Tag Archives: locavore

You Must Read—American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood

We are what we eat, we are told. But we Americans do not eat what we truly are. We are an ocean nation, a country that controls more sea than land and more fishing grounds than any other nation on earth. And yet we have systematically reengineered our landscapes , our economy, and our society away from the sea’s influence. As of 2012, Americans ate a little less than 15 pounds of seafood per person per year, well below half the global per capita average and miniscule in comparison with the 202 pounds of red meat and poultry we consume. [Page 233]

Paul Greenberg is familiar to readers of this blog because I was a big fan of his prior book Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. The author is back with a take on seafood that is closer to home, which is appropriate given the rapid rise in local food movements across the United States.

51dbCQm3YhLAmerican Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood is about the relative dearth of seafood eaten by American diners that is sourced from American waters. Through the lens of three types of seafood—oysters, shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaskan salmon—Greenberg illustrates the odd market forces at work with respect to American sourced seafood.

Nothing illustrates his point better than the juxtaposition of Alaskan salmon and imported tilapia:

It was then and there that it hit me—the bizarre devil’s bargain that Americans have entered into with their seafood supply. Americans now harvest our best , most nutritious fish in our best-managed Alaskan fisheries and send those fish over to Asia. In exchange, we are importing fish farmed in Asia, with little of the brain-building compounds fish eaters are seeking when they eat fish. [Page 190]

Yes, we basically trade Alaskan salmon for fish that is barely fish. Tilapia is fish with training wheels. It is fish for people who find the flavor of cod, haddock, or Pollock not quite bland enough. My father, who slurped oysters with the best of them, referred to it as “Chinese junk fish” because it offered none of the benefits of fish while serving up a host of economic and environmental concerns.

We, as a whole, do not really consider the bounty of the sea. Cattle and the steaks that are cut from their carcasses are the apex foodstuff that comes from American land followed closely by the legions of swine and chickens processed into McRibs and nuggets of various odd shapes:

We need to understand that the marshes of Louisiana are not just an idyll to observe egrets and alligators; they are a food system, one that provides a large portion of the catch in the continental United States. If we choose to , we can support the environment that is home to shrimp, redfish, bluefish, blue crabs, oysters, flounder, sea trout, and others. Yes, there is a small risk of contamination from eating wild seafood from the Gulf. But that risk, when compared to all the other food risks we take as a nation, is infinitesimal. [Page 155]

It’s about consumer behavior and realizing the bounty that is present on our shores. If we could just get out of the whole bland white shrimp, slightly pink salmon, and piles of tilapia complex their could be a huge outpouring of economic support for American seafood. The challenge lies in getting people to accept something that is outside of their comfort zone. Ironically, this has been done already with more familiar land based foods. A few years ago odd cuts of beef like flank or skirt were sold for a fraction of the price of more mainstream cuts, but now those flavorful cuts command a premium. Heritage breeds of pork and poultry populate our palates in increasing numbers every year. Why can’t we do the same with food that swims?

But the future of the American catch depends not only on American governance , but also on the behavior of American consumers. There is no more intimate relationship we can have with our environment than to eat from it. [Page 16]

Take a weekend, read Greenberg’s American Catch, and think about the next type of seafood that you order at a restaurant or buy at the supermarket. Make it Alaskan salmon or Gulf shrimp or an odd filet that the fishmonger at the co-op is all excited about that week. America depends on it.

You Must Read—The Town Saved by Food: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food

Growing and making food is hard work. The story of the second half of the Twentieth Century is how the developed world essentially outsourced the production of food from the farm to the fork. We ceded control to a variety of interests including, but not limited to, industrial farms, mega corporations, ubiquitous restaurant chains, etc.

Fewer farmers feed an increasingly larger number of people, but the food being produced is increasingly suspect as it is designed to survive the rigors of industrial production. This means that tomatoes are picked green and rock hard only to be gassed with a chemical in order to turn red and sell. Animals are raised in horrific conditions in order to meet the exacting production schedules of slaughterhouses that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s a race to the bottom in terms of health for both our bodies and communities so that corporations can profit from homogeneity and economies of scale.

However, a kernel of the “old ways” survived in place throughout the United States waiting for an environment which was more hospitable. As the Twenty First Century began ever growing numbers of people began to question the insanity of a food system that can produce a hamburger and a soda the size of a small barrel of oil for a buck.

9781609611378Ben Hewitt’s The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food Hardwick, Vermont provides a lens through which to document the emergent viewpoint that the future of food in America is local, sustainable, and on a scale that is easy to comprehend.

Hardwick is not the first place you would suspect to be a flashpoint for the growth of an alternative to the dominant foodways of the United States at the beginning of the new century. It’s best days are considered behind it as the granite industry withered in the face of competition from poured concrete and the rugged terrain of Vermont was never regarded as the best place to farm. However, these same characteristics make it ideal.

It’s hard to rebuild the food system in Iowa because every acre that can be farmed is slowly being aggregated into massive monocultures of corn and soybeans as farmers chase the elusive goal of scale. You are not going to find storefronts and buildings with reasonable rents or list prices in communities where tech companies flourish and yoga studios pop up like Palmer’s pigweed. Places like Hardwick offer a chance to fail without bankrupting your future and that of your children.

The interesting component of the story of Hardwick is that there is a central tension between the new practitioners of local food, the established community members who have been practicing these tenets for the better part of forty years, and the larger community. You’ve got people who came to the area in the 1970s, opened a co-op, and fostered the ideas for years only to be usurped in some ways by newcomers talking about scale and monetization and markets. On the sidelines you have locals wondering just what the hell everyone is making such a big deal about.

Maybe Rodney King was asking the right question years ago, “Can we all get along?”

There are two sides to the story of new businesses dedicated to ostensibly local food. In many rural communities local food has always been something enjoyed by the community and the bonds of community were not severed for various reasons. Shared poverty or hardship has a way of bringing people together into circles of friendship that serve as an insurance policy against the next bump in the road. When you receive help one day it is your duty to “pay it forward” when someone else you know might need a helping hand another day.

Local food can also become something that is elitist. In Hardwick the median income is estimated at $15,000 per year. That is one half of the population earns more than $15K while the other half earns less than $15K. It’s hard to see $20 per pound cheese being something enjoyed by the vast majority of the local community when that would comprise a good chunk of a monthly budget before other expenses were accounted for.

That is not to say the effort is wasted or misguided. If there are more producers of a greater variety of foodstuffs than the system is bound to be more resilient. If one farmer or cheese maker or brewer fails it does not mean empty larders, but only that a small percentage of the total production capacity has been removed from the market. It may mean higher prices—that damned supply and demand law—but the market should sort it out quickly. Producing food is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

The Town that Food Saved is not a blueprint for the revival of more localized and sustainable foodways, but it does provide insight into how one community is trying.

As a note, Claire’s—the restaurant that serves as a location through much of the book—closed in early 2014. In its place is another restaurant, the Vermont Supper Club.

You Must Read—Just Food

No matter how “primitive” or “pure” the operation may seem, every farm on some level is a factory. (Page 67)

Food is critically important to the survival of human beings. That is the one salient point that everyone with an interest in food, that is to say every living person, can agree upon.  Once we get past that point, opinions diverge into a million streams of thought and arguments ensue.

9780316033756The usual breakdown occurs across common fault lines: organic versus conventional, GMO versus non-GMO, vegan versus meat eater, etc.  There seems to be little middle ground in between these fractious camps, but James E. McWilliams tries to tread such a space in Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We can Truly Eat Responsibly.

McWilliams, an associate professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos, has a problem with food miles:

Food miles are readily popular primarily because they’re easy to grasp and calculate. (Page 46)

I agree with the author that judging the eco-grade of a food based solely on the miles it travels to store or plate is erroneous because it fails to account for so many variables.  Transportation costs, in terms of energy and money, are quite small in proportion to the other costs associated with our food’s production.

Where I disagree with the author is that he fails to address some of the larger aspects of the local food movement.  It’s not just about bringing production of food back to a local foodshed.  It’s about rediscovering local traditions and methods that are lost in a homogenized world.  It’s about accountability in a food system where a single company may be responsible for half or more of a single commodity.

His belief in genetically modified organisms (GMO) I am hesitant to endorse.  It’s not that I do not believe in the ability of GMOs to address problems that arise in agriculture.  It is rather that the efficacy and safety of GMOs does not have to be document before the organisms are allowed out into the wild.  This is an indictment of the regulatory regime surrounding GMOs rather than the product themselves but it is an indictment nonetheless.

There is one place where I agree with McWilliams completely: our love affair with land based protein or meat is the single most destructive dietary decision that we make on a regular basis.  If you chose to do only one thing to benefit the planet, it would be to forgo any meat that comes from a land animal.  Given the state of our oceans and the destructive fishing practices employed it might also be advisable to give up all types of meat.

Meat is inefficient and exacerbates the worst of our agricultural practices.  In the U.S. over half of our two primary commodity crops—corn and soybeans—are turned into feed for animals.  McWilliams asserts:

If once could wave a magic wand and radically reduce meat consumption, all discussion of fertilizer abuse would come to an abrupt halt.  (Page 77)

The key aspect to McWilliams’ book and something that is absent in the majority of writing about food where it seems diametrically opposing views are the only acceptable means of discourse is that a middle way might be possible.  In his own words:

I believe in the notion that a rational and achievable middle ground exists between th extremes of abundance and deficiency. (Page 185)

As the world faces the challenge of feeding ever more people on the same amount of land or less, as arable land becomes degraded, utilizing every option at our disposal may become the default.  What McWilliams proposes in Just Food is that we can produce more food and do away with the more damaging aspects of modern agriculture, but that the current focus on local and organic is a fool’s errand.  It’s an interesting proposal that is worth your time to examine.

It’s not that Kind of CSA

Everyone is probably familiar with your regular ol’ CSA or community supported agriculture were you get a season’s worth of vegetables, barring weather catastrophe, in exchange for an upfront show of monetary support.

Well, this is not that kind of CSA.  Soon, in the Czech Village section of Cedar Rapids, Lion Bridge Brewing Company will be open for business.  Currently, shares are available in what brewmaster Quinton McClain is calling “community supported ales.”

For $80 you get a series of benefits including a growler and first fill, t-shirt, discounts on growlers every time you fill, and growler fills of beers that are normally only available by the pint.  My CSA membership arrived this weekend.  I am #56:

CSA Certificate

Check out the progress being made on their website or Facebook.  The world is a better place with good beer.

Hands off the Turkey!

This year my family has finally bitten the bullet and done away with the turkey that is the centerpiece of so many feasts during the Thanksgiving holiday.  Why?  No one really liked the meat and it became an obligation every year that monopolized the oven taking space from foods people actually cared about.  It’s an “all sides” holiday in our household.

For those of you who cannot break with tradition and crave the bird, think about the modern turkey that you might have purchase in a supermarket.  If you bought your bird from a farmer raising heritage turkeys in a humane setting just ignore what I am about to show.

Modern turkeys’ lives are, to crib from Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish, and short.  How bad you ask?  The good folks at Mother Jones have put together a series of charts that give you an idea of the horror that is the modern turkey:


Even if you do not take these birds to slaughter they will die because longevity has essentially been bred out of them.  How do I know?  The turkeys that are “pardoned” every year by the President often end up dying soon after because they were bred to produce meat, not live long lives.

Happy holidays!

Iowa Beer Trail Stops at NewBo City Market

The NewBo City Market in the New Bohemia district of downtown Cedar Rapids is one of my favorite places to spend a morning on the weekend.  I just love taking my daughter down, enjoying a breakfast burrito, buying some freshly baked bread, and just soaking in the local foodie vibe.  First world problems, I know.

Recently, the NewBo City Market and Millstream Brewing partnered to create Market Pail Ale:

Pail Ale

It’s a nice pale ale.  That sounds like condemnation via praise, but I think that it speaks to the leaps and bounds that American beers and the palates of American beer consumers have come when it is expected that a pale ale meet certain criteria.

I kind of wished that the beer had some connection to the locality other than its brewer.  Don’t get me wrong, I totally appreciate the local aspect of its production but I wish it was more than just about the production location.  To really give something a sense of place it should incorporate something that is unique.  I am not suggesting that the brewers at Millstream Brewing cultivate yeast from the market environs or anything like that.

I have written about Millstream Brewing before and I want to congratulate them on consistently producing quality beers.  A few years ago, maybe more because my memory is somewhat foggy, the quality was inconsistent at best.  When it was one of the only local beer games in town it felt like they were taking the market somewhat for granted.  As more entrants have come on line I feel that the brewers in Amana have stepped their game up, so to speak.

Here is a time that I will whole heartedly agree with those free market economics people.  Competition is good for everyone, especially the consumer, in the case of beer.

If you are down at the NewBo City Market head over to NewBo Beer & Wine to pick up a six pack and enjoy the local vibe.

Friday Linkage 6/28/2013

I want to apologize for missing last week’s Friday Linkage post.  There was a sudden death in my family and we ended up making a trip to central Ohio for the funeral services.  It’s amazing how “busy” you can be during the couple of days that funeral services happen without actually doing anything.  Wow!

On to the links…

Gagged by Big Ag—Ag gag laws, pushed by big ag, are an abomination.  Nothing says I am doing something wrong than lobbying for laws to make it illegal to expose what you are doing.  I think it will be interesting to see the legal boundaries pushed when someone finally brings a person to court under one of these laws.  I am guessing that it will work its way to the Supreme Court as a constitutional issue.

Food Miles are a Distraction.  Local Food is Not.—Food miles are easy because we are programmed to think about things in terms of miles—speed in our cars, length of a trip, frequent flier points, etc.  The distraction is that the distance which food travels tells only a small part of the food’s story.

Michael Pollan and Ruth Reichl Hash out the Food Revolution—I do not know if I would go so far as to say that these two titans of the food movement “hash” it out, but there are some interesting tidbits.

Bloomberg Plan Aims to Require Food Composting—How is this not a “win win” for everyone involved?  It reduces the amount of material going into the landfill, which when decomposing would release methane gas, and gardener’s gold—i.e. compost—gets produced as an end product.  Dig it.

16 Foods You can Regrow from Kitchen Scraps—If I can regrow the plant from the “scraps” does that change the meaning of the word scrap?  Just sayin’.

How Much Sugar is Really in Your Food—Watch this video and be amazed at just how much sugar we eat in our food.  Reminds me of Fast Food Nation when Eric Schlosser writes that there is only one menu item at McDonald’s that does not contain added sugar.  WTF?

An Arid Arizona City Manages its Thirst—I think this article is a little light on Phoenix.  Maybe a better term would be the Phoenix metro area because I remember cities outside of the actual city of Phoenix being blanketed in green lawns.  Those retirees in Del Webb’s Sun City would not want to give up that patch of Kentucky bluegrass like back home.

Consumer Reports says New CAFÉ Standards will Save Car Buyers $4,600—So, all those horror stories about the cars costing so much more money for consumers was really just short sighted scare mongering.  Amazing.

We Need a Fixer (not Just a Maker) Movement—For too long, we have allowed the culture of repair to die on the vine in the name of the latest and greatest.  It’s amazing how easily and cheaply some things can be fixed, but which usually result in the purchase of something new.  Bring on the fixers.

Pentagon Bracing for Public Dissent over Climate and Energy Shocks—It reads a little conspiracy theory like, but the bones are there to confirm that the Pentagon is worried about the disturbance that could be caused by public dissatisfaction over future climate and energy shocks.  I wonder what the black helicopter crowd thinks about this story?

Climate Change in Your Community—Plug in your zip code and see what climate change is likely to do in your area.  Now you know what to be upset about.

Huge Alberta Pipeline Spill raises Questions as Keystone XL Decision Looms—  The wicket for approval of the Keystone XL pipeline seems to have moved from one of safety to climate impact with the President’s speech on Tuesday.  However, safety cannot be ignored especially in light of the recent spills of tar sands derived liquid petroleum.

Price of Photovoltaic Panels to Drop to $0.36 per Watt by 2017—It was not that long ago that producing panels for approximately $1 per watt was considered the holy grail of solar.  Now we are looking at a price that is nearly two-thirds less.  Cover the world’s rooftops in solar, baby!

You Must Read—Rebuilding the Foodshed

Ultimately, the size of our individual contributions matter much less than the scale of our multiplied efforts.  Page 222

Do you ever finish a book and realize that it hits on all of the salient points you feel are important to an issue?  Do you ever flip through the pages and realize you have dog eared dozens of pages with statements that you want to go back to ruminate on later?

9781603584234Well, for me the book that most recently did that was Philip Ackerman-Leist’s Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable and Secure Food Systems.  Ackerman-Leist is an associate professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Farm and Food Project at Green Mountain College in Vermont.  So, the book has an academic tone throughout but that is more than compensated for by the fact that he just nails the issues confronting the burgeoning “food movement.”

Creating community- based food systems is one of the most intellectually challenging tasks of our age. Page 2

Well, there it is in a nutshell. Creating the local, sustainable, and secure food system that we need to be successful in the future is going to be a challenge.  Great.  This is a country that has a hard time kicking the habit of soda and Big Macs.  How exactly are we going to build a new food system?  I digress…

But if we ignore the less obvious and more disconcerting aspects of our food systems, then we certainly cannot begin to understand the full scope of the realities we face.  In the end, rebuilding local food systems requires us to connect with the neighbors we’ve never known as much as it does to share the bounty with our comfortable acquaintances.  Page 100

This why it’s going to be hard.  We are going to have to face the ugly reality that the problem is us and we are going to have to interface with people that we are not comfortable around.  It may take a village, but you need to know your village first.

One thing the Ackerman-Leist is very clear on throughout the book is that local, in and of itself, is not necessarily a virtuous thing.  I think as the food movement has matured more and more people have come to the realization that food miles, easy to conceptualize but fraught with shortcomings, is not the be all and end all to define food.

In the end, it’s not just about where the food was produced.  We must also bear in mind the impacts of its production, processing, storage, distribution, marketing, preparation, and even reclamation.  Where matters immensely in the food system world, but so do how, why, by whom, and for whom.  Page 23

What this book does supremely well is link the changes in our food system to changes in our patterns of behavior at home.  As we cook less in the home, we have outsourced that task to factories and restaurants.  This represents energy that is embodied in the meals we consume that we do not prepare for ourselves.  Most people do not think of food this way, but the author is very clear that food represents energy.  Once you break down food this way it is easier to see the flows through the economy.

The health of the soils that we grow our food in also represents energy because synthetic fertilizers are primarily derived from fossil fuels.  The current standard practices in agriculture are too energy dependent to be sustainable in the long run.  Ackerman is even more alarmist:

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you are compelled by a sense of urgency for local self-reliance or for national security.  Soil fertility is key to both.  Page 62

I cannot imagine seeing a right winger bloviate that soil health and fertility is a key component of our national security.  But, soil health and fertility are about more because reclamation of those attributes represents an economic opportunity:

…compost can be locally produced under local control with local dollars creating local jobs and resilience.  Page 82

This is an argument that is lost when the food movement brings its case forward to a national audience.  The creation of these local, sustainable, and secure foodsheds is about our economy just as much as it is about our heath and our environment.

Like all conversations about the food movement, the discussion inevitable turns back to the kitchen.  Why?  Because this is the one place where there is a tangible connection between our actions and the impact on the food system:

We can’t lose sight of the importance of the kitchen.  Hours spent in the kitchen and our time at the table are both critical elements in relocalizing food systems. Page 213

As you can tell, I am a big fan of this book because it brings home so many of the threads weaving through the food movement in a coherent way.  Tying it all together is critical to the future of the food movement because it is easy for these efforts to become Balkanized into rival factions that fight for pyrrhic victories. In some ways, this is where I feel the environmental movement has found itself fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

One part of the book that I just loved was the placing of the bicycle at the pinnacle of energy efficient transportation:

Bicycle transport wins the efficiency game in linking local farms to consumers right in the neighborhood. Page 50

Can you just imagine fleets of two wheeled delivery people fanning out to distribute fresh produce across a city?  I cannot either, but it’s one hell of a compelling image.

NOTE: I read an uncorrected proof copy of the book, so my citations may not line up with the actual pages in the final sale version.

The Fruit is Coming!

My tomatoes are starting to bear some fruit.  The Patio tomato was the first to tart fruiting out:

Patio Tomato FirstNext, the Tiny Tim tomato started to produce some beautiful clusters of green fruit:

Tiny Tim FirstIf I can just keep the dreaded hornworms away from my crop this year, I think I will be in the fruit so to speak.  Even my blueberries–victim of some grazing deer over the winter–have fruited out some:

Blueberry First ClusterFew things are as pleasurable as seeing plants you tend produce food that you can actually eat.  It’s a small miracle, at best, but I will take it.




The Container Garden is Planted

It has rained and rained here in eastern Iowa.  So much so that we are looking at flooding along some of the rivers in the region and flash flood warnings are a constant right now.  Another casualty has been getting plants into the ground because no one wants to do that in the mud and driving rain.

The skies parted on Wednesday and the sun came out long enough to make it enjoyable to spend the lunch hour in the sun getting my hands dirty.  As in past years, my gardening is limited to a series of containers on my patio as I wait the moment when I “sack up” and till under a huge section of my yard.  Or go all strawbale style.  I cannot decide and that is why I am limited in what I plant.

In about thirty minutes everything was planted:

Container Garden 2013

Earlier attempts at growing larger size tomatoes in these containers proved futile.  It never seemed like the plants were healthy and the yield was pretty much piss poor.  Plus, when the farmers market has tomatoes in the summer they will almost hand you baskets full for nearly nothing.  If you are willing to take the cracked and ugly tomatoes—does it matter if you are making sauce?—then you might even get some for nothing.  I have had it happen more than once.

I decided this year to focus on cherry and grape tomatoes because my luck has been good and my daughter eats them like other children eat chips.  She picks them from the vine and does not even make it to the kitchen instead choosing to rinse them off in the bathroom downstairs before inhaling her tomatoes.  On a day when she can pick a few blueberries and a couple of grape tomatoes you would have thought there was no little girl happier in the world.

This year there are three varieties: Tiny Tim, Patio, and Husky Cherry Red.  The Patio variety produces fruit that is a little larger than a grape or cherry variety, but it was a good producer in containers in the past for me so I am giving it another go this season.  The Tiny Tim and Husky Cherry Red are true cherry tomato varieties.

Last year I planted one Tiny Tim plant because I lost a plant in a storm and it was one of the few starters left when I went shopping for a replacement.  I did not have a lot of faith in the plant as I watched it top out at about one foot in height, but my trepidation was misplaced because that little plant put out a lot of fruit without a problem for weeks.  It was a powerhouse of a producer, pound for pound.

The Husky Cherry Red is a popular choice here with container gardeners in eastern Iowa.  It produces a lot of fruit and needs minimal support, a simple cage or staking will suffice.

If there is one thing people should plant in their gardens, container or otherwise, it’s herbs.  If you go to the grocery store a little plastic clamshell of sad looking basil will cost you $3 or more.  For $3 in seedlings you can plant a container of sweet basil that will keep on giving for weeks during the summer.  The same can be said for a lot of other herds.

As in years past I planted one container of basil and another of rosemary because I use a lot of both herbs in my cooking.  Basil is used for pesto and sauces while rosemary is a grill companion without peer.  It’s amazing how much a simple piece of grilled fish can be enhanced with a sprinkling of crushed rosemary that was picked from the stem that afternoon.

Why I plant a few containers of vegetables and herbs every summer is not about self-sufficiency.  I agree with Erik Knutzen of Root Simple fame who believes that self-sufficiency is a fool’s errand.  It is more about reconnecting with essential knowledge that has been lost over the past half-century or so as our food system industrialized.  Given where our food system seems to be headed—collapse anyone?—I think it is critical that people reconnect with knowledge about food and nature as much as possible.

It’s also about making sure that my children understand food.  I want them to know that tomatoes come from plants that grow from seed and I want them to watch the process unfold.  I want them to understand that on the occasions where we eat meat that they understand it comes from an animal that was alive on this Earth.  You cannot have an understanding of food when it is abstracted from its origins.

Plus, I think that every time I eat a tomato from my containers or snip a few herbs that it is a little bit of rebellion against the dominant system.  It’s like sticking it to the man with flavor.