Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Meat of the Matter: Transitioning a Family Business

This series looks at how one small processor, Marks Meats in Canby, is transitioning from the founding owner-operators to a new generation of ownership under the name Revel Meat Company. This post was developed in collaboration with Old Salt Marketplace, a supporter of Good Stuff NW.

Floyd Marks opened Marks Meats on South Mulino Road in Canby, Oregon, in 1963. His daughter, Kris, who was a very young child at the time, still remembers the opening party in the brand new slaughterhouse. The band was set up on a platform over the drain where the animals were hung to bleed out, with the dance floor in the middle of the room. Originally solely a slaughterhouse, Floyd designed the compact footprint of the facility to maximize efficiency and, as the business expanded, to accommodate an on-site processing facility to make sausages, bacon and smoked meats.

Floyd and Martha Marks (c. 1975).

In the mid-1970s, when their mother decided it was time to retire from the business, Kris and her sister Judy were asked to step in, Judy working with the animals on the kill floor and Kris managing the new processing side. By this time Kris had married her husband, Joe Akin, and they were the parents of two young children. As a teenager, Joe had applied for a job at the plant and, like Jimmy Serlin would many years later, he found his calling working there.

When their father was ready to retire, the business was turned over to Judy and Kris. When I expressed surprise that a slaughterhouse might be run by two young women, she reminded me that in many old farm families it was not unusual for the women to do the butchering.

* * *

Dealing with the animals that you raise
and the vegetables that you raise and
processing them all the way through,
it wasn't something foreign to us.

* * *

"If you grew up on a farm, you also did that as part of it," she said. "Dealing with the animals that you raise and the vegetables that you raise and processing them all the way through, it wasn't something that was foreign to us."

Judy eventually left the business, and Joe took over running the kill floor while Kris worked on the processing side and took care of the immense amount of record-keeping required for the facility's Federal Grant of Inspection from the USDA. The grant allowed the business to slaughter and butcher animals, and involved a difficult and costly approval process, one that guarantees that procedures are in place to ensure that the meat it sells is safe and inspected before, during and after slaughter.

Processing room at Marks Meats (c. 1975).

Around ten years ago it became difficult for Kris and Joe to find trained, competent help in the slaughterhouse, so Kris stepped onto the floor to work alongside her husband. While he did the stunning—essentially rendering the animals brain-dead—at the height of their production they managed a schedule that rotated through 30 beef in a day, and other days processed 24 to 30 pigs or 75 or 80 lambs, a crushing amount of output for a small facility.

Approaching retirement age, they both knew that this kind of heavy production schedule was unsustainable, so Kris began to put the word out that Marks was looking for a buyer. An attractive prospect, the business drew several inquiries because of its up-to-date plant and that all-important grant of inspection, not to mention its accessibility to both area farms and a Portland customer base. But none had quite the right combination of factors required for a transition of ownership that would take several years to complete.

Enter Jimmy and the young crew of food revolutionaries from Let Um Eat who had bought a farm down the road and, driving by one day, saw a sign outside advertising a sale on steaks.

The young people were just customers at first, but the sudden departure of an employee left Kris short-handed, so she asked if they knew of anyone who might be be interested in helping out.

"Then Jimmy showed up because he was interested in learning what we did," Kris said, though it was obvious from the get-go that he had no idea what an immensely physical job it was. "It’s like working out at the gym for eight to ten hours. He was on the kill floor, doing skinning and pushing and pulling and different movements that you don’t normally do."

For Jimmy’s part, he said, ”I didn’t realize how excited I was about it till I started.” When his own father passed away a few weeks into his stint at Marks, a particularly heartfelt conversation with Kris and Joe about her father and the beginnings of Marks cemented his decision. "It became clear that it was something I’d wanted to do for awhile [but] I never really thought about it," he said. "Being there, I think it keeps me in line with with what my old man did."

* * *

We’d been doing this for a long time and
physically we needed to have younger people do it
in order to keep the business running.

* * *

Kris remembers that fairly soon after he started, Jimmy said he was looking for something more permanent than simply being an employee.

"He wanted to know more about the business and possibly join us in some capacity," she said. "And we were wanting to get out. We’d been doing this for a long time and physically we needed to have younger people do it in order to keep the business running."

The key phrase Jimmy got from his conversation with Kris? "If you’re interested, let’s talk."

Marks Meats (c. 1975).

At that point, as far as he was concerned, the decision was made. "How can we can we all talk about Let Um Eat and the collective and not take the opportunity to take over one of the most crucial pieces to the small farm and sustainable food movement?" he remembers thinking.

The other members of the collective, however, were not on board with making that kind of long-term commitment. Or as Jimmy said, "They were like, haha, we have a thousand other things going on."

Knowing he couldn't do it alone, however, meant that he needed to find partners who could bring additional skill sets to the table. He approached Ben Meyer, who was already working with local ranchers and farmers on a whole animal program for his Portland restaurants Old Salt Marketplace and Grain & Gristle. Bringing butchery, merchandising, retailing and processing expertise, Meyer was the perfect fit. To complete the team, Meyer brought in cattle rancher Ryan Ramage of Ramage Farm in Oregon City.

Meyer had already identified that it was critical to keep Oregon's surviving small processors alive, as well as the need to add more. Crucial to this was figuring out the stumbling blocks faced by existing processors, which had been steadily closing since the '70s. "Every one we lose is another opportunity for a small rancher to process," he said. So when Jimmy presented him with the opportunity to buy Marks, he recalled, "I immediately said we need to at least talk about it."

* * *

[Handling the physical aspect of the work] is the
most important part, because if they can’t do that,
the rest of the business isn’t going to work.

* * *

Meyer began working alongside Jimmy on the kill floor soon after that, with Kris teaching them the arcane, detailed and exhausting work that goes into processing in a USDA facility. Also involved were endless conversations about how to transition to new owners from a second generation, family-owned and run business.

Marks Meats (c. 1975).

Kris said that the last eight to ten months have been spent seeing if Ben and Jimmy could learn how to handle the work.

"It’s the most important part, because if they can’t do that, the rest of the business isn’t going to work," she said, emphasizing that the learning curve is a steep one. "You need to get up from kindergarten to college really fast. If you’re going into this business from an apprenticeship level up to a journeyman, it can take up to ten years. So doing it in this [short] length of time, it’s difficult."

Other complicating factors are that Marks is a corporation, with a USDA grant of inspection involved. Being the shrewd businesswoman she is, the key to a successful transition, Kris said, is that "you’ve got to make it work for a business, because you can’t make it work for everybody if it doesn’t make business sense."

When I asked what the hardest part of the process has been for Kris personally, she paused. "Probably the letting go and letting somebody else do something for me," she said. In the past, she said, "If it didn’t get done, I had to do it and make sure it got done."

Read the first post in the series, Rejuvenating Local Processing. Check back soon for the last post in the series, focusing on the future of small processors with an interview with Revel Meat co-owner Ben Meyer.

Photos courtesy Kris Akin.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Rhubarb and Carrot Olive Oil Cake

Like contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food, I grew up eating stewed rhubarb in the spring, and was even known to gnaw on a raw stalk once in awhile. In adulthood, chewing on the raw product has gone by the wayside, but having as much as I can is still a priority at this time of the year.

Every year when I see the first rhubarb at the farmers market I'm reminded again that I didn't plant some in my own garden. The one year I did remember, I was too late; I planted the crown in the fall and never saw it again (early spring is the time…I could've looked it up). Rhubarb is my favorite pie filling, and I grew up eating bowls of it simply stewed with sugar. These days I mostly roast it with olive oil, usually with either honey or cane syrup.

But I'm occasionally inspired to do more. After making Nigella Lawson's Venetian carrot cake and liking the unusual, not-too-sweet and very Italian dessert, I thought it would be a good vehicle for eating more rhubarb.

Grate a medium-sized carrot and put the results on a paper towel to soak up some of the liquid. Cut 6 to 7 stalks of rhubarb into half inch pieces (about 2 cups or so). I mixed together a half cup each of cane syrup and extra virgin olive oil (sorry Nigella, but if you don't use extra virgin olive oil you might as well use plain vegetable oil), then added 3 eggs, a teaspoon of vanilla, a shot of bourbon, and the zest and juice from a smallish lemon.

I stirred in about 2 cups of almond flour and added the grated carrot and sliced rhubarb. Parchment paper got cut into a circle to fit a 7-inch cast iron skillet (a cake pan or pie tin would be fine), and I drizzled a little more extra virgin over it to grease the pan. I poured in the thick batter, added a generous sprinkle of blanched, slivered almonds to the top, and baked it at 350° F for about 45 minutes. Nigella calls for a topping of mascarpone with powdered sugar and rum (or bourbon, for my version), but I like a little whipped cream with cane syrup and whiskey.

Rhubarb is also awesome in other desserts, made into syrup or mixed in a cocktail…check out these other fantastic rhubarb recipes!

Monday, May 08, 2017

"Watch Anchovies Fly!"

"Looks so good and smells even better!"

This could have been uttered at many moments during my marriage, and this video, courtesy my friend Holly Heyser, of her mate, Hank Shaw, a prolific author, blogger, hunter, forager and cook, is a testament to the patience (and sense of humor) it takes to live with a cook. Thanks, Holly!

More Hanksperiments.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Meat of the Matter: Rejuvenating Local Processing

This series looks at how one small processor, Marks Meats in Canby, is transitioning from the founding owner-operators to a new generation of ownership under the name Revel Meat Company. This post was developed in collaboration with Old Salt Marketplace, a supporter of Good Stuff NW.

The first time in his life that Jimmy Serlin walked onto a kill floor was just about a year ago. It was lamb day at Mark’s Meats in Canby, and 60 sheep were scheduled for slaughter and processing. Intense, smelly, dangerous work, with trolleys weighing 15 pounds hanging 20 feet over his head, it could have been disastrous.

Instead, the words he used to describe it were more like those of someone falling in love.

“I was just instantly enamored,” he said, and remembered thinking, “This is what I want to do.”

Left to right: Ben Meyer, Ryan Ramage and Jimmy Serlin of Revel Meats.

That feeling didn’t diminish even though he recalls going home at the end of the week so tired and sore he walked in the house and flopped down on his bed. When his roommate came in and asked him how it had gone, he said, “I can’t lift my arms off the bed.”

It’s tempting to paint the picture as one of the prodigal son finding his calling, since his father had owned a wholesale meat packing business in Manhattan supplying area restaurants. Young Jimmy often skipped school to go to work with his dad, helping load the trucks for tips, but he found himself more drawn to the restaurants those trucks were heading to.

Revel Meat Co. USDA stamp.

So, starting as a dishwasher at 13, he began cooking on the line soon after, eventually ending up at culinary school where he became fascinated with butchery. Stints in far-flung restaurants in New York, Vermont, Colorado and California, many with his culinary school buddy Karl Holl, cemented those nascent skills. Working for well-known restaurateur Staffan Terje at Perbacco in San Francisco, a high-rolling customer named Frank offered the pair a chance to come to Oregon and work on a start-up producing naturally raised geese for foie gras.

That, of course, went the way of many high-concept start-ups, leaving Karl and Jimmy and a few friends they’d moved with to Oregon sitting on a farm they’d leased near Salem and needing to pay the rent. But being a flexible and talented group, they decided to start a pop-up restaurant and catering business called Let Um Eat, with the lofty goal of “uniting the seeders, feeders and eaters of the food revolution.”

A move to a permanent location, a farm on Milk Creek near Canby, proved to be pivotal in a way the group couldn’t have foreseen. They’d often stop down the road to buy steaks at a small meat processor, where Jimmy boasted to its owner, Kris Akin, about the Let Um Eat collective. “She, of course, looked us up on the internet and said, ‘What the hell is Let Um Eat? You guys sound like weirdos,’” he said.

Weirdos or not, Akin saw the value in the local network they had created, especially since she needed help finding qualified employees to process the animals into sausages and cuts of meat. And because she and her husband Joe were looking to turn the business over to new owners so they could retire.

The Processing Bottleneck

It’s probably a good point to “pivot,” as the au courant phrase has it, to discuss some of the history of meat processing in Oregon.

Tools of the trade.

According to Akin, in the mid-20th Century there were more than 1,000 small meat processors operating in Oregon, with one in almost every small town. They served as slaughterhouses and processing plants for local farmers and ranchers, and most were regulated by the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) meat inspection program established in 1957. By 1967 the Wholesome Meat Act passed by Congress gave the USDA the responsibility of ensuring that animals were slaughtered humanely and that states maintained meat and poultry inspection programs at least equal to the federal program.

[Historical factoid: The Wholesome Meat Act, a reform pushed by consumer activist Ralph Nader in the 1960s, was known as “The Jungle, Part 2,” after Upton Sinclair’s book, “The Jungle,” about the deplorable conditions in meat processing plants in turn of the century Chicago, resulted in the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906.]

Discussing cuts.

At that point Oregon turned over its meat inspection program to the USDA, which meant that small processors had to upgrade to meet federal standards—an extremely expensive proposition for marginally profitable businesses—or become “custom exempt,” meaning that they could only slaughter and process livestock for the exclusive use of the farmer and agree to inspection by both ODA and USDA once or twice a year.

Without access to funds to invest in updating equipment, hire skilled workers or do the marketing to find producers, not to mention consumers to buy their products, small facilities suffered. The implementation in 1996 of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system—establishing new requirements to improve food safety—and the simultaneous consolidation in the grocery industry were an “inflection point,” according to Lauren Gwin of Oregon State University’s Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network.

“People blame regulations, and that shift was really hard for small plants,” she said. “But there were larger changes in the meat industry at the same time that were putting pressure on those small plants. The consolidation in the industry, including the shift to boxed meat, really changed things for the smaller plants.”

This shift from small grocers to large supermarkets, which closed butcher departments and switched to boxes of pre-cut meat from large processors, caused many of the state’s small slaughterhouses to shutter. From 2000 to 2015, mobile and custom-exempt facilities in Oregon dropped more than 30 percent, from 93 to 63, and the number of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses fell 25 percent, from 16 to 12.

Another consequence of the loss of these small processors is that farmers and ranchers have been forced to transport their animals longer and longer distances to get them slaughtered and processed, a costly and environmentally questionable practice. An article in the Eugene Register-Guard, titled “A Meaty Bottleneck,” quotes a 2005 study by Ecotrust concluding that “42 percent [of growers] said they would consider raising more animals if they had improved access to meat-processing facilities.”

Because pasture-raised and grass-fed meat from small farms is in increasingly high demand from consumers who want to know where their food comes from, including how it was raised, slaughtered and processed, it’s critical to the health and vibrancy of Oregon’s food system that small processors survive to serve them.

Read the next post in the series, an interview with Kris Akin, owner of Mark’s Meats, about the challenges of passing on a family business. The third post will focus on the future of small processors with an interview with Ben Meyer.

All photos by Rich Crowder.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Good Farmers Have Happy Animals

It's always good for me to stop staring at the computer and head out into the real world, and for me the best place to go is to a farm, especially if it's that time of year when lambs and pigs and goats are popping out babies right and left. Michael and Linda Guebert of Terra Farma had been posting some adorable pictures of their latest litter of piglets on Instagram, and since I'd been talking with Mike about arranging a visit when the winter rains abated and their pastures dried out, I asked if they might have some time for a viewing.

Cinnamon and her piglets.

Yesterday was the appointed day for that long-awaited visit, and with the morning promising (mostly) blue skies and reasonable temperatures—woohoo!—I jumped in Chili and drove out to the farm. Even if you don't have a farm to visit, I can testify that the drive to Corbett via the Old Columbia River Highway is spectacular this time of year, lushly green from all the rains and with the Sandy River running thick with runoff from the many streams that feed into it.

Primarily a livestock-based operation, Linda and Mike raise pigs, chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl and rabbits for meat, and milk three cows and several goats twice a day. They also have laying hens, and sell raw milk and eggs out of a refrigerator on their porch to a regular clientele who come to the farm. Located on 10 acres of hilly terrain above Smith Creek, the couple run the farm on a rotational grazing system, moving the groups of animals to fresh pasture in a series of paddocks so that the health of the pastures is maintained and, hopefully, improved.


When I pulled up, Linda took me to the barn to meet their resident goat, Scooter, paralyzed as a kid when she got tangled in some of the electrified netting they use as movable fencing. Even though she can't stand or move her back legs much, she gets around the farm quite ably—it actually reminded me of Wyeth's "Christina's World"—though Linda mentioned they're looking for a set of wheels so she can be more comfortable and mobile. (If you know of anyone with a cart, give me a shout!)

Also in the barn was a set of several-week-old goat triplets staring down at us from their perch on bales of hay about eight feet off the ground. After a meet-and-greet, we went out to meet the new piglets and their mama, a sow named Cinnamon, who was busy showing them how to properly root in the grass.

Perching triplets.

The wonderful part about visiting farms and talking with farmers who care about their animals the way that Mike and Linda do, is seeing them pointing out the individual characteristics of each animal, laughing at their behaviors, telling stories and being genuinely engaged with them. It's heartening in a time when agriculture seems to be turning more and more toward an industrial model, when a living being—the animals and often the humans who work there—seem to be treated as no more important than a widget.

Thanks, Mike and Linda, for caring and for sharing your farm with me!

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Tamale Pie My Mother Would Recognize

Before Blue Apron and Purple Carrot, there was Hamburger Helper and Swanson's frozen dinners. Before that, in the days of yore when I was growing up, when my father didn't have time to hunt down a brontosaurus, my mother made do with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and an arsenal of Lipton's dehydrated products. Spanish rice, tuna casserole and pot roast were her go-to dinners, egged on by the women's magazines of the day like the Ladies Home Journal that—shades of Betty Draper—gave busy homemakers tips on "quick dinners your family will love!"

Tamale pie was one of those dinner solutions, though in the days when most Americans considered spaghetti sauce "spicy food," its call for the addition of chili powder was a bridge too far for many. But my dad loved him some zing, so my mom would occasionally pep up her dinner rotation with chili powder-inflected goulash or tacos with hot sauce.

I'd been looking for a tamale pie recipe for those times when I'm feeling a bit of nostalgia for the casserole dinners of my childhood, and my friend Lizzy shared one recently that brought back a flood of cornmeal-scented, cheesy memories. Updated with a few adaptations using local cornmeal and grassfed beef, locally grown and roasted tomatoes and some tangy cheddar from Face Rock Creamery in Bandon, it fit the bill perfectly. I hope it will for you, too!

Tamale Pie

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 onion
2 poblano peppers, chopped in 1/4” dice
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 lbs. ground meat (beef, chicken or turkey)
2 c. roasted tomatoes
2 c. corn kernels
1/2 c. chicken stock
2 tsp. ancho chile powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 c. cornmeal
1 c. grated cheddar or jack cheese
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 350°.

Heat oil in large skillet over medium high heat. (If using cast iron skillet, you can bake the casserole in it, as well.) When it shimmers, add ground meat and sauté until the meat is browned. Add onion and sauté until tender, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and pepper and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add chile powder and cumin and stir briefly, then add tomatoes, corn kernels and broth. Bring to a simmer. Salt to taste.

While meat mixture simmers, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Slowly add cornmeal, stirring vigorously to prevent lumping. (Mixture will be quite thick.) Add 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste. Stir cornmeal mixture into other ingredients. Put mixture into casserole (if you are using a cast iron skillet, you can bake the casserole in this). Sprinkle cheese over the top and bake about 30 minutes.

Here's another version of tamale pie with a cornbread topping.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A User's Guide to Good Eggs

Eggs are getting a lot of press these days, from the ballyhoo over big corporations announcing they'll only use cage-free eggs to debates over the credibility of the dizzying plethora of labels stuck all over the cartons in supermarket egg cases. So when I read this deep dive into the subject by my friend, writer Lynne Curry, I knew you'd be as intrigued as I was.

The other day I met a woman in the grocery store where we stood side by side scanning the overflowing options of the yogurt aisle. I felt almost dizzy trying to find organic yogurt.

When I reached for a quart of grassfed Stonyfield, she laughed. “That’s what I was looking for!” And then we chatted briefly about the ridiculously high sugar content in flavored yogurt for our kids.

She’s another shopper like me, I thought as I watched her walk toward the egg section. No supermarket stalker, I looked on with curiosity because I’ve been researching and writing about organic egg production here and here.

Again, she mulled over the offerings and surveyed the cartons bearing labels from cage free to organic to free range. When she picked up a carton of cage-free eggs, my heart sank a little.

Nope, I realized, she doesn’t know either. And so I committed to finishing this egg post to share what I know about finding, buying and eating good eggs.

Why Eggs Matter Now

Maybe you’ve noticed that the egg industry is undergoing a quiet revolution. We’re eating more eggs now than in the past 30 years—263 eggs per person in 2014, according to The Washington Post.

The story I’ve been following involves major policy changes and the 200-plus big businesses that have committed to transition to cage-free eggs by 2025. While Big Ag policy stuff is a big yawn most of the time, this change is already sweeping the country and changing the egg market for the better.

The shift to cage-free and the popularity of organics are two reasons why there are more choices on the market than ever—which makes buying eggs so confusing.

But here’s the uplifting takeaway: change is coming from the bottom, not the top. Consumer buying habits and concerns about the treatment of animals are the main driving force behind changes in egg production methods that affect the hens, the lands, the farmers and local economies as well.

It’s you. It’s me. It’s all of us shifting eggs away from the grip of factory farming because we want better lives for animals, better foods for our families and more corporate responsibility (read: honesty).

All Fresh Eggs Are Not Alike

You probably already know this if you have been lucky enough to taste a local egg. It’s hard to go back to store bought. But this winter, despite foraging far and wide, there were no local eggs to be found.

So, I had to make choices from the egg section at the grocery store.

Buying eggs is about the chicken and the egg. The difference of each type of egg carton—from cage-free to organic to pastured—is an indication of the chicken’s lifestyle, the nutrition and the flavors of each egg.

(There has been little research on the effects of pasture on egg flavors and the one study I found claimed there was no difference. C’mon! We’re just going to have to chalk up the question of egg taste to subjectivity and personal preference.)

But unfortunately, it’s not the whole story, and you have to dig deeper to get a truly good egg.

What about all of those labels festooning the cartons?

They are more confusing than helpful, in most cases. While there are a lot of egg label guides, I find most of them a little hard to decode, so I recommend downloading Animal Welfare Institute’s pocket guide. Or to find out how the organic eggs you already buy rate, scan this scorecard from the watchdog food group Cornucopia Institute.

Don't Be Fooled By Cage-Free Eggs

Here’s the deal: all eggs are going cage free. This means that millions of laying hens will no longer be confined to battery cages the size of an 8 1/2 by 11-inch sheet of paper.

While it’s a major step in the right direction for animal welfare, it’s a little more complicated than that, as this Mother Jones article reports. In short, these debeaked chickens are still confined to multistory laying facilities called aviaries where the conditions are crowded, air quality is questionable and the pecking order causes higher mortality rates.

Cage-free is not a compassionate eater’s dream, in other words. Cage free also has no bearing on the nutrition, quality and taste of the egg for you.

Why not?

The chicken feed is the same as for caged hens. Plus, while they can at least flap their wings and lay down, they do not get outdoors where they exercise and get sunlight while ranging for insects and other tasty items that diversify their nutritional intake.

Other Egg Labels and Seals 

Organic is pretty much about the feed, that’s it. So while organic eggs will be antibiotic and GMO-free, they will not necessarily come from hens who had any genuine access to the outdoors. In fact, the biggest producers of organic eggs operate giant multi-story hen houses called aviaries and they dominate the organic egg industry.

Chances are high that the organic eggs you buy come from an industrial egg producer. (This January, I reported how the organic rules were all set to change to disallow aviaries with no true outdoor access from qualifying as organic eggs. But that all went away.)

Free-range sounds good, but it doesn’t mean anything at all without any other verification to back it up. It is simply an alluring marketing claim that producers can slap on an egg carton at will.

Same goes for pasture raised, an unregulated term, so be on alert for false advertising.

Here are all the other labels that do not have any bearing on chickens’ quality of life or the nutritional quality or flavor of their eggs:
  • farm fresh
  • natural/all-natural
  • free roaming
  • sustainably farmed
  • vegetarian fed
  • hormone free
Stand-alone labels like these are just there to fool you. So just go ahead and ignore all of these meaningless claims from now on, okay?

Animal Welfare Certifications

These seals—or stamps of approval—on egg cartons do mean something. Called third-party certifications, they verify that the marketing claims are true. So, for example, if the label says pasture-raised or free-range and its paired with the logo from Animal Welfare Approved, this is the gold standard.

You can trust that an independent auditor made sure that the hens truly do live on pasture except for when their health or safety is at risk.

Certified Human (less stringent than AWA) and American Humane (less stringent yet) are two more third-party certifiers for eggs.

Yes, it is mind boggling. And yet necessary in a world where we have commoditized living creatures for profit.

But here’s where anyone can make a real difference…

(Read the rest of the article here and find out why pasture-raised eggs are nutritionally better, the four best types of eggs to buy and where to buy them!)

Small photos of egg cartons, cracked eggs and farm stand by Lynne Curry.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Basics: Flower of Salt (aka Flor de Sal)

Considering it's one of the simplest and most common culinary ingredients, salt is a surprisingly complex subject. Contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food gives some background.

I started importing flor de sal when I realized that everything I ate was drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse salt. I had, and still have, a French-made Peugeot cast aluminum salt grinder (salt mills must have ceramic grinders so they don't corrode; pepper mills have metal grinders). I'd fill it with chunks of traditional sea salt and grind some over my food after I'd anointed it with oil.

Salt ponds in the Algarve region of Portugal.

Then, almost 15 years ago, I read Corby Kummer's article in the Atlantic. Kummer described a culinary salt journey much like mine, moving from the hard square crystals of refined table salt to the pyramind-shaped flakes of kosher salt to the softer, more nuanced, flavor-enhancing qualities of traditional sea salt. He swooned over fleur de sel, the light gray sea salt from the marshes of Brittany, even if the price gave him sticker shock. But he'd just discovered something better, flor de sal, Portuguese flower of salt from the hot, sunny Atlantic coast called the Algarve.

It took me about a year to get my first bags of flor de sal from the idealistic young marine biologists who started Necton, the company that harvests salt the way the Romans did when they lived along the same coast. All it takes to make flor de sal are the sun, the sea and somebody to skim the delicate crystals from the water after they start to bloom. Flaky salts like Maldon and Jacobsen come from boiling the sea water over gas fires until most of the water evaporates.

Only about 10% of the salt in the salina is available as flor de sal. As the crystals grow, they sink to the bottom and are raked out as traditional sea salt. The larger crystals can be used for cooking, where they dissolve, or are ground into fine sea salt.

We keep a few bowls of flor de sal in the kitchen so it's easy to grab a pinch. Fingers are the best way to add salt, too; bacteria can't grow on the salt (except on the ocean floor near a volcanic vent). And everything I eat gets a drizzle of olive oil and a few crystals of flor de sal.

Why Not Kosher Salt?

Diamond Crystal kosher salt, the most widely used brand, is made by Cargill. For me, that's enough reason not to use it. I'd rather my food dollars went to companies, big or small, that share my values about corporate responsibility, environmental protection and eating real food.

But sea salt harvested specifically for using with food also tastes better. More than 90% of the salt produced around the world is destined for industrial uses, everything from making PVC pipe to de-icing roads. And most industrial users want pure sodium chloride, NaCl. Salt mined from the earth, all of which came from prehistoric oceans, can be nearly 99% sodium chloride. Large producers of sea salt that use evaporative ponds can drain excess brine while the salt crystals are forming, washing away the trace elements found in sea water.

The relative handful of sea salt producers who only make culinary salt allow the sea water to evaporate completely, so all of the magnesium, calcium, potassium and other trace elements found in the ocean stay in the salt. Sea salt can be less than 90% sodium chloride, and the presence of the trace elements buffers the natural bitterness of pure salt. Try this: fry two eggs (in olive oil, of course), then salt one with kosher or table salt and other with a good sea salt or flor de sal. You can taste the difference.

Top photo from Wikimedia. Photo of Algarve salt beds from Jim Dixon.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Your Food, Your Legislature: Mega-Dairies Win, Oregon's Air Quality Loses

"Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon, reported that its 52,300-dairy-cow operation emits 15,500 pounds of ammonia per day, totaling more than 5,675,000 pounds per year. That is 75,000 pounds more than the nation’s number one manufacturing source of ammonia air pollution (CF Industries of Donaldson, Louisiana)." - from a letter to the EPA from the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, March 27, 2008

Not to scare the pants off of you, but Threemile Canyon Farms, the mega-dairy mentioned above, now has 70,000 cows, with a concomitant increase in the amount of ammonia produced per day—meaning its cows now produce 20,746 pounds of ammonia per day, every day, for a grand total of 7,572,180 pounds per year. Not only that, it's soon to be joined by Lost Valley Farm, which is initially slated to have 30,000 cows. Oh, and Boardman? It's right on the banks of the Columbia River, at the east end of the Columbia River Gorge.

Slurry at Threemile Canyon Farm.

Luckily for these factory farms—both of which have contracts to supply much of their milk to Oregon's own Tillamook cheese so it can be sold from here to Micronesia—the legislature's Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources today killed a bill, SB 197, that would have begun the process of setting up basic regulations on air contaminant emissions (like ammonia) from these types of mega-dairies. Contaminants are not monitored or regulated due to a loophole in Oregon law that exempts these factory farms from any requirement to monitor, report or reduce air pollution associated with the manure from the tens of thousands of animals they keep.

Cow standing in slurry at Threemile Canyon.

In a statement on the demise of SB 197, a coalition of farm and environmental watchdogs said that "large mega-dairies like Threemile Canyon Farms, with 70,000 cows, and the recently approved 30,000-cow Lost Valley Farms, have been identified as major sources of ammonia, a gas responsible for haze and acid deposition in the Columbia River Gorge."

"The landscape of agriculture in Oregon is changing," according to Ivan Maluski, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers. "Since 2002, the state has lost roughly 75% of its dairy farms even as cow numbers have grown and large industrial scale dairies have moved in. Instead of supporting small and mid-sized family farms, the state has opened its doors for increasingly large, factory-scale industrial dairy operations. All the while, Oregon decision-makers have been putting their heads in the sand with regard to their harmful emissions of gases like ammonia and methane from these increasingly large operations. Today will be marked as one in which Oregon chose to do nothing to address the harmful air emissions from the growing number of large confinement dairy operations coming here to take advantage of our misguided air pollution loophole."

Read my post on Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese.

Read the other posts in this series. Find your legislators here and share your concerns.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Pesto From Carrot Tops Is…Well…Tops!

This time of year my craving for greens is practically insatiable. I'm coming home from the market with bunches of raab (or rapini or rabe) from multiple different vegetables—turnips, kale, mustard greens—and foraging through the aisles for nettles, fiddleheads…well, you get the picture. And since these days I only buy carrots with their tops still attached because I had one too many woody, flavorless carrots from the cheap-for-a-reason bulk bin, I've been giving their frilly green appendages the same lustful looks as their cousins the brassicas.

Using those tops is also a great way to keep perfectly good food out of the compost bin, so the other evening when I was casting about, as I usually do, for what-can-I-feed-my-family ideas by digging through the vegetable bin, I came across a few stalks of parsley along with the carrot tops, and decided to throw them into the blender with walnuts, a little salt and a couple of cloves of garlic. Stirring in a pile of shredded romano, the pesto got tossed with pasta and laid on top of a bed of arugula, then "garnished" with slices of a couple of seared pork loin chops I'd found in the freezer.

One-dish dinner, and it looked (and tasted) like a restaurant meal. I could get used to not wasting food!

Carrot Top Pesto

Carrot tops from one bunch of carrots, frilly greens stripped from stems
1/2 c. parsley leaves, stripped from stems
1/8 c. walnuts
2 cloves garlic
1/3-1/2 c. olive oil
1 c. romano cheese
Salt to taste

Place carrot top leaves, parsley leaves, walnuts and garlic in a blender. While blender is running, drizzle in olive oil until it becomes a smooth sauce. Pour into medium-sized mixing bowl and stir in cheese. Add salt to taste.

Toss with one pound cooked pasta. This pesto sauce is also delicious drizzled on roasted or grilled spring vegetables.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Update on Tillamook's Mega-Dairy Suppliers

Due to new developments in the Tillamook cheese story I posted about previously, I decided an update was needed.

If I needed more assurance that my decision to stop buying Tillamook cheese was the right one, this past week the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the state Department of Environmental Quality both gave the go-ahead to Lost Valley Farm, a 30,000-cow mega-dairy, to begin operations in the Boardman area.

Tillamook's Boardman processing plant.

A California-owned facility, Lost Valley joins North Dakota-based Threemile Canyon Farm, with its 70,000 cows, in supplying milk for Tillamook cheese. According to a story in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "both dairies hold contracts with Boardman’s Columbia River Processing, which produces cheese for the Tillamook County Creamery Association, maker of Oregon’s famous Tillamook Cheese."

Lost Valley also had to gain the official approval of Morrow County's commissioners, although according to a story in the Oregonian, "the county [had] no legal way to stop what would be the state's second-largest dairy, and its three commissioners are deeply worried that it will sap already-limited groundwater from local farmers, and exacerbate water and air quality problems."

The site of Lost Valley Farm in Boardman.

Since the county had no choice but to approve the facility despite its deep misgivings, the article then asks, "that raises a crucial question for a coalition composed of local and federal government agencies, small farm advocates and environmental organizations: Are Oregon's rules for mega-dairies and livestock feedlots too loose?"

Ivan Maluski, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers, thinks so. "We've been warning for some time that Oregon's rules are too weak, and we're in danger of being a big factory farm state," he was quoted as saying.

Animal sewage draining from barns at Threemile Canyon.

In a recent op-ed in the Oregonian titled "The Toxic Truth Behind Oregon's Factory Farm Stench," Dr. Nathan Donley, a senior scientist in the Portland office of the Center for Biological Diversity, said, “The new Lost Valley [Farm] operation will generate as much waste as a small city that will be stored largely in open-air lagoons, then disposed of on fields.

“Without adequate oversight, there can be no question that every time the state approves a new factory farm it will be opening the door to dangerous health risks—not only for workers but for all those families unfortunate enough to have no choice but to breathe the air around those facilities.”

As I noted in my previous post, Tillamook's slogan is "Dairy Done Right." I disagree. There is a bill, SB 197, before this session of the Oregon Legislature that will set common-sense regulations for air emissions from these facilities—there are no regulations currently on the books for the ammonia and other gasses they emit—so please consider e-mailing your legislator with your concerns and ask them to support this bill.*

* Suggested text for a message to your senator: "I am a constituent and I am contacting you to ask that you support SB 197's passage out of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources committee and into the legislature for a vote. Oregon’s air quality should not be compromised by out-of-state mega-dairies flocking here to take advantage of our lax regulatory system. Thank you. (Signed, your name and address)"

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Rye Not?

Who would have thought when we moved into a new neighborhood that, two decades later, we would be fortunate to have so many talented and generous neighbors? Granted, when we moved from our Sellwood house, we were simply looking for more room for our (rapidly) growing child, and there were portents that its 1,100 square feet was not going to fit any of our needs. But that move, into a bungalow-thick, middle-class section of northeast Portland, turned out to be just what we needed on multiple fronts.

One neighbor is a chef and cooking school instructor, and we got somewhat used to having pizzas handed over the back fence on lazy summer evenings. Another is a prodigious cookbook author who calls when she's testing recipes for her books, knowing we're open for just about whatever she's got coming out of her oven. Yet another is a prodigious gardener when he's not teaching middle school science, and is keen to share the fruits (and vegetables) of his labors.

Bill, the gardener, is also a wine and cocktail whiz. He and his wife had Dave and I over the other night for cocktails, which he created on the spot, while we talked about garden plans, shrubs—not the plants but the "acidulated beverage" resembling a vinegared syrup that is used in cocktails—and recent travels. The aforementioned cocktail was a rye-based concoction, one we'll be putting on our summer-in-the-back-yard rotation. Now we just need to have a pizza handed over the fence…

Rye Not?

1.5 oz. rye
.75 oz. cardamaro
.5 oz. Clear Creek pear brandy
.5 oz. fig shrub or a fruit-flavored drinking vinegar

Fill cocktail mixing glass 1/2 full of ice. Add ingredients. Stir well to combine. Strain into glass.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Your Food, Your Legislature: Do-Or-Die Time

Your Food, Your Legislature is a series of reports giving Oregon consumers a heads-up on issues before the current session of the legislature that affect the food we are putting on our tables, as well as providing you with contact information to voice your opinion on those issues. 

The 2017 Oregon legislative session is half over, which means it's make-or-break time for bills to move out of committees or die if they don't get the support needed to go to the legislature for a vote. There are bills that directly affect our food system and the farmers we depend on to put food on our tables, so it's urgent that you act now.

Regulating air contaminants from mega-dairies, SB 197, has just taken on new urgency with the approval last week of Lost Valley Farm, a California-owned, 30,000-cow mega-dairy in the town of Boardman on the Columbia River, joining North Dakota-based Threemile Canyon Farms, a 70,000-cow factory farm nearby. This bill is based on the Dairy Air (no, I didn't make that up) Quality Task Force recommendations from 2008—never enacted—that called for the adoption of a combination of voluntary and regulatory measures to monitor and control the emissions from larged Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

Young supporters of Oregon farmers rally at the State Capitol in Salem.

Since 2008, elevated concentrations of ammonia from Threemile Canyon Farms has been linked to acid deposits in the Columbia River Gorge, and nitrogen compounds are contributing to elevated levels of ozone in the vicinity. Acid rain falls frequently and a permanent haze hangs over the area. If these problems aren't dealt with now, especially with the addition of Lost Valley Farm and the pollution from both facilities' open-air cess-pits (one of several covers 20 acres of land), the cost of clean-up could run into the millions for Oregon's taxpayers, not to mention the degradation of the quality of life and safety of the area's residents.

Oregon has lost nearly 75% of its small dairies since 2001, when the first mega-dairy opened in the state and started flooding the market with cheap, factory farm milk, driving down prices to the point where smaller family-run operations couldn't make a living. With neighboring states (California, Washington and Idaho) establishing tougher environmental standards, these out-of-state-owned mega-dairies and their polluting systems are flocking to Oregon.

Farmers and supporters rally in Salem.

To act now, contact your state legislators, especially your Senators, and urge them to support this bill, currently in the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. It must move out of that committee by Tuesday, April 18, or it will die. Call or e-mail and tell your legislators who you are, where you live, what you do and why it's important for them to act on this bill. If you can, also contact the members of the committee, listed below. They are under tremendous pressure from mega-dairies—with their mega-money—and agribusiness lobbyists who are against any attempt at regulating their industries.
  • Sen. Alan Olsen: phone 503-986-1720; e-mail
  • Sen. Michael Dembrow: phone 503-986-1723; e-mail
  • Sen. Floyd Prozanski: phone 503-986-1704; e-mail
  • Sen. Chuck Thomsen: phone 503-986-1726; e-mail 
Here is the message I sent in an e-mail to the Senators listed above: "I am an Oregon resident and I am contacting you to ask that you pass SB 197 out of your committee and send it to the legislature for a vote. Oregon’s air quality should not be compromised by out-of-state mega-dairies flocking here to take advantage of our lax regulatory system. Thank you."

* * *

Local regulation of genetically engineered crops (HB 2469): This bill allows counties in Oregon to protect farmers within their boundaries from contamination of their crops by genetically engineered (GE) crops. It effectively repeals a bill dubbed the "Monsanto Protection Act" that was signed into law in 2013 by then-Governor John Kitzhaber that took away the rights of local communities to set local food and agriculture policies. If passed, it allows counties to once again regulate or ban GE crops to protect farmers growing traditional crops, and it would leave in place an existing ban on GE crops that passed in Jackson County on May 20, 2014.

Oregon farmers and supporters rally in Salem.

Allowing farmers to seek damages for contamination (HB 2739): This bill clarifies that the responsibility of contamination of a farmer's crops by another farmer's GE crops lies with the patent-holder, allowing the court to award prevailing plaintiff costs, attorney fees and triple the economic damages. In many cases in the past, the farmer who is the victim of contamination has not only lost his crops, but has been successfully sued by the patent-holder for "stealing" the GE crops. In addition, in some cases organic farmers have lost their organic certification due to this kind of contamination by GE crops, essentially putting them out of business. Oregon farmers deserve to have legal recourse in the event of this kind of contamination.

Maintaining funding for farm-to-school programs (HB 2038):  Currently, Governor Kate Brown’s proposed two-year budget cut all funding for Farm-to-School programs. In 2015, the Legislature provided over $5 million in funding for a farm-to-school program, but because Oregon is facing a severe budget shortfall of roughly $1.8 billion, top Legislative budget writers earlier this year proposed significant cuts to the program. This bill appropriates funds to the Department of Education for grant programs allowing school districts to purchase Oregon food products and to pay for costs related to food-based, agriculture-based and garden-based educational activities.

Tax credit for renting farmland to beginning farmers (HB 2085). This bill creates a beginning farmer tax credit to encourage landowners to rent land to beginning farmers, with higher rates given for organic practices. Despite growing demand for locally grown food, Oregon is in the midst of land crisis. The state lost nearly 25% of its beginning farmers (those in business fewer than 10 years) between 2007 and 2012, according to the USDA. The average age of farmers in Oregon is now 60 years old, and fast-rising farmland prices are raising serious questions about who will grow our food in the future.

Read the other posts in this series. Find your legislators here

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Nourishing Letters: Supper with James Beard

My friend Laleña Dolby is working with local letterpress greeting card company Egg Press on its campaign, Write On, to get folks to start writing again. Appropriately enough, April is National Letter Writing Month, and Egg Press with its partner Hello! Lucky, is launching the Write On Challenge, the mission of which is "to promote joy, creativity, expression and connection through hand-written correspondence." People accept the Challenge to write 30 letters in 30 days in April, or as many as they can. I thought Laleña's contribution was so compelling that it deserved reposting here.

Before the barrage of food images on our Instagram feeds, there were stories of food. There was a time when we could not, instantaneously, capture the bright white foam of a latte, or the particular way spring greens weave together on the plate, and send them to someone on the other side of a screen. If we shared an experience of food, it was with those privy to the scent, colors and textures of our nourishment—those sitting across the table from us. If we wanted to relate a dining experience to someone who was not at the table, we used words to translate the visceral experience of eating. We told food stories. Sometimes, these stories were shared via letter. Like a great meal, letters allow both the author and the recipient to slow down, and savor the moment.

I recently caught up with a good friend of mine, Katherine, in our favorite meeting spot, her kitchen.  She dished up two bowls of braised kohlrabi that she'd just pulled off the stove. She is the founder of Cook With What You Have, a resource for delicious, simple, vegetable-rich meals, so it was not at all odd to find myself enjoying a savory bowl of winter produce at 10 am instead of a plate of pastries with her. Between bites, we got up to speed on the comings and goings of our lives. For years, we'd worked together on initiatives to help people understand where their food comes from and to develop an appreciation for the people who grow it and prepare it.  So it was no surprise that much of our conversation on this morning was around food, but I also told her about the work I am now doing to encourage people to connect with one another via letters. This prompted her to pull a small blue envelope from a stack of papers on her kitchen counter.

The outside of the envelope was marked February 10th, 1941. It was surprisingly sturdy for its age. I opened it, revealing a blue toothsome paper, on which a saturated, silky blue ink flowed across the pages like a beautiful stream, curving gently from side to side, up and down: cursive. In this letter, Katherine’s grandmother, Deborah, writes to her mother. It is a letter home. Deborah had recently moved to New York from Oregon. Now in the big city, she knew but one person, who was also a transplant from the Pacific Northwest. At one point in the letter, she describes sharing a meal with him, James Beard, or Jim, as she called him. Seated at the kitchen counter, I scooped up warm cubes of kohlrabi as Katherine read the letter to me—a story of a dinner with the dean of American cookery.

 Deborah writes: “Then I went to Jim Beard’s for supper. He is a most entertaining person. A charming apartment. Lives with a Jim Culhum—likely enough. Plus three other guests, all very delightful. A wonderful dinner done by Jim. Baked ham, delicious sweet pickled tomato sauce, French potato salad, bananas baked in rum, hot biscuits, pickled walnuts and coffee, after some good rum cocktails.”

As someone who has spent a good wedge of time pouring over James Beard cookbooks, locating the street on which he grew up in Portland, and driving to the Oregon Coast to commune with a stretch of beach where his family held sandy cookouts every summer, this letter granted a kind of kinship with James Beard that I previously thought impossible. I moved through time and space; the blue ink on manuscript paper transporting me to the New York apartment table of a hero. There with Jim, I sipped a rum cocktail, plucked a pickled walnut from a delicate dish and enjoyed the warmth of a hot biscuit. That morning, a special connection was forged that defied life and death and time and space, as letters tend to do.

This month, we encourage you to share your own story of a memorable meal, an account of a time spent together at the table, or a description of a food that connects you to someone you love. Write it down. Send it off. You never know, it may end up in the hands of someone like me someday, who treasures it beyond measure.

And, if you are in Portland, Oregon, we encourage you to visit our two Write On restaurant partners who also believe in the power that stories and food have to connect us. Pine State Biscuits and Ned Ludd are offering complimentary Write On cards to all diners this month. Belly up to the table, enjoy a wholesome meal and make a memory with someone. Both restaurants are offering writing prompts, that, you guessed it, are all about the nourishing potential of stories.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Simple Pleasures: Avocado, Toast and a Poached Egg

I am slow to warm to food fads, so when I started seeing the words "avocado" and "toast" together and read dripping prose extolling its intoxicating, if not orgasmic, properties…well, I have to say there was a certain amount of eye-rolling that ensued. The photos were beautiful, of course. It's almost impossible to take a bad picture of those luscious green-and-yellow-tinged slices of avocado, and slathered on a thick piece of good bread it's hard to go wrong.

I did order it a couple of times at local cafés, but was underwhelmed with the experience. So the other morning when I was getting ready to poach an egg for breakfast, I remembered that there were a couple of ripe avocados sitting in the fridge. Should I try it again? Of course!

Nothing could be simpler: peel and slice half of a large avocado. Cut a thick slice of good artisan bread and put it in the toaster. When the water boils for your poached egg (I always add a scant teaspoon of vinegar), crack it in and while it simmers, toast your bread. As soon as it pops up, butter the bread, top it with the avocado slices and then, when your egg is perfectly cooked to your personal preference—mine is with the white cooked and yolk jiggly—put it on top of the avocado slices. A shower of flake salt and fresh-ground pepper and you can call it breakfast. (A nice one, too, even if it was the darling of the moment. But that was a few minutes ago.)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

In Season: Into Inflorescence & Other Spring Things

noun 1. The complete flower head of a plant including stems, stalks, bracts, and flowers. 2. The arrangement of the flowers on a plant. 3. The process of flowering.

Spring is officially here. Not only is the light sticking around longer in the evening, but it's not pitch black when I wake up, stumbling half-awake in a coffee-deprived stupor around the yard with the dogs every morning. More light means more warmth, said Josh Alsberg, owner of Rubinette Produce, the greengrocer inside Providore Fine Foods, and that means we'll be seeing a lot more early spring greens popping up in store aisles and at local farmers' markets.

Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce.

"The thing that signals spring to me is purple sprouting broccoli," he said, pointing out that the seed for this variety was developed to provide an overwintering crop for farmers to take to market at a time of the year when there aren't a lot of other greens available. Another new-ish sprout that serves the same purpose are kalettes (top photo), a cross between broccoli and brussels sprouts that was developed by a British plant breeder.

All of the large family of brassicas—think cauliflower, broccoli, mustard greens, arugula, bok choy, turnips, rutabagas, kales and cabbages—send out sprouts when it starts to warm up, which means you'll see lots of raab (aka rabe or rapini) coming from area farms like Groundwork Organics, DeNoble Farms and Gathering Together Farm, among many others. (Read a complete treatise on raab, rabe, rapini and broccolini, then check out these recipes.)

Castelfranco chicory.

Chicories are another hardy crop that grows slowly over the winter and is ready to harvest when the ground is still muddy and wet. The dark red blades of Arch Cape chicories from Ayers Creek Farm have come and gone already, but some pale yellow and white heads of Belgian endive have been seen hereabouts, and Josh said escarole and treviso radicchio will be plentiful in a couple of weeks.

So-called "baby roots" were a new thing to me, but Josh said that they're gaining a foothold on restaurant menues around the city and in bins and baskets at our farmers' markets. Look for teeny versions of radishes, Hakurei turnips (also called white salad turnips), kohlrabi and other roots to show up soon, usually appearing fresh in salads and slaws because of their sweeter flavor and crunchy texture.

Calçots on the grill.

One other group that's on the way are the alliums like green garlic, spring onions and those delicacies from Spain, calçots. I'm definitely planning another calçotada in the back yard with plenty of the traditional Salbitxada sauce to dunk them in.

Filling out the soon-to-be-an-avalanche of fresh from the farm goodness that's coming our way are salad greens and braising mixes of kales, chard, mizuna, traditional mustard greens along with a new variety, Tokyo Bekana, a small Chinese type mustard-cabbage with bright lime green leaves and ruffled edges. Fast on their heels will be lettuces, early spinach, all kinds of microgreens and leaf herbs like tarragon, sorrel and chervil. There's not a lot of fruit due right away, but you'll see blazing red ribs of rhubard piled up soon. Sadly, Josh said the first strawberries are going back to their usual schedule, holding off until late April or May (which is still early in my book).

Excited yet? I sure am!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Future of Our Food: Rep. Earl Blumenauer on Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

This series interviews farmers, food activists, politicians and policy wonks to try to get a handle on the seismic shift in our local food landscape due to the change of administrations in Washington.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a lifelong resident of Portland, Oregon, has devoted his entire career to public service. While a student at Lewis and Clark College, he spearheaded the effort to lower the voting age both in Oregon and at the national level. He ran for office and was elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1972, then in 1978 he was elected to the Multnomah County Commission. He ran for the Portland City Council in 1986, where his innovative accomplishments in transportation, planning and environmental programs helped Portland earn an international reputation as one of America’s most livable cities. After his election to Congress in 1996, Mr. Blumenauer became the chief spokesperson for Livable Communities: places where people are safe, healthy and economically secure. He also served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he was a strong advocate for federal policies that address transportation alternatives, provide housing choices, support sustainable economies and improve the environment. He is currently a member of the Ways and Means Committee and the subcommittees on Health, Social Security and Trade. Every holiday season he makes a multitude—this year it was well over 200—of fruitcakes for friends and colleagues, saying this tradition, for him, is an exercise in connection, creation, and fellowship.

What are the critical issues affecting agriculture and our food system a) here in the Northwest and b) in the country as a whole?

The main problem we have is a massive system of agriculture support and fragmented policy that does not serve the broader interests for agriculture and nutrition. Oregon and Washington are particularly disadvantaged because it is skewed toward large industrial agriculture and processed food.

Oregon has a very diverse agricultural base, and it’s not dependent on large subsidies for major commodities like corn, rice, cotton, wheat, soy. We have some wheat, but in the rest of the country, the support flows to those major commodities. We have an agricultural base that, they’re called specialty crops, but it’s basically food and nursery, and our wine industry. These people don’t want federal subsidies [but] they would like support for innovation. They would like support for protecting the environment, water quality, habitat, things that help the farmer and have broader social and economic benefit. The big issue is that all the attention and subsidy is skewed toward things that don’t need it, and shortchanges things that do, upon which we’re heavily reliant.

I could take the next half hour and talk about how this administration’s devastating, cruel and inhumane policies on immigration threaten our wine industry, threaten our orchards, threaten the nursery industry, but I think the big issue for me is the mismatch between federal programs and priorities and the needs of most farmers and ranchers, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Putting on your best prognosticating hat, what are the issues you think are going to be at the top of the list of the new administration, and how do you think they will address them?

It’s a big question mark. There has not been any sort of thoughtful, rational position paper that has emanated from either the Trump campaign or the Trump administration. When he convened some people early on, they weren’t exactly on the cutting edge of innovation and reform. But we truly don’t know. Mick Mulvaney, who’s the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) director, who’s been in charge of the slash-and-burn program, like the defunding of public broadcasting—Mick is not a fan of some of the wasteful agricultural subsidies. And who knows how that plays out?

In the Northwest, our farmers and ranchers are disadvantaged because we don’t have an effective program of crop insurance. It is so distorted and heavily subsidized that, in some cases, some commodity growers can plant crops they know will fail because they make so much from failure that it’s worth their while. At the same time, [for] people in the nursery industry [and] in the wine industry, there is no meaningful crop insurance for most of Oregon agriculture. [The system] doesn’t work for them. [Organic and sustainable farming] is another one of those areas where there ought to be some support from conservative forces. I don’t know where the administration is going to come down, but I’m working on a version of the Farm Bill that would make more sense for Oregon, and there are many conservative groups that are working with us to try and reform things like crop insurance. [Conservatives are involved in the issue] because no good is served by wasting money and not helping people who need it. So that’s something that I’ve found that they’re open to reforming to make it work better and, of course, save money. We all ought to be concerned about that.

What do we as citizens need to be paying attention to? What are the best sources for information on the issues?

The best source of information for us are the people who are in the field who are working on it now. Oregon has, as you know, a number of leaders in sustainable agriculture and national efforts for nurseries, for wine. They are quite innovative in organic. I think the best source for us all is to spend a little time with people who are trying to do it right. They’ve got some great observations. I’ve learned a lot from them and I think the more that we can connect to Oregon’s farmers and ranchers [who share] our values the better off we’re going to be.

In your opinion, what’s the most effective action citizens can take in the short term? In the long term?

I think the most effective action that citizens can take is to invest their time and money in the type of food that they think is worthy of it. Voting with your dollars to support farmers’ markets and value-added agriculture and being willing to spend a few pennies more to make sure that people who are taking a risk to do the right thing, that are being trailblazers, that are spending extra time and effort, that they’re supported. I think that if all of us voted to support the producers, the restaurants, the food products that mirror our values, that is in the short term is the single most important thing we can do. Help them be financially successful, show that there’s a market, and get used to enjoying the fruits of their hard work.

In the long term, I hope people will work with me to think through what a farm bill would look like just for Oregon. We’ve traveled the state for the last couple of years interacting with thousands of people, and we’ve got some pretty good recommendations that are being developed that we’re advancing. Those are the sorts of things that we want to get into the discussion of the next Farm Bill that I hope will be enacted.

We should [also] have a farm and food policy for Oregon. We should start by renaming the Department of Agriculture, like Jerry Brown did in California, the Department of Food and Agriculture. We ought to make sure that Oregonians who are in Congress are going to fight for provisions that are going to make a difference for us.

What organizations most need our support?

What I’m hoping that each Oregonian will do is to raise the need for sound food and farm policy with all the organizations that are impacted by food and farm policy. The people who are fighting hunger, like the Oregon Food Bank.

I had a meeting recently with probably two dozen environmental organizations that were sharing with me what their priorities were. We went all the way around the room and I heard from them and they are things that I care about, and I said none of you have mentioned the Farm Bill. Does anything in the Farm Bill affect your environmental priorities? People thought for a second, then they went around the room and everybody, every one of those organizations had a stake in the Farm Bill. People who care about conservation programs. People who care about water quality. People who care about wildlife. People who care about toxics. I mean, we went all the way around the room and everybody acknowledged that they had a stake.

There’s a move afoot back here in Washington, DC, to blow up the Affordable Care Act. I’ve been having dozens of meetings with people in the health sectors, we talk about their concerns and we compare notes and stuff, but in every one of those meetings, I ask, "What is your position on the Farm Bill?" And they think about it for a moment and [say] we have the food and farm policies that subsidizes a diet that literally makes us sick. It’s too expensive, especially for lower income people, seniors, to be able to have healthy food, and there are some subsidy programs we need more of. We don’t do a good enough job teaching children about where their food comes from, how to prepare it.

The Farm Bill has a tremendous impact on education. Everything from having healthy food in our schools to our prisons, to ecomomic development for small and beginning farmers. The average age of a farmer in the United States is pushing 60. It’s hard for young people to break into the market. The organizations that support family farms, the organizations that deal with economic development. Every organization that cares about the health and well-being of our people, our economy, and our environment should be involved with [the Farm Bill] and I think citizens ought to push on all the organizations that they have contact with to make sure they’re doing their part for a food and farm policy that works.

[As to the impression of most people that the Farm Bill is huge and intimidatingly complex], that’s a deliberate strategy. It’s complex and convoluted, and that way a small group of people can control the dialog and virtually nobody fully understands the Farm Bill.

This is an edited transcript of an interview I conducted with Congressman Blumenauer on Mar. 17, 2017.

Read the other posts in this series.