor!

After the keynote talk, Jack got up and gave a speech detailing how he had worked his slow food ideas into the Greater Sustainability dialogue.  He related on how he had sat in conferences where they would discuss at length the plight of the local farmers and how to help them save their farms, and then sit down to a catered meal where the food was all imported, out of season, and had no flavor.  Over the 18 years that Jack has worked at the Lake Club he has worked to change that mentality and has done more than most towards that end.  After his talk, he asked the half dozen or so of us who grew the food to stand up, introduce ourselves, and say a few words.  

The first farmer had over 1000 acres of pasture grazed beef and dairy cows, many of the other farmers were also livestock operations, but there were some smaller veggie growers like who specialized -one in tomatoes, the other in Chard as well as my little .1 acre potato patch.  My speech was from the heart -thanking Jack for putting the farmers in a rare spotlight, valuing quality over ease, and taking the time to spend on little .1 acre operations.  For without him I would not be able to make it profitable; I spend less than 6 hours a week in the field, and selling over 100#’s a week at a farm stand would mean I would spend as much time sitting in a market as I did in the field, cutting my profit margins so low that I likely wouldn’t even bother after a few years.  Jack pays close to retail, values quality (I ask him if he need peppers and he asks me how they taste…), and is willing to work through the weird logistics of buying chard from one farmer, tomatoes from another, and cheese from three more rather than unloading them all from a truck all at once.

I want to thank, again, my Mentor who has given me the space to farm and the knowledge to make it work, and Chef Jack who has the foresight to put the spotlight, even for one night of the year, on the farmers working to bring local food back to our lives.  

Thanks to both of them for Being the Change -in my life in particular.

-Rob

Why I love Slow Food

I love Slow Food. Yes, of course I love slow food -the kind it takes all night to make -like a good curry, or all week like a good sourdough, or all year like a good onion. But what I am talking about today is Slow Food -the group of individuals reconnecting Americans and other citizens of the over commercialized planet with the goodness of local, heirloom, and often organic/sustainably grown foods -and why that goodness is a value worth our time.

I am growing alot of potatoes. Perfect harvest (10#’s for every 1 planted) would bring in just shy of 1900 lbs. As I planted alot of Yukon Gold (low yielders) and am harvesting lots of baby’s, end harvest will likely be well shy of that, but I still think over 1000#’s (5:1) is very feasible. That is awesome. It also scares me. Last week I harvested a bit under 200#’s. I sold it all, which felt really good. But that also took care of everyone in our mini CSA, friends at work and family. Many bought 10-20#’s as we gave price breaks there. That also means that these people are out of the potato buying business for many weeks. And the Yukons are READY and need to come in. No root cellar can take potatoes yet, and we don’t have that much fridge space.

Worry set in, so I started to look for a local resturaunt (I know I should have done that months ago…) and found that a chef in the next county started a Slow Food Chapter a year or so ago, and he is a friend of the farm owner so I gave him a call. Long story short I spent most of the morning harvesting 120#’s for him. For this week. But that isn’t the half of it. We had talked price ranges on the phone. I quoted what my CSA members were paying -which is about 25% above Whole Food prices for California organic Yukons. I’ve seen and eaten their potatoes, and mine are significantly better. He seemed fine with that, and ordered 100#’s -plus 20#’s of my baby Carolas -which are divine.

The delivery was great -Chef Jack is a good guy in a very high end “members only” restaurant at a Yacht Club-and he gets it. We looked at the spuds, and then he looked at the invoice. I had billed him $1.25/# for the Yukons and $2/# for the Carolas which was in the range we mentioned. Then he crosses out the $1.25 and makes it $1.75. I was floored. When I stammered a question, he simply replied something like: “these are great potatoes and I don’t like looking for new farmers. I’d rather pay what their worth and have them around rather than save a buck and have them shut down.” Amen.  I would wager that many a Slow Food Chef has had a similar conversation with a farmer.

I love Slow Food.

-Rob

PS Again, the power of being open to your neighbors pays off. I would never have found this chef, let alone have the ground to plant on if I hadn’t talked to my friends.  Talk to people -you’ll be better for it!

We are what we eat.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Mia and I are making a concerted effort to reduce our ecological footprint. Going back to when we lived in Iowa City in ’97 we started shopping at The Co-op and started to eat more natural foods. This is also when I first started toying with seasonal vegetarianism (Ever the contrarian, I took summers off to grill brats…) at Mia’s urging. As we matured and read more we shifted to more and more organic foods, and with the birth of our son almost 5 years ago we switched to virtually 100% organic. At first it was stunningly more expensive-but at that time we were still trying to eat the same, just organically. That meant lots of organic packaged and frozen foods, and that meant we had the double whammy of paying for the convienence-and for the organic premium. When we switched to vegetarianism that helped, as did driving out to Whole Foods which had significantly lower prices than the urban markets and the organic foods sections of traditional grocers.

But the main reason Organic is considered more expensive is, well, because it is. Organic Red Peppers are about $4.50/lb. Organic Milk is a little over $5/gallon. Both are easily double their conventional equivalent. I have no problem with that because I know I am not forcing future generations to foot the other half of my bill in soil erosion, cancer epidemics, and collapsed local economies. When some of our friends once asked what charities we give to-we replied “we buy organic foods”. That covers everything from supporting biodiversity to water quality to farmer direct subsidies in domestic Fair Trade pricing. And frankly it is worth every penny.

But that begs the question that Organic really is more expensive lending it to attacks of it being elitist. Before my career took off it was hard to find the money. Or was it? At the time it felt that way-but we found another $50/month for Internet service. Oh and then there was the other $50 for the cell phone. We’ve never had cable, but 90% of Americans do. Chalk up another $75/mo. Don’t get me started on the latte’s. In fact Americans use significantly less of a percentage of their income on food (about 10%) than any other country in the world (15% in Australia, Mexico is about 25%, India a whopping 50%) and half the amount we paid even just 50 years ago. And that is with real wages flat for over 30 years. Basically it comes down to choices. Why is it that we will pay for wuality in our clothes, our cars, our computers, schools, well just about anything, but when it comes to our food we almost invariably side with price as the leading issue on whether or not we’ll purchase it? My, and my parents, generations were raised on incredibly low cost food driven primarily from the shift in Farm Subsidy theory in the 70’s from trying to maintain prices to protect farmers, to trying to drive prices down to protect Big Business in the name of the consumer. The Result? The 99 cent double cheeseburger at Wendy’s, and the death of the small scale American Farm. Adding about $50 to my weekly bill seemed like a very fair trade for helping out my kids, and without cable I am still ahead of the game.

Earlier I mentioned that we were still trying to ‘eat the same’. When we switched from eating a lot of meat to almost none (we won’t make a scene if we’re served chicken at a dinner party) we modified how we ate. If we went from Meat and Potatoes to just Potatoes we’d be malnourished wrecks by now. Of course we studied up on building complete proteins (it’s not hard-add a legume to a whole grain at meals, eat dairy and dark green veggies [veganism is a whole different story]) and spent more thought on our meal planning-especially when raising healthy vegetarian infants. So if we changed our eating habits when we went Veg, it (now) seems odd that when we switched to Organic it took so long to switch to eating whole foods: those you have to prepare instead of open.

Now let it be said that my wife is a fantastic cook and I am spoiled rotten-we weren’t living on TV dinners and microwave popcorn before! But over the past 6 months or so (almost exactly the amount of time I have had my Insight…hmmm) we have made a concerted effort to prepare more of our own food from scratch. I started baking bread-kneading it by hand and making amazing pancakes from scratch each week with the kids. At the time I was looking for hobbies to fill in for my autoracing after I sold my sports car, but it had a huge impact on our psyche. In truth it goes back farther… to the end of last summer when we had more garden veggies than we knew what to do with (plant 4 zucchini plants at your own peril!) and Mia outdid herself in her succesful quest to let None Go to Waste, and to the summer before that when we subscribed to a CSA which pushed our culinary paradigms with its diversity.

Last month we found Good Harvest and for a variety of reasons chose that moment to switch to buying more bulk, and getting our milk from Crystal Ball Farms, one of the only dairies rated by the Cornucopia Institute at 5 Cows. Crystal Ball sells their milk in reusable glass bottles that you must return for your $1.50/bottle deposit and it is wicked good: I liken it to the the magnitude of the shift in flavor as we got from going from conventional to Organic milk. So we now buy very little that is ‘ready to eat’, instead buying bulk flour, pasta, rice and couscous, seasonal veggies and fruits (only enough to augment the garden), Tempe instead of Quorn, and steel rolled oats instead of organic cereals.

And a funny thing happened… we cut $50 off our grocery budget the first week and have sustained it ever since. I would put our weekly, 100% Organic bill up against almost anyone’s conventional, processed bill for a family of 4. Sure Milk is still $6 gallon (Crystal Ball is the BMW of dairy), but 2lbs of steel rolled oats are like $1.25 and make 3 weeks worth of breakfast, that much organic cereal would be $27. Organic isn’t elitist unless you want your Cake (convienence) and to eat it too (chem free). This is simple economics and there are no free lunches; something has to give. You either get convienent and cheap (while burning up soil fertility and poison our water supply), convienent and expensive (‘best ‘of both), or slow and wholesome, which I maintian is the best of all. Granted, plain oats are rough fare-but throw in a healthy quantity of seasonal fruit (raspberries, apples, strawberries) picked fresh from the garden, add a tsp of vanilla and some sugar and salt and its delicious for pennies a bowl. Good Harvest also has great bulk items-even eggs. For the excruciating pain of putting the eggs into a carton yourself you save over $1/dozen. Organic Peppers may be $5/lb-but only when you try to buy them out of season and get them shipped in from Chile without chemicals and waxes to keep them ‘fresh’. The ones from my garden cost about $0.20 per plant, that is about $0.02 per pepper for higher quality. Now that they are seasonal in the stores the price is halved so even city folk can save money shopping the seasons. Conclusion-Going Organic need not be more expensive-just go Whole Hawg and make a lifestyle switch to Slow Food and reap the numerous benefits both budgetary and ecological. Organic isn’t elitist unless your priorities are on speed.

How far this will take us remains to be seen. When we were at Prairie Dock Farm this week, Greg asked if we had any interest in joining his Dairy Coop-seems that he wants to get a cow next year, not to sell the milk but just for his family. But they don’t need 30 gallons of milk, nor do they want to have to milk it twice a day every day. So he is looking for about 10 families to ‘buy in’ on the cow, each taking a milking time along with all the milk they can glean from ol’ Bossy for the price of 1/10 of a heifer (about $150-200). 2-3 gallons of whole milk would meet our milk needs and let us make our own yogurt and perhaps even some soft cheeses. That just on milk alone could save us $15/wk, meaning a stake would pay itself off in under 3 months. If we made our own yogurt, figure another $10/wk. Add in the benefits of uber local (4 miles) milk and total ownership of its supply chain (hybrid or bike distribution network!), and the only down side is some nebulous concerns over food safety (one raw milk outbreak every 2-3 years despite tens of thousands drinking it daily-that is about the same as the number of people getting samonela from buffet lines) But especially with our kids still under 5 we will research this in a very real way.

This decision is still at least 6 months out so look for updates on my Raw Milk Rsch Project-and knowing that some of my readers drink their own raw milk I would love some insights on risk management.

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