Friday, August 31, 2007

"Minnesota Cooks" at the State Fair

The Star Tribune had a nice editorial today about the Minnesota Cooks event at the State Fair on Tuesday, in which Twin Cities chefs served up gourmet preparations of locally grown foods to celebrity tasters. Minnesota Cooks is, according to the article, a collaboration between the Minnesota Farmers Union, Food Alliance Midwest and Renewing the Countryside. A list of the participating cooks, their local suppliers, and their recipes -- from Cedar Planked Honey Glazed Lake Superior Trout to Handmade Spaetzle with Local Sweet Corn,
Berkshire Black Pepper Bacon and Fresh Sage -- can be found on the MFU website.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Eat Local Challenge, Day 15

Two weeks into the challenge, I feel I've not been trying as hard as I could, but I'm certainly continuing to make local origin a priority, if not a sine qua non, when I shop for groceries. Today I stopped by the co-op and bought a beautiful organic cauliflower and some sweet corn from Gardens of Eagan (which, despite the name, is in Farmington) and two pounds of frozen ground beef from Thousand Hills Cattle Company, currently on sale. I also bought some non-local cashews, cookies, and juice. I looked in vain for local spinach; it's been too hot for that lately, but I hope we'll see some more in the fall. I'm still picking the occasional tomato or cucumber from my backyard container garden, but production has dwindled in a late-summer kind of way. My dairy products and eggs are local, and I still have a lot of dried black beans I bought earlier this summer at the farmer's market. I have a stack of Faribault-made tortillas to work my way through, and the rest of our breads are locally made as well. I was traveling last week and have had two restaurant meals this week (one at Big Bowl, where they do label local products and try to work them into their menus), so probably overall I'm eating 60-70% local, which is roughly where I've been for the past month or so.

By the way, Just Food is helping coordinate support for some of their sustainable and organic suppliers whose crops have been hit hard by the recent flooding in southeast Minnesota. They've made it easy to donate to the cause, providing convenient coupons in several denominations that will ring up your donation at the cash register.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Fox on Woodley Street

This evening as I drove east on Woodley between Winona and Maple, a small fox that in the twilight looked grayish, but with a reddish, black-edged tail, trotted across the street in front of me. Based on this mix of coloring, I think it was a gray fox, like the one in this public domain photo from the USFWS. I'd heard of a family of foxes frequenting backyards on Prairie Street earlier this summer, but I've only once before seen a live fox. At first I thought it was probably a cat, but there was something in the set of its tail and ears that made me wonder, even from a distance. After it had crossed, it stopped and looked back at the street, allowing me to be sure of what I had seen. Cool!

I was suprised to learn that gray foxes can climb trees. This public domain photo is from the Illinois DNR. Their suggested caption reads:
Gray foxes are the only North American canines that climb trees. Gray foxes have been found in squirrel nests and abandoned hawk nests up to 60 feet above the ground.

More on Food For Thought

I recently wrote about the Food For Thought curriculum at Kenyon College, as I was fascinated and delighted that a top liberal arts college would build a whole academic sequence exploring the value of local, sustainable food production. When her dad and I delivered our daughter there last Thursday and ate lunch in one of the cafeterias, I noticed Food For Thought signs around the serving area, encouraging all who eat there to think about where their food comes from and who produces it. The college has been buying at least some of their produce from local providers since 2004. I found more about the program's outreach to the entire college community on their website:
Kenyon’s efforts to educate about food do not stop at the classroom door. Working with the College’s dining service, AVI Foodsystems, Food for Thought has begun to turn the cafeteria into a classroom with materials about food and local rural life. Signs at food stations highlight local ingredients in menu selections. Tabletop displays, many created by students in conjunction with their coursework, explore the history of agriculture in Knox County, offer biographies of local food producers, and examine the nutritional value of the foods we eat. Plans are underway for a series of student-produced films on local agriculture, to be shown in the dining hall on a large-screen monitor.
I'll continue to follow this program with interest, and to be equally interested in what our local colleges are doing along these lines. I know that St. Olaf has the STOGROW farm, and that the Bon Appetit food service buys much of the farm's produce for use in the dining hall there. There is a nice discussion of Bon Appetit's contributions to sustainability at St. Olaf in this report.

Carleton has its Farm Club Organic Gardens, and their site says they have sold produce to the food service providers in the past. In conversation with a Carleton faculty member not long ago, I was given to understand that Carleton's current food service provider, Sodexho-Marriott, is not set up to easily allow individual sites to support local food producers. I understand the economic benefits of contracting with large suppliers, but I hope they'll find a way to build in some flexibility in that regard. There is more information about food and sustainability at Carleton in this report, which notes that "an emphasis is being put on purchasing from Food Alliance certified farms in the Midwest" but acknowledges that as of the date of the report, that proportion is less than 2% of the food budget.

Academically speaking, I see that in Carleton's biology department, David Hougen-Eitzman -- who with his wife, Laurie, operates the Big Woods Farm CSA in Nerstrand -- teaches a seminar on sustainable agriculture. At St. Olaf, student research on agricultural practices has been put to use by farmers who rent St. Olaf land, and incorporated into biology and environmental studies classes, according to their Natural Lands webpage.

It's good to see the interaction between these institutions of higher learning, which are not land-grant universities offering standard programs in agriculture, and the status of our food and our local farms.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Tale of Two Tortillas: Local vs. Organic

There is always something of a tension for a local food advocate between supporting local products that may not be organic or free of genetic modifications and supporting more distant producers of foods that do have those qualities. I made a point recently of asking the Just Food staff for local tortillas, since I am trying to keep my food as local as possible in general and in particular during the Eat Local Challenge, which runs through September 15. Responsive as always, the co-op soon thereafter had white corn tortillas from Faribault's Aztlan Tortilleria in their refrigerator case, and I'm aware that they have offered these in the past as well. They sit side-by-side with Sonoma brand organic tortillas from California, which I've also purchased before.

In the case of tortillas, I feel the "eat local" advantage is mainly economic: I'm supporting a local business that adds to the economic health of its owners and this region. I don't know what their source of corn is. Given how much corn is grown in the Midwest, I would hope it is a relatively local source. However, information published by the Corn Growers of America, in response to the suggestion that the diversion of more U.S. corn to ethanol production has raised tortillas prices in Mexico, states that very little -- only about 1% of production -- white corn, as opposed to yellow corn, is produced in the U.S.

Thus, it seems likely -- though I hope to learn otherwise if it's the case -- that the corn for my locally produced white-corn tortillas may actually come from Mexico, perhaps farther away than the organic corn tortillas produced in California. I want to support farmers anywhere who pursue organic, sustainable production. I also want to support my local economy. It looks as if in this case the difference in "food miles" between the two may be inconsequential -- a conclusion that should probably tilt my decision most often toward buying the organic tortillas. However, I do see value in supporting our local businesses. As a result, I'll probably be relatively happy supporting either product, depending perhaps on my mindset on a given shopping day. The tortilla producers that will see less of my purchasing dollars are those that are neither local nor organic.

I welcome your thoughts on where you come down on weighing local vs. organic sources when a choice between the two is presented.
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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Three Days on the Road

I'm just back from three days and more than 1700 miles on the road, driving my eldest daughter to Kenyon College in the tiny town of Gambier, Ohio, getting her moved in, attending a parents' meeting and a ceremonious opening convocation, and -- sniff -- leaving her there and driving back home. This photo was taken at dawn Thursday between Springfield and Columbus, Ohio, after four hours' sleep in a Springfield hotel.

I had a few good 70-mph bird sightings along the way:
  • A hawk, probably a red-tailed, on a powerline, not just hunkered down to watch for its next meal, but erect on its feet, looking down, utterly alert and poised for action.
  • Another hawk standing upright and still in the grassy ditch at the side of the road
  • A great blue heron's slow, majestic flap as it disappeared behind a line of trees that concealed a river
  • The incongruous beauty of a pure white egret against the green of a wetland amid the industrial blight of urban Indiana near Chicago
It was wonderful to leave the flatlands of Indiana, Illinois and southern Wisconsin behind and return to the hills and bluffs of western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. We live in a beautiful place.

Addendum, Sept. 8: Two weeks later, I suddenly remember that I also saw what I think must have been two sandhill cranes by the side of the interstate. They were tall, and their neck/beak configuration didn't say "heron" to me, so although I've not seen cranes live before, and didn't have a field guide handy, I think they must have been.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Discovering a Remarkable Writer

While browsing for something to read on my flight home from Oregon 10 days ago, I discovered a remarkable writer I'd not heard of before: David James Duncan. He's a Portland native who now lives in Montana, and is the author of The River Why, described as the second-best-selling novel ever about fly-fishing, after A River Runs Through It (seemingly a distant second, Duncan remarks, based on the status of his bank account).

I haven't yet read The River Why, or his other fiction. The nonfiction book I picked up at the Portland airport Powells' bookstore, which held me spellbound for several hours of Portland-to-Las Vegas, Las Vegas-to-Minneapolis plane time, has the following title: My Story As Told By Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, From Living Rivers, In the Age of the Industrial Dark.

A 2001 National Book Award finalist, it's fierce, astoundingly beautiful, moving writing, described by Publishers Weekly as "angry, heartbroken, yet hopeful and often quite comic nature essays... his unabashed polemic is nicely cushioned by rhapsody; he's the ranter as poet." Read more here.

Highly, highly recommended.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Eat Local Challenge, Day 3

Tomatoes in glass bowlPart of the delight of eating locally at this time of year is enjoying some of the best of summer produce. I see dozens of people shopping picking up sweet corn and melons at Grisim's corn stand on Water Street every day. I've been savoring tomatoes: this morning's breakfast was thick, juicy tomato slices on toast, with string cheese (Bongards', of course). Yesterday I finished off a pint of some of the sweetest, ripest cherry tomatoes I've ever had. Last weekend I made a batch of simple fresh salsa: just diced yellow and red tomatoes, green onions, cilantro, lime juice, and salt and pepper. Nope, no chiles, but of course they would be wonderful as well.

There's nothing like eating really ripe, fresh produce in season, grown by local farmers or gardeners who don't need to choose varieties that ship well!

Even More on Local Dairies

I'm on a roll here looking over the array of producers of dairy products available to us here in Minnesota.

Bongards' Cheese is available both at the supermarkets and at the co-op. Their website says:
Our state of the art factory uses only the freshest milk from our local farm families to produce our award winning cheese. Located 40 miles west of downtown Minneapolis, this 93 year old creamery is an independent co-op in a world of consolidation.
I'm a particular fan of Bongards' string cheese, and have been buying their cheddar from time to time recently as well.

Shepherd's Way Farms is a local jewel, producing artisanal sheep's milk cheeses near Nerstrand that are sold and praised across the country. Still recovering from their devastating fire two and a half years ago, Shepherd's Way makes several different cheeses -- Friesago, Queso Fresco de Oveja and Big Woods Blue -- with others available on a limited basis. You can find their cheese at the co-op.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

More on Regional Dairies

Earlier today I commented that dairy products are probably a good bet for being relatively local, even when not specifically labeled as such. Afterward, I sent a query to Kemps -- one of the leading milk and ice cream distributors in local supermarkets -- about the source of their dairy products. Customer service rep Julie King replied:
We are a regional dairy with various milk plants in the region (Minneapolis, Rochester, Duluth, Cedarburg, WI). Raw milk is supplied by farmers closest to the respective plants.
I also did a little research on another popular brand of milk: Nature's Touch, sold in plastic bags at Kwik Trip stores and certainly the least expensive way to buy milk that I'm aware of. Assuming things haven't changed too much in the three years since this article in the La Crosse Tribune was published, Kwik Trip's dairy in La Crosse, Wis., processes milk from several hundred dairy producers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

Because my household doesn't consume huge quantities of milk, I've recently come to the conclusion that I'd be willing to pay more for organic milk. What's in my fridge right now is Cedar Summit Farm organic, non-homogenized milk from grass fed cows. The dairy's tag line is, "Experience the way milk should taste," and I have to say, boy does that milk taste good! It seems to have a spectrum of flavor that is broader and more wonderful than I ever remember associating with milk before. Cedar Summit milk used, I believe, to be available only in returnable heavy glass bottles, but it is now also available in cartons. Cedar Summit Farm is just down the road in New Prague.

Eat Local Challenge, Day 1

Here's what's on the menu today:
  • Breakfast: Local yogurt and raspberries, mixed with a little nonlocal cereal
  • Lunch: Cheese sandwich -- bread, cheese and butter all local -- with farmers market cherry tomatoes and an apple from Thorn Crest Farm's stand at the farmers market
  • Dinner: Zucchini-cheese bake with farmers market zucchini and local mozarella; sliced farmers market tomatoes
I'm also soaking some black beans I bought recently recently at the farmers market for use later this week. I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't eat a lot of meat. I'll probably buy locally raised meat once a week or so from the co-op. All my dairy and eggs, which are my major protein sources, have been local for the past month. Actually, this is an area where buying from the supermarket in this part of the country probably gets you fairly local products, even if not specifically marked "local." Kemps brand is based in St. Paul, for example, and Crystal Farms is based in Lake Mills, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Eat Local Challenge Starts Wednesday

The Eat Local challenge sponsored by Just Food co-op begins tomorrow! Read more here. The idea is to eat 80% of your food from the five-state area from August 15 to September 15. The co-op site will feature blog entries by John Thomas and family as they try to follow the challenge for the next month. I'll be adding my thoughts here. Give it a try!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Gasping -- and Feeling Lucky

My quote of the week is an excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver's 1995 collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson. Here it is:
Someone in my childhood gave me the impression that fiddleheads [a type of fern] and mourning cloaks [a type of butterfly] were rare and precious. Now I realize they are fairly ordinary members of eastern woodland fauna and flora, but I still feel lucky and even virtuous -- a gifted observer -- when I see them. For that matter, they probably are rare, in the scope of human experience. A great many people will live out their days without ever seeing such sights, or if they do, never gasping. My parents taught me this -- to gasp, and feel lucky. They gave me the gift of making mountains out of nature's exquisite molehills. ... My heart stops for a second, even now..., as Camille and I wait for the butterfly to light and fold its purple, gold-bordered wings. "That's a mourning cloak," I tell her. "It's very rare."
The gift Kingsolver was given and gives to her daughter in turn is one that I was also given by my mother. Not, perhaps, the gift exactly of gasping, but of being on the lookout -- noticing and appreciating the beauty and importance of a hawk circling high overhead, a heron at the edge of a pond, a purple Siberian iris, a pair of squirrels in a backyard tree. It was she who, after I'd had an unnerving encounter with bats in my first Northfield basement, said, "But Pen, bats are interesting!" It was she who, having lived for several years where I was born, near a game reserve outside Nairobi, Kenya, agonized over the threats to the survival of the great wild animals of Africa and the prospect that one day they might be no more.

It is because of my mother that I scan the sky for raptors, pay attention to birds while I'm supposed to be paying attention to my tennis game, and at least now and then take my son (and my daughters in their day) to look for turtles and hawk feathers and creeks and footprints and berries in the woods. I hope, even though they may seem baffled by some of these passions (and perhaps more than a bit alarmed by my propensity for bird-watching at 70 mph on the interstate), I have planted seeds in them that will send down deepening roots and grow throughout their lives, enabling them to marvel at the beauties and complexities of nature and know that, no matter how seemingly commonplace their manifestations, they are very rare indeed.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle makes best non-fiction list has compiled a top-10 list of their picks for best nonfiction of the year to this point, and Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is on the list. Reading that book was a primary inspiration for this blog, and I'm pleased to see it is continuing to get positive attention.

Looking Beyond Food Miles: Star Trib Commentary

James E. McWilliams, author of "A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America," wrote a thoughtful piece that appeared in the Star Tribune's Commentary section on Thursday:
Does eating local really help the environment? Not always. Other factors, from growing techniques to method of delivery, can outweigh the simple calculation of 'food miles.'
He proposes looking at a food item's life-cycle carbon and resource-use footprint -- things like water and fertilizer use and mode of transportation -- rather than simply at how many miles it has traveled. That, of course, is harder to know, and will depend on plenty of independent analysis.

Not too surprisingly, New Zealand -- about as far as you can get from anywhere in Europe or the Americas, and a prime source of our out-of-season apples -- has seen a need to respond to the local food push. University researchers there have published their findings that, due to naturally lush pastures and other factors, New Zealand lamb shipped by boat to Britain produces about one-fourth the carbon emissions per ton than British-raised lamb. Fruit and dairy products fared similarly.

McWilliams, who describes himself as a passionate "eat local" advocate, concludes:
While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with equally sustainable global counterparts. We must accept the fact, in short, that distance is not the enemy of awareness.
Read the full piece here.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Food for Thought" at Kenyon College

In about 11 days, my eldest daughter is heading off for her first year at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio. Remembering those heady days of perusing a course catalog and trying to decide what classes to register for, I was ... well, perusing her course catalog and deciding what I would take if I could go back to college now. I discovered to my joy that Kenyon offers a special cross-disciplinary, multi-course initiative that explores food, farming and rural life. It's called Food for Thought. Here are some outtakes from the catalog:

Understanding our food sources raises many questions of national and global significance. How will rising petroleum costs affect the availability and cost of food? What is the impact of current farming practices on the environment? How do the cultural meanings we associate with food influence eating habits? Does the loss of small landholding farmers diminish the foundation of a democratic society? ...

Much of the work accomplished in these courses will contribute to an ambitious public project to build a sustainable market for foods produced in and around Knox County. Students and faculty are conducting research on local food supplies and consumer buying habits, developing a local food warehouse and retail outlet in Mount Vernon, and creating exhibits to raise public understanding about the many ways our food choices affect us as individuals and as a society...
Courses in the program include practical issues in ethics, sustainable agriculture, solar energy, photography, American culture and the environment, anthropology of food, and introduction to environmental studies.

By taking three courses, completing a summer internship on a farm that uses ecological production methods, and attending workshops and conferences, students may receive The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA)-Kenyon Certificate in Ecological Agriculture. This program:
... gives students the opportunity to develop intellectual skills and practical knowledge regarding food and farming systems. Students will (1) develop an understanding of the complex nature of agroecosystems, (2) critically analyze the social, political, and economic institutions in which food and farming systems are embedded, and (3) explore the interplay of social values, personal responsibility, and the achievement of environmental and community goals.
For additional information about Food for Thought, visit the Kenyon Rural Life Center Web site.

If I could go back to college with my current life experience and passions, this -- at least in part -- is what I would be doing. There's no doubt in my mind about that.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Eating (and Drinking) Locally... in Oregon

I've just returned from a couple of days in Oregon, where I drove through 50 miles of the stunning Columbia River gorge and passed miles and miles of orchards, fruit stands and wineries near Mount Hood. (It looked a lot like this photo, which is from the Hood River Chamber of Commerce site, although the trees were covered with fruit, not blossoms. And yes, that's Mount Hood in the background.) Alas, being on a business trip, I wasn't really in a position to stop and buy bags of ripe fruit or bottles of wine to bring back with me. I did sample a couple of items featuring the Marionberry -- a large, delicious blackberry that was developed at Oregon State University. I had Marionberry flavored Tillamook yogurt at the airport this morning, and last night I watched boats of all kinds slip past as I sipped a gorgeous mixed berry mojito at a restaurant on the Willamette riverfront in Portland. I guess that's called "drinking locally" -- as long as we ignore the rum and lime juice. I also sampled the famous Tillamook cheddar cheese in a crab and shrimp melt after the mojito was gone.

Earlier yesterday my colleague and I lunched on a hillside patio in the picturesque town of Hood River, which is apparently one of the most popular wind-surfing destinations in the world, due to the winds that are funneled along the gorge.

Both restaurants' menus noted that they use local and organic ingredients whenever possible. I'm seeing this more and more -- not that I eat out much, but it seems it's almost becoming an expectation in good restaurants these days. Since local food is likely to be the freshest, it makes perfect sense.

Monday, August 6, 2007

After the rain

The sudden glut of moisture from Saturday's rain cracked some of my tomatoes, as you can see here. I've suddenly realized that I don't have a lot of tomatoes left. When I'm growing my own from seed, I usually prefer indeterminate varieties that keep producing more fruit throughout the season. This year I bought plants, and while the big, sturdy seedlings gave me a head start on an early harvest, it looks as if I have determinate types, which tend to produce fruit that all ripen around the same time. I guess when my own plants are done, I'll be buying those big slicers from the farmers market until the frosts come.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


As I lay less than half awake this morning, the first tentative, irregular sounds plinked their way through the hum of the ceiling fan. I'd opened the windows last night to let the cool air in, and through those windows eventually came a welcome sound we've not heard much lately: gentle, steady rain.

I drove up the St. Olaf hill on Thursday and it reminded me a little of California's sun-bleached, oak-dotted hills. The sumac is already scarlet or beyond scarlet to brown in some locations. Lawns all over town are parched. The paper reports grave risk to our corn crops, which at least in this region were thriving so well earlier this season that they had doubled the pace of "knee high by the Fourth of July."

A long day's rain won't cure our deficit, but it's providing a much-needed drink to our plants and animals today, and a cool, soothing balm to our sun-dried souls.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Chard, Revisited

Earlier in the week I was pondering what to do with the first bunch of chard I'd ever acquired. Here's what I ended up doing: frying some diced red potatoes in olive oil, adding some chopped green onion, then some sliced mild Italian sausage (chicken sausage, in this case), throwing a little minced garlic into the mix, and then, when the potatoes and sausage were both starting to brown, adding half a bunch of coarsely chopped chard. I sautéed the whole thing for a bit, and then covered the pan with a lid so that the chard would steam. When the chard was well-wilted, I deemed it done.

The minerally, slightly astringent taste of the chard went well with the rich spice of the sausage and the neutral earthiness of the potatoes. I liked the contrast of the yellow stalks against the dark green leaves and the red of the potato skins. I'd make this again -- and no doubt I will buy chard again.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Walking More... But Not As Much As I Should

There's a good conversation going on at Locally Grown about one person's vision for Northfield, and right now the comments are focusing on biking and walking: the need (or not) for additional safe paths, whether to design for how people typically behave as opposed to encouraging different behaviors (more biking, for example), and so on.

In my blog description, you'll see a reference to trying to walk more and drive less. I'm finding this goal hard to achieve. I live less than nine blocks from where I work, but I drive there almost every day. Why? It mostly comes down to kids, time, and weather.

Almost every day I know I am going to have to pick up one or more of my kids from somewhere or drive them somewhere. (Yep, some changes could be made there, but I work full-time and so I appreciate the one-on-one time with the kids. Drawing that balance will be the subject of another post, perhaps.) And almost every day I'm short on time, perhaps trying to get in a few last minutes on a task, and trying to get from place A to place B as quickly as possible; walking seems, at those moments, just to take too long. And the weather? Well, in Minnesota that speaks for itself. Arrive hot and sweaty or arrive half frozen seem to be the choices for about 2/3 of the year.

But at least I'm trying to ask myself most days, "Can I walk instead of driving on this trip?" And occasionally the answer is yes, particularly on the weekends. Just being more conscious of the question is helping, at least a little. I'll continue to try to improve my record.