Saturday, March 1, 2008

Enter the Locavore by Herpreet Singh

From Country Roads Magazine, March 2008

The table is full. Here is an oven-roasted chicken stuffed with fresh lemongrass, garlic chives, rosemary, garlic cloves and ginger. Around it are piled roasted carrots rubbed with rosemary and brushed with butter. There is a chilled broccoli and grape tomato salad tossed with balsamic vinaigrette and Asiago cheese. Fresh strawberries and whipped cream will complete this supper.

It is a simple meal. Yet nearly all of its ingredients share a story that is ripe with complexity. Consider just a sliver of the narrative: most of these ingredients have been grown and harvested within one hundred miles of Baton Rouge.

This local meal’s story is distant cousin to the convoluted, often incomprehensible tale of our industrial food chain—a tangled web of corporate farms, food distribution centers and wholesale mega-markets; of varying agricultural labor standards and ethics; and of the “food miles” required to bring products to markets thousands of miles from the fields in which they are grown.

But related it is. In short, this meal’s story is related to a larger story called the “global food system,” in which, according to recent studies, food purchased in supermarkets averages 1500 to 2000 miles from farm to plate. Research by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture suggests that these food miles have increased by twenty-five percent since 1980.

The meal’s personal story speaks of south Louisiana’s family farmers, our rural economy, and finally, of me—one Louisiana consumer among millions. Its story is ultimately about Louisiana’s “local food chain.” In sharing this narrative, an image emerges of what south Louisiana tastes like—not just crawfish, jambalaya and gumbo. Instead, this story reveals the less iconic, increasingly forgotten and doubly surprising flavors of Louisiana’s soil and seasons, and the human toil that brings them to our tables.

Part One: Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

I’ll be first to admit it. I don’t know much about all the poultry I’ve eaten over the years, beyond having noticed trucks bearing chicken-stuffed metal crates stacked one atop the other. I have certainly felt mildly unsettled each time I’ve seen chickens en route.

Yet I’ve never actively considered where they are going, where they have been, what they’ve been fed, with what they’ve been injected, how they’ll be processed or the length of time it will take to get them to the market. I am the quintessential city girl who is utterly disconnected from the food she eats. So my first visit to a poultry farm is an awakening of sorts.

When I arrive at Yard Bird Farms in Zachary, the dew settled on its grassy field is sparkling in the morning sun. The chickens—most of them deep rust-red, some snowy-white and one lone black bird—walk and bob with a regal air. They amble about pecking at white clover, garden cabbage, beets and Brussels sprouts still rooted in earth.

The clover, grown from organic seed purchased in St. Francisville, has been sown especially for the birds’ nourishment. The vegetables, I learn later, are remnants of last year’s crops—items that did not meet farmers Elaine and YaSin Muhaimin’s standards. Rather than sell the produce, the Muhaimins offer the organically grown leftovers as a feast of chicken feed.

The day is Saturday. While I poke around observing newly-planted arugula plugs and the proud movements of chickens, the Muhaimins are at the Red Stick Farmers’ Market in Baton Rouge, selling fresh chickens that were still roaming this field yesterday. When I visit with the Muhaimins at the farmers’ market, YaSin tells me, “We were blown here by the hurricane.”

In New Orleans, YaSin had been a network administrator. After circumstances returned him to his boyhood roots in Zachary, the couple retired and embarked upon farming organic pastured poultry. They’ve been operating Yard Bird Farms for two years, and while they began with poultry, last year they produced arugula, broccoli, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and other produce, too.

YaSin explains that “free range chicken is a misnomer because chickens can’t defend against predators. Raising pastured chickens means they graze on pasture but are protected by portable electro-fencing. When the chickens need to graze on different areas of the pasture, I move the fencing. This keeps them grazing on the clover, and it’s clean because they’re not sitting in their own excrement. They move to different parts of the pasture every four to five days.”

I ask why it is that an organic chicken raised thirty miles from my home may cost me more than an organic chicken I might purchase at the grocery store. YaSin remarks that, “access to organic feed is one thing that drives the price up. We drive over one hundred miles to get feed, and certified organic feed is three times the cost of conventional. But we’re able to avoid feed that contains animal by-products.”

By access, YaSin is referring not just to the drive he makes to purchase organic feed, but to the notion that as long as feed containing animal by-products is the standard, wider production of sustainable types of feed will be limited, thus limiting consumers’ access to affordable quality poultry. For the first time, I am not just intrigued by my new-found knowledge of pastured chickens, I wonder what organically fed, pastured chicken tastes like.

Three days later, I purchase one of the birds. I’m nervous about the cost, but once at the Muhaimins’ stand, I purchase a whole chicken and a dozen eggs. The birds they’re selling that Tuesday have been harvested the day before. My bird has never been shipped, defrosted and labeled “previously frozen,” and I know what it’s been eating. Suddenly, the fact that I’ve been able to visit Yard Bird farms and speak to the farmers face-to-face about what I’ll be ingesting, seems less like a novelty and more like it should be a basic expectation.

Thursday, when I cut open the vacuum-sealed plastic in which my chicken is packaged, I am struck that there is no disagreeable smell and none of the thin slime I am accustomed to washing off chicken purchased in the grocery store. Simply, it seems so clean.

Part Two: The fruits of labor.

Ponchatoula touts itself as the “Strawberry Capital of the World,” and in celebration of this bounty, every spring the city puts on a strawberry festival replete with a strawberry queen pageant. According to America’s Heartland, a television series that celebrates American agriculture, in the nineteen-twenties Ponchatoula was the nation’s leading strawberry producer.

So I am not surprised to learn that Eric Morrow, who left a corporate gig as a securities trader in Chicago to farm, is an eighth generation strawberry farmer. However, when I walk back to his berry fields, I am again stunned by my detachment from the everyday food on my table. Nine Mexican migrant laborers work their way across a several-acre field. They move with efficiency, running fingers quickly through each plant and picking only the best strawberries to load directly into flats.

Morrow, who began farming ten years ago and is sole proprietor of this farm, reminds me, “There is no such thing as local labor. If we didn’t have migrant labor, we could just go ahead and close it all down … Everything we do is so labor intensive. Every single berry is hand picked.” Again, my run-of-the-mill supermarket upbringing has left me unconscious of the fact that someone else’s working hands, ten actual fingers, necessarily and literally touch all of my food.

Morrow educates me about the economic, ethical and environmental challenges of farming.
Lesson one: “Farming is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. It is constant and ongoing.” Morrow paints a picture of what the day has been and will be. The workers began harvesting berries at 6:30 am. While the men are picking, Morrow makes a delivery to a local customer. When he returns at 10 am, the men have picked about eighty flats—thirty more than the actual order calls for.

The weather is expected to change by afternoon. Heavy rain is predicted. Morrow says once that the men have finished harvesting, they’ll clean the plants to protect them from rot—checking for mites and picking off brown or decayed leaves. Working not against the clock but against weather itself, they’ll cover every row, all twenty-some acres, with plastic shroud to prevent the berries from being mutilated by the coming storm. They should be done for the day by 1:30 pm.

Morrow farms about forty different products year-round, focusing on small quantities and direct sales to specialty markets, roadside stands and independent grocers. I ask him how many strawberry farms there are in town, imagining stiff competition among many berry farmers. Instead, Morrow says there are only five or six strawberry farmers in Ponchatoula. “Ten years ago, there were maybe ten farms, and twenty or thirty years ago, there were maybe a thousand.” The decline in prospects for strawberry farmers makes clear that Morrow has had no choice but to diversify.

Illustrating this drastic decline, and particularly its relationship to growers thousands of miles away in California, Morrow says, “Corporate farms are big operations with stockholders, shareholders, a board of directors. I’m just a sole proprietor … A family farm that grows fruit and vegetables has no government funding. Absolutely zero. We’re not even part of the farm bill.”

He goes on to explain that, while corporate farms sell products in bulk to wholesale distributors who sell to supermarkets, “I’m picking berries today…if I don’t sell them, I personally lose them.” Corporate farms don’t take a direct loss because they have a middleman.

Yet according to Morrow, “Money spent on California berries goes back to California and their growers and to the corporate headquarters of grocery stores. If you buy from Wal-Mart, the profit heads back to Arkansas. If you buy local, all the money stays in our economy.”

I ask about his arrangement with the migrant workers and question his use of conventional growing methods over increasingly popular organic methods. Addressing both issues, Morrow explains, “Everything I do is regulated by the [United States] Department of Agriculture.” Morrow hires the seasonal laborers through a national program and provides them housing.

Regarding labor standards and growing standards applied to produce grown elsewhere, Morrow says, “What you’re not seeing is what is unregulated in Chili, China, Mexico. You don’t know what they’re watering with, the quantities of fertilizer they’re using. There’s no way to check. What do you think is happening with imported food you purchase?”

A prior conversation with Copper Alvarez, director of Big River Economic and Agricultural Alliance (BREADA), returns to me. She had commented that, “Louisiana has more sustainable farming [practices] than organic at this point.” Sustainable farming practices generally do not use insecticides or synthetic fertilizers, but use earth-friendly fertilizers. Morrow’s own practice of planting a cover crop of cow peas is one example. The cover crop is planted at the end of the growing season to prevent grass and weeds from overtaking the field. Eventually, the cow peas are turned back into the soil to replenish its nutrients, making it a “green manure” fertilizer.

Alvarez noted that many of our universities are working with new farmers to encourage them to begin as organic growers, but farmers like Morrow who have been using conventional methods for generations have difficulty transitioning to organic methods. She said that, “in Louisiana, to become certified organic, you have to leave fields free of anything for up to three years, meaning small farmers have to stop farming all together.”

Of consumers having the option to buy organic produce from California or South America, or conventionally grown local produce, Morrow asks, “Have you ever noticed how some strawberries…have a hard white center? What do you think has happened to that fruit? … Sometimes the organically grown stuff in a grocery store has been picked green and is gassed with ethylene, a ripening agent…There’s a big taste difference.”

By the time I’ve left Morrow’s farm and made it back home to Baton Rouge, the rain has begun. The news reports golf-ball-sized hail and tornadoes in Tangipahoa Parish, where Ponchatoula is. I remember the migrant workers, the speed with which they had picked berries, and hope that they have beaten Mother Nature to the punch.

Part Three: You are what you eat.

Guiding me between raised garden beds on her farm in Scott, Louisiana, Dawn Gotreaux apologizes that she didn’t tell me to wear boots. As we walk, she points out winter crops including radishes, beets, carrots and kale. Growing for the last three years on a twelve-acre plot that once grew sugarcane, produce is the newest addition to the Gotreaux Family Farm.

“Our goal was to go organic from the beginning.” She tells me that her husband Brian was a mechanic with a successful auto business fifteen years ago, “but the chemicals he had to use in auto repairs were beginning to affect his health, so he had to get out of it.”

About ten years ago, Brian says, “We started raising chickens for ourselves because we couldn’t stomach the thought of eating conventionally raised chicken anymore.” When he began commercially farming tilapia five years ago, he reasoned that if chemicals he’d been using as a mechanic were causing health problems, he shouldn’t expose himself to chemicals used in conventional aquaculture.

This evolution toward a healthier lifestyle led the Gotreauxs to the small farm operation they operate today. In addition to running the farm, Brian is involved in an effort to bring a farmer’s market to downtown Lafayette.

They say they are moving to a farming philosophy known as “beyond organic.” “Now we want more than organic. We want the most nutrient dense vegetables you can consume. Nutrient dense food is really all about what minerals are in the soil you’re growing in.”

When the Gotreauxs purchased the field five years ago, the soil was depleted. “We had to work to get minerals back into the soil,” says Dawn. “It was so stripped of nutrients that it took two years before even grass would grow.”

Initially, this soil fertility problem seems unrelated to their tilapia farming operation. But while leading me through a greenhouse where his tilapia are raised, Brian introduces me to the solution, and simultaneously illustrates what the Gotreauxs call their contribution to bioremediation and to reducing their human footprint.

In the tilapia greenhouse, Brian shows me a giant vat of what appears to be green slop. “There’s a lot of concern about aquaculture and improper waste disposal,” he says. “Our waste system is reused to fertilize our crops. Everything is in constant movement to prevent nutrient-rich waste from sitting and developing toxins.”

Brian explains that the water in which the tilapia are raised comes from a well system; the water moves through a filter; waste is separated out into its own container and then the filtered water is recycled back into the fish tanks.

“Organic to me is just a minimum standard,” Brian comments. “We do want to grow organically, but we also want our food to be high ‘brix.’ Brix is a measurement of complex sugars in produce. That’s how you know you’ve got nutrient dense food.” It clicks for me that the Gotreauxs’ diversified farming operation—fish, poultry, produce—is part of a complex and symbiotic system.”

Referencing his past life as a mechanic, Brian adds, “Sometimes a customer will drive up in a nice BMW and ask why the food is expensive. I’ll point to the car, and say, ‘You obviously understand quality and that you get what you pay for.’”

He is quick to clarify, “Our goal is not to produce cheap food, but to produce the most nutritious. Mass production is cheaper. They’ve [corporate farms and food distributors] mastered efficiency of production by going larger scale, but efficiency reduces quality. To me, quality should cost more.”

I recall the simple way Dawn had turned the concept “beyond organic” from abstract to concrete. “When people come back and tell us how sweet our peas are,” she’d remarked, “we know we’re doing a good job … So many people overlook how important food is, but really, it’s the most important thing to human beings.”

Part Four: But will it cost me?

In all, I spent about thirty dollars at the market. This included eggs, butter and cream left for meals to come. My husband and I had enough chicken for two more meals, and we were able to make stock. There were more strawberries to snack upon and grape tomatoes for another salad.
Brian Hailwell, a researcher with Worldwatch Institute, which conducts interdisciplinary research with a global focus, has said, “Of course, a certain amount of food trade is natural and beneficial. But money spent on locally produced foods stays in the community longer, creating jobs, supporting farmers, and preserving local cuisines and crop varieties against the steamroller of culinary imperialism.”

After visiting the farms and talking to the farmers responsible for my locally grown, home cooked meal, I notice nuances that I’ve begun to think of as the “real” flavors of south Louisiana. I’m not convinced I want to be rid of globalization—I enjoy my wine, olive oil, coffee. Yet, if I, one of four million plus Louisianans, do as Alvarez encourages, and eat one local meal a week, I could contribute to a meaningful impact here at home.

Thirty dollars is less than my husband and I spend for a meal in a restaurant. Is it worth thirty dollars a week to quietly shift the culture of minimum standards currently established for efficient mass production and transport of homogenized food? It only took about twenty years to lose nearly a thousand strawberry farmers. I wonder, if we don’t support our agricultural economy, in twenty years, will we have any notion of what, really, Louisiana tastes like?

My table was full. I ate a simple meal. The meal spoke to me. It told a story. And it nourished me in new ways.

LINK TO STORY: Enter the Locavore

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