Sunday, May 19, 2013

Join the Revolution - the Food Revolution!

I was asked to take part in the Dallas area's Food Revolution Day with the DFW Truck Farm co-founder and Food Revolution Day Ambassador, Donelle Simmons, over at the Texas Discovery Gardens this week on Friday. We were slated to give "real food" pep talks to invitees who came to have a real food picnic with us. The event is a spin off of the Jamie Oliver New Food Revolution show that aired a few years back where he tried to convert a school system's lunch program into something healthy, and frankly, more edible.

Well.... totally unexpected to us, a school group came up to sit at the picnic table area. I asked if they were there for the event and all looked at each other and shook their heads. Clearly, they were just on a field trip and sitting down to eat before continuing on. Several of the kids had no lunches with them though, and when I asked why not, they said that they "didn't like the school's food" with a not so shy about it look on their faces and tone in their voices. I didn't get the name of the school they were from, but it seems to be a pretty universal consensus with many school children. I just watched the film Cafeteria Man last week about another brave chef's attempt to battle the red tape of a school system's bureaucracy. 

photo by Donelle Simmons

Well then, I said to myself - I have some real food right here! I asked if they liked carrots - and they said yes, but looked at my purple heirloom carrots with a puzzled expression. So, I cut up the carrots I had brought for lunch, which revealed their orange insides and a sigh of relief (or was that confusion?), and offered to share them with the kids. I also had a few freshly picked green beans and asked if anyone had ever eaten beans fresh off the vine before. No one had, but a few quickly took me up on my offer to taste them. One by one my purple carrots were being cut up into bite sized pieces and devoured. Donelle seeing the opportunity, too, brought out some of the samples from the basket of veggies she'd picked for the event, including radishes, kohlrabi, a young garlic plant, and some broccoli. We talked about each vegetable and possible uses for them, how to enjoy them without "ranch" and why (have you ever tried to pronounce all of the ingredients on that bottle?), and the fact that you can actually use the tops of the carrots about the same way you would use parsley or to make a tasty pesto. "Really?!"

They taste tested everything we put out in front of them. It was awesome! They even conducted blind side- by-side taste tests between the purple and yellow heirloom carrots we had brought versus the little orange carrot nubs someone had from their school lunch. Hands down - the nubs were deemed "nasty"! (Their words, not mine.) Everyone agreed that the heirloom carrots tasted much better than the school issued packaged carrots - even though "baby carrots" are supposedly specifically bred to have a higher brix (sugar) rating to appeal to more people, specifically, kids.

As we were cutting things up and just sitting there talking veggies and gardening, one of the girls exclaimed "This is the best lunch I've ever had.", and I nearly cried tears of bittersweet. If I had even a thought that there would be kids there without a lunch, I'd have brought a whole bag of carrots and beans to share. All they had eaten was one little bunch of carrots and a handful of green beans, with that chopped up assortment of other things that couldn't have amounted to much of a snack for one person, much less a full meal for anyone. Anyway, Donelle and Marilyn, her mother and partner in the DFW Truck Farm, and I all agreed we could not have planned this much better - other than to have brought more food - and that this type of exchange was what the Food Revolution was all about.

The ladies that had come out specifically for the RFR event shared stories of their own food quests, gardening experiences and a few had direct contact with school kids and the "system" that doesn't seem to understand the important connection between education and nutrition. We all agreed that gardening should be part of every school's curriculum along with some basic home ec and industrial arts. Like "back in the day" when I was in school up north, and we walked uphill both ways in 2 feet of snow..... Junior High school included a semester of each class. At least when we left we knew some basic sewing (buttons, simple machine work) and how to do some basic cooking - besides putting something in a microwave oven - of which didn't exist when I was in school. And in wood shop, we made cutting boards - oh my, of WOOD? Yep - back in the day when a wood cutting board wasn't evil.

Our kids are missing out on an important link in our very survival. Sure there will always be a 24-hour drive-in window open somewhere. But those girls who were sharing a table with me the other day were just as happy to snack on some real food - and rather chose to eat nothing, than what they felt was inedible school lunches. That speaks volumes, because if they're not exposed to fast food or highly processed food, and rather are raised on real, fresh, flavorful foods, their palates won't develop for the other and their more likely to turn to it less often - if ever! I'm sure fast food chain and pharmaceutical company owners and investors don't want to hear that, but if we don't do something to break the chain of childhood diseases caused by the "nasty" food we're feeding this and future generations, we're going to have a lot more sickly people on our hands to take care of in a few decades. Don't they deserve better?

Group of grade school students experiencing real food!
Make it known through your PTA and school boards that your kids deserve to eat at least as well as the teachers and administrative staff do. Would they eat in the kids' cafeteria? If not, why not? And if not, how can that be changed? Why can't they incorporate at least some of the school grounds into a working garden? If Paul Quinn College can rip up their football field to do it, so can a grade school eliminate "lawn" somewhere kids aren't using it to play on. Take a note from Mark Painter's local school garden area over at Stonewall Jackson where the community funds much of this program - outside of the school's budget. Or check out any one in a number of the Edible Schoolyard projects around the country. There's no reason - no excuse - not to do this in every single school across the country. Start one in yours.

Eat Real Food - Naturally!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

My Mom and My Life on the Farm

Mom and I With My "New" Farm Truck in 2010(?) - That She Bought For Me

My mom and I may have different views of what makes us happy, but, indirectly, at least, my mom can take credit (or blame, depending on the circumstances), for how I found my way into organic farming. Now she may not think she is a large part of it, but it was my mom who encouraged me to play outside ("I said, "Go out-side!"" LOL).  But seriously, as one of my Girl Scout leaders for many years, she both took me camping and sent me camping several times a year, which really awakened my love for nature and being outside; unless it was snowing. She wasn't altogether confident at first of my decision to venture into farming, ("You're not going to quit your full time job, are you?"), but today she is my biggest cheerleader and she says, she couldn't be prouder. Probably so long as I don't need to keep borrowing money from her.)

My mom kept a small garden in our mostly concreted backyard - and I mean small. There was a strip of dirt about 3 feet wide by about 20 feet long where she managed to grow a vegetable garden. It was capable of producing a wide enough assortment of veggies, that there hasn't been many of them I have met that I haven't liked. I can also recall her coaxing peas to grow on the chain link fence along the dang alley! I would eat those peas right off the vine on my way out of the yard, without ever thinking about how amazing it was she grew them in about 4 inches of dirt. Got to love that Midwest soil!

So not only is my mom large in part responsible for my addiction to playing outside in the dirt, she is also highly behind my obsession with trying to eat high quality, delicious and simple foods.

I really have no problem with this, as it has served me well, so far and on most days, anyway. It can be a bone of contention between us at times, however, as it seems that with no kids at home to cook for, she slipped out of some of the good habits she instilled in me. As the good health of my mom is very important to me, and having watched what a poor diet did to my late father's health, this has led to more than one or two colorful conversations about food, eating and the state of today's food industry. She is discovering some of the things that I have shared with her on her own now, and with my constant hint dropping and nagging. Role reversal, without the authority, I guess. She is sure to let me know when she finds a source for this or that organic something or another. Way to go, Mom!

But my mom in many ways isn't that much unlike many people today of her generation. When she went to the grocery store to buy food for us growing up, there was nowhere near the selection of what Michael Pollan refers to as "food-like substances" as there are today, nor did we know the extent of the dangers and long term effects of many of them. Unless you are obsessed with, or perhaps make your living from, food, you may not really ever realize much has changed. That is unless, of course, your daughter grows up and somehow decides to become a farmer in her mid-life. Then you hear ALL about it, sometimes ad nauseum, when all you want to do is enjoy your diet coke. Sorry Mom, I am calling ya out on that one. I am sending you a 6 pack of Zevia cola one of these days - when I can figure out how to get it there without exploding on the mailman.

Now I have my own personal food skeletons that come out from time to time. I am no stranger to the fast food world. When I was a teenager, in fact, my first "real" job was at a fast food restaurant 2-doors down from my house called Yankee Doodle Dandy, (think the early years of Jack in the Box). We fried frozen "potatoes" in a vat of hot grease, broiled "beef" hamburgers" on a conveyor belt, and even made "milk" shakes in 3 different flavors. I wouldn't have known better to have questioned ingredients at that time. It tasted like what a teenager's taste buds wanted I suppose and there weren't any decades of historical data showing the detrimental effects of eating this stuff. I can hardly believe us kids would go to BK for the broiled burgers and then across the parking lot to Micky d's for the fries. Although nowadays, just driving by a place like that during a busy time when it fills the air with its trademark stench, my nose reflects upon it with not so fond memories. (And just for the record, my folks split up about the time of the fast food explosion, and my mom had no idea how often I ate there. I am sure she never would have approved.)

My mom was a "stay at home" mom and I grew up on 3 square, home made meals nearly every day of the first 14 years of my life. That is something for which I will forever be both grateful and fortunate. None of us is born with a taste for cream filled pastries, chocolate covered candies, greasy and mostly water filled "meat" burgers or corn chips, (now, genetically modified). We ate these kinds of things so very infrequently as little kids, that we never really developed a "taste" for them, much less an addiction. For me, it was a treat sometimes or for holidays. That would be the candy for holidays, you know like Halloween, not the fast food. My mom made the most wonderful holiday meals, from scratch, and to this day some of those food traditions are my favorites.

Mom and I in 2011 at Bolsa - a Dallas Foodie Haunt of Mine
So things are coming full circle it would seem. My mom's early teachings did not fall on deaf ears. I may not have human children of my own, but I feed my critters as well as I can with what is available out there, and I teach my customers, of all ages, a lot of what my mom taught me, only with more information than she had available to her. I speak passionately to whoever will listen, about known dangers and unknown consequences for under tested experimental products passed off to the masses as food, and I am quick to share articles and reports, hopefully from reliable sources and not just alarmists, so as to help others learn and make more educated choices than the ads, commercials and pretty pictures on the containers would lead you to believe. There are just so many choices out there now, it can be overwhelming - and surely our government wouldn't allow anything bad for us on the store shelf, would it?

So my advice on this Mother's Day is to keep it simple and eat basic ingredients that you blend together, and not some scientists who are paid to create something you "just can't have one" of. Be a good example to your kids for eating healthy and good food habits, because even of they like to sneak over to some place with greasy fake food, made faster than it could ever be cooked if it was real and longer lasting than any living organism known to man, know that some day, with a little luck, they will probably look back and admit it, "Mom, you were right. Junk food gave me zits because it messed up my hormones worse than puberty was already doing." Or they might say something like that anyway. And who knows, maybe they will grow up to be a farmer, too. We can hope!

Thanks, Mom. I love you.

 Marie Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Tax Man Cometh - But it's a Good Thing!

One of the biggest obstacles for young / new farmers is the ability to acquire land, pay for it and keep it while starting a farm that even once up and "profitable" runs on razor thin margins. Trying to do this in an urban area, within city limits, is even more difficult due to the property taxes that often accompany the land.

Having purchased land in the city limits over 10 years ago that was being used agriculturally (horses grazed), but that had never been classified as such for whatever reason, meant that full city and school district taxes still applied. Granted, they are less than many pay for in more affluent communities, but once I gave up my job and started farming for a living that tax burden became, well, a real burden due to the lower income I now had to survive on.

I had been initially told that leasing land for horses to graze on didn't qualify for ag valuation. I have no idea why not - and I didn't know enough to fight it back then even though I leased land to over 14 horses at a time sometimes. However, I was still working off the ranch/farm back then, so I was told I would still have had to wait 3 years to apply, even if I was grazing cattle. Then, upon the 3 year anniversary, I went on line to download the forms and noticed they said to submit a FIVE years history. Wait, what? So I called the offices and this time I was told  indeed, I had to show ag use of the land for 5 years in order to apply for ag valuation on it since I was still working off the land. Talk about disappointment.

Well, interestingly enough, about 2 years later, is when I started taking an interest in growing food on the land. I attended a farming conference where a speaker who represented a firm, supposedly specializing in helping farmers reduce their property taxes, stood in front of a room of people and told us that if your land was within city limits, and had not ever been grandfathered with an ag valuation, you would not ever be able to qualify for ag rates. WHAT? He even showed in his presentation what looked like legislation that attested to this. I was outraged and felt like someone had sucker punched me all at the same time. What difference did it make where the land was if it was being USED as agricultural, that is what it was. Why hadn't I been told this from my own county tax office?

Thank goodness for being stubborn and outspoken at times. (who me?) In conversation I was talking about this crazy chain of information and Judith McGeary of Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance said that the last piece about never qualifying was absolutely wrong. I couldn't recall the name of the outfit who had been at the conference but she encouraged me and told me to re-connect with the tax office after 5 years and apply.

Then, about a year ago, I ran into the father of a friend of my boyfriend who also specialized in helping people reduce their property taxes. (A cool job if you think about it.) He asked a few simple questions, like, did I house honeybees on the land? And apparently there is new legislation that helps people who are helping raise honeybees for commercial use to qualify for ag valuation, too. So, I filled out the paperwork, accompanied by a copy of this relatively new category, and sent it in. And it came back - denied.

Now, I didn't know exactly what they wanted in the way of back up for honey bee production. Maybe a sample of the honey? But it came back asking for 5 years of history for agricultural use. And, as government papers often do, the information didn't exactly make sense regarding what they wanted. So, I had to call them and ask for more info.

The man's name who was stamped on the letter, apparently, had retired. So I was transferred to someone else, who then transferred me to Mr. Burrell. I must say that he has been most helpful and pleasant to work with. He very clearly stated what I needed to provide, empathized with the lack of consistent information I had received over the years, and listened to my whining without hanging up on me. I shared with him a bit of the farm's history on the phone and explained that I had over a ream of paper copies if he really wanted all of the invoices, receipts and work orders generated in 5 years, but that I would try to put something together that showed a history of use that would qualify my land for an agricultural valuation.

It was fun going back through the old newspaper articles, both ones I had written and those written about the farm, digging through my old farm journals, seed orders, tax forms (ok, that wasn't much fun), pictures and putting together a chronological history of how this place got started.  What a long row this has been to hoe!

I hand delivered the packet of copies to Fred Burrell at the tax offices, and he seemed pleased with the contents. Whew! I could have kept digging and found more, but I was hoping I had provided enough samples of what I was doing here to be sufficient for the requirements. Now all that is left is the site visit. And folks, today is the day. I've been waiting for this day for 10 years. Never before have I been happy to welcome a visit from the tax man!

I'll let you all know how it goes - and I encourage anyone with land who is farming in city limits to do a diligent job of keeping records, even if they're not as detailed as you think they should be, keep them - in folders by year - so you can have them together when your day with the property tax man comes. (or woman) There is legislation in Austin being mulled over now to help urban farms, like mine, speed up this process of paying higher, and in some cases, full, property tax rates on land that is being used for food production. HB1306, a current bill proposed to provide for fair property tax treatment for small farmers, urban farmers, vegetable farmers, and diversified farmers, had a hearing before the House Agriculture Committee. I've not heard an update on this one yet, but it's an important step for small, urban farming's future. Stay tuned to FARFA and your local government representatives to help urge them to support small farming - not work against it by lumping them in with big ag. We may need both to supply everything to everyone, but we sure don't need to be treated the same as large factory-type operations when it comes to food safety and handling, animal id and yet, on taxes, they want us to be different. Interesting.

But, it appears that there is help on the horizon. All of the media attention on organic foods, local foods and small farms seems to be reaching people. This is a good thing for everyone.

Now, it's time to get outside to get things ready for my visit. This is one of the most important farm tours I've ever had to give!



Eat Your Food - Naturally!