Dennis Wilcox doesn’t look like a an old-timer, but by the standards of the local food movement in the Kalamazoo area, he comes pretty close to being one. Dennis started working in Three Rivers for Sustainable Greens (supplier to a number of elite Chicago restaurants) in the late 90s, and, at their encouragement, began bringing their salad greens to the Bank St. market to establish himself there. He then started his own farm, Blue Dog Greens in 2002. I moved here in 2004, by which time Dennis had become known for being one of only two certified organic producers at Bank St., and the only grower selling the bagged, mixed salad greens highlighted in his farm’s name, as well as lots of other delicious, very high quality vegetables. Fourteen years later things are a lot more crowded at the market, and a lot has changed for Dennis, but he’s still got a table full of amazing greens and veggies, and plenty of optimism that his farm will continue to find its niche in the local food network. Continue reading “Blue Dog Family Farm”
(For Part I, click here.)
About 90% of Green Gardens’ sales are direct-to-consumer, either through their CSA or at the local markets, with the other 10% wholesale to restaurants, the People’s Food Co-op, and through Sprout Urban Farm’s small food hub in Battle Creek.I ask whether it would be a benefit to Green Gardens to have a larger wholesale outlet close by, one that could take their excess produce, and Trent says “yes, definitely.” Tomatoes were especially abundant this year, for example, and it would have been great to have a place to sell them in bulk, even at the lower prices he gets for wholesale. For a farm of his size, though, the margins are so much better with the direct-to-consumer options that they will remain his focus, and the CSA is the foundation of those, since it provides for consistent predictability in terms of both harvesting needs and income. They’re hoping to grow this portion of their business as they make infrastructure improvements, but still, Trent notes, thinking both about their own operation and those of other vendors they see at the markets, “farmers have to be smarter about how they market and sell their product if they’re going to be competitive. I just don’t think you can keep throwing stuff out on a farmers’ market table and hoping it’ll sell.” They need to “find ways to reach out to people and get them excited about food, get them to come out.” One of the efforts in this direction that Trent and Ruthie are most excited about is an on-farm market they opened this year that anyone can come to, not just CSA members. “We’re doing all the veggies,” Trent says, and “I buy local fruit from other people,” including apples from Molter Family Orchards and The Country Mill. Chicken and (soon) pork come from Green Gardens alum Clay Smith at EarthSmith Food and Forest Products, and a variety of other things ranging from quiche to maple syrup come from other local producers. The goal, explains Trent, is “to be a one-stop convenience shop for people,” so they can get most of what they eat on a regular basis from local producers with just one stop.
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. This 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.
“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).
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.
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”
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”