Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Beyond Organic - Recreating Local Agriculture and Food Production

On Christmas Day my wife, three children and I sat down to a home-cooked 7-course meal. One of the dishes featured a standing rib roast. This is a wonderfully flavorful cut of beef so we knew it would be good. However, there was something else special about it. It was locally produced. In fact, it came literally from "the steer down the street"! Our wonderful beef was raised at Mill Iron Farm which is located near enough to our home that we sometimes hear the contented nightly moos and bellows of our bovine neighbors.

The steer was grass fed, allowed to roam all day in the field and received no anti-biotics, hormones or anything else save for an annual worming pill. As they say, you could really taste the difference. It was absolutely superb - a rich, tender and juicy flavor that one would have to pay three times the amount in a restaurant to experience.

Such food ecstacy raises the question - why can't we have more locally raised and produced food products? I'll take organic products produced from afar any day over conventional ones but the aesthetic, environmental, health and flavor benefits of locally produced food make a strong case for communities to promote them.

I'm lucky to live in Carlisle Massachusetts where in addition to locally raised beef, we are also able to get a weekly delivery of fresh eggs from chickens cared for by a friend's 14-year old daughter, a wide variety of vegetables from local gardens in summer, honey, cranberries from the town bog and cheese made from the milk of goats raised by another neighbor! I don't expect that every community can produce this sort of bounty but it sure would be nice if more were able to reestablish local food production.

Fortunately there are many people ahead of me on this quest. For example, I recently heard a report on PBS radio's "The World" entitled 100 Mile Diet about a couple in British Columbia that have undertaken an ambitious one-year experiment. They are eating only food grown within 100 miles of where they live. I applaud them for their courage - no coffee or tea for a year! Sure this is a bit extreme, but they make the point just how much local food has disappeared over the years and that it's possible to reintroduce some of it.

Another interesting piece on the locally-produced movement appeared today in the New York Times Dining Out section (0ne of my favorite things to read). "In Oregon, Thinking Local" describes how this trend is taking off in the Portland Oregon area thanks to a local grocer called New Seasons specializing in "home grown" food.

This reminded me of another attempt to recreate a local, self-contained food ecosystem in Vermont called the Farmer's Diner. The idea is to feature only locally produced products on their menu of traditional diner fare. This wasn't easy - much of the local food production infrastructure had disappeared and needed to be recreated. For example, they joint ventured with a pig farmer to build a factory to produce bacon.

These different reports really hit home just how much our food production system has become nationalized and internationalized, to the detriment of the environment, and of course to the palate. Imagine the aesthetic, health and taste benefits to our communities if there were more real Olive Gardens and less ersatz ones.


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