Winter. For a farmer it’s the promise of some rest, the un-ending drumbeat of summer activity muted, a reprieve from pulling on the work boots each morning. Despite this seasonal pact I perpetually seem to find myself on a farm in what really should be down time.
This past winter took me to the east coast of Sicily, the best blood orange growing region in the world. In order to achieve their red blush, blood oranges need a reliable temperature swing of at least 10 degrees Celsius between day and night. The smoke spewing, snow covered Mt. Etna, which dominates the landscape around Catania creates the perfect micro-climate for blood oranges. No place else on earth can rival the reliability of temperature swings near Mt. Etna.
Mt Etna from Catania
Mt Etna from La Casa Delle Aque
Three varieties of blood oranges are cultivated here- the dark purple Moro which is the bloodiest of the blood oranges, the balanced and pert Sanguinrllo and the large and bold Tarroco. My host explained the latter two trade spots as most popular depending on the whims of the time.
I arrived at La Casa Delle Aque (“The House of Water”) at the end January towards the end of the orange harvest. Located on the outskirts of Paterno, this estate cultivated 3 hectors of oranges, lemons and olives. The property was situated on a slope above the valley floor. The bottomlands were filled with orderly rows of orange trees that characterize the many large orange orchards in the area. La Casa Delle Aque by comparison was a beautiful mess. The trees were planted on meandering rock wall terraces, yellow and purple flowers carpeted the ground between trees, walking through the groves gave one the feeling of a bountiful jungle, a godly garden with golden juicy globes above head and tender wild asparagus shoots below.
Reading with dogs
It is difficult not to be hyperbolic in describing how tasty these oranges were. Meltingly soft flesh with a sweetness that is perfectly balanced with the acidity, a complex flavor unfolds on the tongue, causing on more then one occasion an audible gasp of delight. The sum flavor of the other oranges I had eaten in my life seemed bland and one-dimensional when compared with these reddish orange orbs of delight.
The days were spent carefully harvesting oranges with small clippers; I worked with (I am not making these names up) Guido and Alfredo. After the oranges were transferred to the pack house- sorted between juice and table oranges and then loaded into 14kg boxes they were delivered by courier to customers all over Italy.
Boxing up the good stuff
Even after eating a dozen oranges during the day I always found room for the downright delicious Italian home cooked evening meal. Fennel and blood orange salads, steamed artichokes doused in estate olive oil, home made pasta with plump anchovies and fresh ricotta, purple cauliflower and of course wine. Perhaps downtime in winter is over rated.
We are considering if it is worthwhile to obtain organic certification for our small farm. Our practices already meet organic standards so it’s just a matter of filling out the paperwork and handing over the money. The current state of organics makes us think twice about paying for the privilege to use the label.
I recently read that many people who prefer organic products don’t have any idea what the organic certification actually means. The consumer attaches whatever benefit they want to the product, be it higher nutritional quality, more humane practices or minimal environmental impact. This lack of knowledge is not surprising if you consider the history of the label and recognize the tension between organics as a movement and organics as an industry.
The beginning of the modern organic movement is often credited to the writings of Sir Albert Howard in the 1930’s. He observed traditional Indian farming systems that focused on improving the soil with green manure and compost. Over time, especially in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970’s, this sort of farming developed into a quasi-religious ethic that rebelled against industrial agriculture and consumer capitalism.
Organic agriculture was not standardized until 1990 when congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act. Since then, if a farm grosses more then $5000 per year they must be certified by an approved agency to use the word “organic.” Sir Albert Howard would be quite surprised at the meteoric rise in sales of organic products since then. In 2016 the market for organic foods was $47 Billion, more then double what it was in 2006.
In this landscape it may not make sense for a small farm to buy rights to the organic label. Consumers are likely to hold onto an idealized concept of what an organic product means to them, which may not reflect reality. With organics seemingly trending towards big industry, it’s time for consumers to take responsibility for labels on their food and small farms to find a better way convey their value.
Barak Obama’s first public remarks since his presidency took place at a technology and food summit in Milan, Italy. Among other things, he mentioned his eating habits: “What’s true is I’m not a vegetarian.” … “That doesn’t mean we can’t teach [people like me] to have a smaller steak… This also means we’re going to have to find way start producing protein in a more efficient way.”
People across the United States agree with the former president. ‘Flexitarian’ was added to Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2012 and the diet’s on the rise. How is it defined? Those “whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish.” There is increasing concern about the environmental impact of eating meat–everyone’s always nattering on about “ Cowspircy” on Netflix and subsequent vows of vegetarianism.
Accordingly, products catered to the conscious consumer are flooding the marketplace. Here is a look at the four main ways producers are addressing flexitarian needs.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are leaders in the imitation meat sphere. Although veggie burgers and tofu products have long been scoffed at as unconvincing reproductions of meat, these companies understand the visceral joy of chomping into a hot piece of animal flesh and they aim to deliver the same experience.
Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat bills themselves as the future of protein. They currently produce both a burger and chicken substitute. Beet juice in the burger simulates blood and the patty sizzles when it hits the grill. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman mistook the fake chicken for the real thing.
Perhaps the best evidence of Beyond Meat’s success is chicken giant Tyson Foods’ recent investment–when the big boys in the field turn their attention you must be making waves. In fact, Beyond Meat announced on May 25th 2017 that they are hitting the mainstream and will have products available in the meat section (rather than frozen food) in 280 Safeway locations.
Impossible Foods makes a burger patty out of potato protein, wheat and coconut-oil. Their secret ingredient is lab-made heme, which simulates animal blood. Impossible Foods endeavors to make their product as meat-like as possible: they conduct comprehensive research on factors such a smell, texture and the cultural significance of meat.
The Impossible Burger premiered in a few restaurants in San Francisco, LA and NYC. A new manufacturing plant with the capacity to produce 4 million burger patties per month opens this summer in Oakland, CA. With this scale of production, founder Patrick Brown believes almost everyone in America will be within an hour drive of an Impossible Burger by the end of the year.
As business continues to grow, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat will face the challenge of marketing their product outside of the coastal elites. Furthermore, they must prepare for an inevitable clash with the well-funded, entrenched, oh-so-American Meat Lobby. Steps are already being taken with the creation of a plant-based meat lobby group in Washington.
Instead of building meat with vegetable components, some companies are trying to create the real thing. “Clean Meat” is produced from animal cells that are cultured and duplicated in a laboratory.
Lab-grown meat aims to be 100% indistinguishable from the real thing. In a highly publicized taste test between a lab grown and conventional burger in 2013 the judges decided it was similar to meat, but just not as juicy. The team behind that burger had forgotten to consider the fat content. On top of that, the price tag on the lab grown burger came in at $330,000.
Since the taste test, companies have been working on lowering price and improving taste. San Francisco based Memphis Meats has their lab-grown chicken down to $9000 per lb and project to be in supermarkets within five years. Netherlands based Mosa Meat is attracting venture capital dollars and claim to have the price of their burger down to $12 per patty.
Proponents of clean meat proclaim that moving meat production into the petri dish is the “second great domestication of animals” and marks the natural progression of food technology. If the lab-grown product can beat conventional in price and taste, I suspect that all fast food chains would adopt the lab grown version.
To appeal to conscious carnivores more producers are raising livestock with animal and environmental welfare in mind. This sort of meat appears under a myriad of labels including “ organic” “natural” “artisanal” “sustainable” and “ethical.” Grass fed beef is a good illustration of this trend. Rather then fattening a cow on grain—something ruminants are not designed to eat—cattle spend their entire life on grass. Though more time and space consumptive, this method of production is kinder to the animal, uses less outside inputs and creates a better tasting product.
Bill Niman, known as the godfather of sustainable meat, has been on the forefront of this movement. Niman raises cattle, beef and turkeys in a pastured system. The consumer demand for this kind of meat is so great that both of Niman’s enterprises were acquired by large food companies: poultry giant Perdue purchased Niman Ranch in 2015 and Blue Apron meal service bought BN Ranch in March 2017.
The problem with artisanal meat is the high price point. Even if consumers could afford this kind of food, the production systems required could not keep up with our current meat intake–people would have to (gasp) eat less meat.
As a small farmer I notice a desire for alternative small-scale meat offerings. People love the story of a rare blue footed French chicken. Customers want something that feels different from industrialized meat like rabbit.
What uses very little land, converts feed efficiently, is high in protein and lays thousands of eggs at a time? Bugs! The search for efficient meat will inevitably lead to the consideration of insects. From 10 lbs of feed a cow will produce 1 lb of meat, while a cricket will produce 6 lbs.
A 2013 UN report found that 80% of the world’s countries eat bugs and waxed optimistic that consuming more insect protein could combat global hunger.
In the USA cricket protein bars from companies like Chapul and EXO are extremely popular among the paleo/cross fit crowd. In fact, cricket farms cannot keep up with the demand for human grade crickets. (If you’re looking for a good business prospect, become a bug farmer).
Only one thing prevents bug protein from entering the mainstream American diet: the “yuck factor.” Western diets have long conceded bugs to be a no fly zone. Advocates are trying to break this stigma. For example, Bitty Foods uses cricket flour to make beautiful baked goods. And it might be starting to work–the extreme popularity of seasoned grasshoppers at Seattle Mariners games suggests that we are almost ready.
Though these meat production options are in competition for your dollar, I like to think of them as complementary solutions to the over-consumption of meat. In the next five years we might be deciding between lab-grown chicken strips, organic quail, plant based burgers, Salisbury steak and a seasoned cricket patties for a weekend BBQ. Which would you choose?
Craft night commences at 6pm sharp every other Thursday and is much anticipated among the young farming community. We, the mostly first-generation agrarians with liberal arts degrees and botanical tattoos, enjoy a variety of trendy hobbies including sewing, card making, knitting, yarn spinning, and cookie baking. Between sips of herbal tea, the usual discussions bubble: canning tricks, casserole recipes and apron patterns…These parties are every grandma’s fantasy.
I have grown hyperaware of how my “alternative” lifestyle differs very little from my 88-year-old Munsie’s. Not only do we share a sense of fashion (I’ve had my eye on her red barn coat for some years now), but also a love of hard work, good food and orchards. Munsie grew up on a farm and, like me, understands a pig’s manipulative nature, the tediousness of egg washing and the necessity of food preservation.
Our notion of progress often suggests a future vastly different than anything we’ve ever known, but what if advancement means stepping back in time? Movement towards a greener world does encompass new discovery, but also becoming familiar with past ways of life, embracing the old. A sustainable future can’t rely purely on modern technology and brand new ideologies. As Munsie always says: there’s nothing like aged cheese and fresh bread.
Yes, my friends. Progress is the most unlikely convergence of your hemp-wearing, Noam Chomsky-reading college roommate and your cranky, slightly racist Great Aunt Edna.
Access to an abundance of delicious food accompanied by a depressingly low wage is a reality for small-scale farmers like me. Thus, “cook with what you have” becomes the golden rule of eating. This guiding principal eliminates ingredient choice and puts the emphasis on creatively utilizing what’s on hand.
Throughout the summer tomatoes have found their way into every single meal:
Basically, we try really hard to prevent getting tired of what’s in season.
This got me thinking. The cuisine of a particular place is influenced by what crops are on hand. For example, Italian and French dishes often showcase beans alongside wheat because rotating these crops maintains soil fertility. Likewise, farming conditions in Japan make a crop rotation of buckwheat and rice sensible and therefore, soba noodles and rice are integral to their food culture. As chef/food activist Dan Barber notes “that kind of negotiation with the land forced people to incorporate those crops in to the culture.” In other words, being confined by ingredients induces creativity and forms a strong food tradition.
In contrast, American agriculture has always been defined by abundance. A farmer could grow anything they pleased until the land was depleted and then move on. Americans were not constrained in the same way as other countries were and this could explain why our cuisine is not historically noteworthy.
Now that American agriculture is grappling with a scarcity of fertility, the future is actually bright. We might see new pockets of distinct American cuisine, each cooking with what they have and bringing us into an era of never-before-seen deliciousness.
The top four questions I receive at the farmers’ market are as follows:
Are you certified organic?
Is your farm sustainable?
Are your chickens pastured?
Do you have a boyfriend? (Usually the old, long-haired duck egg customers)
All but the latter are questions the recent food craze has trained us to ask, but do we consider what exactly we are saying? The problem with popular movements is that meaningful terms become buzzwords and lose their significance—they roll off the tongue without much contemplation.
Take for instance the concept of sustainability and what it has come to mean in our modern foodie language. Due to relatively recent concern of greenhouse gas emissions, species extinction, ecosystem destruction and other human-driven environmental terrors, we are obsessed with the vision of a sustainable world, a world that is fed by sustainable farms. The well-intentioned farmers’ market customer considers sustainability to be synonymous with green or environmentally friendly, but that’s just one slice of the pie.
The power of sustainable farming lives in its ability to encompass every aspect of an operation including farmers’ physical and emotional well-being, profitability of the business, and community contribution. The investment in green/environmentally friendly infrastructure has to work alongside and improve upon all other systems on a farm.
Sustainable agriculture is important not only because it promotes health of surrounding ecosystems and limits the carbon emissions inherent in commercial production. It is valuable because it facilitates environmental balance while paying fair wages, while inspiring innovation, and while promoting the health of the surrounding community.
So the next time you see your farmer at market, consider her week: harvesting strawberries, chasing unruly chickens and mixing concrete by hand (not to mention having been up since 4 am to load the market truck). Buying her a beer could be the most sustainable thing to do.