Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Back to the Ground

Before I started farming, I used to write a weekly column about home gardening sprinkled with some tips about healthy eating. With more and more of you looking to grow home gardens and eat locally, I thought I'd revive some of those tips. Plus, I can now add new information that I've gleaned from colleagues or learned as I've been growing food full time for the past 7 years. Granted, I grow on a much larger scale than most of you will likely want to tackle. But many of the tips and some of the techniques, can be replicated in any size garden.

And with all of the talk these days about the importance of eating organic, fresh foods, well, it doesn’t get any more fresh than picked from your own back yard where you know for a fact what you used, and what you didn't use, in the garden. So if you want to eat healthy, fresh and organically this year, you should know that it doesn’t have to be expensive or cumbersome. 

Awhile back I shared a link to a blog by a mother who planned out how to budget for her family on a food stamp allowance and still eat an organic, healthy diet all week long.  Here is that link again. http://www.rebeccablood.net/thriftyo/2007/04/the_organic_thrifty_food_plan_1.html   I think a lot of it is still relevant. It all comes down to a little bit of planning and a little tweaking of our attitude regarding the way we think about eating and lifestyle priorities.  

I have had many conversations with folks about how hard they think it is to eat a healthy, home-cooked diet rich in vitamins and fresh foods.  I’ve been told I’m nuts or unrealistic. Well, I'm not perfect at it either, but I know it can be done. I keep reading about people who have done, or are doing it.

Plus, I hear all of the time people say that they are just too busy to cook. Too busy to shop. Well, you know what? I'm busy, too. I have 14 acres and lots of animals to take care of every day. Honestly, I don't always feel like cooking when I come in after a 12-14 hour day in the field - any more than a single parent does after pulling a double shift and dragging kids to several different soccer fields or home from day care centers. 

So, in order for all of us to do this better, we need to plan. I'll invite folks that I know to share cooking tips, including pre-making dishes for later in the week, and using leftovers so there's less waste, too. These can help keep the output of both money and time spent, more efficient.

I think part of the problem, too, is some folks today have lost touch with their roots when it comes to eating healthy diets of real food. And believing too much of the marketing they see in ads. Trust me, just because it's sold on the supermarket shelf, of any grocery store, doesn't mean it's all that great for you.

Most of us who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, ate much healthier, real foods when we were younger than many of today's kids do. And, I daresay, almost all of our grandparents ate mostly meals made from scratch, because most of the aisles filled with ready made meals found in today’s stores, didn’t exist 50 years ago. Come to think of it, as a kid, I could make it through our neighborhood grocery store in about 10 minutes walking up and down every single aisle. All 8 of them!

So what did they eat in the “old days”?  Simple – they ate real food.  And most, in the summer anyway, they grew a lot of it themselves. I remember my mom growing in our tiny little postage stamp, mostly concrete back yard. Corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, peas, and who knows what else she grew back there.She planted a garden every summer in my mid-west home town next door to Chicago. 
It seems we have gotten used to popping “pseudo foods” into a microwave or driving through the fast food lane, or skipping meals altogether, because we keep our (or our kids'), schedules so full we don't have time to prepare and eat food at home the way it used to be done. 

Eating is not simply about stopping your stomach from growling or quenching a craving for fat or salt. It is meant to fuel your organs with vital nutrients so they can have a better chance at working properly. It's to really satisfy your hunger so you don’t over-eat. And, it can help restore any potential damage done, (you know, from when you had that streak of eating an entire box of sticky buns for breakfast and some kind of mystery food in a box for dinner), so you don’t become sickly. What’s the saying about food being our medicine? Or an ounce of prevention…. You get the idea.

One great cost-cutting way to get your daily dose of healthy, real food, is still by growing some of it like people used to do – right outside your back door - or front door, or both!  Even if you just start with container gardens for lack of space, there are many things you can grow at home that are pretty easy. 

What if we all learned to grow some of our own food like our parents and grandparents used to do, and passed that skill on to someone else?

There really isn’t that much to it on a small, home garden scale and it is very, very inexpensive, especially if you start from seeds and use your own soil and make a bit of compost at home. Even if you're on a super tight budget and receive assistance; did you know that you can use those funds to purchase plant starts and seeds for vegetables, fruits and edible herbs at places that accept SNAP? And what you traded one or two of those extra-curricular activities you hurry off to 3 or 4 times every week, usually at dinner time, became community gardening or joining a garden or cooking club?  Just food for thought.... Think of the gas money you could save, too!

Once the initial prep work is done on a new garden plot, there’s just a little bit of upkeep a few times a week, and you’ll be on your way to fresh salads, fresh steamed or raw veggies and other delicious foods.  As a side benefit, you’ll get some good exercise and fresh air, too.  It’s also a great hobby for kids to do with you, so they can see what vegetables look like as they're growing, and learn where they really come from – before they show up in cellophane wrapped containers in the store.  And hey, if you don't have any around, see about including a neighbor's kids. You can usually rent a kid pretty cheap for an hour or two.
Teach them that yes, we actually plant and dig French fries, out of the ground first. No, those nubby little packaged school lunch carrots don’t grow on trees - or usually that small. Peas can actually be eaten raw, they’re not hard to start with - those are frozen. I often hear many parents say they have never seen their kids eat so many vegetables before they started to help grow a family plot.  Kids can be a lot of fun in the garden. Plus, they don't usually mind picking bugs off of plants and that's one of the ways we control pests. I keep a few containers around for our CSA members' kids to catch grasshoppers and caterpillars to feed to the chickens. Most of them love it!

So, let’s get started this year! Next time I’ll visit with you about how to select a site for your garden, what you can do right now to start preparing the soil – and guess what, it doesn’t involve digging – and the fun part; seed and plant shopping! 

Until then, start thinking about 4 or 5 things you really like to eat and could possibly grow yourself! And....

Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Acres USA's December Issue - The Untold Chapter

Earlier this summer I was interviewed for a story in Acres USA’s magazine, known as “The Voice of Eco-Agriculture”. Acres USA is North America's oldest publisher on production-scale organic and sustainable farming". The magazine is available at various book stores and news stands and you can read the full article there.

The interview was about specific challenges I experience as owner of an urban farm. And writer Rita Cook notes in the magazine index tease; “…..she has overcome these challenges and continues to focus on growing in harmony with nature…” Staying focused on the end result, “….to produce fresh, healthy food for the local community.” is the best way I know of to be successful.

One of the questions I was asked, concerned any benefits there might be to owning an urban farm. There can be several, namely accessibility to the farm for consumers, which could be considered a built-in market. However, I explained it is only a potential market. As with any business, just because you build it – doesn’t always mean they’ll come; even if they can walk to it. Marketing plays an important role in consumer’s choices.

I added that along with that built-in market, came built-in competitors as well. As the popularity of local food and all things related has increased since I opened in 2007, about a dozen or so other well financed, neighborhood “farmer’s markets” and “CSA’s” have popped up all over the DFW area.

Do they have farmers who actually grow the produce being sold? Some of them. Is it clear which ones don’t? Not always. “Why is this a big deal?” you might ask. It’s a story in and of itself that I’ve touched on many times, but probably bears repeating.

I replied to that question in a part of the story that wasn’t published. With a few additional thoughts I’ve added since the interview, here’s what I said.

I’ll let you decide what the big deal might be, from the farmer or a consumer’s perspective.

Accessibility is of course one of the certain pluses. It is not only convenient for customers, but it makes deliveries of produce to the farm’s restaurant accounts less costly than for many out of town farms.

As far as the larger customer base, this has its up and down side. The extra people living in the area means the market is also desirable to many other businesses vying for the same thing. And I’m not talking about other small farms. Medium to large food buying clubs, middle man run food co-ops and out of town large farms that use their marketing dollars to tout “to your doorstep” deliveries of “local” food are all here, too.

This gives the consumers what has become a wide, yet confusing, choice of ways to eat better. However, it has also put a sort of wedge between the farmer and the consumers' plates by encouraging the old “get bigger or get out” mentality in order to be able to compete. Right in our own backyards.

I don’t think many consumers really understand that when a middle man gets involved between the farmer and the end consumer, about half of the gross profit for the farmer is lost. The one who made this food possible in the first place.

Try to think of it this way; if he, or she, gets paid 50 cents of the retail dollar for those tomatoes the customer paid $5-$6/lb; a farmer is working tirelessly to grow and protect 10 acres of the most gorgeous, delicate, hard to transport and delicious fruit around – and essentially gets paid for only 5 acres. 

I’ve recently seen several farmers stop farming because they just couldn’t afford to do it anymore. This is a sad, and scary, trend. Especially when we're talking about trying to replace the ever aging current farmer base. 

Small farmers can’t afford to donate half of their time or product any more than anyone else can. And yet, in the form of their net profits, it’s often given to a middle man who can choose to buy from any source, local or not, big or small, based on price, (read profitable - to the middleman). This is often done in order to supplement their customers' “shares” with out of town, out of season produce, just to keep a bounty in their customer’s basket. If local weather or other conditions are affecting actual North Texas local farms’ yields, this practice is a direct conflict of what the original CSA movement was meant to be about, and has confused many customers. Or at the very least, has certainly not done a very good job exposing them to the reality of farming. Which is a large part of what the whole "local food" movement is about, right?

The customer doesn't share any risk with the farmer in a food co-op or an on-line grocery ordering system where its "pay as you go". And as far as I know, neither does the food co-ops' owners.  CSA is also supposed to be about sharing the risk with the farmer - to help keep the farmer's supported, “bounty or bust”. The farmers plan, plant, cultivate and hope for the best. But committed CSA members of a farm don’t bail out if grasshoppers or an early, hard freeze ends the season unexpectedly.
Instead, these customers have developed a relationship with that farmer, their farmer, and know he or she will do their best to make it up the next season. Cash refunds are rare, as CSA funds are collected and used as "seed money" at the beginning of a season.  That's part of the concept, too. Banks aren't as forgiving of crop failures, and many urban farms sit on prime tax base properties that are under agricultural valuations. (Even if it takes many more years to achieve than it should have.)

The pressure is already great to provide our customers with the best we can grow for them, because most farmers take a lot of pride in what they do. But it’s really difficult to compete with the marketing campaigns and misuse of descriptive terms, like co-op and CSA, when even major local media coverage interchanges the words and doesn’t make clear the differences between the various programs. 

This difficulty is especially true if the consumers' main objective the convenience of a weekly selection of a wide variety of what they are used getting from the supermarket, dropped off at their doorstep. They may not even realize that the small farm touted when they joined, may no longer even part of their "share" because of a crop failure or had a crop that was rejected by the distributor for a few bug holes in the leaves of a crop grown organically. (Excuse me, do you want us to grow without synthetic pesticides? Then you're sometimes going to have a few holes in your cabbage leaves.)

We waste so much food in this city; food that healthy meals could be made from, and given to the people starving right here in our own back yards. People living in food deserts, where, ironically, my farm is located along the edge of. But that topic, is again another story in and of itself. One I'll try to cover another day.

But some customers are so out of touch with the differences between these middle man food delivery services and CSA's, that in the same year that Eden’s and another small local farm were named “Best CSA” in a tie by the magazine’s staff, a readers choice award in the same publication for “best farmer”, went to one such local food distribution company, instead of an actual farmer. (I didn't even notice farming as a category in this year's "best of" version. Probably just as well.)

Abraham Salum - one of my farm's first local chef supporters
There’s still seems to be a real disconnect, even though the topic of local food and being in touch with its source, has risen to new levels in the past 5 years. Locally, that is in large part thanks to the publisher of the 5 year old magazine Edible Dallas and Fort Worth, Chefs for Farmers, a number of prominent chefs, as well as the various food documentaries that made it to some of our local theaters. National Eco-conscience companies like Chipotle have sponsored local expert panels to answer questions from the audiences after these films as well as large food festivals. Educational opportunities are out there, and growing bigger. I have hope for the future.

(If you missed them at the theaters, some films really worth seeing are Fed Up, Food Inc., Cafeteria Man, GMO OMG!, GROW!, Fast Food Nation, and Fresh!, the film my farm premiered here in Balch Springs back at our periodic fund raiser BarnAid a few years ago.) 

So, really the best thing I can do to not look like a sour grape, is just tell the story of what I’m trying to do here, and rally the support of those who want to help achieve the goals I’ve set.

I try to encourage people who really want to be on the front lines of food justice and eating locally grown, clean food, to join me and pledge their support with a CSA membership or to buy as much of their family's food as they can by other farmer-direct methods. 
As Alice Waters so eloquently put it many years ago, and I paraphrase here; everyone has the right to eat good food and to make a fair living. I think that there are plenty of ways to do both, without doing so at the expense of others.
And I think the, successful on-line fund raiser I recently held for the farm, is perhaps a testament of the achievement of this farm’s outreach. 

But not all farmers have such prominent public voices. Being urban has also afforded me that privilege. So holding a small market here on my farm to help give fellow farmers a place to sell their wares, has become an important cornerstone for my farm's mission. 

I still host the only market in DFW that allows only food grown or produced organically, meaning, without the use of synthetic pesticides, etc., or GMO's. Certified or not, I know these farmers and producers personally, and my customers have come to know them as well. We don't need a government sticker to back up our word. We work in our own fields and eat, and serve to our families and friends, the food we produce.

Let the local growing continue, and let’s hope convenience and price doesn’t always win out over small, local and real food, grown with integrity. The more demand for transparency there is, for food grown naturally and truly grown locally, the more it will become available.

Buy direct from the grower or producer as much as you can. It's really what the big benefit of having local farms around, is all about. And get involved! There's a current movement going on to help loosen restrictions on community gardens and urban agriculture in the City of Dallas.

Now Go on and Eat Your Food - Naturally!
Farmer Marie