Where is local?

The always-interesting Eatocracy blog has a guest post from an Arkansas farmer that raises some questions that I’ve been thinking about for a while. His family has raised cattle for generations, but because the farm ships its cattle to other states for feeding to harvest weight, and because the beef sold nationally, he says some people might not consider him a local farmer.

The knee-jerk reaction is to say that a large farm like that is not a local farm. But the thoughtfully written post made me think.

I grew up across a two-lane blacktop from a black Angus cattle farm outside Winston-Salem. The family that ran it had done so for generations. The cattle were grazed and fed in the fields. In late summer each year, crowds of fancy cars would descend on the farm – once, a helicopter even landed in the field, which was big excitement in the neighborhood – and amplified sounds of auctioneers would drift in the wind. This was decades before “eat local,” so I doubt that the obviously wealthy men were taking the beef to farmers markets. Did that make this farm, which was rooted in our community and donated land for the church up the hill, not a local farm?

What is a local farmer? And what exactly does it mean to “eat local”? Sometimes I ask people what they think “local” means, and they have different mental definitions. Some define it as being grown or produced within 50 miles of their homes, others as from within the state, while others hover everywhere in between.

Because there is no definition for local food, when a restaurant menu says its chicken or salad greens are from a local farm, you really don’t know. Unless you know the chef.

The “eat local” movement is maturing, and the question of local isn’t as obvious as it seems. We need to continue discussing it, and not exclude anyone from the table.

For me, I have mixed views. For produce, I care about freshness and flavor – which means it should be grown as close to me as possible. Also, the farther away, the more chance for some contamination as it makes its way to me. As a farmer friend says, “know your farmer, know your food.” Another point: The more centralized food production is, the more chance for catastrophe through either natural or man-made disasters, which means more small farmers.

What’s local to you?


More than winter tomatoes

When I think about Florida food, I think of either tropical fruit or rock-hard January tomatoes. But a new book shows that the eat-local movement and artisan food products are as strong in Florida as in other parts of the country.

“Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs and Artisans” by Pam Brandon, Katie Farmand and Heather McPherson (University Press of Florida, $28) offers stories of small farms, creative producers and innovative chefs, with recipes from all three camps.

Most of the recipes are simple and highlight the ingredients. While a few might be difficult to prepare outside of the Sunshine State – a ceviche that calls for a tropical fruit called longan, for example – the majority of recipes use produce found everywhere.

Several use kale, recently proclaimed a “superfood,” and of interest these days. One uses the green as the base for a pesto and another a spicy-sweet version using balsamic vinegar that I will have to try. If I can’t find sugarcane skewers, I’ll just do the scallops with lime, mint and rum without them – they sound great either way.

Creature from the salad bar

I’ve been eating a lot of salads lately. Maybe it’s from having April in February, or maybe it’s because i have access to lettuce with actual flavor. I get mine from a CSA. This photo shows the latest load of leafies: a ruffled type of lettuce called panisse and some romaine. I even snack on the leaves on their own, chomping like a large rabbit.

But I never knew that innocent salads were a threat. I discovered that a friend, let’s call her “Molly,” hates salads and all that go into them: carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, even lettuce. “How can you hate lettuce?” I asked. “It’s like eating green, crunchy air.” She just does. “It’s a texture thing,” she said. She also picks lettuce and tomatoes off of sandwiches.

“Molly” contends that she does like vegetables: peas, corn and potatoes. And broccoli, but only the stalks.

She also hates celery. “Celery? How can you hate celery?” said another friend sitting nearby. “Celery doesn’t have any flavor. Unless you dip it in hot sauce. Have you ever tried that?” “Molly” made what my father would have called a “cow eating briars” face (except that she doesn’t graze on green things). She held the face and shook her head as Friend 2 and I discussed whether we could get celery stalks to soak hot sauce up into their fibers, then use them in bloody marys. This I will try. But I won’t make “Molly” watch.

The Cultivated South

The single true thing in the romanticized “Gone With the Wind” is the image of Scarlett O’Hara clutching a hunk of Georgia clay as if she would squeeze life from it. Southerners grab onto the soil – literally or figuratively – and only reluctantly let go. Talks at the recent Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, MS., all came down to that link – often broken, sometimes rewoven, frequently emotional – between Southerners and the land. “The Cultivated South” was the theme for this group, whose events mix challenging ideas with a lot of pork products and bourbon. Read more about SFA here.

The land facilitated a desire for connection in Elizabeth Engelhardt’s talk about women who exchanged plants and information via letters in market bulletins in Georgia. Talks by Ragan Sutterfield and Eleanor Finnegan brought up what guidance concerning use of the soil and producing food comes from religious views. Finnegan pointed out that a tenet of the Nation of Islam involves healthy eating.

Discussion of how to bring African-Americans back to farming led to how they left in the first place. Shirley Sherrod told her compelling personal story, of how her father in Georgia was murdered by a white farmer over a land dispute in 1965. Sherrod was with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Georgia before being forced to resign in 2010 over a controversial video of a speech, which a conservative blogger edited to make it appear that she had made racist comments. Sherrod, who has a long history of working for civil rights, pointed out in her SFA talk the many ways in which African-American farmers have been cheated out of their land over the decades, and efforts to encourage them to return.

And, there’s the delight that Southern soil provides, from the pimentos for pimento cheese to mirlitons and collards. Lots of collards, leading up to a collard opera and The Hub’s complaints – not a fan of the leaf, he.

I’ll have more details on the goodies placed before us during the symposium later – I know y’all want to know what we ate. But I walked away reminded that the same clay earth stains every Southerners, whether we see it or not.


Market madness

Most “officially declared” weeks (or months or days) of something are kind of lame. We’re supposed to get all excited because someone decided that it’s National Rutabaga Month, or some such thing. But this week is a week that I can get behind. This is National Farmers Market Week, and if you’re not at one right now, go find one.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there has been a 17 percent increase in the number of farmers markets nationwide between 2010 and 2011. If you could buy stock in them, it would probably be doing better than your 401K is right now.

North Carolina made USDA’s list of top ten states in the numbers of farmers markets, with 217. No. 1 California sports 729 markets. Alaska and Texas showed the most growth in farmers markets during the past year. You can read the entire report here.

A great list of North Carolina farmers markets is here. And the book “Farm Fresh North Carolina” by Diane Daniel (University of North Carolina Press, $18.95) offers information on local food around the state here.

So, if you want to declare it National Rutabaga Month, Beet Week or whatever vegetable you like, that’s fine. Just buy it at a farmers market.

Young farmers grow

If you’re rushing down Tryon Road, busy with Saturday errands, you might miss the little sign at the corner of Tryon and Dover Farm Road (near the intersection with Avent Ferry Road). It notes the presence of the farm for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Young Farmer Training Program and its farm stand. I’d whizzed by it a number of times, always planning to stop in. I finally did.

Teens in the program learn about farming from the dirt to the business plan. More about it is here. A Food Shuttle spokesperson said that they are considering adding a CSA in the future.

Teens who grow the vegetables on land right across the road sell them on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. A lively clump of young farmers had their tunes turned up when I got there, but wanted to tell me plenty about their wares. On this day, they had swiss chard, melons, baby turnips and several varieties of tomatoes, among other things, all picked that morning. There were also grow-your-own oyster mushrooms: A bag of growing medium inoculated with mushroom spores. I was curious, but it would have turned into a cat-attracting object at my house, because the teen farmers told me you keep it indoors.

I don’t think a lot of people are aware of this fresh little market. It’s always fun to buy good food from enthusiastic people. The market will operate through Oct. 15.

Piedmont Grown begins

A new program provides consumers a way to find locally produced food, and supports the farmers and artisans who produce it. Piedmont Grown certifies farmers markets, farmers and local food producers in the Triangle, Triad and Charlotte areas.

In order to be part of the program and display its logo, the food involved must be from the 37-county area covered by Piedmont Grown. For example, farmers must certify that they produce the food they sell, and farmers markets must be producer-only markets. Participants must be certified annually, and there is a enrollment fee.

About 100 farms and businesses have registered so far. A searchable index and other information is at the web site here.

Stocked markets

If the ACC Tournament is coming up, that means it’s time to crank up the sausage balls. Oh, it also means farmers markets are reviving around the Triangle. The Campus Farmers Market at the N.C. State University Brickyard in Raleigh has reopened. And a new market is opening in Raleigh’s Boylan Heights. The Saturday Market at 301 Kinsey Street will offer a little bit of everything, including produce, food trucks and crafts. It will be open Saturdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. starting April 23. The market is on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Saturday-Market/186432384727796. Thanks to Andrea Weigl’s blog Mouthful for alerting me to the market.

A food lover’s guide to North Carolina

Visiting farmers markets, farm stands, microbreweries and anything else interesting in the food area is part of any vacation I take. I usually research online and print out notes on sheets of paper, which end up flying all around the back seat of the car.

Now there’s a book I can leave in the back seat wherever I go, and it will stay put. “Farm Fresh North Carolina” by Diane Daniel (The University of North Carolina Press, $18.95) is a collection of information on farmers markets, farm stands, wineries, dining locations and more all over the state. Daniel, who lives in Durham, selected the places to include based on her visits to the locations and the experiences she had. You’re unlikely to run out of things to do on vacation – or even with spare time near home – with this book in hand.

It goes beyond simple listings with mini-profiles of farmers and producers, historical facts and recipes. Everyone with an opinion may question the restaurant selections, but I agree with most.

The problem with guidebooks like this one is they can quickly become outdated. Daniel plans to address this issue by posting updates to the book on her website here. However, the book itself will not be online.

Food news roundup

The News & Observer’s (Raleigh, N.C.) series Meet Farmer Joe focuses on a husband-and-wife team. (And I always ask when I see this series: What about Farmer Josephine?) Both are also ordained ministers. Read more here.

Readers offer their ways to eat quick, fast and health in Kathleen Purvis’ blog at the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. Get the recipes and more here.

A man, a goat and the search for perfect cheese. Sound like a movie plot? Well, it is. Read more in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, here.

Let’s get small…. And if you recognize that line, you’re probably too old now to stay awake long enough to see the TV show it came from. But I’m talking about watermelons. You must have noticed they’re tinier, even down to “personal size” watermelons. I guess “personal size” depends on one’s definition of a serving. Anyway, the New York Times explores the incredible shrinking watermelon here.