Friday, January 29, 2010

Could be worse...

As I sat by a roaring campfire roasting marshmallows with my new friends Adam and Dave last night -- finally, other touring cyclists! -- one of them turned to me and asked if I was capable of negativity. Oh my, yes. Not often, but yes. Today, for example....

This morning I'd turned down the guys' offer to join them for omelets. I'd woken up early and had packed my stuff and scarfed the better part of a pot of 7-grain cereal (aka gruel thinly disguised as food by the addition of dried cranberries, some walnuts, and half a banana) by the time they emerged from their respective tents. I wanted to get a jump on today's biking and try for a 60-miler. As it turns out, I made it exactly 34 miles to one of the lamest campsites ever. But I'm getting ahead of myself....

So: Big Sur. Beautiful, but I'm fairly certain it means "Biker Purgatory" in another language. The hills! Not even a mile into today's ride, I found my legs tired. Half a mile up the first hill I had to hop off and start pushing. After a mile of dragging Ollie, I stopped -- still on the same [censored] hill -- to get a cup of coffee and a carrot muffin (with cream cheese frosting). I downed the coffee in about two gulps, deciding to save the muffin as a reward for reaching the Miller Library, which was only about another mile and a half ahead (the first half of which was, you guessed it, straight uphill). Arriving at the museum, I was surprised at the proliferation of posters sporting negligee. Odd, I thought. I started chatting with the lovely archivist who politely pointed out that I'd stopped at the Henry (not Arthur) Miller Museum. That explains it. I ate my muffin and contemplated. Not quite the literary stop I'd imagined. I'd never really cared for Death of a Salesman anyway. The day was not lost. Yet.

I biked all day. There were some breaks in the headwind but the hills never stopped. What did stop was the appearance of open campsites and/or places to refill my water bottles. By 20 miles I'd gone through most of my water; by 25 miles I was ready to pitch a tent on the next scrap of grass near a fountain; by 27 miles I came to the 3rd closed campground of the day; by 29 miles I almost cried reading a "water at next campground: 5 miles" posting. At 34 miles, well short of my usual average, I wobbled into a campsite proffering potable water. But no showers. Or handsoap. Or electricity in the restroom. (Raise your hand if you can guess whose headlamp battery just died this evening.) And those stupid sinks that won't stay on so you have to freeze one hand at a time (because, of course, they only run cold water). Seriously? People pay to camp here? It was not one of my finer moments. I think I may have even dropped the f-bomb once or twice under my breath. (Sorry, mom.)

[I am reminded of a scene in Young Frankenstein when Dr. Frankenstein and Igor are shoveling the frozen ground and then laboriously dragging a corpse out of a grave in the dead of night. "Could be worse," Igor mutters. "Worse?? How could it POSSIBLY get any worse?" Doctor F hysterically shrieks. (I love Gene Wilder.) "It could be raining," Igor suggests. Cue thunder. And rain.]

I can't help wondering if this might be some kind of karmic payback for ordering codfish tacos last night. For some reason I'd thought cod were in the "good" category of the Seafood Watch guide I'd picked up earlier this week at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Turns out they're in the "avoid" column. I should've gotten the salmon. And more detailed information on campgrounds. I called them "death tacos" once I realized my error, but I ate them. Sending them back would just be wasteful.

On the bright side, at least the tunes on the mental mp3 player were good ones today: a mix of CAKE hits. And I dipped into the emergency goodie reserve tonight to comfort my (stinky and grumpy) self with a dinner of sauteed zucchini and shallots with basil olive oil (thanks Alessandra) and garlic salt (thanks Mark) to go with my macaroni and cheese. (I'd no butter or milk, but I'd picked up a cup of plain organic yoghurt yesterday by chance and I think Brown Cow's "cream top" variety might be my new favorite macaroni addition. Try it. You'll never go back.) What I wouldn't give for a hot bath and a nice glass of Pinot Noir right about now. And, oh look, it's starting to rain. Dammit.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How can ewe resist?

1 bottle + 10 lambs = hilarity. And there are over 100 little lambies at Becky's....

During my time at Monkeyflower Ranch, there were 5 or 6 lambs being born each day. Plenty of mouths to feed meant I got lots of hands-on experience. I loved it. Honestly, the little guys were so cute, waggling their fluffy tails as they nursed, that I hardly noticed the mud, poop, milk, and straw that permeated my clothes from being around them 3 or 4 times each day for the past few days. (Until I caught a whiff of myself when I was leaving the farm on Monday morning, that is. I may need to fumigate a few clothing items before putting them in the wash....) They're smaller in stature than the calf brood I bottle-fed back in Foxboro last June, but they're just as voracious (and hilarious).

I'd first heard of Becky's sheep operation from my friends Laura and Barry a few weeks ago. The artisan cheese maker had worked at a goat dairy years before, been trained as a professional chef, worked for awhile at the Bay Area's fabulous Cowgirl Creamery (whose dairy wares at the DC location frequently captured a sizable chunk of my paltry teacher's salary back in the day), all the while wanting to be on a farm... running a dairy seemed like a natural next step. The former Gabriella Cafe chef had decided she wanted to get into making raw aged sheep's milk cheese -- a delicacy not readily available in this country, though popular in Europe. So a few visits with cheese makers in France and Spain were in order -- sounds like my kind of research! -- and then it was time to get started.

Like the folks at Uplands Cheese (where I'd stopped overnight on my way through Dodgeville, WI and met the cows behind the stunning Pleasant Ridge Reserve -- one of my all-time favorite cheeses), Becky believes that the quality of her Garden Variety Cheeses comes down in large part to the quality of the milk, which in turn depends on the quality of life of the animals, which ultimately comes down to the quality of the pasture. Yep, good grass. With access to lots of fresh water and an open-air shelter for when the weather turns nasty, Becky's flock of milkers -- around 50 ewes -- spend most of their time out on pasture. Because of the relatively mild climate in Watsonville (or, technically Royal Oaks, but try and find *that* on google maps), it turns out that the best grass is available during the drizzly winter and spring months, so Becky slated the first lambing season to begin in December. This way the sheep have prime grazing spots during milking season.

As Becky and I crumbled and salted a batch of cheese, then pressed the crumbles into molds, I learned quite a bit more. I came to understand that sheep produce less milk than cows or goats -- 2 quarts for an average ewe per day in comparison to about 4 gallons per cow -- and their milking season is shorter, averaging about 6 months. Thus she is only making cheese for 6 months of the year. Is this enough to support the farm? Becky's been working on some creative solutions to that very question. My favorite is her adopt-a-ewe project. This past summer, she advertised as follows:

"Ever thought about quitting your job, cashing in your savings and following your dream of starting a sheep cheese dairy? Want to live vicariously through someone who has? For $500 you can cover the costs to feed and care for an organically raised dairy sheep during the off-season. In return, you will receive $600 worth of farm products from January to June of 2010."

$500 for fresh lamb (or a wool comforter) plus weekly installments of fresh and aged sheep's milk cheeses for 6 months? Psh. I've probably dropped that much on cheese alone. Sign me up! If only I lived nearby.... (Don't worry, mom and dad, I'm not moving, but wouldn't it be rad to have something like this near DC??)

Becky says she hopes to make cheese 4 or 5 times a week during the half-year period when milk is available -- quite an accomplishment when one considers how much work goes into the process. Milking and equipment cleaning seem to take up much of the active time. And then there's the basic animal care. While relatively low-maintenance, having sheep is still work -- mostly in terms of milking, but they also require periodic hoof-trimming, hay to supplement their diet, and regular checkups. (And much more, I'm sure, that I didn't witness firsthand during the few days I was on the farm. Like setting up the fencing for the rotational grazing. A healthy pasture is key, remember.)

As I've been doing some thinking lately on farming in a way that is sustainable in terms of not only fuel and chemicals but also human energy, I found Becky's setup to be pretty reasonable, with tasks and shifts varied between 5 or 6 paid staff over the course of the week. It's a long day -- the first milking and lamb feeding shifts start around 7am and the last shift ends around 10pm -- but it's manageable. There's still time for fun. After Saturday night's dinner party (and final lamb bottle feeding of the night), a few of us watched "Black Sheep" -- not the Chris Farley comedy, but one of the more ridiculous horror films out there, about genetically-modified vampire sheep who take over a farm in New Zealand. At least I think that's how it ends... I fell asleep about an hour in, just past midnight. (I'd been up since I helped out with the 7am lamb feeding session. And to think I used to be a night owl.)

I hope that more folks start up small dairy operations like this. The cheeses are downright delicious -- what, you thought I'd not tried any? -- and the lambs... I mean, HOW CUTE are the lambs? Sure, they're awkward and kind of clueless and try to nurse on your elbows and each other and the backs of your knees, but how can you keep from smiling around these little guys? I sure couldn't.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cultivating success

A friend recently forwarded me an article in the Atlantic Monthly that made me really angry. I was all kinds of disgruntled and indignant after reading "Cultivating Failure: How school gardens are cheating our most vulnerable students" -- an attack on Alice Waters and the whole idea of incorporating food and garden experiences into the public education system. (Want to get me all worked up? Just make some snide remark about how reading is more important than weeding. Please. It's not an either/or scenario, people.) This woman must have had a bad experience involving a garden snake or a brussels sprout as a child. (I feel bad for her own kids.) Are hands-on activities that cultivate curious, joyful, well-rounded young people interfering with training them to be good standardized test takers? Goodness me, somebody sound the alarm.

I've continued to think about -- and visit -- food-related education groups quite a bit along the bikeable feast. Life Lab (which, like me, has been around since the late 70s) is the kind of program model I adore. If only I could help to replicate something like this on the east coast. (Yep, I'm still an East Coast Girl, all told, though mom and dad are convinced I'll find somewhere new to call home before I make my way back. The people and food around Santa Cruz are putting in a pretty strong bid. Must...resist...chantrelles....) On the UC Santa Cruz site, there's a demonstration garden, outdoor kitchen, beautiful walkways and signs and plants, and a small staff of knowledgeable, personable educators who clearly love what they do and love to share what they know. The space itself is a dream. Walking through for the first time during a brief sunny spell last Monday afternoon in Santa Cruz, I noted a wide variety of things to observe, taste, smell, and learn about. I found myself giddily counting the number of different fruit tree varieties, prancing over to the human sundial, enumerating the plants in the pizza garden...and daydreaming about working with a similar program back in DC. When I returned to the garden on Wednesday afternoon -- I, um, happened to be there around the same time as a group on a pre-conference field trip for EcoFarm -- I learned more about the fantastic Life Lab and UCSC Agroecology program that houses it from John and Whitney. It turns out that in addition to daily tours (except in the winter, when it drops to 2 tours per week) with school groups, Life Lab's UCSC Garden Classroom program (which works primarily with elementary school kids) and Food What?! (focused on high schoolers -- I wish they'd gotten back to me, I have tons of questions) offer all kinds of workshops and farm/garden/kitchen resources to educators across Santa Cruz county and beyond. They've partnered with local schools to start gardens and develop lessons in line with CA state curricula. I know I've maligned standards-based education on the blog (and to anyone within a 100-foot radius of my person) a few times, but using a garden and/or kitchen to round out the book learning can only be a good thing, it seems to me.

Speaking of farm-and-garden-oriented youth programs, I am just now realizing I neglected to mention another awesome organization I had the good fortune to learn about: Berkeley Youth Alternatives. Well, gardening is just one piece of the nonprofit's work, which also includes after-school tutoring, counseling, and teen job placement. (I was reminded of the program when I bumped into the garden manager, Kim, at an EcoFarm workshop last Thursday. Small world.) The 2 gardens comprise a rather small part of the overall organization, but the opportunity to learn about the natural world, to grow food for themselves and for donation to a local food pantry, to have a peaceful green space in the midst of the chaos that is an adolescent's daily life make the BYA gardens an indispensable part of the counseling and mentoring program. Developing the *whole* person -- what a concept.

Oh, my, look at the time. Speaking of nurturing young ones, I need to get back outside and help Becky feed the baby lambs.... Yep, you read that correctly. More details on adventures in bottle feeding lambs and making sheep's milk cheese to come....

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

A berry nice place to work

When one thinks of a farm owner, one generally thinks of a powerful man (or woman) pitted against any individual or group that might lobby for better wages, benefits, and working conditions for those doing the labor. I've taught Steinbeck; I've read a bit about Cesar Chavez. Farm laborers have a long history of powerlessness and disenfranchisement. They have more often than not been treated as replaceable cogs in a larger, profit-driven machine. This is simply not the case at Swanton Berry Farm, the country's first production scale certified organic berry farm. Don't let the name fool you: they don't just grow berries. But then, this is no ordinary berry farm.

Amid sporadic rainstorms on Sunday afternoon, I spied a welcoming "Jam Tasting ->" sign along Highway 1 and ducked into the Swanton Berry farmstand to see about picking up something to go with my jar of peanut butter and 2-day-old bread. I was soon distracted by other, more appealing gustatory options. (I did eventually purchase a jar of olalliberry-strawberry jam for a later sandwich.) I was also fortunate to have an opportunity to learn about the innovative farm from Barrett and Forrest. Over a slice of velvety pumpkin pie and a steaming cup of fair trade java -- I felt a small degree of pressure to have the berry cobbler, it being a berry farm and all, but Swanton grows pumpkins, too, and I stand by my scrumptious, whipped cream laden choice -- Barrett gave me a rundown on the history of the farm and its progressive owner, Jim Cochran.

Started back in the 80s with a modest berry crop, the farm's 2 original managers -- Jim and Mark -- rented a few small farm plots and began to experiment with organic methods. Success was slow but steady as they refined their methods, paying attention not only to their growing market but the land as well. They discovered, for example, that strawberries planted in areas where broccoli (and other brassicas, to a lesser degree) had been grown the cycle before were significantly less vulnerable to the common but pernicious verticillium wilt, the bane of berries in the region. At the time, few folks were interested in organic methods, so no formal research was conducted. Years later, a small group of researchers at UC Santa Cruz heard about the brassica-verticillium theory and did a little research.... Today the broccoli-strawberry crop rotation is fairly well accepted as an organic management practice -- John even mentioned it during one of the activities on yesterday afternoon's tour of the UCSC student farm. (More details on UCSC's Agroecology Center and the amazing Life Lab program to come in a later post.) Swanton's willingness to do things differently extends beyond crop rotations, however.

As we chopped brussels sprouts (and then feasted on creamy brussels sprout soup with Forrest who invited me to stay for a delicious, impromptu lunch), I learned that Swanton Berry was the first farm in the state to *invite* the AFL-CIO to meet with its workers back in the 90s. For over a decade, farm workers have had the option of signing a union contract. Working here, employees enjoy regular pay raises, diversified work tasks, a modest housing option, vacation time, and other benefits virtually unheard of in the farm world. It's also the first agricultural small business that I've ever heard of to offer its employees stock options. (Now, don't get all worked up -- this stock is in addition to regular pay, not in place of it, which is important in an industry more prone than others to extreme fluctuation.) The Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP, for short) allows farm workers to put money toward retirement, kind of like a 401(k). At least that is my very basic understanding of it. (Having worked in an office for more than 3 years with a gaggle of innovative financiers in a former job one would think I'd have a firmer grasp of finance and investment matters, but alas, I don't.)

Swanton Berry Farm has a lot going for it, but the most important difference I sense here is the value placed on the workers. The business strives to make itself a good place to work, where folks want to return each year. It's not perfect, but it's heads and shoulders above most of the competition.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pie in the Sky

During my time in the Bay Area, I had the opportunity to swing by Mission Pie to enjoy not one but three of the cafe's tasty offerings. (Well, two and a half: I was eating a divine walnut tartlet when my friend Colin arrived. I got up to advise him on a pie choice as he stood in line and when I returned to my table there was a scruffy, red-eyed, beer-scented gentleman eating the rest of my pastry. Welcome to San Francisco. I told him he could finish it, and when I returned with a new cup of coffee, and Colin, and Colin's two slices of pie, he was gone. Is this commonplace? Nobody seemed to notice.) Near the end of the sweet and savory feast, one of Mission Pie's founders, Karen, graciously came over to tell me a bit more about the eatery's philosophy and collaborative projects with other local businesses: Mission High School, New Door Ventures, Swanton Berry Farm, Pie Ranch, and others. Each of these groups focus on creating positive work environments and cultivating successful new farmers, bakers, or entrepreneurs. Very cool. One of the students was working at the front counter when I had ordered -- very professional -- and I'm telling you the pies they make are delicious.

A few days later, after a stop at lovely Potrero Nuevo Farm in Half Moon Bay, Ollie and I pulled into Pie Ranch, where many of the local, organic ingredients for Mission Pie are produced: berries, potatoes, pumpkins, wheat, eggs, and more. Yum. What I was really excited to learn more about, though, was the work Jered and Nancy -- who run the farm/non-profit -- have been doing with students from Bay Area high schools. Unfortunately, because of the inopportune timing of my visit, I didn't get to see the high school program in action on the farm. However, I did have the good fortune to have a personal tour of the grounds with Nancy in the afternoon during the Saturday community workday, at which point I learned about the monthly, year-round farm workdays and week-long intensive spring break and summer campouts with a diverse population of youth. Students build confidence, cultivate friendships, and work in the vegetable gardens during their time on the slice-of-pie-shaped property. (No, seriously, the farm's geography inspired its name; its collaborator, Mission Pie, came later. I've heard rumors about partnering with a local dairy to create another entity, A la Mode. Love it!) Some of the farm-savvy teens have gone on to work part-time at Mission Pie in the city, continuing to develop their job skills at the other end of the food spectrum.

I left the farm on Sunday morning with a belly full of scrambled farm fresh eggs and made my way toward the site of another of Mission Pie's collaborators, Swanton Berry, where I was to feast on pie and coffee and soup while I learned about organic berry production and farm worker unions. Well, this journey is about food, after all. A post on Swanton Berry's inspiring work is coming soon....

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

I rode through the desert on a bike with no name

Okay, so my bike has a name -- Ollie just cast a disgruntled look in my direction from where she's leaning against a fence post -- but I'll be damned if I could get Neil Young out of my head as we cruised first through West Oakland and then around Hunter's Point last Tuesday. (The mp3 player stopped working about a month ago, so things that get stuck in my head are harder to get out than usual. At least it wasn't Whitney Houston this time.) We were making our way through serious food deserts and noting the odd proximity of these to other parts of the city I've been lauding as Food Mecca. It was kind of surreal.

Have you heard the term "food desert"? It's been bandied about by food and social welfare advocates quite a bit lately. It generally refers to an area, often a low-income neighborhood, without access to fresh food within a reasonable commute on foot or public transit.

During our last day in the Bay Area, Ollie and I rode over to the YMCA in West Oakland to help pack the weekly grub boxes with Jason -- another dynamic food activist and People's Grocery staff person -- and 3 other volunteers. The produce bags were loaded with all kinds of goodies, many of which, earlier in the season, would've been grown on the Grocery's farm outside of town, but which now largely come from Veritable Vegetable -- the area's largest distributor of organic produce whose bulk buying allows groups like PG to offer quite a bargain to its patrons. Like Growing Power's market baskets, the People's Grocery grub boxes provide a cornucopia of fresh, local (as much as possible) fruits and veggies each week to folks living in a veritable food desert. Odd that there are so many relatively inexpensive, delightfully diverse fresh organic produce options in the Bay Area -- I'd checked out Berkeley Bowl, Monterrey Market, and the slightly pricier Rainbow Grocery -- but none are within a reasonable walking distance for most people in this area. As we packed avocados, kale, garlic, kiwis, and sweet potatoes, Jason told me about his organization's varied efforts to not only provide an affordable option for fresh food to folks in the economically depressed area through these optional weekly bags, but to educate about the importance -- and the joy -- of eating well. The Tuesday night cooking classes have become so popular there's a waiting list. At the same time, PG is hoping to get the word out to more people and expand their weekly box distribution, currently just under 100, to 250. It's going to take some outreach -- many folks aren't aware, for example, that they can use food stamps to cover the cost of their grub boxes -- but education and advocacy are among PG's strong suits. Some day, Jason hopes that the group's original dream of an actual People's Grocery market will be a reality. It's very much needed in West Oakland.

After a trip on BART to get back to the other side of the Bay, Ollie and I stopped at Rainbow Grocery to pick up some nibbles for lunch and stock up for the next day's departure from the city. Then we made our way through another major food desert to get to Hunter's Point. With Neil Young still pulsing through my brain, Ollie and I cruised through what I think must be the poorest part of San Francisco, where we saw not a single grocery store or cafe, not even a gas station quickie mart, and the only 2 places where we saw any sign of life for multiple miles were both liquor stores. It was amidst this setting that we came to the local Boys & Girls Club. Here, Rachelle and Maddy helped me stash Ollie somewhere safe and showed me around the beautiful facility. I learned that the after school program here includes elements of an Edible Schoolyard. With cooking lessons in the kitchen 3 days a week while the other 2 days incorporate garden activities, it's not as extensive as the program at MLK Middle School -- the original Edible Schoolyard -- but it is inspiring. And beautiful. And offers an alternative to the potholed asphalt jungle outside. The kids here seemed safe and happy, I noted as they devoured the afternoon snack of oranges and sunflower seeds. I wondered, though, if this might be the only healthy food they eat each day. In many cases, Rachelle told me, it was.

As I left the youth center just before dark, Maddy (another avid cyclist, it turns out) was on her way to Whole Foods to give a presentation on the Boys & Girls Club kitchen and garden program. We biked part of the way together before I split off to make my way back to Erica's place in the Mission District. As I rode, I couldn't help but marvel at the comparative plethora of coffee shops and markets the further I got from Hunter's Point.

It was an interesting end to my Bay Area experience, and though I know there are dozens of programs I didn't have a chance to work with this time around, I am excited to know they exist. For while San Francisco and Berkeley sport some of the finest food in the country, many folks here don't yet have access (or even know that they might want it) to fresh, healthy food. Including the man who ate part of my pastry during my visit to Mission Pie a few days earlier, but that is a story for another posting....

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Friday, January 15, 2010

How dry I am

No, this isn't a posting to mourn my 10-day stint on antibiotics on my way through the heart of California wine country. I'm talking about dry farming.

I'd first heard of the concept while at a wine tasting that my friend Rei invited me to during my time in Seattle. The wines I sampled at The Truffle Cafe weren't "local" -- the grapes were grown and fermented in Spain by a charming older Italian gentleman -- but the farming principles were very much in line with my research on sustainable agriculture more generally, so I happily attended. As we sampled a bevy of delicious wines, the Parmi vintner showed a small group of us photographs of the vineyard, with grapes growing quite literally on top of a shale cliff. Right out of the rock! No chemicals or watering. Ever. Water conservation, land stewardship, no synthetic pesticides or other chemicals... these are a given in France, Spain, Italy, but only practiced by a few grape growers here in the States. It turns out that the rare organic American wines (or, more accurately, wines made with organic grapes) have a lot to learn from many generations of European winemakers.

[Aside: I recently read that grapes are among the "dirty dozen" of fresh produce: items most commonly laden with chemicals that, especially if you have young kiddos, you should either buy organic or avoid altogether. What? No, I don't anticipate having kids soon, but so many of my friends are cranking out offspring these days that coming across "meal planning for toddler" books and articles seems a more common occurrence these days.]

The way dry farming works is that plants are forced to develop deep roots that tap into the aquifers (or water table). The plants are intentionally stressed, so a smaller number of them survive, but those that do are pretty hardy. (Darwin would be proud. The principle also applies to some of the house plants under my mother's care, it seems.) Okay, so it works for grapes in Spain. But can the methods apply to other fruit and vegetable crops? I wondered....

On my way through California, I'd heard rumors of dry farming other crops. It turns out, I learned from Suzie and Seth as we chatted one morning at their farm in Half Moon Bay, that dry farmed tomatoes are something of a rage here in west central California. (What! How had I never heard of this food fad?? I love food. Maybe it's a west coast thing.) "The tomatoes are smaller," Suzie explained, "But the flavor is more concentrated. People rave about them." There are generally fewer tomatoes as well, which makes the price per pound more than their larger, juicier counterparts. But local aficionados are willing to pay a pretty penny for them. There's some talk of trying out a few dry farmed crops at Potrero Nuevo Farm, I learned from Seth, for the 25-share CSA starting up this spring. After all, not just fancy pants chefs should have access to the tastiest tomatoes. (And not only west coasters, I say, if I have to start dry farming them myself in my parents' back yard. Come to think of it, I think they have the right kind of soil for it....)

I hope my travels bring me to a farm or two that have been doing some dry farming so I can learn more about some of the practical challenges and tips for successful dry farming. And I'm not going to lie, I'm dying to try some of the tomatoes. You know, for purely educational purposes.

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

One of those days

This past Thursday was one of the strangest on the bikeable feast so far. Mind you, I learned a lot and ate well, but I can't help marveling at the strange juxtaposition of fine dining and shoveling poop....

7:30am: bike ride across Oakland and Berkeley
9:30am: tour of the Edible Schoolyard
Noon: lunch at Chez Panisse
1:00pm: shoveling horse manure

I'd gotten terribly, frustratingly lost in the Oakland hills the night before -- 2 hours of poorly lit streets and maddeningly steep, leg-numbing inclines -- so Barry offered to bike with me into Berkeley on his way (sort of) to work. (He joked that I was still suffering from PTSD the next morning. I very well might've been. I haven't gotten *that* lost since the episode in Kutztown, PA, back in early June.) We made it without a hitch, and even had time to stop in for egg sandwiches and coffee at the lovely new, biker-friendly Actual Cafe on the way.

I was somewhat giddy touring Alice Waters' original Edible Schoolyard site at Berkeley's MLK Middle School. I'd been reading about the program for a few years now and marveled at the beautiful kitchen and garden spaces. The 14-year-old, foundation-funded program focuses on community building as much as food appreciation, and tries to link math, science, and humanities lessons with hands-on experiences to complement traditional classroom learning. I learned that the 2 chefs and 3 gardeners on staff are in the process of working with the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teachers to more formally align the Edible Schoolyard lessons with public school standards. I hope this move means that it can be more easily replicated in other schools, and that it doesn't squash the unusual, beautifully organic nature of the program (as standards-based learning tends to do).

Following the tour, I had a chance to chat with my guide, Shaina, about some of the technical aspects of the Schoolyard. When I told her a bit more about my research, she suggested that I take myself to Chez Panisse for lunch. I countered that it wasn't in the budget. "Ibti," she pointed out, "You just biked yourself half way around the country. You're researching sustainable food. You can't pass up a chance to eat at Alice Waters' restaurant. Treat yourself." Twist my arm. I had been scoping out the famous eatery's online menu roughly once a month for the past year, after all. Ollie and I biked over and I got the $25 lunch special: salad, fried oysters with chicory, and the most divine candied orange icecream with caramel sauce. All seasonal and all relatively local. Afterwards, I talked my way into the main kitchen. Alas, the creator of the ice cream was not present or I very well might have kissed her (as I once did a pastry chef in the south of France who supplied me with an indescribably delicious chocolate mousse). It's not like I generally consider myself a dessert person. Or a kisser of cooks. But, oh, that ice cream alone was worth the splurge.

An hour later I found myself shoveling fresh horse manure into the back of a pickup truck with Max and Josh of People's Grocery. As we drove between the horse farm in the hills outside of town and one of their urban farms at 35th & Chestnut, the guys told me a bit about the Oakland-based food justice nonprofit. The program focuses on 3 main areas: small business development, urban agriculture, and education/advocacy. From nutrition and cooking classes to job training to grub boxes (reminiscent of Growing Power's weekly "market baskets"), People's Grocery works with other area groups -- like Food Not Bombs, where we stopped to chat for a few minutes, and other local social justice and greening organizations -- to address West Oakland's food deserts. They are one of many activist groups here in the Bay Area making a real difference in the community. I look forward to helping out at a few more places during my time here, so stay tuned for another posting soon!

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cross Pollan Nation

This morning, sitting in my pjs at my friend Barry's in Oakland and having a leisurely breakfast of leftover stirfry, I had a chance to catch up on the news... of the Daily Show variety. (What did you expect, FOX News?) I had a chance to catch the Jon Stewart and Michael Pollan interview, which I'd been anticipating since I heard about it a month ago. It was like the cocktail hour before my fantasy dinner party. (Well, maybe the two would have been holding Death's Door martinis at my place.) Anyway, it's worth a watch. I'm glad to know that I am not the only one linking food and health care reform....

Okay, it's true, Mr. Pollan has connected the dots between the two more often, more eloquently, and prior to my own series of rants. And perhaps he is a bit less... what would my mom say... evangelical? (He's darn convincing, though.) I'm not sure I need to read his latest book, a collection of 64 food rules -- mostly because I probably already follow them, but perhaps partly because I inherently don't like reading rules (as you might guess by my blatant disregard for the "not mixing black and brown" fashion guideline) -- but because it is written by such an articulate deep thinker, it may warrant a quick skim at a local book shop. Maybe on my way through Berkeley this afternoon. OMG, Berkeley! Where Mr. Pollan teaches! Chances are slim that I'd run into him, partly because he's likely on a book tour, what with this latest publication, but also because I'm entirely too shy to introduce myself even if I did encounter the man who in many ways inspired my bikeable feast. What if I spot him walking down the street here at the headquarters of Pollan Nation?? What to wear? What to wear? Something that won't show stains in case I faint and spill my caramel latte if I bump into Mr. Pollan in a coffee shop. Maybe something brown and black....

(Props to Sheffy for inspiring the title of this post.)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The elephant in the waiting room

I think I'll have to add one of my other favorite writers to the fantasy dinner guest list: Atul Gawande. I've loved his work for years. In fact, the chapter on flesh-eating bacteria at the end of his first book was the first thing that popped into my paranoid head when my arm started swelling a couple of weeks ago at two in the morning at the campsite. But that's not why I'd invite him, to tell him how he'd nurtured my hypochondriac nature. It's because he's brilliant. And I have a little bone to pick with him.

I'm just catching up on some back issues of The New Yorker -- the only magazine I read with any regularity these days since Gourmet went under -- and came across a fantastic piece the surgeon wrote for the Dec 14th issue defending what many, especially the left-leaners, are calling a failed attempt at health care reform. Wait, wait: this is about food, I promise. And I am one of those very leftists. I know I have lapsed into rants about the atrocious state of health care in our country a few times now on this blog I claim is devoted to sustainable food, but Gawande's is an article as much about farming as it is about health care. In it he reveals quite a bit about the historic overhaul of another industry in crisis in modern times: agriculture. What I think is ingenious is Gawande's mapping of parallels between the floundering current American health care system and our flailing agriculture system at the turn of the (20th) century. What worked then for agriculture is the very same thing the current health care bills propose: pilot programs. Opportunities to test out a large number of possible solutions to a gargantuan problem on a small scale.

The extended case study he relates is one which he champions as a huge success: the USDA's farm extension program, which he claims reformed farming practices to meet the country's dire needs in a way that no sudden, sweeping government mandate would have. Slowly, beginning with a single farmer's 70 acres in Texas, then through increasingly larger test plots, more interested farmers began to adopt new methods of soil preparation, planting, fertilizing, tilling. Crop yields increased dramatically as more and more farmers bought into the new practices.

"Productivity went way up, outpacing that of other Western countries. Prices fell by half. By 1930, food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty per cent of the workforce. Today, food accounts for just eight per cent of household income and two per cent of the labor force. It is produced on no more land than was devoted to it a century ago, and with far greater variety and abundance than ever before in history. / This transformation, though critical to America's rise as a superpower, involved some painful dislocations: farms were consolidated; unproductive farmers were winnowed out."

Sure, painful. Like a dislocated shoulder. It's this last sentence that gets me. Oh, those unproductive farmers were such loafers.... I should qualify that while I love his writing, I don't always agree with Gawande. (There were a few points in his second book that I recall being rather perturbed about.) Actually, it's not that I disagree with his illustration in this case -- it is true, factually speaking -- but I am concerned that the parallel may be too close for comfort: I worry about the health care system taking a similar turn in the longer term as agriculture has done. (Okay, it's the phrasing bothers me: the squashing of farmers who didn't adopt the new farming techniques that traded in quality for quantity comes across as a mere uncomfortable detail rather than the large-scale tragedy it has proven to be. And that irks me.) The overhaul of farming early in the 20th Century was a success in that it was able to scale up production and provide more food for less money to a population that was poor and undernourished. It also, in intervening decades, has spun way out of control. Our current, scaled-up, conventional system may be feeding many of us but it is not nourishing most of us. Most "food" in our country is too cheap and full of junk -- largely corn syrup or fake sweeteners and preservatives -- and things like "portion control" are practically unheard of. Diabetes and obesity are rampant as a result. Thousands of farmers are growing commodity crops rather than actual food and going into debt buying chemicals and genetically-modified seeds and ever-larger pieces of equipment (to keep up with harvesting ever more of the chemical-laden, GM crops). Excess herbicides and pesticides and fertilizers that we don't ingest directly are leaking into the water systems. Most animals raised for meat live and die in nightmarish CAFOs, pumped up with growth hormones and antibiotics. Not exactly a pastoral vision, certainly not something we'd aspire to a parallel of with health care reform. [End of rant... for now.]

I get his point, though, that the success of small test programs ultimately yielded a wildly successful paradigm shift. His hope is that the same will prove to be true for health care; my hope is that successful small-scale models will reform not only health care but our food system as well, which is overdue for an overhaul. For among the many small and diverse programs around the country that are working on sustainable food production and distribution, on food justice, on agriculture policy, there is encouraging data. This is part of the reason I'm riding my bicycle all over the country: to gather and share this data.

Gawande's a heck of a writer. Wicked smart, thoughtful, and articulate -- I would not be at all surprised if he became the Michael Pollan of the medical world (and not just because the title his most recent book, The Checklist Manifesto, suggests he's been reading Pollan's penultimate work). Yep, I think I would invite him to dinner, probably put him right between Pollan and McKibben. And I'd ask him to expand on his health care/agriculture case over dessert.