- BUYING LOCAL
I have just finished off a lunch that included a healthy fruit cup full of organic pineapple, grapes, oranges and tangerines. At my desk, not talking to anyone, doing research for this story on the Internet.
And thanks to that research, I'm feeling guilty about it.
By the standards of the Slow Food movement — recently arrived here in official fashion, although a network of farmers, chefs and home cooks who practice its philosophy has been developing for years — I have committed two wrongs: First, I have eaten fruit that, while grown without pesticides, was imported from who knows where using who knows how much fossil fuel. (And part of which is probably also out of season. Call that Wrong 1A.)
Second, rather than scarfing my lunch by my lonesome, I should have corralled a co-worker and taken the time to enjoy both my food and a leisurely conversation.
But at least it wasn't McDonald's.
Slow Food is an international organization begun in 1986 by an Italian man who believed that McDonald's plan to open a restaurant in the historic heart of Rome was nothing less than an assault on his country's gastronomic culture. The idea behind Slow Food is to take time to enjoy what you eat, to think about where it came from and how it was made, and to restore mealtimes to their once-honored place in family and social life. The organization advocates a food system that is “good, clean and fair” — high quality food that tastes good, is grown locally and sustainably, and earns farmers a decent living. It promotes preserving local food traditions, including heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and “heritage” breeds of livestock that have become endangered because they aren't suitable for mass production.
Today, Slow Food has more than 80,000 members around the world. Some of the newest are in Arkansas: Fayetteville-based Ozarks Slow Food was formed last spring, and Heartland Arkansas Slow Food, the Central Arkansas chapter, got its approval this fall, and held its first public event — making apple butter over an open fire, a two-day process — over Thanksgiving.
But the ideals behind Slow Food have been feeding the growth of a network of small farmers, local chefs and consumers for several years — a network that's creating a new farm-to-table paradigm and encouraging a new generation of farmers to return to agriculture's pre-factory-farm roots. It includes people like Jody Hardin, a fifth-generation farmer from the Delta, and Ragan Sutterfield, a 27-year-old who grew up in Little Rock and Morrilton, decided he wanted to be a farmer after reading Wendell Berry's essays in college, and is helping create a new farm-to-market paradigm for other small farmers like himself.
People like chefs Lee Richardson of the Capital Hotel and Adam Rosenblum of Imagine have committed to buying meat and produce from local farmers whenever possible, and to creating menus based on what's available and in season.
And people like Sandra Garcia, a retiree in Hot Springs Village who learned to freeze and dehydrate fruits and vegetables rather than buy anything that had been shipped across the country.
Even the University of Arkansas has gotten involved, conducting research on heritage turkeys and holding a seminar for farmers on organic growing methods.
Buying food directly from local farmers is a major emphasis of the Slow Food movement — domestic produce in the United States travels an average of 1,500 miles from field to pantry, adding significantly to the cost of food and creating an enormous amount of pollution. And when it comes to buying local produce in Arkansas, all roads inevitably lead back to Jody Hardin — possibly the closest thing Arkansas has to a celebrity farmer. Hardin has sold his family's produce at the Little Rock Farmer's Market for 20 years, but shifted his focus when he realized what his family's business really needed was good marketing.
In 2004 he opened Hardin's River Mercantile, a local-oriented food store in the River Market. The next year, he started the Basket-a-Month program, which provides subscribers a monthly selection of locally produced food. Hardin is friendly, talkative, persuasive — and willing to take a chance. The BAM program now has about 200 members, and an ever-growing number of farmers who sell their products through it.
Hardin closed the River Market store last month — it wasn't profitable, he was increasingly dissatisfied with the River Market's policies, and he wanted to devote more time to the BAM program and plans to open a much bigger all-local market next year in Argenta.
The biggest need now, Hardin said, is to create a reliable distribution system with a larger capacity than the BAM program.
“That's been my job, trying to get these farmers organized,” he said. “I can't do it in some anal military style. I've got to do it in a laid-back country-boy style. It's slow.”
Creating demand for local organic produce and meat hasn't been a problem, Hardin said. He's had more trouble recruiting farmers to agree to grow organic produce and sell directly to consumers, rather than use conventional methods and sell through wholesale brokers.
“We've got to show younger farmers that people are demanding what they can grow, and not what the chemical farmers can do,” he said.
He's getting some help from the University of Arkansas. Its statewide Division of Agriculture sponsors research on organic farming methods, and last month held a workshop on organic fruit production for farmers from Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Organic produce sells for 30 percent to 50 percent more than conventionally grown produce, and the market for it is growing fast.
Ragan Sutterfield is already convinced. After apprenticing at Petit Jean Farm under Ed Martsolf — a co-founder of Heartland Arkansas Slow Food and host of the apple-butter-making party — he struck out on his own, founding Adama Farms three years ago. Sutterfield raises chickens, sheep, cows and a rare breed of pig called Gloucester Old Spot. Though his farm isn't certified organic, Sutterfield's livestock are free-range, hormone-free and humanely treated. He sells his products through Hardin's basket program, through a similar program run by the Arkansas Sustainability Network, and directly to a few Little Rock restaurants.
Like Hardin, he's working on organizing small farmers to sell their produce cooperatively.
“The real problem has been keeping a steady supply,” Sutterfield said, “and the demands of actually trying to farm while also dealing with customers on a regular basis.”
Sutterfield works with other individual farmers who help him with his animals in exchange for his help getting their products to consumers.
“There's going to be a growing need for people doing what I'm doing — being a connector between the country and the city,” Sutterfield said.
Those pigs? Originally bred for their lard, there are only about 2,000 left in the United States. Part of the challenge for direct-market farmers, Sutterfield said, is that unlike supermarkets, they can't just sell pork chops all day long. In order to make a profit, they need to sell everything: the hocks, the roast, even the innards.
A good portion of Sutterfield's pigs wind up in front of guests at the newly reopened Capital Hotel. Executive chef Lee Richardson, a New Orleans native, is a Slow Food devotee who has committed to using seasonal, locally grown products whenever possible at the Capital's two restaurants. Why the Gloucester Old Spots? Because mass-produced pork, bred to be leaner because of health concerns, “doesn't taste like pigs anymore.”
Richardson buys the pigs whole from Sutterfield. He renders lard, makes breakfast sausage, even fries cracklins.
“They can be put in a guest room with a bottle of champagne,” he said. “It's a fabulous combination.”
Richardson's interest in the Slow Food movement started in New Orleans, when he began to realize that because people no longer had as much time to devote to cooking family meals, “gumbo wasn't what it used to be.”
But it's not just about cooking techniques.
“I'm concerned my daughter won't have the same nostalgic memories around food that I have,” Richardson said. “It's not just stuff we eat for sustenance — it's culture. In the American South, it's iconic.”
When he moved to Little Rock, Richardson and his wife started doing their grocery shopping at the Farmer's Market, and he got to know Hardin, Sutterfield and other farmers there. He said he's encouraged by the obvious demand for what they were selling, despite higher-than-supermarket prices.
“I see people there waiting in line and disappointed if they can't get a $10 chicken,” he said.
Price, of course, is a major consideration. The modern commercial food production system is geared toward efficiency, not nutrition or taste. It costs more to eat food that's grown outside that system, by small-scale farmers — at least for now. The higher fuel prices go, the more supermarket food will cost.
Hardin said that's another reason why it's so important to create a reliable distribution system for locally grown food.
“Food security is what we're doing,” he said. “In case fossil fuels go up $100 a barrel all of a sudden … then we can't afford the produce at the supermarket. We're trying to anticipate that.”
Even with higher prices, there is actually competition for local produce in Central Arkansas. Hardin's BAM program is as large as it can get right now. More than 100 people participate in the Arkansas Sustainability Network's local produce program, where several local farmers provide lists weekly of what they have available, and take orders on a first-come, first-served basis. Terry's Finer Foods, an independent grocery store in the Heights, also sells local produce. And Heifer International's Perryville ranch runs its own program, delivering baskets of produce to members weekly.
And then, of course, there are the chefs.
“When a farmer calls me, before they even tell me what they have, I say bring it to me,” said Scott McGehee, owner of Boulevard Bread Company. McGehee plans Boulevard's nightly dinner specials around that day's available produce.
Local chefs have helped local farms flourish, McGehee said, and have even influenced what they grow. McGehee said he meets with one farmer every year to go through seed catalogs and suggest new crops to try.
“We've tried a lot of things, and sometimes they've failed miserably,” he said. “But we're finding new varieties every year that flourish in this environment. Part of that process is chefs saying hey, try this. Before you know it you're seeing it at the Farmer's Market.”
Another big part of the Slow Food philosophy is eating foods in their proper season — something today's supermarket-raised consumers aren't used to.
“I'm having a hell of a time with requests for chocolate-covered strawberries,” Richardson said. “I'm fighting very hard not to have to do that.”
Imagine's Rosenblum has fought that battle with his customers as well.
“Last year I had some people who wanted a fruit cup in December,” he said. “I had to explain that there was no fruit available because it's December. They weren't big fans of that.”
Nao Ueda, who runs the ASN's food program, said she's had to do some educating on that point.
“Our members are learning a lot — that chickens don't produce in the wintertime, that we don't have all the foods all the time,” she said. “The farmers are a little surprised to watch members get frustrated when certain foods are not available.”
Committing to eating locally means planning meals and menus around what's available, not just what sounds good. Rosenblum said he designs menus a month in advance after calling the local farmers he buys from to see what they'll have ready and when.
“It limits your diet to an extent,” he said. “If you're really strict on eating locally, there are only so many things that grow in fall and winter.”
But if you've got enough time on your hands, you can cheat by learning to preserve the summertime bounty.
Sandy Garcia, one of the founders of Heartland Arkansas Slow Food, had a longstanding interest in nutrition and health food, but became a buy-local convert after reading “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” a best-selling book about factory farm practices. She's learning to eat fall vegetables like zucchini, kale and purple hull peas — not previously on her favorites list — but “I've been freezing and dehydrating all summer so I can eat out of season too,” she said.
The Heartland convivium (a term Slow Food movement founders us for food-centered gatherings) is still in the planning stages, Garcia said, but it's already attracting a good-sized membership.
“We started with 26 people and just networked out,” she said. “Arkansas's really great for that. You know people that know people, and there's this trust immediately.”
Each Slow Food convivium (the movement's name for food-centered meetings) takes on its own personality; some emphasize cooking, and might organize classes or demonstrations with well-known local chefs. Because Little Rock is in the middle of a heavily agricultural state, though, it's well suited for a convivium that gets more directly involved with food production and distribution. Garcia is already working with Petit Jean Farms' Martsolf and several other small farmers to sell their meat and produce to people in Hot Springs Village, where she lives. She hopes expanding that distribution network will be a focus of the Heartland group.
Conviviums must have at least three public events per year. About 20 people came to make apple butter at Martsolf's farm over Thanksgiving weekend, the Heartland group's inaugural gathering.
A few weeks before, members of Ozarks Slow Food hosted a turkey tasting dinner, pitting “retail” turkeys — quick-growing, mass-produced, cheap and pre-marinated — against slow-grown “heritage” turkeys. “Heritage” turkeys are turkeys from now-rare breeds that were common at the end of the 19th century but became endangered because they were ignored by commercial farmers. The breeds, recognized by the American Poultry Association, were once associated with specific regions of the United States — the Bourbon Red, for instance, came from Kentucky — and have distinctive colored feather patterns. The heritage turkeys used in the U of A research project were grown at Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch in Lindsborg, Kan. They are raised “slow” — allowed to mate naturally, live longer lives, roam freely and, according to the ranch's web site, “engage in positive social interactions and perform instinctive behaviors essential to their health and well-being.” That's in contrast to commercially raised birds, which are genetically engineered to grow faster and have broader breasts — breast meat is more profitable than dark meat — and are generally confined to cages.
Anne Fanatico, the U of A researcher studying the turkeys and a member of Ozarks Slow Food, said she's eaten heritage turkeys at Thanksgiving for several years, and wanted to do a formal study of the differences in taste, nutrition and other qualities between heritage turkeys and retail birds. The data haven't been analyzed yet, but a straw poll at the Slow Food dinner didn't bode well.
“More than half raised their hands that they preferred the retail, because that's what they're used to,” she said. “We'll see what types of flavor and texture differences the [research] panel noted.”
Penny Rudder, another founder of the group, said she wants to do “everything” — create an heirloom seed catalog, hold cooking classes, teach people about the nutritional value of different foods. She's a nutritionist with a passion for cooking, and makes a point of getting to know the people she buys her food from — even if it's the manager of the supermarket produce department.
“Really, I think Slow Food is about changing the culture of how we eat back to what would be recognizable for our grandparents,” she said. “We just grew up with everything in the fast lane. Everything was convenient. … And we lost so much of our culture because of that.”