Thursday, November 6, 2008


Well the Westside Community Farmers' Market and the Dane County Farmers’ Market finish their outside seasons this Saturday. The DCFM goes indoors and boy are we lucky we get to eat locally all year long! There is also a new market/craft show happening , the Northside Winter Farmers' Market.

We will not be writing for the WCM next year and look forward to reading a new perspective.

I don't know how much writing this blog will see. It was started as a month-long experiment in August 2007--anyone who knows us knows we could talk forever! If you are visiting for the first time, go back into the archives and read our daily posts from August 2007, our adventure in 100 mile eating.

Happy Harvest!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Monday, May 12—A chicken in every pot?

Call me the master of the obvious. . .

Years ago, it used to be that chicken was special: roast chicken was fit for sunday dinner, and the promised "chicken in every pot" was a promise of affluence and comfort.

Fast forward to today. Now we appear to expect chicken ever day, and steak is what we serve to company (or see my previous post which refers to filet). We now know that beef represents a substantially greater impact than chicken does. Is it of concern that the goal posts seem to be moving? What was once special is now for every day, and what was once out of sight for most is now within the grasp of most, at least some of the time?

Hell yes, I say. No need to go into nauseating detail--the topic of what happens when China and India want to eat like we do (OK, steak will never be a hit in India!) has been covered elsewhere in more detail than I ever could. But it struck me that it's not only the "developing" world that is adjusting its standards. Ours are evolving, too.

Does that mean give up steak? Not necessarily, but choose it judiciously, and be well-informed. Know the economic and environmental context and consequences of what you do. And remember that, despite what some want you to believe, all steak is not alike. I am referring, of course, to the corn versus pasture thing (again). But even if you are a bazilloinaire who can afford to wipe your rear end with $100 bills, I think steak should be for special occasions no matter what. It's the sense that we are "entitled" to steak that has driven the market to make it ever cheaper. I don't suggest that it's bad to raise cattle for meat, and I certainly don't want beef to disappear. I wish all the success in the world to the Priskes, the Johnsons, and the Goodmans (who don't have a website for Northwood Farm). If everyone who raised beef did it to the standards these farms set, it would be way more expensive in dollars and way cheaper in karma and in environmental impact.

So if you like, enjoy a steak--pastured, of course. Cook it simply and well—quality steak cooked correctly is hard to beat, but treat it as if it is more precious than gold. In a sense, it is.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April 30—Can food be too cheap?

It's a question I've been pondering ever since we watched the movie King Corn on PBS. It's a really interesting piece of work, and it defied our expectations: it is not the snarky Michael Moore treatment you might expect.

In the film there is a brief treatment of US agricultural policy, including some archival footage of Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, talking in 1973 about the new direction that American farm policy was going to take. What we want, he said, was an abundance of cheap food. Looking back on it now, with what we know today, his remarks seem laughably naive, if not even a bit sinister.

The filmmakers visited Butz in the present (which was, I think, 2005), at the age of about 95. He remained proud of what he accomplished, saying that Americans feed themselves on just 16% (I think I've got the number right) of their household budget, and that's a great accomplishment because it leaves so much money free to make other things happen. Consumer spending is, after all, one of the underpinnings of economic growth.

Butz (who died earlier this year at 98) got me to thinking. Can food be too cheap? What we see from the film King Corn is that without government programs, farmers who grow commodity crops like corn lose money. They get a per-acre payment that (they hope) puts them slightly into the black. I am a person who believes that, when it comes to work life, people will basically do what you pay them to do. In this case, it pays Iowans to grow corn, as much of it as they can. Read The Omnivore's Dilemma to learn about many of the things into which the corn gets made. But there's no doubt that cheap corn is one of the cornerstones of our food supply.

So what's wrong with cheap food?

This is where it gets complicated for me. I agree that cheap food is a great thing, in principle. But I think the way you get it is just as important. The current system of payments for commodity crops (corn, wheat, soybeans) is designed to keep prices down and, at least in theory, to keep farmers in business. Of course you would expect that having a virtually unlimited supply of something cheap would lead people to find all sorts of new uses for it, and you would be right. Corn is in all kinds of things—too big a topic to go into here.

The way we go about it now creates incentive for consolidation of farms. That has the effect of driving people away from farming and in many cases out of their home towns and away from their families. It also creates incentive for agricultural practices that do not seem sustainable—a tremendous amount of chemical and mechanical input is required to keep the land in production, and all that land under tillage creates a huge amount of runoff creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And of course the farm communities that produce a huge portion of the food we eat can't feed themselves.

While I agree in principle that cheap food would be of benefit to people, I feel like it is just not sustainable. The land can't sustain year after year of that level of production without external inputs, and we can't sustain that level of external input (it mostly takes oil, after all, to make the fertilizer and power the equipment). The towns can't sustain that level of population loss, and there are some who would argue that our health-care infrastructure can't sustain itself in the face of all the complications that arise from results of all that cheap food.

I don't know that I have an answer. How can you create a system that keeps food affordable for everyone (which requires plenty of it), but that keeps prices sufficiently high for farmers to support themselves (which requires scarcity to keep prices up)? And of course you want to do it in a way that at a minimum does not create incentive to push the land too far, and even better would be to create incentives to actually improve it. And do we need to institute further scrutiny of some of the byproducts of cheap food? In my mind, I can sketch out the vaguest of outlines of what such a system might look like, but it's really a Utopian fantasy—such a policy could never be enacted in today's political climate.

Our approach is to opt out where we can. We try to avoid products that contain lots of corn-derivatives, and make as much as we can from scratch using ingredients whose origins we know. But it's not our religion, and even if it was I'm not sure there's much you can do. We recently discovered that there is High Fructose Corn Syrup in every single variety of pickles at our grocery store. Pickles! Our goal is not to boycott those evil farmers in Iowa and teach them a lesson. It is to demonstrate that there is a market for you if you choose to do it a different way. There is a huge gap at the grocery store: on one end you have classic "industrial" food, full of the products of the commodity agriculture economy, including but not limited to the corn syrup mentioned above. At the other end is the stuff that is fully organic, made with things that sound like what you might use at home, like sugar. Of course, products that contain all organic ingredients are far more expensive. So where is the middle ground? Where are the products for people like me, who don't need to go full-on organic, but don't want corn syrup and genetically modified organisms? At present, it seems that our food life, like our political life, is dominated by the extremes. Let's hope for some sane, sustainable options in the near future.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

First Wednesday Market

It is amazing that the Dane County Farmers’ Market happens twice a week. Now, the Wednesday market is MUCH smaller but it is still a vibrant part of the downtown scene. We browsed today, buying cheese curds and a cookie. Evie and I commented that the cheese curds were especially delicious, and then we realized maybe that was because we hadn't had any since market was outside in November. I guess to us, even cheese curds have their season!

There were lots of greens including yummy watercress, jerusalem artichokes, tomatoes, bedding plants, tomatoes, baked goods, chicken, sausage--the list goes on and on. I absolutely loved listening to people as they walked the market. I overheard one woman explaining to a co-worker that she was planning to join a CSA because "it is way easier than gardening and it just seems like the right thing to do, ya' know?" Other people greeted vendors like old friends and we saw daycare and school groups being led through the market like it was a fascinating wonderland (which it is).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A great chef whose food you'll never eat

Jack Kaestner is the chef at the Oconomowoc Lake club just outside Milwaukee. He's been there for many years (I think he said 17). It's a private club, so you will probably not get to eat there, which is too bad. Chef Jack is a CIA (Culinary Institute of America, not the other one!) graduate, and a huge supporter of local food in the area. He has been involved in many organizations and initiatives to promote local eating, including as a founding member of the SE Wisconsin Slow Food chapter (or Convivium, as they prefer it). I have heard him speak a number of times on how farmers and chefs can work together for mutual benefit. In a profession that is somewhat famous for hotheads, he is a decidedly cool one (of course I've never worked in his kitchen, but I did see his whole staff smiling).

I am one of the lucky ones, because I got to enjoy one of his meals. No, I did not join the club. In observance of Earth Day, Jack and his crew put together a special dinner focusing on local ingredients. The members had to buy tickets, and all 75 seats sold out. I got to go as a representative of Death's Door Spirits, so I got to introduce the members to those great products as well as to meet some other producers. It was a good group, and a great menu, including spinach salad, a duet of pastured beef and turkey with mashed potatoes, and ice cream sundaes and a selection of cookies. I also got to try rabbit for the first time, in a paté no less. My impression was more about paté than rabbit (think cold meatloaf), but I did enjoy it. We had a chance to mingle with the diners before hand, then each producer gave a spiel about their products and approach, after which the members got to ask questions. A big focus was on what is meant by free range, most particularly with respect to poultry. I feel that the issues of concern closely mirror what we have heard in speaking to other groups about local food. And of course there is nothing like having a connection with the producer so that you can find out if the farming practices are in accord with your values.

One of Jack's points as a chef in a fine-dining restaurant is that you have to think about the sustainability of what you are doing. Or as he says, you have to shift from thinking about filet mignon to thinking about pot roast. For example, think of a typical beef steer: it weighs maybe 1,000 pounds. Think you like filet mignon? How about if I told you that there is only 4-6 pounds of filet on that 1/2 ton animal? Yes, that's 1/2 of 1% of the live weight. And you know how you see hanger steak on all the trendy menus just now? Well, there's only one (one!) hanger steak on each steer. Now as to pot roast, I have tasted Jack's, and I am a believer. You will never find a piece of filet that is more tender, and as a bonus, you actually get some flavor (which is my main complaint with filet), or in Jack's case, a ton of flavor.

I have to give a lot of credit to Jack for his leadership on these issues, and frankly, a lot of credit to the members of his club for giving him the freedom to serve pot roast at their daughters' fancy wedding receptions!

Jack has an informative web site, and has a great calendar that provides a month-by-month guide to what is in season at any point in the year. A great resource for planning ahead (perhaps for your own local eating experiment?).


Monday, April 21, 2008

Can Livestock Be Raised in the City?

In 2004 legislation was passed to allow citizens of Madison to keep up to 4 domestic fowl in their yards. All must be female, and no butchering allowed on the property. The city of Seattle now allows goats to be kept in people's backyards. With the price of animal protein going through the roof, is raising animals in the city one way to counteract skyrocketing prices? What kind of profit can be made by from agriculture on a small parcel of land? These and other interesting questions are discussed in MetroFarm Online Magazine and Food Chain Radio. Michael Olson is anAgriculturalist, Journalist, Radio Show Producer and Host, Author, Farmer and Business Owner. Whether you agree or disagree, his publications and forums provide food for thought. Check it out!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Environmental Impact of Local Eating

Happy Earth Day!

We spent the afternoon with an amazing group of people, the Board and members of the Welty Environmental Center. We were invited to speak at their annual meeting about our 100 mile diet experience. We were blown away by all this group does. This is only their 8th year of existence and the slate of programs they offer is outstanding and the commitment and vigor of the group is a wonder to behold. Their stated mission is:
"To provide leadership in environmental and ecological education to students, teachers and individuals of all ages so that the residents of this region can make informed decisions leading to the respect for and the enjoyment, preservation and sustainable use of our natural resources."
If it wasn't so far away I think we would be there all the time!

Our presentation was billed as "Local Eating as an Environmentally Friendly Choice." We got to tell our usual story, we also got to add in a bit of new research regrading the usefulness of the concept of "food miles." Food miles have become a short-hand way of discussing and categorizing food, in some ways fewer food miles have come to equal "better food." That labeling is not entirely accurate now does it take into consideration all aspects of food production.

A new study, Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States published last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology states that it is actually the production of food that is the most environmentally damaging. The study systematically compares the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production against long-distance distribution, aka “food-miles.” The conclusion is that of GHG emissions associated with food, 83% of emissions come from production as opposed to only 4% from transportation from production to retailer. The study suggests that changing what we eat (moving to a diet less reliant on red meat and dairy and concentrating on vegetables, and poultry) would lower a household's food-related climate footprint more than buying local.

In our opinion, individual farming practices complicate matters even further. Locally-raised, pastured beef has a different environmental impact that factory-raised beef from far away. Asking questions and deciding what is most important to you is what matters. Buying local food is not just about GHG emissions. Issues of land use, soil sustainability, local economics, community, taste etc. all play a role. The more information we have about what impact our food choices have, the better choices we can make.