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.

Read the other posts in this series.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Eating of the Green(s)

With the vernal equinox upon us, called Nowruz ("new day") in the Persian calendar and considered the first day of spring in the New World, I've been jonesing for fresh, green things—think nettles, fiddleheads and other early foraged greens. Fortunately for me, contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food has had exactly the same thoughts, and he shared a recipe I'm going to be putting on our table soon.

While the faux Irish celebration of green beer and corned beef has passed, colcannon should be in regular rotation on your dinner table.

Santo Patricio's Colcannon

This an Italian-Irish version of the Irish classic. You can harvest nettles right now (almost anywhere along any river west of the Cascades, but Sauvie Island is a good place to start) or look for them at the farmers' market.

Cook a couple of sliced leeks in olive oil with a good pinch of salt for a few minutes, then add three peeled yellow potatoes cut into rough cubes about 3/4 inch thick. Cook for about 10 minutes, letting the spuds brown just a bit, then add 1/2 cup heavy cream. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

While the potatoes are cooking, drop a bunch of stinging nettles into boiling water. Pull the greens out with tongs after about 30 seconds (heat neutralizes the chemical sting), drain, let cool, and finely chop about 2 cups. Save the rest (and the nettle broth) for another use, maybe fritters.

When the potatoes are done, stir in the nettles. Season with freshly ground black pepper, and check the salt. Cook for a minute or two, then serve hot drizzled with a little more extra virgin.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Why I'm Quitting Tillamook Cheese

"As Oregonian as a lumberjack sharing a craft beer with a beaver, no one does cheese like Tillamook." - New Seasons sale flyer

Their packaging says "Thank you for buying Tillamook and keeping our family farms strong."

Since childhood I've been a fan of Tillamook cheese. Molten and gooey inside grilled cheese sandwiches, grated into mac and cheese and melted over just about anything you can think of, its bright orange hue has been a color theme weaving through my life. On trips to the coast my parents would stop the station wagon at the cheese factory to follow the steps that the milk took from liquid to curd to sliced chunks which were finally pressed into logs, aged and dipped in wax (now wrapped in plastic) to be displayed on refrigerated shelves.

"Keeping our family farms strong."

On those same trips my parents would point out the cows munching grass in the brilliant green coastal pastures of Tillamook County, their pendulous udders swaying as they moved to the barns to be milked twice a day. "That's where our cheese comes from!" we'd think.

That's why it is with a heavy heart that I've finally decided to give up Tillamook cheese. It's not because the flavor has somehow fallen off of a cliff, or that I've discovered a better product—their extra sharp white cheddar had become our house cheese after my husband developed an intolerance to lactose. (Lactose is converted to lactic acid by cultures added to the cheese, and the longer it's aged, the less lactose remains.)

So why have I reached this decision?

Tillamook's Columbia River Processing plant in Boardman.

It turns out that only a portion of the milk that is used by the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA)* to make their famous cheeses is produced by those cows munching that rich, coastal grass. Instead, Tillamook has partnered with Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman on the Columbia River, a factory farm that produces around 2 million pounds (that's 233,000 gallons, folks) of milk per day from 30,000 milk cows kept during the entirety of their short lives in confined barns. Add to that another 40,000 animals consisting of calves and "replacement heifers," young females that will be added to the milking herd at two years old.

As for the amount of milk produced in Tillamook County itself, a report from 2014 titled "Tillamook County Community Food Assessment: Growing Healthy Communities on the North Oregon Coast" noted that at that time "the cooperative…gets more than half its milk from outside Tillamook County and does a portion [of its] other cheese making and distribution from Boardman, Oregon."

Dairy cow standing in waste water at Threemile Canyon Farms.

An article in the Tillamook Headlight Herald from 2012, announcing layoffs of 50 employees doing packaging at the Tillamook processing facility—outsourced to companies in Utah and Idaho—quoted then-TCCA CEO Joe Rocha as saying that "all ice cream is made in Tillamook. Other Tillamook brand products, such as yogurt, butter and sour cream, are licensed products produced by other companies. All local milk is processed in Tillamook."

Tillamook has also built a large cheese processing facility, Columbia River Processing, near Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman that was designed to produce 58 million pounds of cheese a year at full operation. In 2014 it built a 64,000-square-foot expansion project to process whey, which is used in products like infant formula, performance nutrition products and products that "help manage some of the impacts of aging."

Open, manure-filled dairy lagoon is roughly 20 acres in size.

According to an article in the East Oregonian, the system is a "closed loop" where the milk cows "are loaded onto slowly rotating carousels where their udders are sprayed with a disinfectant and attached to automatic pumps. Each spin lasts just a few minutes before the cows are unloaded back where they started." The rest of the loop is made of the waste from the 70,000 animals—estimates are around 436 million gallons of liquid manure every year—that go into digesters and open lagoons that is then spread on fields of grain corn and triticale which is used to feed the cows or is made into animal bedding.

The manure spread on the fields is supposed to be carefully managed to avoid having the runoff pollute area groundwater, but an article on another proposed mega-dairy in the area, Lost Valley Ranch, reports that it would add an additional 30,000 dairy cows and their waste to the already beleaguered groundwater system in the county. "The area is home to the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, where the level of nitrates in the groundwater already exceeds the federal safe drinking water standard," the article notes.

Treated manure is sprayed directly on organic crops.

There are also concerns about air pollution, and groups like the Center for Food Safety, Friends of Family Farmers and the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project are pushing for new rules to regulate air contaminant emissions (SB197) from large dairy operations. In 2007, Oregon exempted large-scale livestock operations from air-quality oversight, even though elevated concentrations of ammonia from Threemile Canyon Farms have been linked to acid deposits in the Columbia River Gorge, and nitrogen compounds are contributing to elevated levels of ozone in the vicinity of these operations.

The nail in the coffin was driven in, for me, when I started to look into what these mega-dairies were doing to Oregon's small, family-owned dairy farms. As Jon Bansen, a third-generation dairyman who is hoping to someday turn his farm over to his son, wrote in an editorial in the Salem Statesman-Journal, "when the last mega-dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms, came into Oregon, an average of nine family dairy farms went out of business per month between 2002 and 2007. Mega-dairies flood the market with milk, driving down milk prices and making it increasingly difficult for family farmers to stay afloat."

Each barn (in white) is roughly a quarter-mile long.

Mega-dairies also degrade the lives of local communities. Bansen goes on to say that "the ways in which family dairy farmers and mega-dairies contribute to a community are drastically different. When something breaks, family farmers typically buy parts from the local store. When their animals need veterinary attention, they call the local vet. They support their feed stores, tractor-supply stores and more. After a hard day on the farm, family farmers often engage in their community, schools, civic groups and churches." Employees at mega-dairies have neither the time nor the money to spend in their communities; equipment is bought from the cheapest (mostly non-local) sources; and profits are sent off to corporate, often out-of-state, offices.

So for all of these reasons I'm looking for a new, delicious source for my cheese, and I'll try to buy from small cheesemakers who source their milk from small, family farms. It'll no doubt be more expensive than the cheap-for-a-reason stuff, but I'm willing to spend a little more and use a little less if it helps to support local families and communities.

The Tillamook slogan is "Dairy Done Right." I disagree. How about you?

* I contacted the Tillamook County Creamery Association Consumer Relations department and was told they could not comment on the facts referenced in this post because "production numbers like the kind you are seeking are not figures that we generally share with the public."

Photos of cow barn and manure lagoon from Friends of Family Farmers. Photo of sprinklers from Threemile Canyon Farms website. Aerial photo from Google maps.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Future of Our Food: Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley on GMOs, Climate Change and Citizen Action

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.

Elected to represent Oregon in the United States Senate in 2008, Jeff Merkley replaced conservative Republican Senator Gordon Smith in a hard-fought battle for the state's junior seat. The son of a millwright, he was born in the timber town of Myrtle Creek, Oregon, and was the first in his family to attend college, graduating with an undergraduate degree in International Relations from Stanford and a graduate degree in Public Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. After college Merkley worked as a national security analyst at the Pentagon and at the Congressional Budget Office, then returned to Oregon in 1991 to take a position as the executive director of Portland Habitat for Humanity. His work to provide housing for Oregonians led him to consider running for office, and he was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 1998, eventually becoming Speaker of the House. In his life outside of politics, he enjoys hiking and recently completed an IronMan event with his daughter. Impressive!

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

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling and climate change.

GMO labeling gives consumers easy access to the information they need to make informed food purchasing decisions. There are Federal requirements for disclosing whether fish is farm-raised or wild-caught, or whether juice is from concentrate or fresh squeezed; the same should be true for genetically modified ingredients. After all, 64 other countries—including China—allow their consumers to know whether products contain GMOs.

I have been deeply immersed in this issue, and last year introduced the Biotechnology Food Labeling Uniformity Act, which would deliver a 50-state solution instead of a potentially complicated patchwork of GMO labeling laws. Major food companies like Campbell’s, General Mills, and Mars have listened to the nine out of 10 American who agree that GMOs should be labeled, and have taken steps to voluntarily disclose this information on their products. These companies are demonstrating that it is possible to give consumers the information they want without raising costs at the grocery store.

As a ranking member on the Agriculture and Rural Development Appropriations subcommittee, I’ve been advocating for consumers, and organic and small farms; traditional “big” crops like corn and soybeans are already well represented by lobbyists. I will continue to advocate for Oregon’s specific agricultural needs and consumers’ right to know what’s in their food.

The devastating effects of climate change are already being felt by food systems here in Oregon—baby oysters are dying as the ocean becomes more acidic; wildfire season is longer and more intense; prolonged drought is crippling farms and ranches. And yet we have a president who believes climate change is a hoax, and an Environmental Protection Agency chief who doesn’t think humans have contributed to global warming.

Since we can’t count on the current administration to act on climate, in the coming months I’ll introduce a “100-by-50” bill to achieve 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050. The would provide a roadmap to clean the electric grid, electrify transportation, and promote investments in new technologies to end the use of polluting fossil fuels.

The “100-by-50” framework is something every group or organization can sign onto: Commit to operating on 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2050, and develop a framework for how you’ll get there incrementally. Every garden club, cooking class, and family can contribute to reducing carbon emissions and curbing the effects of climate change on our food systems.

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

There is a constant barrage of misinformation coming from the current administration. I suggest you identify a favorite traditional news source—one whose information is vetted and verified—to stay informed. Find an issue that you’re passionate about and get involved.

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

The grassroots uprising by ordinary Americans has had a real effect on Congress. As we go forward, the impact of citizen action is directly proportional to the amount of individual effort it takes. If you sign a petition or send a form e-mail, you’ll help spread the message. By making a phone call or writing a personal e-mail, your message will be a little louder. The biggest impact is showing up—to town halls, to rallies, to demonstrations. Seeing hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of people coalesce around an issue effectively sends a message.

Read the other posts in this series.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Cooking Myself Out of a Corner with Julie Sahni

I often get myself into situations where I need to cook myself out of a corner. For instance, this past week I wanted to make some hummus from a recipe my mother collected when she was in Liberia, on the West Coast of Africa (read the post and it'll all become clear). Grabbing a pound of dried chickpeas from Ayers Creek Farm that had been lounging in the cupboard, waiting for just such an occasion, I threw them in a pot of water to soak overnight.

The next day I poured off the soaking water, covered them afresh and set them on the stove to simmer for 90 minutes or so. When they were just toothy to the bite, I rinsed them again and measured out the two cups I needed for the hummus. Which left about four cups of cooked chickpeas staring at me from the strainer.

Chickpeas are the cornerstone of many dishes in India, and I'd been perusing my copy of Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking since making a fantastic chicken tikka masala a few days ago. Using the last of my stash of ground meat from the whole lamb I bought from Jo-Le Farms—such deliciousness—and what I could dig out of the vegetable bin in the fridge, I was able to pull together a crazy good dinner in a little over an hour.

Oh, and when Dave walked in the door from work that evening? His expression and the phrase "Wow! What smells so good?" was all I needed to know that I had a hit on my hands.

Ground Lamb in Cashew Nut Sauce with Chickpeas
Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking

4 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 c. onions, chopped fine
2 tsp. garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. ginger root, peeled and grated
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
2 lbs. ground lamb
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 c. roasted tomatoes or canned, crushed tomatoes
3 Tbsp. cashew nut butter or 4 Tbsp. ground roasted cashews
2 c. cooked chickpeas with 1/2 c. liquid (or water)
2 tsp. garam masala
Cilantro, chopped fine, for garnish

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or deep skillet. When it shimmers, add onions. Cook, stirring constantly, until they turn a caramel brown (about 20-25 min.). Add garlic and ginger and sauté for 2 min. Add cumin, coriander, turmeric, red pepper and bay leaves. Stir briefly, then add ground lamb and brown it, breaking it up with a spoon. When the meat has lost its pink color, add salt, tomatoes, nut butter and chickpeas with 1/2 c. liquid. Add another 1/2 c. of hot water and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes until the sauce has thickened. Stir occasionally to keep it from sticking. Turn off the heat and stir in the garam masala. Add salt to taste, if needed. Garnish with chopped cilantro, if desired.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Farm Bulletin: A Crack in the Wall of Winter

Whenever there is a lag in the reports from the fair fields of Gaston and my mailbox is barren of the cadences of contributor Anthony Boutard's missives from Ayers Creek Farm, the colors of my world are a little less vibrant, the sounds a little muffled and slow. So when I saw his report in my inbox, suddenly I was seeing the intense dark reds of his beloved Arch Cape chicories and the deep, dark richness of the soil of the Wapato Valley.

Tuesday afternoon, there appeared a crack in the wall of winter and our chance to fill orders. We grabbed the harvest knives and buckets, and set to work collecting the Arch Cape chicories. The meadowlarks were singing as they foraged in the cornstalks nearby and a pair of hawks were circling the cold field seeking a thermal, wistfully early but no harm in trying. A reminder that, yes, the sun will return. 

Arch Cape chicories are descended from the late chicories of Treviso, Italy. During their late winter season, piles of these red and white late chicories are stacked in the markets of Venice and elsewhere in the region. Grown by a collective of growers in the vicinity of Treviso, it is a regionally protected variety, similar to Walla Walla or Vidalia onions. The growers of Treviso maintain their own seed stocks to assure quality and uniformity and, because just the top is harvested before setting seed, the variety remains effectively proprietary. As we have noted previously, the commercially available seed for the variety is poorly maintained and has been contaminated by other chicory varieties. Frustrated by the low quality of commercial seed, several years ago we embarked on a project to draw out from the problematic seed the qualities we desired. It is going well.

We could probably call these chicories Late Treviso and no one would bust us. However, leaving aside the question of the ground they are grown in, for better or worse Gaston is very definitely not Treviso. More importantly the population we have is very different from those grown in the Veneto. The appropriate long name for Arch Cape would be "Variations on the Theme of the Late Treviso." Like a musical variation, such as Beethoven's 12 Variations on Handel's "See the Conqu'ring Hero Come" for piano and cello, we have approached the well-recognized and uniform Late Treviso in a relaxed and fun fashion. Look no further than the blades and you will see a chorus of reds including crimson, ruby, carmine, cerise, claret, burgundy, rose, fuchsia and ox-blood. Some of our heads have very narrow, strap-like blades and others expand into a spoon shape. Such playfulness is an anathema to the Treviso growers. We would be drummed out of the consortium and forbidden to use the name. Nonetheless, we carefully maintain the Late Treviso theme so that they are recognizable as kin, just as Handel's theme runs through Beethoven's variations.

Another important variation displayed in Arch Cape is that it is fully adapted to digital salad eaters like the Boutard family. When our Italian visitors were presented with the Arch Cape salad, they immediately went for their knives and forks and started whacking away at the long slender leaves. Reeling from the foliar carnage, we stopped them and explained that the only way to fully appreciate this beautiful salad green is to grasp the end with your thumb and forefinger and delicately work your way up the blade. It should be a contemplative exercise, relaxation after the main course, savoring the sheen of fine olive oil and vinegar. After all, no one in their right mind would eat an olive with a knife and fork. After a moment of confusion and resistance, all enjoyed the digital approach to salad eating.

Fortunately, when we started growing these chicories we were ignorant about the mystique and hype surrounding them. After a few years of growing them, a chef asked us how we produced such fine looking traditional late chicory. We told him we planted seed and then harvested from the field in February. He then recounted how the chicory farmers of Treviso dig the plants and put them in caves where warm, clear spring water flows at precisely 60°F (15°C), and stressed that this is the proper way to force them. We explained to him that we were impressed by our fellow farmers' efforts, but it seemed like a lot of work, guaranteed to double the price or more, and it wasn't really necessary and we didn't have caves like that in Gaston anyhow. We have now heard the romantic story about the limestone caves and the pure spring water many dozens of times and with various extravagant embellishments, always told as though it is essential to the enterprise, an exquisite purification rite. We were amused to see photos of the process provided by the Venetian tourism people. The process looks messier and muddier than we would like to tolerate, and hardly a beautiful cave with running spring water we will add. 

The soils of the Pacific Northwest are so wet in February that creating a muddy lagoon would hardly seem necessary, and we are sufficiently dark and gloomy so as to relieve us of the need for a covering shade cloth. Anyway, our selection efforts are devoted to regionalizing Arch Cape by freeing it of the need for a limestone cave, or a dingy hoop house and a muddy lagoon for that matter, amenities we clearly lack. Oh yes, and the knife and fork. Though we dearly wish we had a limestone cave with a spring running through it as a general matter. How fun it would be to eat dinner on a hot summers eve with our toes dangling in the cool waters from the depths.

You can find Anthony and his wife Carol's chicories at their farm store, 5219 SW Spring Hill Rd. in Gaston, OR, this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, Mar. 4th and 5th, from 3-5 pm. If you can't make it out to the farm, you can find these remarkable chicories at Rubinette Produce, 2340 NE Sandy Blvd.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Best Tomato Soup (Apologies to Campbell's)

Dinner at my family's table growing up was a product of the then-new and novel notion of convenience for housewives. Why spend hours preserving fruits and vegetables when you can simply open a can and have dinner on the table in less than half an hour? Cookbooks, women's magazines and television commercials touted "open a box" instant gratification for puddings, cakes, hamburger helpers and soup mixes with brand names that became part of the family—think Duncan Hines, Campbell's, Lipton and, yes, Betty Crocker.

Going in the oven to roast.

With three kids and a husband to feed every night, and especially when she started working full time, my mother needed all the help she could get. I've joked that during my childhood I thought that Campbell's cream of mushroom soup was the glue that held the universe together. Even when I was on my own, a good tuna casserole needed that special touch that only one product—I've since found a superior recipe—could achieve. My future husband wooed me with lunches he made himself with cream of tomato soup (Campbell's to the rescue again!) and grilled cheese sandwiches.

So, as with that tuna casserole, recreating the flavors I remember and the satisfaction they provided has become a bit of an obsession. A cream of tomato soup like the one from the can with its smooth, silky, tomatoey flavor—we always made it with water rather than milk—that filled your mouth and warmed your belly is one that has been at the top of my "figure this out" list.

After roasting, ready for anything.

Lots of recipes I researched called for various herbs and spices to be added; some add vinegar or honey, probably to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes. But I was looking for a recipe that was simple to make and that would have been easy enough for my mom to whip up for her family's dinner after a long day at the office, a glass of wine in one hand (would that she would have allowed herself that) and a wooden spoon in the other.

With a good supply of frozen, roasted astiana tomatoes in the freezer, I was all set with the main ingredient, and their perfect balance of sweetness to acidity made the notion of adding anything else just so much unnecessary froo-froo. Having made this soup a few times now, both with and without grilled cheese sandwiches, it's always brought back those days of yore, but with the satisfaction of knowing I no longer need help from the folks at Campbell's.

Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter
2 med. onions, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. flour
2 qts. (8 c.) roasted tomatoes or 3 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes with their juices
2 c. chicken broth
1 Tbsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
1 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender and translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté 2 minutes. Add flour and stir, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, salt, celery salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove soup from heat and, using an immersion blender,  purée the soup thoroughly until smooth*. Add more salt to taste, if needed. Serve.

* I don't mind a little texture from any bits that don't get totally blended in, but if you want a completely silky smooth finished product, you can press it through a sieve, which will catch any remaining seeds or other bits.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Your Food, Your Legislature: Genetically Engineered Crops; Farm-to-School Funding

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. Thanks to Ivan Maluski of Friends of Family Farmers for help on details of the pending legislation. The sponsors of legislation are listed on the information pages of the bills (links above), and links are provided for their offices. You can find your own legislators here if you want to contact them about these or other issues.

We're one month into the six month-long 2017 session of the Oregon Legislature. Today is the deadline for drafts of proposed legislation to be completed, then legislators will have until Tuesday to take them to the House and Senate desks for introduction. The bills of particular concern to Oregon farmers and consumers are outlined below.

Genetically engineered sugar beet.

Additionally, I will be moderating a panel on these issues and others at the Friends of Family Farmers InFarmation gathering on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 6:30 pm at Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison. Make plans to attend and get more information on these bills and other issues, as well as ask any questions you may have.

Allowing local communities to protect farmers whose crops may be at risk of contamination from genetically engineered (GE) seed or products (HB 2469). This bill will allow 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. On Feb. 8 a press conference was held in the State Capitol in Salem laying out the case for these two bills and the history behind it (video here; press conference starts at 11:35 mark). Sponsors are currently working to secure committee hearings on this bill.

Strengthening the ability of farmers to hold patent-holders of GE crops financially accountable when unwanted presence of their products is found on farmers’ land (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.

Portland's Sabin School Garden Program.

Ensuring continued funding for Oregon's Farm-to-School program (HB 2038). 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. Currently, Governor Kate Brown’s proposed two-year budget contains no funding for Farm-to-School. In 2015, the Legislature provided over $5 million in funding for a farm-to-school program. However, this funding expires in July 2017, and 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.

See the first post in this series for other bills affecting farmers and consumers in Oregon this session. For more information, read the entire series here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Chicken Tikka Masala Fills Your Senses

If I knew a good love song about dairy products, I'd be putting a link to it here. If you read my last post about our discovery of a line of organic, lactose-free dairy products, you'll know what I'm talking about.

It's been years since I've been able to contemplate making recipes that contain any fresh dairy products like butter, yogurt, sour cream, cream or any cheese younger than about six months. Looking through cookbooks or recipe sites, I automatically screened out anything that had any significant amount of those ingredients. Sure, I'd been able to substitute margarine for butter in a few, and tried tofu sour cream and cream cheese on occasion, but…sorry to say this…they were pale imitations when the real deal was called for.

Roasting spices for garam masala.

The cuisine of India is generally fine for the lactose intolerant, since vegetable oil is often called for (or can be substituted for ghee) in many instances. But the creamy, lovely curried yogurt sauces have been off limits. Until now.

As mentioned previously, Green Valley Organics makes lactose-free sour cream, yogurt, cream cheese and butter, and they're widely available here in Portland. So to celebrate this life-changing—or at least dinner-changing—occurrence, I decided to do a trial run of a tikka masala, which uses copious amounts of ghee and yogurt as the body of a curry sauce that blankets the chicken, lamb or whatever meat you choose in a lusciously rich coating.

Lovely aroma, fabulous flavor.

I was intrigued by the description I ran across in a recipe for a Punjabi-style tikka masala by Samin Nosrat on the New York Times cooking site, but decided to substitute fresh chicken thighs for the cooked turkey called for. (I also made homemade garam masala—easy and so much more flavorful than store-bought—using a recipe by Craig Claiborne.)

Long story short, with a few tweaks and adjustments to the recipe, sighs and moans were heard emanating from the diners gathered around the table, for the return of these much-missed gifts from our bovine friends as much as the incredible aroma and flavor of the dish itself.

Chicken Tikka Masala

For the garam masala:
9 green cardamom pods

1" length of stick cinnamon
1⁄2 tsp. whole cloves

1⁄2 tsp. black peppercorns

1 Tbsp. cumin seeds

1 Tbsp. coriander seeds

For the marinade:
2 tsp. garam masala
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 Tbsp. paprika
4 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. kosher salt
6 cloves garlic, crushed in a garlic press or pounded in a mortar and pestle
1 c. whole-milk yogurt
3 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs (bone-in, skin-on is fine, too)

For the masala:
4 Tbsp. ghee, butter or neutral- tasting oil
1 onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
6 cardamom pods, crushed, with seeds reserved and husks disposed of
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. paprika
1⁄2-1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. garam masala
1 1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 Tbsp. finely grated fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, crushed in a garlic press or pounded in a mortar and pestle
2 serrano peppers, finely minced
1 qt. roasted tomatoes or a 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
12 oz. sour cream
1/2 c. whole-milk yogurt
3⁄4 c. coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, plus sprigs for garnish
Steamed basmati or jasmine rice, for serving

Break open cardamom pods and reserve the small seeds, discarding the outer shells. Roughly crush the cinnamon stick into small pieces in a mortar and pestle. Combine all the spices in a small skillet over medium heat. Cook spices briefly until they emit a roasty aroma, but be careful and don't allow them to smoke. Empty into small spice mill or small coffee grinder and grind as finely as possible. Store in airtight container.

Make the marinade: In a medium bowl, stir together garam masala, coriander, cumin, paprika, turmeric, kosher salt, garlic, ginger and yogurt. Fold in the chicken thighs. Cover and chill for 4 hours or overnight.

Make the masala: On the stove top, heat a Dutch oven or similar pot over medium-high heat. Add 3 tablespoons ghee, butter or neutral oil, then add onion, cardamom, bay leaf, paprika, pepper flakes, garam masala and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are brown and tender, 10 to 15 minutes, adjusting temperature as needed so the onions don’t burn.

Make space among onions in center of pot, and add 1 tablespoon ghee, butter or neutral oil. When it sizzles, add ginger, garlic and serrano peppers, and sizzle for about 10 seconds. Stir into the spiced onions, then add tomatoes and their juices. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, until the liquid is almost gone, 8 to 10 minutes.

Stir sour cream, yogurt and chopped cilantro into the mixture in the pot. Season with 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt. Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens, about 40 minutes. Discard bay leaf.

In the meantime, line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil, turn on oven broiler, and arrange an oven rack about 6 inches from broiling unit. Lay the marinated chicken thighs on the parchment in a single layer. (Stir any remaining marinade into the sauce.) Broil thighs until they begin to blacken in spots, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the browned thighs to the masala sauce, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook for 30 minutes.

Just before serving, taste and adjust salt as needed. To serve, garnish with cilantro sprigs. Serve hot, with steamed basmati rice.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Lactose Freedom!

It was a sad day more than a decade ago that my husband discovered he was lactose intolerant. For years he'd had bouts of gastrointestinal issues, and finally narrowed it down to those times when he'd consumed dairy products. As I wrote at the time:

"It was a very bad day. One of those days that forever changes you. A day that delineates a definite 'Before' and 'After.' The life-altering occurrence? My husband found out he was lactose intolerant. And, no, not just the 'take a Lactaid pill and have some cheesecake anyway' kind of lactose intolerant, but the kind where it's inadvisable to partake of butter, fresh cheeses or any product containing milk without risking...ahem...shall we say 'explosive repercussions.'"

Not being inclined to use someone else's intestinal tract as a personal science project, I decided to eschew dairy in family meals and focus on those that could be made with oil or margarine instead. Fortunately many of the world's most delicious cuisines are not heavily dairy-based, including most Asian cultures and those of Italy, Spain and other countries of the Mediterranean.

I was able to cheat at times, since he seemed to tolerate well-aged cheeses, anything that had more than six months or so of aging. So extra-sharp cheddar and the then newly available lactose-free milk products went into making a pretty decent version of macaroni and cheese.

We dreamed of the day when more lactose-free products would start appearing on store shelves. A part of that desperate wish was granted when lactose-free whole milk, rather than just two percent, became available, expanding our culinary universe a smidge. But butter and cream were still beyond our reach.

Then, miracle of miracles, my sister-in-law announced that she had found lactose-free butter at the store and, even better, it was certified organic. Dave immediately went out and bought a half-pound chunk, planning to slather a few pats on his morning toast—and declaring it an official (and delicious) great leap forward. He even started dreaming of making buttery, flaky, lighter-than-air croissants.

Come to find out that the same company, Green Valley Organics in California's Sonoma County, also makes cream cheese, sour cream, yogurt and kefir. And that meant I could once again make long-missed desserts like—Be still my heart!—cheesecake and indulge in dishes like Indian tikka masala. Even better, it turns out Green Valley products are available in stores around town and, while definitely more expensive than other organic products, are well worth the price for those special dishes that are so much better with (real, organic) dairy.

(PS: We're still waiting for the heavy cream.)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Future of Our Food: Supporting Family Farmers in Oregon

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.

Ivan Maluski owns and operates Shimanek Bridge Farm with his wife, Kendra Kimbirauskas, in rural Linn County where his focus is on producing high quality pasture while rotationally grazing pigs, poultry, goats and cattle. With nearly twenty years of experience working on natural resource policy issues at the state and federal levels, he has served as the Policy Director for Friends of Family Farmers (FoFF) since 2012. He works to accomplish FoFF's legislative and policy priorities at the State Capitol in Salem, representing small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers. He can often be found testifying at the Oregon Board of Agriculture, the Legislature and in other venues. He also makes a terrific cheese from the milk from his herd of LaMancha goats.

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

In the Northwest, one of the most critical issues facing our food system is rapidly rising farmland prices that is making access to land for beginning farmers increasingly difficult. The average age of Oregon farmers is now at 60 years old and a significant portion of Oregon's farmland base is likely to change hands in the next decade or two. Increasingly, Oregon farmland is being bought by out-of-state real estate investment firms and larger agricultural production firms, which is driving prices beyond the reach of family-scale and newer farmers. This trend could lead to vastly less family ownership of farmland in Oregon in the future, fewer smaller and mid-sized independent farms, and less resiliency in local and regional food production systems.

In the country as a whole, rising market consolidation and corporate mergers are a major threat to family farm ownership and consumer choice, as our food system increasingly falls into the hands of a smaller number of large corporations. A generation ago, America's food and farm economy was dominated by family-scale operations. Now, just handful of companies control most meat production and a major share of dairy production in the U.S. The world's largest seed and input companies also in the process of merging, which reduces marketplace competition, which will likely raise prices for farmers while reducing options for seeds and other inputs. This will ultimately translate into higher prices for consumers as well.

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?

I think the new administration is going to be heavily focused on repealing regulations that they view as obstacles to large, industrial agricultural firms doing business how they see fit. To the extent EPA rules, for example, currently work to keep manure from large factory farms, or fertilizer runoff, out of waterways, these rules will be under attack by the Trump administration and the current leadership in Congress. Expect both administrative and Congressional action to repeal as many regulations as possible over the next two years, with the primary beneficiary in agriculture being bigger operations with the most significant pollution issues. I think we can also expect that, despite historical bipartisan support for the Farm Bill, the 2018 Farm Bill debate will likely be colored by efforts by the Trump administration to slash spending. If they are successful, I would expect there to be cuts to important farm conservation programs, organic research, local food system programs, programs aimed at helping beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and the nutrition programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) that make up a big part of the Farm Bill.

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

Pay attention to how the Trump administration deals with pending mergers between companies like Monsanto and Bayer, and Syngenta and Chem China. Before being inaugurated, Trump met with the CEOs of Monsanto and Bayer at Trump tower and seemed to endorse the merger, which would have devastating impacts on many American farmers. Additionally, the Trump administration has put on hold long-overdue Farmer Fair Practices rules to level the playing field for family-scale livestock producers and increase transparency in the marketplace to address unfair practices that large meatpacking companies sometimes engage in to control prices. The fate of large agribusiness mergers and the Farmer Fair Practices rules will be an early, major test of the Trump administration on whether they will stand with family farmers, or large agribusiness companies when those interests diverge. While some of the most prominent groups in the agribusiness sector support mega-mergers and oppose the Farmer Fair Practices rules, groups that support independent and sustainable producers are also speaking up. Sign up for alerts and newsletters from groups like the National Farmers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to stay on top of national policy.

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

In the short term, concerned citizens may need to look at getting more involved at the local and state level to advance good food and farm policies. For at least the next two years, the federal government has been taken over by corporate ag interests that will likely take policy backwards. This must be opposed, but it is also an opportunity for state and local governments to enact or strengthen policies that promote local and regional food systems and sustainable agriculture. State and local governments will need to lead the way if the federal government is going backward.

What organizations most need our support?

Friends of Family Farmers and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Read more in the Future of Our Food series.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Got Parmesan Rinds? Make Broth!

Recently I was reading through some old articles and came upon a mention of making a broth from old Parmesan rinds and thought, "Yeah, right." I'd heard of dropping the rinds into tomato sauces and cheese-friendly soups to add a little oomph of umami, but broth? Really?

Then I remembered my "aha!" moment about making corn stock from leftover cobs, and my slap-upside-the-head realization about broth made from crab shells. I knew I had a nice little zip-lock bag of old rinds I'd been storing in the freezer because I felt guilty about throwing them out. So why not give it a try?

And, as you might expect from the enthusiastic title of this post, I'm now a convert and will henceforth be hoarding Parm rinds, maybe even going so far as to sneak them into my pockets when we go to as-yet-uncoverted friends' homes for dinner.

So how easy is it? Seriously, if you can boil water you can make this broth. All it takes is a cup of rinds and eight cups of water, brought to a boil and then simmered for an hour or so. It's insanely good as a base for risotto (see recipe below), but I've also used it combined with chicken broth for minestrone soup, and I can't wait to try it in a creamy tomato soup or my next pot of beans. And it keeps virtually forever in the freezer, though I can't imagine it'll linger there very long.

Like all converts to a cause, I've become pretty fanatical—you won't be finding any unsimmered corn cobs, crab shells or, now, unused Parmesan rinds around here!

Parmesan Broth Risotto with Peas and Preserved Lemons

For the broth:
1 c. Parmesan rinds
8 c. water

For the risotto:
2 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped finely
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
2 c. arborio rice
1 c. dry white wine
4 c. Parmesan broth
1/2-1 c. peas
1/4 c. preserved lemon, chopped fine
1/2 c. finely grated Parmesan, plus more for serving at the table

Put cheese rinds and water in a medium-sized pot over high heat. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to simmer for one to two hours. Measure 4 cups of broth for use in risotto. The remainder will keep for a week or so in the fridge or it will keep for at least six months in the freezer.

Melt the butter and oil in a medium-sized saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until tender. Add the garlic and sauté briefly, then add the rice. Sauté for two minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Add wine and stir until it's absorbed, then start adding the broth a ladle-full at a time, stirring frequently. When most of broth is absorbed, add more broth. When you've used about half the broth, add the peas and then continue adding broth and stirring frequently until the rice is al dente but not crunchy. Add preserved lemon and 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan and stir to combine. Serve with extra Parmesan for sprinkling at the table.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Travels With Chili: Day Trippin' to Cannon Beach

It happens a lot when I'm driving, as well as on those rare occasions when I'm on an airplane. I'll be puttering along on the freeway and ahead of me there's an exit sign that says "Ocean Beaches" or a sign pointing to "Seattle next exit," and I'll think, why not? Or maybe we're sitting on an airplane and the flight attendant announces the landing time for our destination and then says, "For those passengers continuing on to Paris…"

Well, lately—okay, honestly, since the election and the resulting chaos on the national scene—I've been alternating between covering my eyes to avoid seeing pictures of you-know-who and getting sucked into watching Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live.

So lately the pull to take that exit off the freeway has been almost irresistible. Fortunately for me, a friend had a birthday coming up and, instead of trying to buy a gift—which is always fraught with uncertainty for me—I thought, hey, I'll bet she needs a jaunt out of town as much as I do!

My favorite hands-down jaunt destination is the beach, just a 90-minute drive from PDX, and whether it's Astoria's historic, working port appeal or the taffy-and-Haystack Rock lure of Cannon Beach, there's really no wrong direction. Both drives are scenic, with a choice of forested vistas or a meander along the Columbia River, and easy driving, especially on a weekday.

And, of course, Kitty and Walker had to come along, especially since my friend was the lifelong caretaker of the departed ür-Corgi, Tai, who got us started on this big-dog-with-short-legs journey in the first place. Plus Corgis seem to be drawn to the waves like…well…like seagulls to the beach, so it was a win-win-win all the way around. Even though we got started a bit late, at 11 or so in the morning, we made it to Cannon Beach by 1 and were walking on the beach moments later.

I tend to avoid the section of beach near the touristy downtown and opt instead for pulling into the tiny city park just before hitting the main drag. It's separated from the Haystack Rock area by a creek, which tends to discourage the tourists from crossing it and makes for a nice quiet walk up to the bluff on the north end of town.

We were, of course, starving by the time we made it back to the car an hour later, so we zipped into town and nabbed a comfy booth at Bill's Tavern & Brewhouse where I had a lovely pint of their IPA to go with my spinach salad while my friend gobbled down their chopped salad. Despite the dire weather prediction, it was still astonishly gorgeous out, so we drove down to the south end of town and went for another stroll on the beach before heading back home.

With tired puppies, clearer heads and the memory of a perfect few hours on the beach to hold onto, it was just what all of us needed.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Future of Our Food: Building Infrastructure for a Regional Food System

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.

As Vice President of Food & Farms at Ecotrust, Amanda Oborne leads a team seeking to revolutionize and regionalize our food system. By harnessing the purchasing power of schools and institutions, empowering local farmers and ranchers, and developing infrastructure to connect the two, Ecotrust is helping build a resilient regional food economy that nourishes communities and renews the resources on which we depend. Recently named one of the "Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company magazine, Amanda has a master’s degree from Northwestern University, and spent 15 years in private enterprise before joining Ecotrust in 2010. She has recently been featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fast Company and Civil Eats, and appeared at the Food Tank 2016 National Summit and the New York Times Live: Future of Food.

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

Our biggest challenges are shared—our health, economy, environment and culture are intertwined with our food and how we produce and disseminate it. I believe the system we rely on for our food is fundamentally flawed. Our biology makes us highly susceptible to food that is bad for us, and our "always-on" culture keeps us running and distracted—all of which makes it extremely profitable, given the economic structure in which we operate, for corporations to exploit those realities for significant profit but to the collective detriment of our health and humanity.

It is inhumane, in my mind, to propagate a food system that solves for financial profit over human health and wellbeing. People from all walks of life—farmers and ranchers in rural communities, school children, hospital patients, service industry and agricultural workers, people disadvantaged by institutional racism, people living in poverty and even privileged city dwellers like you and me, suffer to varying degrees from a food system that prioritizes profit and efficiency over nutrition, access and resource stewardship.

If we are to have any hope of addressing these core issues, we are going to have to come together. That means not dividing ourselves into factions dedicated to certain types of production (organic vs. GMO vs. no-till vs. pastured, etc.), but collaborating to support restorative agriculture of all kinds, values-based supply chains and regional markets.

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 it will address them?

This administration appears to be focused on profit-maximization and deregulation, but seems unaware of how its policies, particularly on immigration and trade, would affect agribusiness. In addition to deleting all references to animal welfare from the White House website, the president has signaled a preference for commodity agriculture over "backyard tomato farming,"  which is how he seems to be characterizing non-commodity production and regional supply chains. The reality is, however, that many types of differentiated production have been shown to yield a higher profit per acre, and consumer demand for food free of antibiotics, pesticides, animal cruelty, added sugar and other unnecessary additives is not going away.

What’s more, a growing number of consumers want their food system to reflect their values, including livable wages and fair treatment for both farm workers and service industry employees, equitable access to nutrient-dense food and higher standards for animal welfare. Eaters are going to have to find their voices and speak up. The good news is that because food is so connected to other issues—climate change, children’s health and ability to learn in school, immigration, equity, aging, and many others—speaking up for food has a ripple effect on many other important issues.

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

If you care about any of these challenges, you would do well to read Civil Eats regularly. The foremost repository of news, thought, analysis and solutions being piloted in regions across the country, Civil Eats carries the pulse of food and restorative agriculture and is completely accessible to eaters of all stripes.

For those actively working or volunteering in food system reform, I can also recommend the Food & Environment Reporting Network and its partner publication, Ag Insider, along with Mother Jones; the weekly newsletter of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition; Food Tank; and Food Tech Connect.

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

Show up for local, practical, immediate causes. For example, the Oregon Legislature is considering eliminating funding for farm to school in this legislative session. This would be an incredible blow to Oregon children, farmers and processors all in one hit. Research conducted by Ecotrust has shown, without question, that every dollar spent by schools on local food creates an additional dollar of economic activity in our home economy, and creates jobs as well. Parents and supporters can stay tuned to the Facebook pages of Ecotrust and Upstream Public Health for regular updates and calls to action.

What organizations most need our support?

Becoming a monthly Ecotrust giver puts any eater squarely in the fight for an equitable, restorative, prosperous and delicious food system, and the gifts are used locally for the benefit of Oregon farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, as well as children and families facing system disadvantages in food access. Yes, of course I’m biased, but I can certainly vouch for the work!

Read more in The Future of Our Food series.

Top photo by Chloe Aftel.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Wartime Kitchen & Garden: A Parable for Our Time?

The other night a friend of ours mentioned a show he'd watched online called Wartime Kitchen and Garden. This series, created by the BBC and aired in 1993, attempted to recreate the era just before and during World War II when England, virtually surrounded by German U-boats, was unable to import any food and had to quickly recreate a local food system to feed its people.

Harry Dodson, gardener.

Edicts were issued by the government that any arable land, including its vast public gardens, had to be converted so that at least 75 percent of it was dedicated to food production.

"How sad it was to have to throw away perfectly good plants, plants which had been tended for years," said Harry Dodson, head gardener at Chilton Lodge, who narrates many of the garden segments. "To see them thrown away on the fire heap or the compost heap, it was a period of great sadness."

Ruth Mott, cook.

Fortunately the real privations of wartime, like bombings and shortages, held off for several months and allowed people to start producing food prior to shortages and rationing became a reality. In addition to food production, the series outlined the steps that home cooks took to make the most of what little was available in shops during the war years, as well as the creative ways they conserved energy and fuel.

I'd highly recommend watching a few episodes for their entertainment value and historical detail, but also keep in mind that this is very applicable to our lives now as we try to create (or revive) a local food system.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Farm Bulletin: Particular About Preserves

The first time I tasted the preserves from Ayers Creek Farm, it was their black cap jam, and I was bowled over by the intensity of the fruit that burst from it. Subsequent jars of plum, blackberry, raspberry and quince jelly each carried the same concentrated flavor intrinsic to its particular fruit, and I've found very few other preserves that can match it. Here contributor Anthony Boutard reveals the secret to their preserve-making prowess, and why other brands may never measure up.

Our preserves are made from the farm's fruit only. If the fruit is shy in the field, it is shy in the kettle and then in the jar, but we hope never shy on toast. The fruit is predominantly the first run from the field, the very best for processing because it has high acidity, along with high aromatic and pectin content. Lots of character and an outgoing disposition. Acidity, not sweetness, defines a fruit. Paradoxically, on most berry farms this highest quality fruit is left to over-ripen or rot because there is not enough to justify mustering a crew to harvest it, let alone the time and fuel needed to deliver such a small quantity. The economics of berry production are tight. Fortunately, we are diverse enough that staff can harvest for a hour or so in the cool of the day, and then set up irrigation and perform other essential tasks. And we only have to deliver the fruit to one of our freezers.

Because of the fruit's quality, we achieve a good set without adding commercial pectin. We freeze the berries whole in the harvest crates without crushing them. This preserves the aromatics and avoids any enzymatic degradation while the fruit is freezing. For the plum preserves, staff harvests a blend of firm, acidic fruit and riper, more aromatic fruit. The mix lends more character to those preserves.

Most are processed using 750 grams of sugar per kilogram of fruit, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. The currants and jostaberry are prepared using 950 grams of sugar per kilogram of fruit. All are cooked in two gallon lots using a set of four small steam kettles. We use sensitive digital thermometers to track the temperature of the fruit. We generally shoot for 220-221°. However, each of the 15 fruits cooks differently, and they vary from year to year. This year, the purple raspberry set at 216°, the lowest we have ever seen in our fruit. Still scratching our heads over that. The behavior in the pot indicated a set had been achieved, but the reading on the thermometers didn't match, so we decided with our eyes rather than the instrument. An overcooked preserve is a terrible disappointment. As a general matter, we err on the side of a runnier set rather than risk a gummy texture and dull flavor.

When finished, we have concentrated about a half pound of fruit in each 10-ounce jar. When we started making preserves, we found there were all of these baffling rules of identity defining jams, conserves, jellies, sauces, spreads and preserves. We artfully dodge the identity question by avoiding any description on the label. All we do is name the fruit and ingredients.

Our ability to make preserves of this quality rests on a very special relationship we have developed with the owners of Sweet Creek Foods, Paul and Judy Fuller. Since 2005, we have produced more than 35,000 jars of preserves at their factory in Elmira, about 35 miles west of Eugene. They are set up to process large quantities of fruit in several 200 gallon kettles, thousands of jars a day. The physics of cooking in large kettles require the addition of commercial pectin, something we have avoided because those pectins bind with the fruit's acids and dull the flavor. We pay extra to use the little kettles that otherwise are reserved for testing purposes, and eke out about 1,000 jars each day. As Paul notes, he could do that in an hour if we weren't so damned picky. We sweeten the deal by bringing down a huge pot of soup for Paul, Judy and their staff.  

The difference in price between the different types is not an indicator of quality differences. The difference reflects extra labor costs and shrinkage associated with deseeding, and removing the stems from the currants. In the case of damsons, it's the labor associated with pitting such a small plum. Jellies are their own challenge because the juice and pectins must be extracted by slowly stewing the fruit, and then drawing off and decanting the clear liquid. They are our art project, the test of our mettle as preservers with their fragile, jewel-like essence. With jellies, there is no gracious exit from a mistake.

We don't have a favorite preserve as such; they all find their way onto our table. However, the one that is the true measure of our efforts is the red raspberry. Commercially prepared raspberry preserves, jams, conserves, spreads, however they are identified, are found in every grocery store in the land, and many of us had parents or grandparents who put up some raspberry jam. If we felt our red raspberry tasted the same as Smuckers or some tonier brand, we wouldn't devote the time and effort. On the other hand, we are not foolish enough to compete with memories and are very happy if the quality simply reminds you of the raspberry jam you enjoyed at your parents' or grandparents' table.