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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Pacific NW Cover Story John B. Saul

The Bounty Around Us

From farmers to families, they hope to fix global by eating local

The food world is catching up with Fred Berman.

The emphasis lately in that changing and often socially conscious world has been on eating local foods, organic alone not being enough to cure the ills of the world. No pesticides or herbicides, yes, but also no food that burns up more calories getting to the dinner plate than it can deliver once it's there.

Author Barbara Kingsolver is the latest to discover food doesn't have to travel hundreds of miles in a refrigerated truck. She writes about that discovery in her new book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life."

And for their book, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon spent a year eating only food that came from within 100 miles of their Vancouver, B.C., apartment.

That's nothing for Berman: Most of the food he and his family ate for more than 20 years came from within 500 yards of where they lived. An organic farmer for 27 years and a chef for 24, he's glad the books have made more people aware of the benefits of eating locally grown food. But he was already there.

He's seeing that awareness in his job of the past 16 months as Small Farms Program coordinator for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. As "farmbudsman," he's working to develop markets for local farmers, awarding grants and trying to make it easier in general to eat something grown here instead of there, especially when "there" is thousands of miles away.

The reasons for eating local offered by both Berman and the more recent advocates are many: Cutting down on the fuel used to transport food could help slow global warming, and a local food system makes it easier to police for food safety, puts more money into the local economy and fresher, better-tasting food in your mouth.

Berman, 62, says his views on food and agriculture sprouted not from growing up on a farm but from living across the street from one. His family's home was on the leading edge of the suburbs about to sweep over the fields of Southern California's San Fernando Valley. From his front yard, he watched the dairy farm across the street disappear. Then the walnut orchards. Then the fruit and vegetable fields.

By the time he finished his degree in environmental science at California State University, Northridge, suburban lawns and strip-mall planter boxes were the closest things to farming left in the valley.

Berman didn't think it was the only thing going wrong with America.

"I got radicalized in the time of Vietnam and Watergate," says Berman, who also had attended U.C. Berkeley. "My wife and I decided there must be a better place to raise our family."

So they took their notions of family and farming off to Norway, where Berman worked on a farm before they got their own holding and started raising vegetables and livestock to sell at farmers markets.

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"I would have had to have been born 75 years earlier in the U.S. to learn the things I learned and experienced in Norway," Berman says.

He brought that farm ethic back to the U.S. in 1977 when he set up a farmers market in Bellingham. He took a position with the federal VISTA program to help other farmers and to keep afloat a 20-acre farm the family had bought along the Mount Baker Highway in Whatcom County.

They kept a market garden and raised lambs, chickens, eggs and milk. In 1984, they added a restaurant — Innisfree — to the farm, serving food grown within yards of the kitchen and dining room.

Of course this was — and still is — contrary to the goings-on in most of American agriculture.

FOR DECADES, farms across the country have reveled in the joys of what Phil Wandschneider, professor of economics at Washington State University, calls the advantages of specialization. It can be criticized for being a chemically dependent, government-subsidized big business, but American agriculture produces food in abundance.

"Economists call this competitive advantage," Wandschneider says. "Do what you're good at and trade for the rest."

Thus, the United States grows commodity crops — corn, soybeans, wheat — and certain fruits and vegetables by the railcar load and ships in a huge variety of food from other places.

The demand for that variety is driven by something else going on in American restaurants, kitchens and groceries over the past 40 years: the founding of "the United States of Arugula," as writer David Kamp called it in his 2006 book. Under the influence of the likes of TV chef Julia Child, food writers James Beard and Craig Claiborne, California restaurateur Alice Waters and such food suppliers as John Mackey (Whole Foods Markets), American taste buds started to stand up and salute for something more than iceberg lettuce, a "burn-it-and-turn-it" steak and a baked potato. We got mixed up with mixed greens, and we now want everything under the sun all the time — in season locally or not.

And most of us want it all — Copper River salmon, Frosted Flakes, laundry soap, Smuckers Chocolate Mocha topping, Manila mangos, oranges and bananas — well displayed in the aisles of one convenient location with lots of free parking, paper or plastic and someone else to worry about returning the shopping cart.

That's a far cry from a farmer behind a table holding whatever was ripe that morning.

CHRIS CURTIS, MARKET director for the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, is at the opening of a new farmers market in Seattle, and she's waiting for Fred Berman.

The new market is at the Phinney Neighborhood Center, and a rainy June Friday has become sunny, farmers' stands cover the parking lot, and customers stroll about sampling and buying pieces of cheese, bakery goods and, yes, arugula. Berman is supposed be there with Patrice Barrentine, direct marketing coordinator for the Small Farm and Direct Marketing Program, for an opening ceremony that has now been delayed a half hour.

But they are running late from a meeting with the Cascade Harvest Coalition, a nonprofit organization working to preserve the food and farm system in Western Washington. The group came up with the "Puget Sound Fresh" label, displayed on any product grown, raised or harvested in one of the 12 counties bordering Puget Sound.

Finally, Berman strides in smiling. Curtis offers thanks for the $15,000 state agriculture grant used as startup money for the market, and Berman waves to the crowd before touring the stands with Barrentine.

This is the seventh Seattle market for the alliance, which started with the University District market in 1993.

What Curtis gets paid to do — starting and maintaining markets — is not an easy thing. It takes insurance, permits, organization and grant money. Locations can also be a problem: The Lake City and Broadway markets may have to move next year, and the Columbia City market will be looking for a new home in 2010.

"If we had more space, we could house more farmers," she says, "but none of the markets are secure."

Still, Curtis thinks farmers markets have been the catalyst for people becoming interested in local food. According to Barrentine, their number has doubled in the state since 1998, from 60 to 120, and sales at the markets have grown from $21 million in 2002 to an estimated $38 million this year.

"When we started out, we had to beat the bushes for farmers," Curtis says. "The first year we had 17 farmers; now we have 115."

The question is whether there will continue to be the market space and the farmer and land base to support the growing demand.

"I know it is hard to farm on land worth $50,000 an acre," she says, "but I just want to see a new generation of farmers. I'm not sure where they will come from or what will happen to those 20-year-olds out there who want to farm. And I don't know if this type of farming could ever supply the entire food needs of all of the Puget Sound area."

LARRY LESHER IS manning the Local Roots Farm stand right across from where the opening festivities have just ended. He's carefully weighing out portions of the farm's tangy "secret salad mix" into plastic bags.

In a soft voice with a touch of his Kentucky background, he's answering questions from women pushing baby strollers, gray-haired couples and people wandering over from the bicyclists next door who are passing out fliers on the benefits of two-wheel commuting.

Local Roots Farm is in its first year of existence, and Lesher, 34, is in his second year of farming. He moved here from Louisville with his wife, a nurse working on her master's in nutrition at Bastyr University. Last year, he interned at Nature's Last Stand, an organic farm. That's where he met fellow intern Siri Erickson-Brown, 28. About a mile down West Snoqualmie River Road from Nature's Last Stand lives Dan Beyers, "a guy with a lot of land who really wanted to farm but was looking for someone to do more of the public stuff," Erickson-Brown recalls.

At the end of the summer, the three decided they would go it alone as Local Roots Farm, with Beyers, 58, the stay-at-home farmer, Lesher and Erickson-Brown going to four markets a week and Erickson-Brown handling the communications (www.localrootsfarm.com and a newsletter) and the signups for the Community Supported Agriculture program.

CSAs are a way for consumers to get locally grown and/or organic crops by paying a set amount at the beginning of the season for a weekly box of food for a designated time.

"That was a really scary thing for us," Erickson-Brown says, "taking money from people without having actually grown any food yet."

Fearing failure, they planted twice what they thought they'd need. So far they have been more successful than they thought they would be, selling most of their crops.

In mid-February, they started putting up greenhouses, ordering seeds from eight catalogs for the 50 varieties they would plant on five acres of the 75 Beyers owns ("and that's plenty," they all say). Erickson-Brown started 1,200 tomato plants from seed in the closets of the Capitol Hill apartment she shares with her attorney husband.

The Local Roots farmers are spared the burden of paying for the former dairy farm Beyers acquired around 2000.

"The land is paid for because I worked my butt off and never went to Disneyland or any other place like it my entire life," says Beyers, who worked in records management after a short attempt at farming in the early 1970s. ("We knew how to garden, but not how to farm.")

"A lot of people would have spent it on a house in Klahanie, and I would never spend it on a house in Klahanie."

Even without the land expense, Erickson-Brown says the biggest challenge to the farm is earning a living. Beyers added that "not only do we want the soils to be used in a sustainable way, we want our business model to be something that allows us to pay our bills" and do it again next year.

GREG CONNER HAS been looking for "farmers doing the right thing" since last summer, visiting their farms, making sure he signed up those who met the standards of Eat Local, which he opened in Seattle at the corner of McGraw Street and Queen Anne Avenue in February. That meant organic fruits and vegetables, sustainable farming operations, grass-fed beef, free-range chickens.

He also wanted the food to be "local," mostly from Washington and Oregon.

Eat Local has three chefs at a commercial kitchen in West Seattle, cooking the food in small batches with no preservatives or processed sugars. It's frozen and delivered to the Queen Anne store where it is sorted into freezer cases marked by serving sizes, from one to eight.

Conner, 34, was a business-development consultant who decided to develop his own business. The idea for Eat Local grew out of his own frenetic life.

"Busy people these days can't spend two hours preparing a great meal for themselves or their families," he says, "but they still want the quality and don't want to use all processed food. Many people try a CSA, but they don't have the time to prepare the food in their boxes. So they end up with boxes piling up instead."

Conner's approach is to add value to local food by preparing it for the consumer, who can take it home, thaw and reheat it.

Fred Berman has spent considerable time thinking about "value added" food products. Most recently that's because some Western Washington University students approached him about helping them get the university to serve local food in the residence halls.

He arranged a meeting of university administrators, the students and himself. Western serves 40,000 meals a week, offering a big market for local food. But there are obstacles. Big ones.

The halls have only small serving kitchens with no facilities or staff to process raw products. The university has to get all processed food — chopped onions, shelled peas, bagged salads. Most small producers can't provide these "value added" products. And even if they could, there would still be the university requirement that each provider carry at least $5 million in product-liability insurance, beyond what most small producers can afford.

But Berman isn't giving up. He thinks it's a giant step that Western is willing to talk about the possibility and is providing a list of the most-used products to see if any local producers can fill such needs. "There's always a disconnect between the buyer, who wants to see that the producer has the capacity to fill the order, and the producer, who wants to see the order and a guaranteed price before he risks planting a crop that large and that specific."

Berman and Barrentine, a former buyer for an Olympia food co-op, carry the banner for local food into many arenas. There's the Farm to Cafeteria program for lower-level schools, the Senior Farmers Markets Nutrition Program to provide coupons for seniors to use at farmers markets, the effort to get scanners at farmers markets to read the electronic cards that replaced food stamps. There are specialty-crop and promotion grants, including one that went to Whidbey Island Tilth so it could add a market day.

That might have been the day when Matt Costello, chef at the Inn at Langley, stopped by to pick up some turnips, morel mushrooms, strawberries and radishes for one of his six-course, set-menu dinners. Before diners get a taste of the food he prepares in front of them, he talks about where the food comes from, about supporting local growers and about freshness and taste being inseparable.

Costello, former chef at Dahlia Lounge and Palace Kitchen in Seattle, is not the only chef moving high-end restaurants deeper into the local foodshed. More than 100 of them showed up in February to meet with an equal number of food producers in Farmer-Chef Connection, a group aimed at making it easier for the two groups to find each other.

But even with such enthusiastic workers as Berman and all the groups dedicated to building the local food system, it's an uphill battle. Curtis and Barrentine both estimate that local food accounts for only about 1 percent of all food sold.

Leslie Dietz, the CSA production manager for Full Circle Farms, is responsible for filling food boxes for 2,500 year-round subscribers each week, nearly half of them in Alaska ("we're as local as it gets for them"). Dietz has seen how important local food is to people.

"People complain about getting fruit from Argentina in the winter, but you would not get the full variety that people want year-round if we were all local," she says. "And not all local farms are organic, but everything we sell is.

"All-local is an interesting concept, but who's going to do it en masse?" she wonders. "Are people going to learn how to dry food to have in the winter?"

MacKinnon, one of the two authors of "Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally," knows that eating local can seem expensive and time-consuming. But he thinks that can change.

"We put a lot of effort as a global society into building a really efficient global food system, and the local systems have been left to languish," he said this past spring at a book reading in Redmond. "Certainly there is the potential to make the local system more efficient, easier to access, something that won't consume as much time."

Supermarket chains are starting to head in that direction, with signs in stores identifying locally grown food and sometimes photographs of the local farmers. Whole Foods, which considers local food anything that travels less than seven hours from the farm, holds seminars to educate producers on what it takes to get into its stores.

MacKinnon also says that eating local put time and money in a new perspective. He and his co-author often gathered friends to visit U-pick operations, can tomatoes and prepare meals from scratch.

"Two hours spent canning and drinking wine with your friends, I guarantee you, is going to be better than two hours at a Hollywood movie," MacKinnon says.

As for money, co-author Smith says, "When you are buying 80 pounds of tomatoes to can with, you get a substantial price reduction per pound, and you're also saving the money by not buying the processed foods later."

Some things are more expensive because small farmers "are doing manual labor rather than machine labor. Some of what you are paying for is the flavor and the values that go into that food."

In the end, it may all be about values. Surely it is for Berman.

"If we are successful in developing a local food system, we can have a critical and crucial impact not only on agriculture in this state but on the economy and the environment of this area."

MacKinnon points out that investing in that value system is not a do-or-don't-do thing. People can tap into it at whatever level they can.

It comes down to a smaller version of the Klahanie home versus local farm question for all consumers: To sustain such a system, how much time, energy and money are you willing to invest?

John B. Saul is a retired Seattle Times editor and freelance writer. He can be reached at jbsaul@mac.com. Harley Soltes is a retired Times photographer. He can be reached at harley@harleysoltes.com.

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