Farmer Dave Eskeldson dreamed of harvesting corn for the Fourth of July, so during our cold, rainy spring break, we planted seeds to germinate in his green-houses before he transferred them to his field.
Eskeldson once taught math and computer science to middle-schoolers, but on this day, his pupils were our group of 13 Willamette students and advisors. He eagerly shared lessons on organic growing methods and held true to his motto, “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know,” as we walked through his fields at Egor’s Acres, near Scio, Ore.
We met Eskeldson as part of a Take a Break (TaB) service trip to learn about sustainable agriculture from local farmers. Without even knowing it, we were already connected with his fields by eating his lettuce, cucumbers, broccoli, squash, carrots and potatoes in Goudy Commons. Bon Appétit Management Company, Willamette’s food service provider, works with 12 to 15 area farmers to provide the campus with sustainably produced vegetables, fruit, eggs and meat. Among these partners are Eskeldson and his neighbor, DuVonn Amlie, whose Thistledown Farm is known for its sweet heirloom tomatoes and other vegetables.
The local food movement has become so popular in recent years that the word adopted to describe those who follow it — locavore — was New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year. The TaB group took the trend far beyond shopping at farmers markets by touring the fields where our food began its life, enjoying an afternoon getting to know two of the farmers and planting vegetables we knew might on day be served on campus.
Groups like ours are becoming more common with the growth of the local food movement and its close companion, the organic movement.
Shoppers are heading to farmers markets and joining CSAs, or community supported agriculture, where they pay a fee to a farmer in advance of the growing season in return for a weekly box of fresh food, sometimes delivered to their doorsteps. City dwellers are planting edible gardens and starting chicken co-ops for fresh eggs. Families are vacationing at farms in the country while learning about agriculture. Summer internships are heading out of the office and into the fields, and a growing number of young urbanites are starting their own small farms.
The movement is thriving on college campuses, longtime supporters of “green” practices. A 2009 report card from the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which examines sustainability initiatives from the 300 colleges with the largest endowments in the U.S. and Canada, found that 82 percent devote at least a portion of their food budgets to buying from local producers. Almost three in 10 have a community garden or farm on campus. Willamette was among the 30 percent of campuses to receive an “A” grade for its efforts in food and recycling, recognizing Bon Appétit’s dedication to buying from local, organic farms. Willamette students recently planted a garden near Kaneko Commons.
“The amount of attention to this topic has been endless,” says Kimberlee Chambers, an assistant professor of environmental science who researches the Willamette Valley’s food system and advised the TaB trip. “Much of the attention has been focused on Oregon.”
The Willamette Valley’s rich soil and long growing season have made it one of the country’s premier agricultural areas and a hotbed for the locavore movement. Its proximity to Portland has helped the city’s restaurant scene gain national recognition — locally grown produce is this year’s second-hottest American food trend (behind bite-sized desserts), according to a National Restaurant Association survey of chefs. “Portland restaurants are making a name for themselves, and more and more chefs are moving to Portland,” Chambers says. “One of the reasons is they have such easy access to seasonal, local produce coming out of the Willamette Valley.”
Jeff Rosenblad, owner of Happy Harvest Farm in Mt. Angel, Ore., has benefited from the high-end restaurant market in Bend. As our TaB group tied ropes to guide Rosenblad’s young tomato plants, the farmer explained he sells up to 2,000 pounds of watermelon a week to the Bend-La Pine School District. He travels to Bend twice weekly during harvest season to deliver to two school districts and sell at the farmers market and to restaurants and bakeries, all interested in local, sustainably grown produce. “The high-end bakeries provide really good business,” he says. “They want very specific items to bake into their pastries.”
When people sample their first strawberry or tomato from the farmers market, they are often surprised at how different it tastes compared to what they buy at the supermarket.
Locavores say the difference is partly because small farmers can grow more flavorful varieties of produce, items that may not have a long enough shelf life to go to a supermarket. Many small cattle farmers feed the animals grass — their natural diet — causing the meat to taste different from grain-fed animals.
Major grocery stores often purchase produce from agricultural companies that can conveniently provide large amounts of produce at cheap prices — and typically ship that produce from far-off locales, especially during winter when fewer vegetables are in season in the United States. According to the WorldWatch Institute, Americans’ food typically travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to plate, as much as 25 percent farther than in 1980. Large companies often harvest the produce before it’s ripe so it can survive the long trip — which is why a vine-ripened tomato at the farmers market, picked within the last 24 hours, often routs the supermarket version in a taste test.
Shipping food long distances is another reason people are seeking local farmers: petroleum consumption and climate change. Many worry about the use of so much fuel to transport food and the consequences of the resulting carbon emissions.
Health and safety are also concerns. With mad cow scares and outbreaks of E. coli from spinach, more consumers are questioning where their food comes from and how it is raised. Locavores appreciate the ability to talk with farmers about whether they follow sustainable growing practices, and even visit area farms if they want to see how their food is raised and harvested.
But the largest draw for many locavores seems to be the sense of community they feel from becoming involved in a network of people who care about food, Chambers says. They enjoy learning about what’s growing in their area and feeling connected to the land.
“A lot of theoretical papers have been written about how we are simultaneously becoming a more global society as well as a more local society,” Chambers says. “People want to feel like they belong somewhere. They want to feel at home. Going to the farmers market to buy your food, and talking with the farmer while you buy it, fulfills that need.”
Kara Casey ’08 initiated the sustainable agriculture TaB trip because she wanted her fellow students to experience that connection. She came up with the idea after spending the previous summer in the fields at her family’s farm in Washington state and thinking about how nice it would be to have a community of students working alongside her.
“I think there’s a bigger morality issue behind knowing where products are coming from and knowing who’s growing and harvesting your food,” Casey says. “I wanted Willamette students to make connections with their farmers and know their local community. I think the local food movement is about learning to be more interdependent. The movement creates community, and I think community creates peace.
Chambers has been on campus for only a year and a half, but students have already been knocking on her office door, wanting her to advise them on sustainable food research. “The sustainable ag interest here is hugely student driven,” she says.
Chambers created a College Colloquium class called “Geography of Food” to help first-year students explore agricultural movements and their connection with the landscape. She brings in popular Willamette Valley produce to illustrate her lessons and introduce the students to crops many have never seen. She also addresses a common conception about the local food movement — that it’s only for the rich. People who see expensive organic food at the supermarket or associate locavores with upscale restaurants often think they can’t afford to eat locally. Katy Giombolini ’10, who went on the TaB trip, later worked with Chambers to research this issue.
“She found that if you’re not buying the luxury items, the things you get at the farmers market are often the same price or sometimes cheaper than what you buy at the supermarket,” Chambers says. “I think people’s concerns are based more on time. They don’t have the time to garden or process their own food. People don’t even have time to cook the items in their CSA boxes. Time is a bigger concern than money.”
Even if they’re not active locavores, Willamette students support local farmers simply by eating at Goudy. Bon Appétit is nationally recognized for its efforts to buy from local growers through its Farm to Fork program. When Willamette Executive Chef Paul Lieggi and Catering Director Chris Linn design menus, they first consider which items are in season and available locally. “Supporting local farmers is something we take to heart,” says Marc Marelich, general manager. “We know the families of the farmers, know their dogs, know their cattle. They’re like our family.”
Bon Appétit follows a litany of sustainable practices. Among its activities, the company recycles grease to make biodiesel, gives food scraps to farmers to feed livestock, washes dishes with biodegradable soap and recently changed the all-you-can-eat option at dinnertime to reduce food waste.
In early August — four and a half months after our TaB group planted tiny corn seeds in plastic containers — I returned to Egor’s Acres, this time with Lieggi and Linn on one of their annual visits to each local farm that supplies Willamette.
Eskeldson led us on another tour, showing Lieggi the plants nearing harvest and describing a purple winter broccoli he’s growing specifically for Willamette. Farmers who raise food for the University have to be creative with what they grow and when — much of their typical produce is in season during summer, when classes aren’t in session. Lieggi often requests specific ingredients from the farmers, and they work together to get the most out of what’s in season. Once while Lieggi visited Happy Harvest Farm, he noticed Rosenblad tossing his blemished, un-sellable tomatoes to the side of his rows. Rather than letting the tomatoes go to waste, Lieggi said he’d buy them and turn them into sauce.
As Eskeldson’s tour neared the north end of his farm, I spotted what I had really come to see: row after row of corn. While the wet, cold spring kept them from being ready for Independence Day, our seeds had grown into five-foot stalks, almost ready for harvest.
“Opening Days begins on the 28th, and we’ll need a lot of corn for that,” Lieggi told Eskeldson. “We’re still planning our menu, but I know it’ll include your corn.”
Casey, our TaB trip leader, was ecstatic when she heard that the corn — our corn — was heading to campus for Willamette’s new student orientation: “It feels like a piece of me will be nurturing the new freshmen.”
During the first week of classes, I headed to Goudy for lunch, wedged my way into a group hovering around the soup station, and saw a thrilling sign: “Egor’s Acres Corn Chowder.” I scooped the hot liquid into a cup and settled down to savor its sweet and salty flavors. Other diners may have dipped their spoons into a simple bowl of sweet corn mingling with milk, spices and vegetables. But my bowl contained so much more — pride in the planting, a connection to the land, awareness and knowledge of where our food comes from. Most important, like so many other locavores, I saw the chowder as a symbol of community, newfound friendships with like-minded neighbors and farmers who put their hearts into providing their best.
Sarah Evans is a staff writer in the Office of Communications and was one of three advisors on the sustainable agriculture Take a Break trip last spring. Read more about her experience.
All items are organic, and all are from Corvallis, Ore., unless otherwise noted.
Items are not organic unless noted.
Law student Justin Rothboeck JD’10 is attemp- ting an all-local diet for a year, eating only foods grown, processed, packaged and sold within Washington or Oregon. He’s been blogging about his experience at http://salemdiet.blogspot.com. Here are some excerpts:
I’ve been taking for granted some of the things that were in my fridge before I started this project. Now I’m running out. Ketchup ran out yesterday, and today I just used up my tamari. Peanut butter is another thing I’m really going to miss, and I just have a tiny bit left. Running out of these ingredients makes me wonder if I could make them myself. I know Oregon grows a lot of hazelnuts, maybe I can make some hazelnut butter.
I neglected my starter for the last few weeks after I made a terrible batch of bread with it. In that batch I forgot to add salt, but it was hard for me to believe that forgetting salt could make bread that terrible. I gave it another whirl today, remembered the salt, and actually made some good French bread. Starter, flour, water, salt — with cornmeal and butter to line the pan. Every thing but the salt is local.
On Sunday I canned corn. Oddly, none of my friends were chomping at the bit to help me shuck, wash, blanch, ice, de-cob and pressure can 100 ears of corn, so I did it myself and it took most of the day. Lesson learned, 100 ears of corn is a ton. I canned 32 cups, froze 12 cups and stuck a couple more cups in the fridge for immediate eating. I haven’t tried any yet, but if it’s decent, it should last me the whole winter.
Documentary films and best-selling books, particularly those by author Michael Pollan, helped fuel the recent popularity of the locavore movement.
“These books and films are educating people, and that’s causing a reaction,” says Kimberlee Chambers, a Willamette professor and local food researcher. “Most of them show how you can change and make a difference.”
Pollan explores the question “What should we have for dinner?” by detailing three food chains: industrial, organic and food we forage ourselves. www.michaelpollan.com/omnivore.ph
The popular fiction author moved her family to an Appalachian farm to spend a year eating only food raised in their neighborhood or that they grew themselves. www.animalvegetablemiracle.com
This sequel to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” attempts to define what people should eat. Pollan’s advice: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. www.michaelpollan.com/indefense.php
The authors attempt the 100-mile diet, eating only foods that originate within 100 miles of their home. In turn they learn about globalization, monoculture, the oil economy and environmental collapse. www.100milediet.org
Schlosser’s book shows how America’s infatuation with fast food led to today’s industrial food system and transformed our diets, landscape, economy and workforce.
Two college friends move to Iowa to plant an acre of corn and learn about where their food comes from. www.kingcorn.net
This film investigates industrial agriculture, genetically modified foods and the multinational corporations controlling the world’s food system. www.thefutureoffood.com
Visit the farmers market. One of the easiest ways to eat local is to shop at your area farmers market. The grower is often at the booth to answer your questions. Consider joining a CSA, or com-munity supported agriculture, where farmers provide you with regular deliveries of fresh produce.
Eat seasonally. Learn which crops are native in your area and what times of year they naturally produce, and eat them only when they’re in season. Try canning, drying or freezing items to eat during winter.
Garden. A growing number of people are tearing up their lawns to plant edible gardens. If you don’t have a yard, plant herbs and vegetables in containers or join a community garden. Contact your area’s master gardener program for advice.
Find like-minded people. Many existing clubs and organizations teach about how to grow or preserve food and where to find local produce. If you can’t find a club, start one.
Search your landscape. Sometimes you can find free edibles growing in the wild. Blackberries are rampant in the Northwest landscape, and many people also hunt lettuce and mushrooms (make sure you know which ones are poisonous).
Read labels and ask questions. At the super-market, look for labels showing where the food originated, and pick items from your region whenever possible. If there are no labels, ask — some smaller stores buy from area farms, even if they don’t advertise it.
Support restaurants serving local food. More and more restaurants are buying from local farmers. Even some chains, including Burgerville, use seasonal local ingredients. Ask your favorite restaurants if they buy local.
Try the Low Carbon Diet. Bon Appétit Management Company’s campaign offers tips to help reduce global greenhouse emissions: Don’t waste food, eat only seasonal and regional items, reduce your intake of beef and cheese, don’t buy air-freighted food, and skip processed and packaged items.
Oregon Tilth: This nonprofit research and education organization certifies farms worldwide that follow organic practices and offers educational events throughout Oregon.
Edible Communities: Edible Communities produces community-based local-foods publications in culinary regions throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Local Harvest: Find farmers markets, family farms, CSAs and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area.
Slow Food USA: This grassroots movement seeks to change the food system by reconnecting Americans with the people, traditions, plants, animals, water and soil that produce our food.
Students in Kimberlee Chambers’ “Geography of Food” class analyzed their hometowns to determine what food was produced there and how feasible it would be to eat local. Read some of their papers online.