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Archive for the ‘On The Table’ Category

This past week Denver.Eater asked “How Denver’s Restaurant Industry Would Change the World Through Food.” They asked food editors, the governor, chefs, sommeliers, restaurateurs, coffee roasters, and restaurant critics. I enjoyed reading the answers and shared many of the sentiments. It was no surprise to me that there were no farmers listed with these other “restaurant industry” folks. I see this all the time across the national conversation about food; it’s not unique to Denver, but why aren’t we asking farmers and ranchers these questions? Hell, why aren’t we asking dishwashers, prep cooks, or the countless other invisible positions that complete the restaurant industry? Maybe it’s because these aren’t positions of power and we assume that the people at the top of the chain will have a better answer than the folks who are in the trenches every day. Maybe “How Dishwashers Would Change the World through Food” wouldn’t provide the necessary click-bait. But if we really cared about this question then maybe we should be asking everyone along the chain.

So here’s my answer to the question, “how would I change the world through food” even though no one asked me.

I think education is the foundation to lasting change and if we are going to instill systemic change we need to reeducate ourselves about what food is. Food, at it’s most basic level should nourish us. It should provide the necessary vitamins,  minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, etc. for our existence. There are certainly “foods” that we consume that don’t meet this need and I think we’ve lost the ability to discern between foods that nourish and foods that don’t. My goal as a farmer is to grow the highest quality food I can. But the quality I’m striving for isn’t simply the physical appearance, it’s the nutritional quality of the produce. Nationally we have dropped the concept of nutrition from our language of food except for that often cringe-worthy term “health food.” We have documented science that shows that most of our nation’s produce has lower nutritional content than it did 60 years ago. This is largely due to our farming practices that focus on yield (pounds and bushels) and not nutrition. There is no incentive in the market to grow a healthier carrot because we have erroneously convinced ourselves that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot. But a carrot’s nutritional content will differ based on where and how it’s grown. Imagine if you had the information to choose which carrot to buy based on the nutritional content of those specific carrots. Would you ever choose a carrot that was less healthy for you? Our food system incentivizes  growing cheap food with no regard to the health of the consumer. We can blame this on the “food system,” but we are all participating in this. Until we as eaters start to show that we care about the health of the food that we are eating there wont be change.

So how am I changing the world through food? I’m starting with my community and the 60 CSA members that pick up produce for 20 weeks of the year from the farm. I’m taking opportunities to explain why and how growing nutrient-dense food is our priority. I’m might not change the world, but I am working to educate my community on why food is important and that it’s their job to do the same.

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Check out the footnote, “Added fats and oils and added sugars are added to foods during processing or preparation.” Reducing processed foods in a person’s diet would drastically impact this portion.

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I’ve always had a pretty high standard for the produce that comes off of our farm. My boss at my previous farm was meticulous in his expectations of the farm’s produce that we delivered to our CSA members. I expected clean and fresh produce when I was working and cooking in restaurant kitchens. So now that I have my own operation, my standard remains pretty high. We triple wash our greens. We soak our roots. We cool everything as soon as possible. I assumed that other farms had the same goals. But this morning as I was scanning my twitter feed I found this post about making a DIY produce wash. I encourage our members to wash their produce before they use it not because I don’t think our produce is clean, but because I think that it’s an important practice to do consistently when preparing produce.

But what caught my attention was AJ’s opening paragrah: “My CSA share is getting bigger and bigger by the week, which means lots and lots of produce washing. It’s funny, you’d think that straight from the farm would mean less cleaning, since everything’s local, organic, blah blah blah. But that’s really not the case. I find more dirt and critters in my CSA fruits and vegetables than I’ve ever seen in any produce at the grocery store. You don’t even want to know what I found in one of my peaches this past week… seriously.”

So I’m left wondering, do people associate “straight-from-the-farm produce to be covered in dirt and insects?” What do you think?

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For nearly a year and a half I’ve been following a blog called Sustainable Food Jobs. The blog started as a very simple idea: post job listings that relate to sustainable food. In the beginning, things started pretty slowly. One post every few days, but now it seems to be averaging about five to seven listings a day. The job postings offer positions ranging everything from short term fellowship opportunities to assistant farmer/CSA manager to Executive Director for non-profit, sustainable food organizations. Even though I have a farm for myself, I’ve enjoyed reading the posts each day to get a sense for the types of positions that are out there.

This morning as I was skimming the posts, I saw a post for a position for a company that promotes sustainable agricultural practices seeking to fill a full time position with a salary around $45,000. (I would like to be clear on something before I move on. I am not being critical of this company or the salary that it is offering; I’m just using it as an example.) A few posts down from this one I started seeing posts for apprentice positions that, if they were year-round positions, would amount to $15,000. Certainly, there is a difference between the level of experience that the office position was seeking compared to the farming apprenticeship, but this reminded me of other discrepancies that I have seen before. It is a near-impossible thing to try to compare the value of two different positions, but it does make me wonder about how the positions are valued.

Last month, the USDA released a publication entitled, “A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series: A Better Understanding of Our Food Costs,” and in the publication they have a few graphic representations of the breakdown of each dollar spent on food. Here is a simple graphic expressing the percent of a dollar that goes directly to the farmer/rancher.

This graphic represents the difference between the farms share and the marketers share of the average dollar spent on food. This graphic is more representative of a bag of Dole’s baby spinach than of a bunch of spinach purchased from a farmer at a farmer’s market. It’s amazing to see that the people that are growing the food receive 5x less the amount of money than the company that is telling you to buy the food.

Seeing this graphic and reading through the publication reminded me about a podcast called Deconstructing Dinner. I remember listening to an episode a while back about a grain co-op that was getting started. The host was listening in on a meeting between the grain farmers and other co-founders of the grain co-op. They were discussing the possibility of hiring a CSA coordinator at the salary of $20/hour for 1-2 days of work a week. The discussion that followed was poignant. Here sat the grain farmers, who would be growing the grain for the co-op/CSA and would not be making $20/hour, trying to express how that felt. (Click the link above and skip to the 29th minute mark to hear the discussion.)

The people in the interview mentioned several times that the salary disparity between the grower and promoter of the food was “just apart of how things are now,” and I’m afraid they are correct. It seems to be the reality that those that produce the food will always retain a minor percentage of the money spent on food, and even organization that support, encourage, and champion small sustainable farmers will receive a larger paycheck then the farmers, themselves. What do you think about this? or perhaps a better question would be, do you think about this?

So what can we do to correct this financial disparity?

  • Go out of your way to purchase directly from the farmer/rancher/fisher.
  • Reduce the amount of prepackaged foods your family purchased.
  • Find a CSA to participate in.
  • Look for a restaurant in your area that is purchasing a significant amount of it’s food from local farms and ranches.

What else could we add to this list?

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I’m kinda done with bacon.

There…I said it. Quick and painless–like pulling off a band-aid. I feel a bit better now. You can understand why that was so difficult for me to get out, can’t you? I mean, I am participating in this year-long celebration of charcuterie, and to mention that I’m tired of hearing about bacon is like a cheese maker expressing their displeasure for mozzarella. Homemade bacon (and mozzarella) is a gateway into the age-old craft, so why would I say that I’m done with it?

It’s because of the bacon donuts and bacon ice cream (Sorry Mr. Lebovitz) and other bacon desserts and bacon explosions and all this bacony crap. For the past 4 or 5 years it seems that people have been talking about bacon. All the talk about bacon has turned a wonderful food into a trite, cliche, marketing gimmick. Don’t get me wrong, I do like bacon; it’s fatty and salty and, if cooked properly, crispy. But I find myself wincing every time I see people talking about it. Why?!?

Maybe it’s because I’ve had enough bland, limp bacon in my life to wonder why people go nuts over it. Maybe I’m picturing people sprinkling Bac-Os on everything (you’re choice of Bits or Chips, but don’t worry neither contain meat or animal fat!). Maybe bacon has a PR problem.

Amidst all of this confusion I started to see the word “lardon” pop up in discussions about bacon. I didn’t have the same reaction to the word lardon as I did to bacon, yet there isn’t much difference in what they are. Maybe there was hope for me after all. So I started on my February challenge with the intent to make both a sweet and a savory bacon. I followed Rhulman’s recipes and added brown sugar to the sweet cure and garlic, black pepper, juniper berries, and bay leaves to the savory one. In the fridge for a week. Flipping the belly over for a nice massage every other day. By the eighth day, the thickest part of the belly was firm to the touch, so I rinsed it off and popped it into the oven for a couple of hours.  L and I had some friends over to do a taste test between the two types of bacon. The consensus seemed to be that each type of bacon had a significantly different flavor that it was hard to compare them to each other.


During the week that the bacon was curing, I was trying to decide what recipe to use for the challenge. It didn’t take long for me to remember a recipe that Deb at Smitten Kitchen posted a while back for Asparagus Hash. I’ve made it a handful of times, and I think we made it two times within one week once because it is so tasty. The savory bacon would be perfect for this recipe. Deb’s recipe called for pancetta, but since my pancetta wasn’t ready yet the savory bacon (lardon) would work fine in it’s place.

Into the pan goes the lardons to crisp. Pull them out and place them on a paper towel to drain. Into the pan goes chopped potatoes. Next goes the onions and shallots. Last into the mix is the asparagus. When the asparagus is finished, toss the lardons back into the pan and mix it all together. In a separate skillet, fry up a couple of eggs and plop them on the top of the hash. Pour yourself a tall glass of OJ or a Bloody Mary and enjoy!

I’m glad I chose the savory bacon for this recipe; it paired so well with the asparagus and potato flavors. I think the sweet bacon would have caused a bit of pallet confusion, and that’s never a good thing. I started to make pancetta for the February challenge, but it’ll still be hanging by the 15th, so I’ll put that post up when it’s done. In the mean time, I’ll raise my fork to home-cured bacon…er, lardons….er, whatever. This taste too good to quibble over semantics.

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I am learning that winter is a strange season for me as a farmer. Rather than my days filled with the sun beating down on my and dirt underneath my fingernails, I am trying to familiarize myself with the muted glow of a computer screen and paper cuts. The winter season (for a zone 5 farmer) allows me to catch up on some needed rest and affords me some time to start planning for the next years farm. The seasonal transition reveals it’s effects on my body as the sun-kissed  color fades from my skin and as weight adds itself to my frame.

The physical demands of the winter season are far less than the demands from the spring, summer, and fall, yet the season has needs that are unique to itself. Winter is the season for dreaming, planning, and preparing for the up coming year. It is a time to reflect on the previous seasons and evaluate the vegetables that grew well sold quickly. It is a time to check the quality of your equipment and the supply of your seeds. The toll of the winter season is on the mind rather than the body.

A while back I picked up a book entitled, “The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook” by Richard Wiswall. The book has been a great resource for challenging me to think of the farm in terms of a business– to think beyond the production aspect of farming and to think about core business decisions that can make the farm profitable. Many young farmers that I know have been drawn to farming for philosophical or ethical reasons. These aren’t “bad” reasons to pursue farming, but there must be some element of profitability involved in the farm or it can’t be sustainable. Wiswall’s book has helped me understand that. So I started to create spreadsheets of average plant yields and farm maps and planting dates. I started to calculate how much produce I could expect to grow on our little 1/2 acre. Then, I tweeked the types of vegetables to maximize my yield to profit ratio. For example, in the space that it requires to grow 2 ears of corn (about 1 sq. foot) I could also grow 12 beets, three times throughout the season. If I bunched the beets into groups of 6 and accounted for a little loss, then in the same space I could either yield 2 ears of corn or 5 bunches of beets. The market value of an ear of corn might be $.50 and the market value of a bunch of beets is around $3.00. So when I compare the two crops I quickly find that it makes more sense to grow beets rather than sweet corn.

The detail-oriented-ness that this type of planning takes does not come natural to me, but I know that this is as much of a priority as weeding is for the farmer. I am slowly learning to embrace spreadsheets as a tool as valuable as the hoe.

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One of the best explanations of Twitter that I’ve heard is that it’s “a group of strangers that could be your best friends.” Sure, there’s a whole bunch of nonsense going on in the twitter-sphere, but the way I have chosen to interact with it is to find people who have similar interests, passions, focus, and ramble on about the things we love. It’s been great! (This also gives my wife a break from listening to me continually babble about varieties of squash, food trends, or new revelations in compost.)

So a few weeks ago, I started to see the hashtag #charcutepalooza pop up on a bunch of my friends’ twitter feeds. This piqued my attention because I had been toying with the idea of trying my hand at some simple charcuterie, but I didn’t know anyone (face to face) who was doing it. I started to look into this #charcutepalooza buzz and found out that two blogging friends (Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen and The Yummy Mummy) have declared 2011 “The Year of Meat,” and that they were going to use Michael Ruhlman’s book Charcuterie as a guidebook for 12 challenges throughout the year. The past 6 week have created quite the commotion on the twitter-sphere using the hashtag #charcutepalooza, and there has even been a Washington Post article about it.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to sign up and join in because I thought I had too much going on with finishing up my last semester of school while starting an urban farm that employs developmentally disabled adults. But as I thought about, I realized that no matter how busy I get I find sanctuary in the kitchen. I never tire from cooking and experimenting with food. So I realized that even though I am in a very busy phase of my life, I always find time for food!

For then next 12 months you’ll see me posting the results of the challenges and some of the recipes for the different cured meats. The first two challenges include duck prosciutto and home cured bacon or pancetta. I’m sure that at some point in the year we are going to get into pates and terrines, and I might need some extra encouragement during those challenges.

I hope you enjoy the Year of Meat as much as I will.

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