Monday, February 28, 2005

Organic Dairy's Growing Pains

Trouble in organic dairy land: "converting as much land as possible to organic" vs. "supporting small family farms" has pitted USDA/Horizon/Aurora against Stonyfield/Organic Valley/small farmers over what 'pasture' means. The National Organic Standards Board is meeting to discuss the issue this week.

Somewhat related Organic Valley is pitching in with the Help Wanted: Organic Farmers campaign targeting conventional growers in the Midwest

The Gospel of Yogurt

Many agree, yogurt is one of nature's most wondrous foods. Busily tended to by bacteria eager to get at its milk sugars, yogurt is easily digestible and subtly sour at its prime. And yogurt is a survivor -- don't try this at home kids, but if left out for a few hours in mild temperatures or left for a month or two in your refrigerator, yogurt will probably still taste just great with granola. Call me crazy but I usually let it sit past the date on the lid just to squeeze out every last bit of sourness. Don't overlook its dynamic food genre scalability, either. Good mornings are made great with a mix of cereals, raisins, ground flax seed, and tea masala spices over a yogurt base. Later in the day yogurt is perfect for warming a winter evening: hand-mash a baked hubbard squash (you know, the one you've been keeping in cold storage) into your yogurt for a creamy delightful soup.

Which yogurt matters, too. Admittedly, my fridge currently sports 4 different brands of organic yogurt, though Seven Stars Farm yogurt is currently my heart and soul. It wins for its creamy yet not overly consistent texture, its simple ingredients list (milk + cultures), its eastern PA spunk, and its biodynamic organic farming practices. The biodynamic approach to farming integrates dairy and growing operations with composting, biodiversity, and soil/climate knowledge to maximize agricultural sustainability. (In other words, it's so "crunchy" already that you might not even have to add any granola). Milk-making is a year-round sport, but interestingly:
They've discovered that demand for 32-ounce yogurt is seasonal, with slow periods around Christmas and the summer holidays; a schedule that doesn't mesh particularly well with peak milk production, in May and June.
But don't knock yourself out looking for Seven Stars... there are wonderful local producers of milk and yogurt wherever you are in the country. If you're curious about biodynamic dairy, another brand in the Northeast is Hawthorne Valley (upstate NY). And a quick word of caution, avoid fat-free yogurts or you'll be left wondering what all the hoopla is about.

PS- Stonyfield blogs. Interestingly, their most popular blog is about a life on a family farm.

Friday, February 25, 2005

A funny thing happened on the way to the Farmers' Market

"Gopher Broke," an Oscar-nominated animated short film, considers barriers to local food accessibility. Well, sort of... [full film at Salon, teaser at Blur Studios]

On a more serious note about issues facing local food economies, Brian Halweil, a senior research at the Worldwatch Institute participated in an online Q&A session yesterday on climate change. He recently wrote:
Farming may be the human endeavor most dependent on a stable climate—and the industry that will struggle most to cope with more erratic weather, severe storms, and shifts in growing season lengths.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Food industry consolidation news

Yesterday, fruit distributor Chiquita bought Fresh Express, the nation's largest salad pack seller [AP]

Last week, Monsanto bought Emergent Genetics, the third-largest cotton seed company in US [Monsanto, AP]

Sigh, if only keeping food companies small was as simple as stroking them daily.

Meet me at the intersection of the Greenmarket and Whole Foods

The Union Square Greenmarket is the most bustling farmers' market in New York City. If there's local food to be found during any season, it's here. This past Monday boasted breads, apples, eggs, pies, wheatgrass, jams, and hydroponically grown greens. During the warmer months it's not uncommon to find story after story in the NY Times dining section chronicling big-name chefs' daily trips to the market or sharing new food fashions fresh from the farmstands.

So it probably shouldn't have been such a surprise to find a sign across from the southern tip of the park, "Whole Foods: Coming March 2005." New Yorkers, after all, love Whole Foods and the image it sells. Though currently the only locations are in Chelsea and Columbus Circle, you'll find people proudly sporting the bags everywhere in town (and it's not as if the city suffers for health food stores).

So what will Greenmarket and Whole Foods cohabitation look like? Will it bring more people for the one-stop-shopping for all of their groceries? Or will Whole Foods' large-scale, cheaper, and often non-local produce/artisan selection siphon off customers from small-scale marketeers? Price wars between neighboring supermarkets are not exactly unprecedented, and I'm giving my vote for who will have the upper hand to Whole Foods.

Of course, it's not so simple. Whole Foods does try to stock locally when it's available, though they don't always try all that hard considering the price that they offer to farmers. And while many are staffed by family farmers who already have a tough time making ends meet, some stands at the Greenmarket clearly use the nostalgic-factor to exploit consumers (and the market has recently had some of its own issues). More grocery shoppers in Union Square would mean more buyers for farmers, and the expanded access and affordability of local produce is good news for consumers. Beyond money, you still can't go into a Whole Foods and find out about the growing history and flavor of the squash you're about to buy from the person who picked it off the vine.

It's still up in the air which canvas bag will be the one to be seen this summer.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Origin labels: the making of a smaller world

I passed by a billboard for American Apparel last night in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The most salient text in the ad is "Made in Downtown LA". A specific neighborhood, not just another [partially] Made in the [amorphous] USA. Many signified meanings spring forth from the American Apparel ad, one being that we should care about specific made-in locations, and it seems more and more people do.

Perhaps we (and especially New Yorkers) feel so isolated and disempowered by the consumerism that is central to this modern world that we yearn for that extra knowledge about where our otherwise commodity good is coming from and a glimpse (or hint to) the story behind it. Perhaps we jump at the opportunity to reclaim moral or just plain consumer control by shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket or buying produce that's marked in big letters as being local. Whole Foods marks its local produce with green signs and big letter noting which nearby state it is from (though they see more of your dollar than the farmer ever does). A recent talk by Amy Lerner about the history and origins of chocolate noted that many high-end chocolatiers are branding certain cacao-producing regions in Venezuela, i.e. Chuao, as embodying certain flavors and essentially a narrative. And it's very common to find coffee branded by its specific country of origin.

It's not a bad thing to want to know more about the story behind the food or clothing we buy. On the contrary, it reminds us that there was a farmer that grew those tomatoes and that our shirt didn't just sew itself together. It's a healthy and normal mindset for ourselves and our world.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Off to the city

Be back after President's Day, with tales of local from New York City...

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Shake your soymilk like a Polaroid picture

So goes the new warning to lactards (myself included) and vegans who depend on soymilk/ricemilk for calcium. The calcium put into these fortified beverages is insoluble and a study published in Nutrition Today found that 85% sinks to the bottom! It seems to be most problematic with non-refrigerated cartons. Also, the commonly added tricalcium phosphate is less absorbable than calcium carbonate [USA Today]

The many faces of food on the web

We've been busy on a redesign of Locally Grown Food, a site which functions both as an information source and an auction-style clearinghouse for local food producers and buyers in southern coastal New England. Right now the site feels ridiculously retro, which isn't quite what we're going for.

Capturing all of the wow of a food in a digital image can be a challenge. That's not mentioning the different visual experiences that can be produced based on the artist's pictorial styles and motives. Food sites can seize upon the melody of our meals, appeal to our visceral hunger (i.e. food porn), or be "all the news that's fit to eat".

So, like any other modern designer with access to millions of already-made sites, we've been doing a vibe scan of what's out there to get some examples of what-we-like. There's such a neat range out there:
Too Many Chefs: photos amidst a modern Cartoon Network world
Strong Buzz: simple watercolored-esque greens
Amazon Gourmet Food: utilitarian, similar to what we have now
Trader Joe's: yesteryear-esque narrative drawings (though Annie's makes us shudder)
Domestic Goddess: high on minimalism, high on sugary food porn
Gastropoda: minimalist indeed, and very text-driven
Presentation is key not just on the dinner plate; it establishes the modus operandi for the rest of the visit to a site. Do we go for crisp photos that show just how fresh local is? Or hand-drawn folk art that appeals to the nostalgic "brand" of a farmers' market? Ah, but there is room for a little bit of both, says the postmodern pundit in me. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Fair-trade chocolate: Talk of the town

Disconnecting Chocolate from Slavery [NPR's Talk of the Nation]

Make Valentine's Day Fair Trade [Brown Daily Herald]

The dark side of chocolate: Child harvesters toil for little pay [Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star ]

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Fair-trade chocolate: a sweet V-Day, indeed

Sure, your coffee is fair-trade but that only covers one of your addictions. Chocolate is the other bitter wonder in our world. Unfortunately, even the darkest of chocolates can't win a bitterness contest with its own means of production (think child labor, lots of child labor).

Fair-trade chocolate is harder to find than its coffee cousin, but you can probably sniff out some options in your community. If there are no local stores selling Equal Exchange bars, some other tasty morsels that are also child-labor-free includes Green and Black's, Cloud Nine, Tropical Source, and Newman's Own Organics. And, in Providence, kill two addictions with one stone with Coffee Exchange's chocolate-covered espresso beans.

Note: Interesting bit of certification politics going on between Ben and Jerry's, which uses fair-trade coffee in some ice cream flavors, and TransFair, which is a certifier:
For our Coffee Heath® Bar Crunch and Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz® flavors, TransFair waived the requirement on the chocolate ingredients, as Ben & Jerry’s does not source these chocolate ingredients directly.
Ben and Jerry's used to have a fair-trade chocolate flavor. Not sure if it's the case with the new organic-certified flavor that replaced it.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Weekend reads: Land O'Corn, Open-source GE, Whole Foods profits

Michael Pollan on our corn nation and staying optimistic [California Monthly]

Recycle those pesky yogurt containers [Stonyfield]

Review of The Fate of Family Farming: Variations on an American Idea," by Ronald Jager [Montpelier Times Argus]

Make it all organic? [Prairie Writers Circle]

Is GE okay if the methods are open-sourced? Less Monsanto, but is it more filling... [NYTimes]

Whole Foods continue to rake in the big bucks [AP]

Friday, February 11, 2005

Food insecurity and local farms

A new report evaluates the effectiveness of USDA surveys aimed at quantifying food insecurity in America. [via US Food Policy]
Food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum (1) the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and (2) an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways...

Food insecurity can occur with or without hunger, which is defined as uneasy or painful sensation caused by a lack of food [involuntary] .
A concern voiced by the report is that since the survey is based on household data, it may miss those living in group-settings - those institutionalized or homeless, for example. The survey also does not take into account the presence of children in a household or the time length/frequency of food insecurity.

Locally grown food availability is closely linked to food insecurity issues in many areas. The presence of nearby farms (and farmers' markets) can determine a community's access to fresh, quality produce in neighborhoods that otherwise only have access to "second-rate" produce amidst aisles of junk, or the many that are devoid of supermarkets altogether. Also, many food pantries get donations of veggies/fruit that have not sold at a farmer's market or that may have dropped onto the ground. But that can't happen if there are no local farms.

Fair-trade coffee

Knowing that coffee is one of the most pesticided food crop in the world, I have my a pact with myself that when I seek out its deliciously bitter warmth, that it must be fair-trade. That means living wages and Fair-trade tends to go hand-in-hand with organic growing methods. And shade-grown beans, when available, are preferred for the habitat support they provide for migratory birds -- the same ones that eat many of the insects that cause increases in pesticide use.

I take fair-trade coffee for granted here in Rhode Island and especially in Providence. Coffee Exchange roasts dozens of blends from coffee farmers that the owner has met and developed relationships with on past trips to their lands. Many of these farms are not certified organic or fair-trade, either because they are in the process of a transition or due to the often cost-prohibitive certification process for these standards. Many times these small farms or cooperatives can't even afford the pesticides that corporate-backed coffee plantations coat on the plants. So knowing the length that Coffee Exchange goes to in order to seek out sustainable and fair practices, I appreciate that my freshly brewed cup comes from sustainable farms that have developed face-to-face relationships with Coffee Exchange's owner. And I'm sure that the farmers appreciate the guaranteed customer they have in Coffee Exchange -- have you ever seen how packed the place gets whenever it's a sunny day! But if Coffee Exchange isn't your cup of tea, in Providence, you're still surrounded by New Harvest Coffee at AS220, Seven Stars, Olga's, Pastiche's, and White Electric, among many other eateries, and you'll find Brown's cafes and Hudson Street Market stocked with Equal Exchange.

But a summer in NYC dispelled my myth of a fair-trade world order (in fact, there's way too much supply of the fair-trade beans relative to the demand). It wasn't that you can't find freshly brewed fair-trade coffee in the city that never sleeps. There's Jack's in the West Village and Gorilla Coffee in Brooklyn and a health food store I found on the UES that always has Jim's Organic brewing. But no such luck in the neighborhood coffee shops. You really have to seek it out, and even in places where you might expect it, there's always fear of a bewildered glare if you ask the otherwise friendly person behind the counter. There's just a total lack of awareness. And I suppose that as long as people haven't a clue about fair-trade and aren't asked about it, it will remain bewildering jargon. ("Free-trade? Well isn't everything free-trade?")

I would be remiss not to point out that fair-trade availability at Starbucks and Whole Foods is making it an option known in wider and wider areas. Speaking of which, back in November, a Starbucks in Barrington, RI even had the fair-trade coffee listed as the blend of the day (it was out of exhausted desperation while on the East Bay Bike Path, though as far as corporations go they're not so bad)... but they had none left during my visit. Tired and irrational, I skipped out, irked by the chutzpah to stop brewing the fair trade coffee at noon(!). Don't despair though. As I grew more desperate for the caffeine boost, my biking buddy Stella agreed to stop at a random convenience store along the trail in Warren. They had a single cup's worth of coffee left in the pot. All I cared about at this point was that it was caffeine-laden. So imagine my surprise when the side of the cup said fair-trade. In summary, I [heart] RI.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Trickle-down farm subsidies

Sell your eBay stock now!

This morning over breakfast I was reminded by my friend Brian that many of the Midwest farms that reap the biggest benefits of federal subsidies use said funds to purchase shiny new John Deere tractors on a regular basis. But since they've only got room for so many brand new tractors on their thousands of acres, they put the "old" ones up for sale on eBay. This isn't just a hunch; at a RI Division of Agriculture roundtable meeting last year, a few of the small farmers extolled the joys of this version of trickle-down economics made possible through low-cost eBay purchases.

Cut those subsidies and eBay stands to lose thousands in commission on each lost sale.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Farm subsidy impressions & future politics

1. Not to be outdone by the basic newspaper round-up,
2. Read extensive coverage at U.S. Farm Policy,
3. And then there's always the conspiracy theories.

The farm subsidy issue is so interesting in that it centers on regional interests, with Bush going against his geographic base. It's no surprise that the senators from states with the most highly affected big ag industries (corn, wheat, cotton, rice) would be the most vocally opposed. But the issue's ability to bulldoze over partisan "principles" is indicative of what I see as a more extensive political realignment that is in the works. Politics inherently involves compromise (credit to Tony Kushner), but after the lesser of the two evils mentality that has been at work in the past two presidential elections, the time is coming when voters may finally expect more, forcing Democrats and Republicans to wake up and smell the issues of the 21st century. How the nation feeds itself can and should be one of these issues, something that has the potential to unite the Whole Foods shopping yuppies with the family farmers with the ever-expanding population of overweight Americans. Making food an issue is up to us.

Monday, February 07, 2005

The snow-covered fields of a New England farm

Last night we farmsat at a friendly organic farm in western Rhode Island, making sure the dog, cats, and rabbits got the attention they deserved while the owner was on a much-deserved getaway. In the summer, the fields are covered in herbs, wildflowers, squash, and greens of every sort. In fact, the greens are planted on a weekly rotation so there's always something new coming up. But nowadays there's just a vastness of silence, barely disturbed by the pitter patter of melting snow. The sky was a clear blue, which let the deep color of barns' reds and tractors' rusts, and pines' greens.

And the food! Though there will always be an envy of California's seemingly limitless harvest, New England has its own variety of winter wonders. If we were constantly bombarded with fresh local avocados and peaches, we would never experience the flavor that time imbues upon those fruits and veggies lucky enough to be cold-stored, canned, dried, or pickled. Carrots and squash, which sweeten as the months pass, are a due reward for patience and planning. The farm and later our tummies were stuffed with the summer and fall harvest: supersweet yellow carrots, hubbard squash, pumpkin, dried heirloom corn (which made for an irresistible nutty-flavored popcorn), kimchee, pickled zucchini, frozen blueberries. A white bean soup with parsnip, kale and spinach, the latter two perfectly frozen for the occasion, and a stock made from onions and celery slow-cooked for hours. Warm blueberry-apple-apricot pie with a kamut-spelt crust topped off with pecans. Aged cheeses, homemade yogurt sweetened with beets, arugula pesto. And, well, fresh slices of avocado and orange brought back from a friend's visit home to her family's grove in... California. Everything organically grown and bursting with flavor.

The weekend was the epitome of homemade and it tasted damn good.

Slashing corporate welfare for factory farms

Good Bush? The president's new budget will apparently propose a reduction in the subsidy max by over 75% to $250,000 (still a lot, IMHO). Actually getting the bill past the president's friends in Congress may be a pipedream.

Gift horse to small family farms or just a dead-on-arrival political moment?

Friday, February 04, 2005

Maple syrup and climate change; farm subsidies; feedlot secrets

  • Effects of climate change on maple syrup industry in VT, NH, ME [Environmental Defense report]

  • "Nearly half [of federal farm subsidies] goes to operations with sales of $250,000 or more," according to a Citizens Against Government Waste report [US Farm Policy]

  • Print-out cuisine (brings new meaning to strawberry jam?) [NYTimes]

  • More love for the local in the blogosphere.

  • You can't handle the truth [about feedlots], say North Dakota legislators. [AP via US Farm Policy]
  • How do you say "low-carb banana bread with added whey protein" in Cunieform?

    Yup, agriculture spurred human civilization. And it's no surprise either that version 1.0 was all locally grown. Subsequent trade brought the West access to beloved cinnamon and saffron-flavored vanity of the East. And furthermore, it quite literally spread seeds of joy in the form of tomatoes, easily grown in the Mediterranean climates Italy and France once they got over that whole deadly nightshade thing. And don't forget Europe's fling with another lovable nightshade, the potato.

    Sharing the tasties is all good and fun until someone gets hurt. Could the first agrarians have even imagined the ConAgra and Monsanto future that awaited their descendents? (And let's not even go down the invasive species road...)

    Winona La Duke recently wrote about the modern perversion of agriculture from an Ojibwe perspective.

    Thursday, February 03, 2005

    Only green-striped, pink-flesh lemons for me

    Variety is the spice of life. And quite literally, for a green zebra versus a brandywine tomato, the subtle taste difference (or not so subtle, depending on who you ask) is in essence owed to natural flavors that no spice cabinet can reproduce. A green zebra (or a yellow pear or a Matt's wild cherry or...) is a no-assembly-required treat that stands on its own flavor merits in a world filled with deli-ready Red™ tomatoes.

    Small family farms and local knowledge have allowed for the survival of varieties like green zebras amidst the monocultural status quo. And perhaps these heirloom varieties, inherently not mass-market and too delicate/inefficient to grow on big faraway farms, will now return the favor and help save the family farm. In September 2004, the NYTimes featured a story about increasing demand for garlic such that hundreds of different flavors of garlic were being grown on farms in upstate New York. Yesterday in the paper David Karp explored the public and growers going gaga for off-beat lemon varieties:
    "When I started here in 1995, growers only wanted to produce large quantities of uniform lemons," said Tracy L. Kahn, curator of the Citrus Variety Collection at the University of California, Riverside. "Now the specialty market is much more important, and people are talking about flavor and unusual characteristics."
    Yet not all of the citrus growers experimenting with offbeat lemons are small farmers, and the article even quotes an ag guy extolling the virtues of pre-ripe lemons, which are tough enough for long-distance travel and can later be artificially ripened with ethylene gas. So, do heirloom and variety foretell only more of the same, or do they hold hope for keeping small farms financially afloat?

    Wednesday, February 02, 2005

    Root cellar recipes!

    Today's ProJo reviews Stonewall Kitchen Harvest: Celebrating the Bounty of the Seasons, with ideas for putting your potatoes, mushrooms, and scallions to good use. Written by Kathy Gunst, Jim Stott, and Jonathan King, it's a cookbook with plenty of winter recipes to keep you warm. [Stonewall Kitichen]

    While we're still talking winter, Urban Green's own Ilana Friedman shared her brother's deliciously simple recipe for your winter squash in the January edition of the local buying club's newsletter. When she's not teaching kids in Olneyville about gardens and food, Ilana's busy roasting squash...
    Wishingstone Winter Delight
    1/4 pound shallots
    1/2 pound yellow onions
    1 pound butternut/delicata/your-favorite-other squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    1/2 teaspoon salt

    Preheat over to 400 degrees F. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Cut the tip and the root end of the shallots and blanch for 1 minute. Peel them to the bowl. Cut each squash into triangular wedges. Add them to the bowl with the shallots and onions. Toss with oil and salt. Spread on a parchment-covered baking tray and roast about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, or until the veggies are well browned.

    And there's still time ('til Thursday night) to put in a local order for Rhode Island milk, eggs, apples, honey, tortillas, and roasted coffee at