Paying the farmer’s asking price…and increasing the farmer’s share

Rural SCALE recently released a study on the affordability of local food for the average consumer, collecting data from 24 farmers’ markets in 19 communities in 6 southeastern states. The study concludes that

Overall, farmers markets in the Southeast and Appalachia are highly competitive with mainstream supermarkets in their pricing on a range of commonly consumed foods, including produce, meats and eggs. (Emphasis in the original.)

Naturally, one might draw different conclusions from similar studies of other regions, but there are some interesting statistics (and generalizable conclusions?) about size of community and prices at farmers’ markets that sell to moderate- and low-income patrons, those who might believe that the local food movement has passed them by.

Then consider this graphic by the National Farmers Union: Farmer’s Share of Retail Food Dollar. I’m not so interested in the startling figures on processed foods (soft drinks, potato chips, bread) because few of the raw ingredients are actually supplied by a farmer. Far more disturbing are the figures on whole, minimally processed ingredients. Take the produce section of a conventional supermarket (think Safeway, Kroger, etc.), for example: farmers receive anywhere from 10.3 cents on the dollar for lettuce to 30 cents on the dollar for carrots.

Now think about buying this produce at a farmers’ market or directly from a farmer: if it’s true that the prices at the farmers’ market are comparable to those of the supermarket for comparable items, the farmer will suddenly have $4.59 (instead of $1.38) in his pocket for 5 pounds of carrots; $3.08 (instead of $0.27) for a pound of tomatoes, etc.

Buying local food at the farmers’ market certainly seems like a win-win for farmers and consumers.

 

Irene, farmers, loyalty and gratitude

Having grown up in Vermont, I have been following the post-Irene news out of the state with horror. Pictures of washed out roads (difficult for someone to understand the gravity of that when there is no concept that it may be the ONLY road in and out of a town), flooded fields, crops laid waste. What can you do to help, if you’re inclined to do so? There’s the always-welcome local Red Cross donation, a number of tshirt companies are donating proceeds from sales (check out Vermont Clothing Company and the Vermont Strong Store), and not surprisingly, a number of benefit concerts and similar events sprang up – it’s hard to keep Vermonters down for long! And I saw some truly original ideas floated by my Facebook friends: how about a produce “round-up” day at the farmers’ markets, where buyers voluntarily round every purchase up to the next $5 or $10? But isn’t there a bigger picture, one that will last beyond the news headlines and the desire to help in a time of need?

Vermont, of course, wasn’t the only state affected. Grist.org had a brief roundup of news from farmers throughout the swath cut by Irene. And if the producer end of our food system has suffered, the consumer must also pay the price – literally! And how I dread hearing (most) people complain about the price of food….

I recently watched a series of short films by Nourish, and I was once again struck by a statistic mentioned: in the last 50 years, Americans have gone from spending 18% of our national income on food to spending 9.9% on food. (In same time period, we’ve gone from spending 5% of national income on health care to spending 16% on health care.) Yes, there are those who truly cannot spend more on food, but what about the vast majority of us, who can?

As someone who tries to buy local and sustainable food whenever possible and one who is fortunate enough to be able to pay the premium often demanded by organic, this recent crop devastation, coupled with what seems to be a weird growing season nationally, has given me a lot to ponder. My first thought about the affected farmers was, “I hope the majority of them run CSAs!” Those farmers who run CSAs (community supported agriculture programs) charge a flat fee per share at the beginning of the growing season, then provide an equal amount of produce to each shareholder throughout the harvest season. If the farm does well and the harvest is good, the consumer gets a bountiful share each week. If there is bad weather or a natural disaster, then the harvest is poor or nonexistent, and the consumer supplements the share with food sourced elsewhere. So in a sense, it’s a gamble for the consumer, but how much less of a gamble for the farmer who produces our food? And in this age of disappearing small and mid-size farms, isn’t it important for those of us who can afford it to stack the deck in the farmers’ favor?

Now is the time to start thinking about next year’s crops and signing on for a CSA with a local farmer – out of loyalty, and because we can. And now is also the time to start supporting measures in upcoming Farm Bill legislation that will help small and mid-size farmers with crop insurance for situations like the one caused by Irene.

The LocalHarvest blog has a wonderful post about eating locally in a poor season that was supposed to be the height of harvest bounty. Erin Barnett concludes,

Ultimately, the thing that supports this loyalty and flexibility and acceptance is a sense of gratitude. Things change when we find the space within ourselves to feel thankful for what the land is providing, even, and perhaps especially, in challenging seasons.

Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All

Happy Mother’s Day! If you are concerned about the sort of world we are leaving our descendants (and what mother or nurturer is not?), today seems to be as good a day as any to commit to making sure that our children and our children’s children inherit a world that includes a healthy, sustainable food system to nurture them.

Where are YOU on your journey toward helping create a more sustainable, more equitable, fairer food system for our future generations: Just starting to think about buying more local food? Seriously into buying local, sustainable food? Involved in food systems change at the community level? Ready to influence the movement on a national scale?

For the past 18 months, I’ve had the privilege of working at Fair Food Network as executive assistant to the organization’s founder and president Oran Hesterman. I’ve done my share of the mundane executive assistant tasks, but I’ve also had the pleasure of helping Oran to edit his book, Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, coming out from PublicAffairs in June.

Regardless of where you are on your food systems journey, I recommend this book as one that gives everyone practical steps to take to move us beyond what’s on our own plates and in our own refrigerators toward what we can do in our neighborhood, our greater community, and our country (and maybe even globally!) to make healthy, fresh food available to everyone now AND into the future.

Ready to get more involved?

Pig trotters simmered in black vinegar

One of the major advantages of buying meat from a local farmer is that you usually get to choose the cuts and packaging you want: so many chops, cut so thick, so many to a package. Another advantage (?!?) is that you get cuts you would perhaps never buy in the grocery store. Take pig trotters (feet), for example. I know they’re a staple of southern cooking in America, but I’ve only ever eaten them in China. In many conventional stores in America, you won’t even see such “unmentionables” – but if you ask, they might have some in the back!

After looking at a number of recipes, I decided to take a crack at the trotters in my freezer and discovered that they can be very easy to prepare and extremely tasty. In traditional Chinese food lore, pig trotters are served to women who have just given birth, and the dish also contains hard boiled eggs – the food is meant to help the woman recover from childbirth and increase her strength. I’ve left the eggs out, but you can simply shell some hard-boiled eggs and add them to the liquid when you reheat the dish. I’ve also eliminated browning the trotters before simmering – a messy step that ultimately doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in the end result.

The meat is fatty, but no more so that pork ribs would be, so the long, slow simmer is great for eliminating a lot of the fat – if you make this dish ahead and refrigerate it, you can simply lift the fat off the top on the second day. Not the world’s healthiest dish, but if your approach is to eat everything in moderation, it’s fine – serve with brown rice and a lot of healthy vegetable dishes!

ingredients:

  • 2 lbs pig trotters, cut in 1/2 lengthwise (having them further cut into crosswise chunks is also an option)
  • 1 T cooking oil
  • 2 oz fresh ginger root, cut into thick slices
  • 1 c Chinese black vinegar
  • 1/4 c rice wine vinegar
  • 1 c brown sugar
  • 1 T dark soy sauce

method:

  1. Place the meat in a pot large enough to hold them in one layer, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cook 1 m, then drain off the water. At this point you may need to use a paring knife and/or tweezers to remove any remaining bristles. (This is the point at which my daughter said, “Ugh!” and left the room.
  2. Heat the oil in the same pot over medium high heat, just until it shimmers, then quickly explode the ginger until fragrant.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil, allowing the sugar to dissolve completely.
  4. Add the trotters back to the pot and add enough water to cover them.
  5. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the meat is falling off the bone, approximately 1.5 – 2 h, less if the trotters have been cross-cut as well as sliced lengthwise.
  6. Bring to room temperature in an ice bath in the sink, then refrigerate overnight – this step is optional, but it enhances the flavor and allows you to easily skim the fat off the top.

do ahead:

This dish is best made ahead – a minimum of 12 h, or up to 3 days ahead is fine. Reheat the meat gently in the liquid, then serve.

variations:

  • If you prefer a more syrupy sauce, remove the meat from the liquid after reheating, then boil the liquid over medium high heat until it becomes syrupy. Pour over the meat and serve.
  • This same preparation could be used for pork ribs, cut into sections containing 3-4 ribs.

Local food in the news and on the ‘net!

Check out the beautiful video done by Phase 4 Media about Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks – this project has been taking up the bulk of my time at FFN since I started there almost a year ago: http://www.youtube.com/fairfoodnetwork#p/a/u/0/aoHM11PGPKg.

And “follow your food from farm to fork” with Real Time Farms new website. Here’s your chance to get involved: add your own local food finds, farms, farmers’ markets, and restaurants or just learn from your neighbors.

Where to find great takeout in Ann Arbor

We’re so spoiled being able to cook healthy Chinese food at home, that we are almost invariably disappointed when we eat in a Chinese restaurant. Most Chinese restaurants in America are not at what one could call the forefront of the SOLE (sustainable/organic/local/ethical) food movment, and our bodies notice the difference. Add to that what we call the “MSG moment” so often experienced after a Chinese meal, and we are often left moaning, “Ugh, why did we DO that?”

When people say, “You blog about Chinese food and your husband’s Chinese – you MUST know the best places to get Chinese food in Boulder/Chicao/LA  (fill in the city in which we happen to be living),” my inclination has always been to respond, “Well, um, yeah…that would be my house!”

I’m pleased to report, though, that we have discovered a new alternative in Ann Arbor! If you live in our city (or in nearby Ypsilanti), you can now get free delivery of delicious and healthful Chinese food by ordering from Mei’s Organic Chinese Kitchen. Each week Mei offers a menu that includes 2 entrees, a salad, a soup, two steamed rolls, and rice – all made with predominantly organic and locally grown ingredients. Mei frequents the farmers’ market and local independent grocers, such as Arbor Farms Market, which means she supports the local economy and local growers, too! In addition, her recipes are gluten- and (refined) sugar-free! One order is plenty for 2 adults for a meal plus leftovers for lunch, so if you have a family, I recommend ordering extra rice, soup, and rolls.

We’re wishing Mei and her crew success – it’s awfully nice to be able to eat Chinese takeout without regrets!

Will the real free-range egg (yolk) please stand up?

I’m a firm believer in buying farm fresh local eggs (and other ingredients): true pastured eggs – from chickens who eat what what they can find while out scratching around in a pasture – come from happy hens, are likely to be better for us, for the environment, and for the local food economy, and they just plain taste better. For more details, see my post on eggs at Simply: Home Cooking.

For a quick, fun visual summary of some of the arguments for pastured eggs, visit Big Wheel Provision’s video, Egg Cage Match!