It’s early in a new year. People are planning ahead for 2021. Looking back on 2020 for hints of what is to come, we see some long food lines in big cities and shortages of many staples on grocery shelves. There is not necessarily a shortage of food, but a shortage of labor due to the corona virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 5,000 corona virus cases and 20 deaths throughout 115 meat and poultry processing plants in April. (cnet.com) In a crisis, long consolidated food sources tend to break down.
Long supply chains and an increased demand for flour emptied many grocery store shelves but supplies were good and so were sales at local flour mills like Shepherd’s Grain, in Moscow, Idaho. According to its COO, Jeremy Brunch, Shepherd’s has grown since its inception in 2003 from one semi truckload to over 600,000 bushels shipped. Based, Shepherd’s markets through health-oriented outlets on the West Coast by having farmers go to speak to their customers there. The farmers also invite customers to come visit their farms. Knowing your farmer turns out to be good for everyone.
People are doing more than just visiting. There are four new houses being built by their owners on property within earshot of ours. Urban refugees are moving to the country. This is another trend showing no sign of slowing down. In fact it reverses one that has emptied the countryside into the cities the past 75 years. We have learned from the pandemic that there are ways to work from home, wherever that is.
Putting these trends into perspective is the mission of professors like Chris Smaje, author of A Small Farm Future. He begins his book with enumeration of ten emerging crises: population growth; climate change; energy shortages; soil depletion; more waste from and depletion of resources used for producing material stuff; water shortages; land scarcity; health and nutrition deficiencies; a political economy that treats environmental impacts as “externalities”; and a culture that pushes the less fortunate to “the margins of sustainability.”
Obviously, Smaje takes on a hefty load in the book and I won’t burden you with all the details. But his conclusion that relief from many of these crises lies in moving to the country is unavoidable. He points to a model of the relation of cities to the countryside first elaborated by Johan Heinrich von Thünen in 1826. It shows dairy and market garden farms close to the city; forestry next (they depended on wood heat in 1826); arable land for grains, potatoes etc. further out and grazing land furthest away.
Petroleum-powered transportation has disrupted that model so that now we can expect food on our grocery shelves to come from anywhere in the world. But that is not sustainable. A 2010 USDA study shows that our current food system uses fourteen times as much energy to get food onto our plates as the energy value of the food itself. But in the future, conserving production and transportation energy will become increasingly important.
To get a picture of what it would look like to base our diets on just what foods we can grow locally, I talked to Lora Lea Misterly, owner of Quillisascut Cheese and co-author of Chefs on the Farm, a cook book. Eating locally means eating seasonally. Some food keeps on the shelf like beans and peas or in the cellar like potatoes, apples, carrots and parsnips. When an animal is butchered, some meats are best eaten quickly like the heart and liver. Steaks and prime cuts can be frozen and cooked quickly. But others like brisket and leg bones need to braise and cook a long time before they are tender. She notes that as a society we have drifted away from the ways every part of an animal can be used. A lot of that is because it takes more time and is not promoted by big business. Curing meat and sausage can make meats last. Cheese turns quickly spoiling milk into a long-lived tasty treat. Canning, fermenting and pickling preserve fruit and vegetables. If this is beginning to sound like a lot of work, that’s because it is.
Preserving and preparing food takes skill and equipment. Food processing has increasingly become large-scale and far away. That also takes it far from the watchful eyes of customers and into the hands of corporations more protective of their processes and preservatives than the health of customers and the environment. Creating local enterprises to process food locally is a big opportunity for rural folks. Creating a mindset to spend more time cooking and acquiring food directly from farmers is both a road block and an opportunity. Serving healthy food seasonally and locally is another challenge that can enhance a local economy and attract visitors. You don’t go to Tuscany to eat hamburgers and fries.
Like Quillisascut Cheese and Shepherd’s Grain, businesses are springing up that make eating locally with regional ingredients easy. I started to name them but realized that there are too many to list without missing many. Certainly the vendors at the farmers markets are bringing products of their own creation usually locally grown. We also have several microbreweries, wineries and coffee roasters. Bakeries make their own products as do pizza places and don’t forget barbeque. It is usually made with less expensive and local cuts of meat. Meat cutters often make their own sausage, ham and bacon.
Speaking of meat, we are close to sources of bison, venison and wild turkey. Those are all meats that will be lean and may need a long preparation time. You can add in other wild foods: huckleberries, elderberries, morel mushrooms and wild asparagus. Really, we have a lot of local flavors to distinguish our local cuisine.
For tasty recipes, Chefs on the Farm is a good start because it is both local and arranged seasonally. Lora Lea suggested some ingredients for each season:
Winter: potatoes, carrots, onions, pot roast and/or chick peas and beans.
Spring: nettles, eggs, spinach, chard, quiche, asparagus, leeks and mushrooms
Summer: salads, barbeque, grilled chicken, zucchini, corn, tomatoes, peaches and cream
Fall: apples, melons, roasted food, pie, liver, heart, onions and sausage.
In the meantime, shop the perimeter of the super market for fresh unprocessed food and look for local sources. We are going to need them more and more.