Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April 30—Can food be too cheap?

It's a question I've been pondering ever since we watched the movie King Corn on PBS. It's a really interesting piece of work, and it defied our expectations: it is not the snarky Michael Moore treatment you might expect.

In the film there is a brief treatment of US agricultural policy, including some archival footage of Earl Butz, Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, talking in 1973 about the new direction that American farm policy was going to take. What we want, he said, was an abundance of cheap food. Looking back on it now, with what we know today, his remarks seem laughably naive, if not even a bit sinister.

The filmmakers visited Butz in the present (which was, I think, 2005), at the age of about 95. He remained proud of what he accomplished, saying that Americans feed themselves on just 16% (I think I've got the number right) of their household budget, and that's a great accomplishment because it leaves so much money free to make other things happen. Consumer spending is, after all, one of the underpinnings of economic growth.

Butz (who died earlier this year at 98) got me to thinking. Can food be too cheap? What we see from the film King Corn is that without government programs, farmers who grow commodity crops like corn lose money. They get a per-acre payment that (they hope) puts them slightly into the black. I am a person who believes that, when it comes to work life, people will basically do what you pay them to do. In this case, it pays Iowans to grow corn, as much of it as they can. Read The Omnivore's Dilemma to learn about many of the things into which the corn gets made. But there's no doubt that cheap corn is one of the cornerstones of our food supply.

So what's wrong with cheap food?

This is where it gets complicated for me. I agree that cheap food is a great thing, in principle. But I think the way you get it is just as important. The current system of payments for commodity crops (corn, wheat, soybeans) is designed to keep prices down and, at least in theory, to keep farmers in business. Of course you would expect that having a virtually unlimited supply of something cheap would lead people to find all sorts of new uses for it, and you would be right. Corn is in all kinds of things—too big a topic to go into here.

The way we go about it now creates incentive for consolidation of farms. That has the effect of driving people away from farming and in many cases out of their home towns and away from their families. It also creates incentive for agricultural practices that do not seem sustainable—a tremendous amount of chemical and mechanical input is required to keep the land in production, and all that land under tillage creates a huge amount of runoff creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. And of course the farm communities that produce a huge portion of the food we eat can't feed themselves.

While I agree in principle that cheap food would be of benefit to people, I feel like it is just not sustainable. The land can't sustain year after year of that level of production without external inputs, and we can't sustain that level of external input (it mostly takes oil, after all, to make the fertilizer and power the equipment). The towns can't sustain that level of population loss, and there are some who would argue that our health-care infrastructure can't sustain itself in the face of all the complications that arise from results of all that cheap food.

I don't know that I have an answer. How can you create a system that keeps food affordable for everyone (which requires plenty of it), but that keeps prices sufficiently high for farmers to support themselves (which requires scarcity to keep prices up)? And of course you want to do it in a way that at a minimum does not create incentive to push the land too far, and even better would be to create incentives to actually improve it. And do we need to institute further scrutiny of some of the byproducts of cheap food? In my mind, I can sketch out the vaguest of outlines of what such a system might look like, but it's really a Utopian fantasy—such a policy could never be enacted in today's political climate.

Our approach is to opt out where we can. We try to avoid products that contain lots of corn-derivatives, and make as much as we can from scratch using ingredients whose origins we know. But it's not our religion, and even if it was I'm not sure there's much you can do. We recently discovered that there is High Fructose Corn Syrup in every single variety of pickles at our grocery store. Pickles! Our goal is not to boycott those evil farmers in Iowa and teach them a lesson. It is to demonstrate that there is a market for you if you choose to do it a different way. There is a huge gap at the grocery store: on one end you have classic "industrial" food, full of the products of the commodity agriculture economy, including but not limited to the corn syrup mentioned above. At the other end is the stuff that is fully organic, made with things that sound like what you might use at home, like sugar. Of course, products that contain all organic ingredients are far more expensive. So where is the middle ground? Where are the products for people like me, who don't need to go full-on organic, but don't want corn syrup and genetically modified organisms? At present, it seems that our food life, like our political life, is dominated by the extremes. Let's hope for some sane, sustainable options in the near future.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

First Wednesday Market

It is amazing that the Dane County Farmers’ Market happens twice a week. Now, the Wednesday market is MUCH smaller but it is still a vibrant part of the downtown scene. We browsed today, buying cheese curds and a cookie. Evie and I commented that the cheese curds were especially delicious, and then we realized maybe that was because we hadn't had any since market was outside in November. I guess to us, even cheese curds have their season!

There were lots of greens including yummy watercress, jerusalem artichokes, tomatoes, bedding plants, tomatoes, baked goods, chicken, sausage--the list goes on and on. I absolutely loved listening to people as they walked the market. I overheard one woman explaining to a co-worker that she was planning to join a CSA because "it is way easier than gardening and it just seems like the right thing to do, ya' know?" Other people greeted vendors like old friends and we saw daycare and school groups being led through the market like it was a fascinating wonderland (which it is).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A great chef whose food you'll never eat

Jack Kaestner is the chef at the Oconomowoc Lake club just outside Milwaukee. He's been there for many years (I think he said 17). It's a private club, so you will probably not get to eat there, which is too bad. Chef Jack is a CIA (Culinary Institute of America, not the other one!) graduate, and a huge supporter of local food in the area. He has been involved in many organizations and initiatives to promote local eating, including as a founding member of the SE Wisconsin Slow Food chapter (or Convivium, as they prefer it). I have heard him speak a number of times on how farmers and chefs can work together for mutual benefit. In a profession that is somewhat famous for hotheads, he is a decidedly cool one (of course I've never worked in his kitchen, but I did see his whole staff smiling).

I am one of the lucky ones, because I got to enjoy one of his meals. No, I did not join the club. In observance of Earth Day, Jack and his crew put together a special dinner focusing on local ingredients. The members had to buy tickets, and all 75 seats sold out. I got to go as a representative of Death's Door Spirits, so I got to introduce the members to those great products as well as to meet some other producers. It was a good group, and a great menu, including spinach salad, a duet of pastured beef and turkey with mashed potatoes, and ice cream sundaes and a selection of cookies. I also got to try rabbit for the first time, in a paté no less. My impression was more about paté than rabbit (think cold meatloaf), but I did enjoy it. We had a chance to mingle with the diners before hand, then each producer gave a spiel about their products and approach, after which the members got to ask questions. A big focus was on what is meant by free range, most particularly with respect to poultry. I feel that the issues of concern closely mirror what we have heard in speaking to other groups about local food. And of course there is nothing like having a connection with the producer so that you can find out if the farming practices are in accord with your values.

One of Jack's points as a chef in a fine-dining restaurant is that you have to think about the sustainability of what you are doing. Or as he says, you have to shift from thinking about filet mignon to thinking about pot roast. For example, think of a typical beef steer: it weighs maybe 1,000 pounds. Think you like filet mignon? How about if I told you that there is only 4-6 pounds of filet on that 1/2 ton animal? Yes, that's 1/2 of 1% of the live weight. And you know how you see hanger steak on all the trendy menus just now? Well, there's only one (one!) hanger steak on each steer. Now as to pot roast, I have tasted Jack's, and I am a believer. You will never find a piece of filet that is more tender, and as a bonus, you actually get some flavor (which is my main complaint with filet), or in Jack's case, a ton of flavor.

I have to give a lot of credit to Jack for his leadership on these issues, and frankly, a lot of credit to the members of his club for giving him the freedom to serve pot roast at their daughters' fancy wedding receptions!

Jack has an informative web site, and has a great calendar that provides a month-by-month guide to what is in season at any point in the year. A great resource for planning ahead (perhaps for your own local eating experiment?).


Monday, April 21, 2008

Can Livestock Be Raised in the City?

In 2004 legislation was passed to allow citizens of Madison to keep up to 4 domestic fowl in their yards. All must be female, and no butchering allowed on the property. The city of Seattle now allows goats to be kept in people's backyards. With the price of animal protein going through the roof, is raising animals in the city one way to counteract skyrocketing prices? What kind of profit can be made by from agriculture on a small parcel of land? These and other interesting questions are discussed in MetroFarm Online Magazine and Food Chain Radio. Michael Olson is anAgriculturalist, Journalist, Radio Show Producer and Host, Author, Farmer and Business Owner. Whether you agree or disagree, his publications and forums provide food for thought. Check it out!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Environmental Impact of Local Eating

Happy Earth Day!

We spent the afternoon with an amazing group of people, the Board and members of the Welty Environmental Center. We were invited to speak at their annual meeting about our 100 mile diet experience. We were blown away by all this group does. This is only their 8th year of existence and the slate of programs they offer is outstanding and the commitment and vigor of the group is a wonder to behold. Their stated mission is:
"To provide leadership in environmental and ecological education to students, teachers and individuals of all ages so that the residents of this region can make informed decisions leading to the respect for and the enjoyment, preservation and sustainable use of our natural resources."
If it wasn't so far away I think we would be there all the time!

Our presentation was billed as "Local Eating as an Environmentally Friendly Choice." We got to tell our usual story, we also got to add in a bit of new research regrading the usefulness of the concept of "food miles." Food miles have become a short-hand way of discussing and categorizing food, in some ways fewer food miles have come to equal "better food." That labeling is not entirely accurate now does it take into consideration all aspects of food production.

A new study, Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States published last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology states that it is actually the production of food that is the most environmentally damaging. The study systematically compares the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with food production against long-distance distribution, aka “food-miles.” The conclusion is that of GHG emissions associated with food, 83% of emissions come from production as opposed to only 4% from transportation from production to retailer. The study suggests that changing what we eat (moving to a diet less reliant on red meat and dairy and concentrating on vegetables, and poultry) would lower a household's food-related climate footprint more than buying local.

In our opinion, individual farming practices complicate matters even further. Locally-raised, pastured beef has a different environmental impact that factory-raised beef from far away. Asking questions and deciding what is most important to you is what matters. Buying local food is not just about GHG emissions. Issues of land use, soil sustainability, local economics, community, taste etc. all play a role. The more information we have about what impact our food choices have, the better choices we can make.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Opening Day 2008

Yum! What a glorious day! It started out cloudy and by 10:00 am the sun was shining. Due to time constraints we only made it to one market today, the Westside Community Market was full of smiling people. Since we are writing the weekly updates for this market we stopped to talk at every booth, introducing ourselves and getting more of each vendor's story. We are so very lucky to live in a place where people are so passionate about their food. There were bedding plants, hanging baskets, over-wintered vegetables that looked spectacular, meat, eggs and cheese (including a Muenster from Edelweiss Creamery that was so good we all went weak in the knees). There were prepared items like the Italian biscotti and pizzeles from one vendor and the awesome salsas and preserves from Tomato Mountain, including a Sun Gold Tomato preserve that was like summer in a jar!

There were onions, chicken, maple syrup and bakery items. It was a rough winter for hoophouse crops, Primrose Community Farm has spinach and they sold out by 9:00! Market days are a joy!

Friday, April 18, 2008


First things first. Tomorrow is opening day for the Westside Community Market (7 am) and the first outdoor market for the Dane County Farmers’ Market (6 am), Wednesday markets for DCFM start 4/23, 8:30 am. Go meet the farmers from your community and buy and eat their food!

Both markets have weekly newsletters available by email or at their websites to get a glimpse of what will be available . . . most of you probably already know that we write the Weekly Update for the Westside Market.

Also in the news . . .

Do you know about the Dane County Food Council? I didn't! Following is their Mission Statement:

The Dane County Food Council explores issues and develops recommendations to create an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable local food system for the Dane County region.
I am excited to read and learn more!

Read about more Wisconsinites taking up the cause of local food in the Door County 100-mile challenge.

There is a trend of 20-somethings turning to farming as a way of life. It is another facet of the local foods revolution.

Now, in case the title of this post somehow slipped past you, go to a Farmers' Market this weekend and taste spring. For more info on other local markets and their start dates click here. As of May, there is a market happening somwhere, every day of the week--amazing.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

King Corn

KING CORN will be shown on WI Public Television at 9:30 pm on Friday, April 18th.

Two friends grow an acre of corn to see what drives our fast-food nation. Go along for the ride as they follow the grain from seed to table.

This is important viewing people! Set your recorders and watch it with your family and neighbors!

Rising Prices Good for Local Food

From the New York Times, April 2, 2008:

WHILE grocery shoppers agonize over paying 25 percent more for eggs and 17 percent more for milk, Michael Pollan, the author and de facto leader of the food intellectuals, happily dreams of small, expensive bottles of Coca-Cola.

Along with some other critics of the American way of eating, he likes the idea that some kinds of food will cost more, and here’s one reason why: As the price of fossil fuels and commodities like grain climb, nutritionally questionable, high-profit ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup will, too. As a result, Cokes are likely to get smaller and cost more. Then, the argument goes, fewer people will drink them.

And if American staples like soda, fast-food hamburgers and frozen dinners don’t seem like such a bargain anymore, the American eating public might turn its attention to ingredients like local fruits and vegetables, and milk and meat from animals that eat grass. It turns out that those foods, already favorites of the critics of industrial food, have also dodged recent price increases.

Logic would dictate that arguing against cheap food would be the wrong move when the Consumer Price Index puts food costs at about 4.5 percent more this year than last. But for locavores, small growers, activist chefs and others, higher grocery bills might be just the thing to bring about the change they desire. read more . . .

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Our Upcoming Weekend

We hope to see many of you on Saturday (April 19) for the opening of the Westside Community Market. On Sunday we will be heading to the Welty Environmental Center in Beloit to speak about local eating as an environmentally responsible choice.

Finally, this weekend marks the official opening of the Madison Area Community Gardens. We have a half-plot this year and there will be many blog posts to come about our foibles, and hopefully a few triumphs, with our garden!

Fast Food

We have been remiss in blogging what we are eating, there is so much going on and so much to talk about! One of our stand-by fast food dishes is Okonomiyaki--which translates from Japanese roughly as "things you like--fried!" Can't beat that! There is no recipe and it is often billed as a cross between pizza and a pancake--doesn't sound good but it is! Mix eggs, flour and water to make a batter like a thin pancake. Add strips of cabbage (keeps everything together) and then add what you like. We usually take those bits of veggies at the bottom of fridge, chop 'em up and add them. The result is a yummy, slightly crunchy, eggy pancake. We serve it with rice and a soy/ginger/garlic sauce. Last night's ingredients included green beans, carrots, onions, cabbage, peas and of course, eggs from our chickens.

Try this some night when you are pressed for time--YUMMY!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Eating Local is About the People . . . All the People

On more than one occasion we have heard the complaint that eating locally is only for the wealthy. People claim that locavores are elitist, striving to segregate themselves from "the average eater" by choosing to shop directly from the source of production.

We completely disagree.

A recent article in the Albany Times Union says it beautifully (please click the link for the full text)

It's about transforming and democratizing the food system. It's about increasing access to high-quality, nutrient-rich food and making it available and affordable to all people.

It's about establishing whole food (not Whole Foods) markets in poor inner-city neighborhoods plagued by "food deserts."

It's about keeping more farmers on the land by paying them the real cost of production and about consumers having a stake in the stewardship of productive land. It's about sustainability.

Buying locally, whether it be food or other products is about thinking long-term. Support your community and it will support you.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


There is a place, less than a mile from our near-Isthmus home, where we find Morels. One year we found over 20 gorgeous specimens and we feasted (well, my MIL and I did, Scott wasn't too keen and Evie didn't like the sherry we added to round #1). Each year, as we pass by the spot at this time of year, Evie asks, "I wonder if there are Morels yet?" Sometimes there are, sometimes there aren't. I LOVE the idea of foraging for our food. So do a lot of other people it would seem!

If you have a lot of time to kill, check out the YouTube series of EatTheWeeds's Videos. I would recommend starting with video 3, that's when he gets down to the nitty gritty.

Here in WI we are lucky to have Sam Thayer. His website, Forager's Harvest is a treasure trove of information and he has weekend foraging expeditions!

If you want to forage close to home, especially here in WI, may I recommend garlic mustard? On May 18 you can participate in the Weed Feed. An opportunity to pull invasive species and then cook 'em up and scarf 'em down. Evie loves to eat the new leaves raw, I love a good garlic-mustard pesto. Peter Robertson of RP's Pasta will be cooking a number of dishes and piles of the weed will be available for people to take home and use themselves.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Use It Up!

On April 19th the first couple Farmers Markets in our area open for business. You can bet you'll get a full report here, in the meantime we are thinking about using up what we have preserved from the last growing season.

We still have GOBS of applesauce. There may be a few apples around that were stored over the winter but we prefer to eat our sauce slowly, hopefully running out only in late August or so, when the new crop comes in.

Last year I froze a lot of berry sauces (strawberry and raspberry). Turns out I didn't freeze nearly enough raspberry (ran out in November) and too much strawberry! The strawberry sauce (just strawberries whirred up in the food processor) is endlessly versatile. I have been using it in scones and smoothies, as a base for salad dressing over spinach and eating it with a spoon with dollops of sour cream.

We will finish out last bag of frozen corn tonight (check back tomorrow for pictures of our Mexican feast), but we will have lots of peppers (dried and frozen). We will use them up by the time the new ones are ready.

We have tomato sauce left and about a quart of dried tomatoes. The dried will be gone within he month I suspect but we will stretch the sauce until July.

In the fall I always want to preserve mountains of food to sustain us through the winter. I usually get a fair amount put away but not enough to keep us totally local. Inevitably I preserve too much of a few things and we scramble to eat it all before the new crop comes in. Smoothies for fruit, soup for veggies. The new crops are on their way--celebrate!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Joy of Pastured Eggs

Another reason we choose to eat locally grown food is because we can ask about HOW it is grown and choose to support farmers who are thinking sustainably about their land, products and animals.

Even before we had our own chickens we sought out pastured eggs. I want to buy eggs from farmers who let their chickens roam free, able to eat the delicious worms and weeds and run around in the wind, protected from predators and loved by their keepers. Now that we have our own clucky darlings I can't imagine raising chickens any other way. Turns out my instincts about how chickens are happiest is also apparent in the eggs they lay. In March 2007, Mother Earth News put out the call, looking for eggs to test and info about how the chickens were raised. The results were published in October 2007 speak for themselves. I highly recommend you go and read everything in the Mother but for those of you who just want the highlights, here they are:

From Mother Earth News "Our testing has found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain:

• 1/3 less cholesterol
• 1/4 less saturated fat
• 2/3 more vitamin A
• 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
• 3 times more vitamin E
• 7 times more beta carotene"

The picture above is a recent egg from our chickens--it is a joy!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Something From the Oven

Last summer we built a mud oven in our backyard. Yesterday was baking day. Here is what we baked:

Photo #1 The oven last summer
Photo #2 3 Ciabatta loaves, 4 sourdough loaves
Photo# 3 2 loaves potato buttermilk, 2 loaves whole wheat
Photo #4 Focaccia (this was dinner-YUMMY!)

We also baked a quick bread and a Boston Cream Pie inside. The outdoor oven is still warm this morning and would be good for making yogurt or drying herbs or fruit. Later in the season the oven will get used more and more.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


How could I have forgotten our new feathered friends!?! Last November we adopted two chickens, Ricka (Rhode Island Red) and Flicka (Redstar). You can see them in the fabulous film Mad City Chickens this Thursday in the 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival.

They are a wonderful addition to our family and have been laying two gorgeous eggs a day since just after Christmas. They are affectionate and fun to watch, they efficiently process our compost into food for us and are a constant and tangible reminder that we really do care about knowing where our food comes from--in this case, our own backyard!