Green Gardens Community Farm, Part I

Snow flurries swirl along I-94 as I drive out to talk to Trent Thompson of Green Gardens Community Farm, east of Battle Creek, a week before Christmas. It’s been an unusually warm fall, allowing field crops to continue to be harvested far past when they can be most years. Yesterday was a day to get as much picked as possible, so today is the semi-official end of the season, or as close to the end of the season as Trent gets. Several of his hoop houses are full of greens which, along with carrots and other vegetables in storage, will send him every week to the indoor winter market in Kalamazoo. DSC_0297This makes eating a lot tastier and healthier for those of us who try to source as much as we can from local growers, but it also means a lot less down time for farmers after the relentless work the usual spring-fall crops demand. Trent has had only two half-days off since May before today, something a January trip to Florida will only do a little to make up for. But Trent isn’t complaining.

Though I’d met Trent at a dinner Donna McClurkan organized several years ago, and though hardly a week has gone by when I haven’t bought something from his stand at the Bank St. Market, I’ve never been to his farm, either the original one he started on rented land in 2008 or this one, which is on twenty acres that he and his wife Ruthie purchased in 2012. I pull up and park in front of a long low barn sitting perpendicular to a row of six big hoop houses and next to a stately old white farmhouse with a wraparound porch, columns, and shade trees in front. Trent and Ruthie, along with toddler Jorah, will soon move into the main house out of an apartment built off the back that they’ve been renting, just one of many steps forward that they’re taking as their farm grows. Trent calls to me before I can ring the wrong doorbell, and I walk over to meet him where he’s come out of the barn. He greets me with a strong handshake and then we head inside to talk for a bit with Ruthie before he and his feline helper, May, give me a tour of the farm.

DSC_0308 Continue reading “Green Gardens Community Farm, Part I”

The Food Lab

No, not her:DSC_0242

 

That’s Julep. Nothing makes her happier than standing next to the counter during meal prep and scarfing up whatever you drop, or stealing the occasional piece of toast from an unguarded child’s plate on the table, or cleaning up after the cat when she’s just barfed up her breakfast. Though truth be told, given the genetic soup Julep was ladled from, she’s more of a food hound than a food lab.

But no, what I’m talking about is this: Continue reading “The Food Lab”

Magical Orbs of Happiness

That’s what a guest called these potatoes when we served them to her last summer. They were just as magical last night. Fortunately, it’s easy magic to make: get enough little spuds (dime to nickel in diameter) to cover the bottom of whatever skillet you’re going to use (cast iron is best). Any kind of potato will do, but the German Butterballs we got at the market on Saturday stood out from the others in the pan in the way only something named “German Butterball” can. Put some good fat in with them (olive oil is fine, but use chicken or duck fat if you’ve got it), salt and pepper, and some thyme or rosemary if you feel the need — but try them once with just salt and pepper first. Then pour in enough water to come maybe a quarter of the way up the potatoes. You can cook them either in the oven (400ish) or on the stovetop. As they cook, stir them occasionally. The water softens the potatoes then evaporates, leaving the oil to coat and crisp them. Finishing them briefly under the broiler isn’t a bad idea if what you’re after is just the right amount of crispityness. And who isn’t after just the right amount of crispityness? And should it be spelled “crispittyness”? One isn’t sure. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that when you pop one of these potatoes in your mouth the skin should resist just a little, enough to remind you that not everything in life is easy, before you feel your whole being flooded with warmth and love. Like hugging grandma. Only it’s a potato.

potatoes roasted

(Lots more to come; I’ve taken a few weeks off from writing, but not from eating!)

Rocky Mountain Oysters?

Another highlight of the Thanksgiving trip west: gorging on raw oysters with my dad. Whole Foods had six different varieties on sale at coastal prices, and, since he was buying, we split five dozen over two nights, narrowing the six down to our favorite three  for the second round.

oysters (3)It seemed a little crazy eating shellfish at the foot of the Rockies, but I comforted myself with the thought that oysters have been shipped live inland for well over a century (packed in ice, they stay alive for long periods of time). So unlike the fish flown in overnight from the west coast or Hawaii that local chefs here in Kalamazoo proudly avail themselves of (in our farm-to-table restaurants no less), oysters can, at least in principle, be sustainably consumed pretty far inland.

Thankfully I didn’t have to eat real rocky mountain oysters.

Out of Our Mines

“Grandma, it’s Mines, not Mimes,” read the placard outside a building at the Colorado School of Mines. We were there to visit their geology museum the day after Thanksgiving, not being the types to brave the Black Friday crowds at the malls and big box stores. The campus, located just west of Denver in Golden, CO, was deserted, but the museum was actually doing a relatively brisk business, with something like 70 visitors before us that day. Gems and rocks draw a crowd, apparently, at least when the collection is as robust as the one you’d expect a leading mining school to be, and it’s what drew us. Two floors of displays of interesting bits of the earth, lit up and labeled, plus a little bit of mining history, made for a pleasant hour and a half. There was just enough snow to make the museum’s outdoor geology walk mostly undoable, but we did get to see the triceratops footprints and palm frond fossils in a nearby cliff up the hill from the museum. From our vantage point there we could look out over Golden and see the town with the massive Coors plant next to it. It was a striking sight: the sky hung low over the valley and the clouds merged with the clouds of steam escaping from the plant, a kind of beauty that only industrialization can provide (the fact that it can is one of the real if more subtle impediments to the economic changes planetary ecology requires we make).

coors

Continue reading “Out of Our Mines”

Foul Butterball

When we think about why more sustainably raised meat costs more, we tend to focus on its higher costs of production, and sometimes also the broken meat processing system that makes it hard for small-scale farmers to get product to market (as I wrote about a few days ago). This piece from NPR/KQED’s Food Bites adds another topping to the crust. Avian flu has driven turkey costs up: “The USDA’s mid-November report on frozen tom turkeys, in the 16-24 pound range, showed that the average wholesale price was $1.35 per pound, up from last year’s $1.17.” Not enough to close the price differential with birds from all those small producers raising their organic, pastured, heritage breeds, but a step in the right direction, right? Sadly, no: the retail price of frozen tom turkeys has fallen to an average of 87 cents a pound, compared with last year’s 93 cents.” Why? Because this time of year turkeys are loss leaders, products sold below cost in order to get consumers into the stores, where they’ll buy other stuff with a good profit margin. And turkeys are just the thin end of the wedge: “The USDA says cheaper turkeys also will put downward pressure on prices for roaster chickens and hams in coming days.” More than a little discouraging, this. We can try to level the production playing field all we want, but if national retailers aren’t even trying to break even on the animals they sell, there’s no way to get the price of good meat anywhere close to in line with that of industrial protein. Hard to know where to press for change here.

Meating the Needs of the Future

FarWriting at Civileats.com, Lauren Dixon informs us that since the Wholesome Meat Act (WMA) of 1967, the number of meat processors in the U.S. has dropped precipitously, with “with some states [now] only offering one USDA-inspected plant, and roughly half of the states in the nation completely lacking such a facility.” The sticking point here is “USDA-inspected.” Any facility that slaughters and processes animals for eventual sale to consumers, grocery stores, restaurants, etc., must, according to the WMA, meet safety and sanitation criteria set at the federal level by the USDA and be subject to regular inspection. As these criteria are generally designed for large-scale processing, and as they regularly get updated, smaller processors can’t afford to comply and so get forced out of business. The result, as Dixon says, is that now, even “[i]n a time of growing awareness about the ills of factory farming and increasing demand for local, pasture-raised meat, many small producers who might sell direct to consumers just don’t have time to drive for hours to get it processed.” The flip-side of this is, of course, a system whose benefits accrue to those operating at a large scale, as is shown by the massive consolidation in the meat-packing industry, where, according to Dixon, “just four companies produce 80 percent of the beef sold in the U.S[;] [a]nother four companies produce 60 percent of the pork, and five produce 60 percent of the poultry.”   (See Christopher Leonard’s recent book The Meat Racket for how we got to this point.)

In July, two members of Congress, Republican Thomas Massie from Kentucky and Democrat Chellie Pingree from Maine, introduced a bill aimed to change all this: the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act. Continue reading “Meating the Needs of the Future”

The Dark Upside to Education

While on sabbatical I’m taking a couple of classes in KVCC’s new sustainable culinary arts program – to what end, I don’t yet know, but it’s such a great idea for a program I thought it was worth exploring. Rachel Bair’s Sustainable Food Systems course just wrapped up, and, though I’ve taught a bit about the topic in an environmental philosophy class I offer, I couldn’t be more glad that I took it. For one thing, it was good to see what an intro-level course looks like from the students’ side of the room! But, more importantly, there were all sorts of things I learned more about than I knew before (e.g., migrant farm labor in Michigan, consolidation in the meat industry, how food assistance reflects issues in the larger economy), and I met some really passionate and interesting people.

There’s a kind of dark upside to taking this course though. Continue reading “The Dark Upside to Education”

Peppers!

red peppers 3 (2)

We bought 45 pounds of red peppers at the last two Bank St. markets from Dennis at Blue Dog Family Farm. These were ones that were either too small to sell or had some minor imperfection, and since otherwise they’d have gone to waste, he was happy to give us a deal on them. Most will get deseeded, sliced into two or three pieces, jammed into Ziploc bags, and stuck in the freezer. When thawed they’ll be too mushy to eat raw, but my son likes the crunch of frozen ones, and they’ll still be great for cooking, so we’ll have no problem using this many up over the next few months. Plus since we keep our house pretty cold during the winter, every time we look at the $6+/lb. peppers at the store this winter, our smugness will warm us up just a little. Continue reading “Peppers!”