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.

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?

* * *

UPDATE: 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 in the Boardman area. A California-owned facility, Lost Valley joins North Dakota-based Threemile Canyon Farm in supplying milk that goes into making 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."

Since the county had no choice but to approve the facility despite 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. (Read an extended version of this update.)

* * *

UPDATE: As if I needed any more reinforcement of my decision to quit buying Tillamook products, a massive dairy sewage spill—more than 190,000 gallons—that flooded neighboring properties and entered the water systems that eventually run into Tillamook Bay has closed the bay to commercial shellfish production, according to an article in the Salem Statesman-Journal. This is the third time in the last month that dairy sewage has spilled from storage tanks or drainage ponds and caused fecal coliform readings hundreds of times higher than the standard allows. These leaks have been the subject of lawsuits on the part of local fish and shellfish operators, who often have to shut down for weeks or months twice a year during rainy periods when flooding can occur. The economic impact of this latest spill to individual fishing families and shellfish operators has not been estimated, but the cumulative effect of the shutdowns and spills to local fishing and farming communities over the years cannot be underestimated.

* I contacted the Tillamook County Creamery Association Consumer Relations department for this post 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.