On Eating Locally

Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm

Someone once described it to me as the “gateway drug.” I can’t think of a more perfect description. It certainly leads to all sorts of addictive behavior. Those of you who have read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma likely can relate.

If you haven’t yet read it, be warned: You might find yourself tearing around obsessively seeking out vendors selling grass-fed beef, questioning the meaning of the “free-range, organic” label on grocery-store chicken, eyeing the pristine January produce more skeptically, and accepting (within reason) the higher price of anything sold at farmers’ markets.

You might even be inspired to visit Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia, where Pollan spent a week learning about grass farming from the legendary Joel Salatin. This is what happened to me.

So in the fall of 2007, my husband and I trekked out to the Shenandoah Valley intending to wander around Polyface Farm for a few hours, an activity Salatin invites everyone to do — transparency is one of the farm’s underlying tenets: anyone can visit the farm to observe Salatin’s farming methods and to see how his animals live. But when our arrival coincided with a group from Washington DC, who had scheduled a guided visit of Polyface, Salatin kindly invited us to tag along. Never have I felt the stars aligned more for me. It was a memorable day to say the least. Salatin (pictured above with his chickens) is as engaging, funny, and knowledgeable as Pollan describes.

If you care to read more about the “olive oil pork” and “salad-bar beef” produced on the extraordinarily productive Polyface Farm powered by the sun along with a few mobile devices — eggmobiles, gobbledygos, shademobiles, to name a few — do so here. And view the slideshow from our visit here.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the gateway drug for me. Within a week of reading it, I had joined a CSA and had become a regular at several Philadelphia farmers’ markets. Reading Terminal Market and the Fair Food Farmstand, in particular, became my go-to sources for humanely-raised meat and dairy products. I began cooking more seasonally and began enjoying vegetables in their most pure state often with nothing more than a drizzling of olive oil and a pinch of salt.

With an incredible farm-to-city network in place, Philadelphia made it it easy to eat locally. We haven’t been as lucky in the places we have lived since. Today, the closest farmers’ market for us happens once a week 20 miles away, and shops selling humanely raised meat and dairy products are nonexistent. It took some time adjusting to our new shopping options, but by tapping into some non-traditional food suppliers, we have been able to find sources for local fruits and vegetables as well as humanely raised meat.

For those of you finding yourself with limited options for local foods, know that eating locally can be done, but it might take some effort. I’ve listed some tips/resources below.

1. Join a CSA. If you don’t have access to a regular farmers’ market, a CSA is a nice way to add incredibly tasty, fresh, often organic veggies to your diet. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. The term CSA describes a relationship between a farm and the local people who consume the farm’s food. Modeled after a producer-consumer alliance practiced in Switzerland, the first CSA was created in 1986 in Massachusetts. Today over 4000 farms throughout the country participate in this mutually beneficial partnership.

By participating in a CSA, a community member essentially buys a share of a farm’s harvest before the season begins, understanding that unpredictable conditions such as weather and labor supply can effect the harvest. The security of a contract eliminates the need for farmers to invest time marketing their produce during the busy growing season, enabling them to concentrate solely on producing food. In exchange, participating families receive the highest quality produce, often organically grown, and always picked at the peak of its ripeness.

I have now participated in CSAs in eastern Pennsylvania, southern California and northern Virginia and cannot say enough about them. When we have CSA produce on hand, I find myself reaching into the fridge, pulling out giant mustard greens, and munching on them raw. The greens, in my opinion, are the highlight of the CSA.

Joining a CSA, moreover, is more cost effective in my experience than shopping at farmers’ markets. Prices vary but CSA prices often are on par with grocery store prices. Local Harvest is a great source for finding a CSA near you.

Also note that it’s definitely an adjustment joining a CSA. You have to be willing to try new vegetables, and you have to strategize, too — some veggies wither away faster than others, and nearly all CSA produce withers faster than grocery store produce. It makes you wonder, right? And don’t despair, you won’t be the first to allow the odd radish or kohlrabi bulb to desiccate in your fridge.

These two books have been invaluable to me as far as knowing what to do with some of my CSA vegetables:

Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables
Sally Schneider’s A New Way To Cook

2. Buy a free-standing freezer, then buy a cow. Or a pig. Or a goat. Or whatever you like or have access to. When Ben and I discovered we had no market nearby selling grass-fed beef, we decided to join a “cowpool” and purchased from a local farm a half cow (a steer, actually), which we then split with four families. The price per pound of our meat came out to be $3.30, which is very low for grass-fed meat.

These two sources might help you find a “cowpooling” service near you:

Eat Well Guide
Eat Wild

But before you buy the cow, buy the freezer. We bought this one.

3. Befriend a hunter. Or marry one. Or start hunting yourself. Ben started hunting this past winter, and as a result, we enjoyed venison and duck all winter long. It was such a treat having incredibly tasty, grass-fed meat on hand. Moreover, with the exception of the butchering cost, the meat was free. I hope one day in the not too distant future, I find myself hunting, too. I have been particularly inspired by Georgia Pelligrini, also known as, Girl Hunter.

4. Start composting; then plant a garden. I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to composting. But I do compost. Throughout the day I collect my banana peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, vegetable trimmings — any non-meat waste product — into a bowl, and every evening I dump it in our “back porch compostumbler.” (See photo below.) I definitely do not provide the tumbler with the proper ratio of carbonous to nitrogenous materials, but somehow, every month or so, my waste — 90% egg shells and coffee grounds as far as I can tell — turns into a substance resembling compost. (Again, see photo below). Please don’t take my advice when it comes to composting, however. I know there are better systems out there. This is just what we do, and it works for us. The compost tumbler does not attract animals and does not take up too much space, which we appreciate at the moment. Moreover, when we are composting, we use up fewer trash bags, which always feels good.

Composting is especially practical if you garden. I do not have a green thumb but I have had small successes with cinderblock gardening:

How to Build a Cinderblock Garden
Garden Update I
Garden Update II

This year, I am focusing on an herb garden planted in containers on my deck. I am following Amy Pennington’s column, City Dirt, on Food52.

5. A few helpful resources:

Books:
Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food
Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle
Marion Nestle’s What to Eat
Marion Nestle’s Food Politics
Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation

Cookbooks:
Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables
Sally Schneider’s A New Way To Cook
Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook
Rudy Roger’s The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
Amelia Saltsman’s The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook
Christopher Hirsheimer’s The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market Cookbook
Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread

Organizations:
Local Harvest
American Grassfed Association
Eat Well Guide
Eat Wild
Farm Sanctuary
Food Routes
Food and Water Watch
Polyface Farm
Seafood Watch
Slow Food

great books

Produce from our California CSA:
Morning Song Farm CSA — Rainbow, California

A free-standing freezer is sort of essential if you plan on buying meat by the half or quarter cow.
We bought this one.

free standing freezer

Meat in the freezer from a quarter cow:
our cow

Our compost bowl:
compost

Our back porch compostumbler:
compos tumbler

Lettuce from our Morning Song Farm CSA in California:
lettuce from Morning Song Farm CSA

Produce from our current CSA — Olin Fox Farms in Reedville, VA:

radishes and turnips

Nothing makes me happier than picking up my produce share every other Thursday. The eggs. Oh the eggs! So yummy. Friday morning breakfast is always a treat.
Olin Fox Farm CSA