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Archive for the ‘organic’ Category

Three years ago today, John found a scrawny young cat running around behind the now-defunct Temple Club. He took her home and the rest is history. He figures she was about a year old at the time, so we’ll call this her fourth birthday. Happy birthday, Pickles. Enjoy your tuna.

I’m back tonight from my very first farm visit. It was really, really, really fun. My boss Jim and I drove an hour south to Ceresco, home of Cinzori Farm. We spent a couple of hours talking with Anthony (son) and Don (father) Cinzori, walking around their enormous enormous farm and talking about the farm history and their current marketing strategy. Don is a first generation farmer, formerly a tool and die maker for Ford in Detroit. When his youngest daughter was a year old, he decided to give up on the auto industry before it gave up on Michigan, and he bought 260 acres just outside of Battle Creek. He started off raising livestock: mainly hogs and cattle (not organic or anything like it). When his five kids grew older and left for college, he decided vegetables would require less labor, and by the mid-’80s he had moved entirely to organic vegetable production. Of his five children, all of whom graduated from Michigan State, only Anthony has stayed to work on the farm. Now, of their 260 acres, less than half is cultivated with certified organic vegetables and organic cover crops (clover and oats), while the other half has been planted with native hardwoods to promote local conservation efforts. They were keeping bees until this past year, when all but two of their twenty-plus hives died out, probably related to this.

I really enjoyed meeting with the Cinzori’s, and I was struck by how hard their job really is. They run a very successful operation, with a large following in some of Michigan’s best farmers’ markets and strong ties with Whole Foods.  But they are also astonishingly busy, all the time. Even this early in the season, they’re already at their largest market, selling plants (they do a large part of their business in organic transplants). In the midst of this cold snap, I figured they’d be taking it easy, but they were hard at work in their hoop houses, getting ready to move cabbages into the fields next week. Sometimes I think I’d like to have a farm. Seeing them, how completely absorbed they are in their land and their business, I feel like I wouldn’t be up to the task. I’m certainly glad they are, though, and I can’t even begin to explain how excited I am about going to their markets later in the season and buying some of their produce.

At the end of the week I’ll be visiting two more farms just south of Lansing, and this time I’ll have pictures.  I realized about 5 minutes before leaving today that my camera battery was dead, and I wasn’t able to find the charger in time. Typical.

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I was temporarily distracted from the writing of this thrilling post, but the house is now empty, the dishes are done, the cats are healthy, and I have time at last to type. As was the case last year, “working” the conference mostly meant sitting at a booth for a couple of hours to make Barb happy, then running off to eat good food and sit in on workshops I wasn’t invited to attend. I can’t say I have a problem with that.

I sold more tote bags for the C.S. Mott Group (designed by a company called, aptly enough, Eat Local Food), bought one for myself, along with some whole what pastry flour from Westwind Milling (not much of a link, sorry) and some garlic from Owosso Organics. I then ran off to eat a tasty brunch, the highlight of which looked something like this:

It was a salad made with all local ingredients, save for the marinade and dressing: tofu, black beans, baby greens and various sprouts, on a crispy wafer of bread. The tofu was marinaded in something that involved sesame oil and spiciness, and the dressing was gingery, with mustard and horseradish in there somewhere. It was incredible. I basically skipped the rest of the options and ate three salads instead. Apparently, the recipe will be made available sometime next week, and you can bet I’ll be making it at least once a week.

I went to two workshops. The first was called “A Day in the Life of an Organic Farmer.” The speakers were Lee and Laurie Arboreal of Eater’s Guild Farm in Bangor, near Kalamazoo. They are the super-cute couple I sat with for dinner the previous night. They have a 30-acre farm where they grow veg for a year-round CSA, and sell greens to Organic Valley and Whole Foods on the side. As an interesting aside, we talked over dinner about John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods) and his proposed moves toward supporting local farms. It turns out these efforts are indeed trickling down to the Arboreals, who say it’s getting easier now that in the past to get their produce into Whole Foods stores, and that they’ll soon be applying for funding from Whole Foods to start converting some of their mechanical equipment to biodiesel.

The workshop they hosted didn’t offer much of anything new: they gave an introduction of organic standards and “beyond organic” concepts that I already knew plenty about. But I don’t know many farmers, and it was nice to see faces attached to these practices I hear so much about. I’ll admit (and I know that this is bad of me), but I was a little turned off by the hippie-talk in the presentation. I’ve been known to eat my fair share of granola, but I just can’t swallow the idea of plants absorbing the “good vibes” we put into the earth. Nope. But they absolutely have their hearts in the right place, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the both of them.

The other session was on community food systems development, and it was wonderful. There was a panel of four representatives from different community food organizations from around Michigan, one of whom was my friend and former roommate Julia, from the Allen Neighborhood Center down the street from me.  There was also another woman, Katie, from the Northwest Initiative Food Systems Project (also in Lansing, not quite so near me). I liked what the other panelists had to say just fine, but Julia and Katie were wonderful. The Northwest Initiative is a very small, poorly funded non-profit serving a very poor segment of the city. Their food systems project is creating elementary school garden projects, taking farmers’ markets to senior centers in town, and forming partnerships with convenience stores int he poorest parts of town to provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables where otherwise there would be none. It’s horrifying to think that there are large parts of my city where the only accessible grocery store is not a grocer at all, but a gas station. But there it is, and grocers seem reluctant to move into these neighborhoods, so the Northwest Initiative is helping to make these convenience stores better, healthier places to buy food. While talking about the school garden project the Northwest Initiative had started at an impoverished elementary school, Katie said there were children in the class she was working with who literally could not identify a raw tomato. It’s heartbreaking stuff, but she’s doing extraordinary work.

Closer to home, Julia talked about the Allen Neighborhood Center’s food systems work. There are three tiers serving this low income neighborhood: the first is the breadbasket program, providing free bread and produce to community members on a weekly basis. Second is the farmers’ market (where I shop in the summers), which has started accepting food stamps. Third is a large hoop house currently under construction in a neighborhood park: it’s designated for use by community members, and part of it is reserved for classes, teaching kids in the neighborhood how to grow and market their own produce. The idea is that almost everyone in the neighborhood needs food, and while the ANC would like to eventually see everyone growing their own, that’s not a reasonable entry point for most people. So they start with the breadbasket, and move people on up through these tiers, teaching them about nutrition on the way. It’s interesting work, and after the workshop I offered my volunteer services to Julia for whenever they need help. What interested me most about Julia’s talk was her take on the farmers’ market. She said the hardest part about keeping it going was providing the  right mix of vendors for the community. A lot of people who come to the market are (as she put it) “white women in cars” who want local organic food. So there are a lot of organic vendors. But most of the neighborhood walks or bikes in, and they don’t have money for organic food. Or rather, they do, but if they have limited funds, they will try to get the most for their money. And that means conventional produce. So many of the vendors at the Allen Market are not organic, and they’re cheaper. I’d never seen that divide before, as a shopper. I knew that some of the vendors weren’t organic, but I didn’t understand the sharp divide between the shoppers who can afford to buy organic produce, and those who can’t. And while I understand the argument that our food is too cheap, and doesn’t take into account the social and environmental externalities incurred by their production methods, I’m starting to see what it means to be really broke, to know that the money in your pocket has to last you all week, and to put your children’s stomachs before your politics.

I don’t have much money these days: more than when I was a student, certainly, but not by much.  John is making enough for us to live pretty comfortably (quite comfortably, in my opinion), but because of the alarmingly low numbers on my bank statement, I make a point of eating as frugally as I can. And sometimes, that does mean eschewing organics, for better or for worse. How do people feel about this? It’s something that’s been ringing around in my head all week, and I need other opinions.

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Raw Milk

 

half-gallon from shetler dairy

 

Kate over at the Accidental Hedonist had a post last week discussing a Salon article about raw milk. It’s pretty basic and introductory, but seems to grasp the complexity of the issue quite well. In a nutshell: no, not all raw milk is safe, but unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows processed in a sterile environment can be safe, and can have greater nutritional value than industrially-produced pasteurized milk. Thank you.

I don’t drink raw milk. Not because I think it’s unsafe, but because I’m pretty much broke all the time, raw milk is fairly expensive, and my local cow-share program would require that I take a gallon of milk home every week. There’s no way we could go through that much dairy. It also helps that John is in the habit of sterilizing everything he touches with Lysol– I imagine he might be more than a little bit taken aback by the idea of not pasteurizing the milk on his cereal.

To clarify, the sale of raw milk is illegal in Michigan. Like, really illegal. In 1948 we were the first state in the union to outlaw the stuff, and ever since, we’ve been happily flash-heating low quality milk so that it lasts longer on our shelves and we can tell ourselves it’s cleaner. To circumvent this law, crafty folks have started cow-shares, organizing groups of people to buy “shares” in a cow. You see, it’s perfectly legal to drink raw milk from your own cow – you just can’t buy it. So, each week, one member of the cow-share will drive to the farm, pick up gallons and gallons of fresh milk, and transport it to a pickup location. The downside, as I mentioned, is that you have to take a gallon of milk home every week. That’s a lot of milk for two people. Another downside is that the Michigan authorities aren’t too keen on the idea of cow-shares, and just a few months ago a farmer was “busted” (yeah, like in a drug raid) because he didn’t follow regulations to the letter.

So we don’t buy the raw stuff. When I finally collapsed back into the arms of my long lost dairy, John and I drank Horizon Organic milk, until I read it wasn’t, um, organic. Fortunately, about six months ago my parents purchased some property two hours north of us, in Grayling. It’s a pretty little town on the AuSable River, home to Goodale’s Bakery, which happens to sell milk from the Shetler Family Dairy. While it is pasteurized, it’s non-homogenized, hormone and antibiotic free, and from grass-fed cows. It even comes in cute reusable glass bottles. My parents go up there at least every other week, and come back home with delicious quasi-local milk. I make yogurt with it once or twice a week, and some time I’ll make paneer with it, when I get around to it. I’m not one to claim organic food tastes better than conventional (because really, it doesn’t), but this milk tastes better than any national brand junk I’ve had. Ounce-for-ounce, it’s no cheaper than raw milk, but I can buy as little as I want to, I don’t have to come up with a slideshow presentation to convince John of its healthy attributes, and best of all, I don’t have to feel like I’m in league with those nutjobs over at the Weston Price Foundation (shiver).

Someday, though, when I have more money and more people to feed (or more uses for milk during any given week) I imagine I’ll make the switch.

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