A Restaurant Asks You: When Are We Opening Back Up?

I met Mark Doxtader of Tastebud when I wrote the Market Watch column for the Oregonian's FoodDay section, and he was running his wildly successful wood oven pizza business—one of the city's first mobile oven businesses at the time—at the Portland Farmers Market. He has consistently offered Portlanders the highest quality handmade breads, bagels, pizzas and salads—not to mention that heavenly porchetta—made from locally grown produce and meats. Like Cory Carman's essay from last week, I felt this message from his newsletter was invaluable to understanding what the people who make up our food system are dealing with.

For continued safety and precaution, we ask that everyone continues to wear masks when picking up orders. With the confusing “progress” we have made in the pandemic, playing it safe and remaining cautious has served the community well and allowed us to stay open. It has only been a couple weeks since we moved our pickup table from the doorway to just inside our shop. It felt like a baby step forward, although mainly spurred by the extreme temperatures outside.

We are tired and a little weary but still in a holding pattern. But we are committed to waiting out the pandemic and and are hopeful for some additional government assistance to make the changes we are in need of to adapt to a modified service style. Doing to-go only for the last 18 months has been a temporary solution to our global crisis. Although we have all adjusted, modified and survived thus far, we continue thinking about and focusing our intentions towards our next iteration. We remain patient and dependent on the health and safety of our staff and community.

We are a very small crew. In the last year we have had two fulltime employees who have been with us five years each. In addition, we have three people who are part time, who also live with me, and a sprinkling of friends that have dependably pitched in. And last but most definitely not least, we have my two daughters who have been integral and vital to the last year, in keeping our doors open and me "sane." These are the vaccinated folks that are keeping us running.

At this very moment, we all are nervous and not so comfortable with “opening up," especially as we existed before the lockdowns. It is really hard to imagine how it all used to operate in such a small space—can’t imagine how we used to squeeze 11 staff and 40 guests inside. As we can see in the world, and now with the dramatic domestic COVID uptick, this pandemic is really not over. Not even close.

We enjoyed the short “loosening," but we just don’t see a path that takes us back to how things were. The old way of our industry has revealed its cracks. And we are not comfortable just plugging those holes and moving on. Working in the service industry will not be the same, nor should it be. Late nights, low wages, rampant substance abuse, unfair, unpredictable and misguided tipping systems, and more entitled and rude customers who just seem out to make overt political statements when going out for dinner.

After non-essential services were mandated to close, I explained to my youngest daughter that I wasn't sure if another customer would ever set foot in our dining room. I was not sure if we would go out of business or if our operation would fundamentally change to survive a new world. My goal when this all went down was to stay consistent and dependable as much as humanly possible. Not changing hours, not changing service style, trying to keep my family, staff and community safe. Trying to stick with what folks know us for, pizza inspired by the farmers. I am so thankful for the community that has supported us through all of this. 

So, ultimately, we are spending days and nights trying to imagine and plan what Tastebud 5.0 will be, in what is our 21st year of operation and 6th year in Multnomah Village. Ideas range from more pizza, more bagels, more breads, chicken dinners, lunch sandwiches, bakery, coffee, private dining, mutual aid, and how we can support disadvantaged communities. We are waiting for a committed pivot to fulfill our goals and not continuing this temporary setup that is keeping us afloat. We are hoping the restaurant revitalization fund will come through, but we are not holding our breath.

I hope we all stay safe, heathy and vigilant and that we see you soon.

Mark

Drought Plus Fire: A Devastating, and Potentially Deadly, Combination

Cory Carman of Carman Ranch is a pasture-based rancher on the land in Eastern Oregon's Wallowa County that her family has passed down over four generations. Her story brings visceral meaning to the words "drought" and "fire."

“Dry” was the word we used at the start of the growing season. The plants barely grew, their normally vibrant colors signaling spring and early summer strangely muted. The land I know so well felt completely unfamiliar. 

It didn't rain. We began to say “drought,” a word that invokes a certain level of anxiety and urgency. It was time for action, but what to do? And when to do it? Our ranch manager, Sam, and I spent hours revisiting our grazing plan and forage budget. Should we sell cattle? Which ones, and when? If we did, would we be able to serve our customers? Pay our bills?

Then the storm clouds rolled in, not with rain, but with lightning. It struck in the dense timber north of where we were running 320 pair.  We watched the fire grow, traveling across the gnarly country toward the cattle. To gather and keep them bunched together would make it easier to evacuate them, but to do it too soon would mean leaving them for a period of time that would stress the land.  To wait too long might put us in danger.

I reached out to Ed, a public information officer from the Lick Creek Fire, as it came to be called. Ed was from a very competent national team sent to help manage the blaze. We discussed the location of cattle, the progress of the fire and devised a plan.

He told us the fire crews were attempting to hold the southern line of the fire (at that point 50,000 acres) along two forest service roads. If we could consolidate the cattle into one large pasture, we would be able to gather them in a day. If the fire crossed the road to the steep, rugged terrain, thick with timber, they wouldn't be able to stop it until it reached the cattle. It would take more than a day for the fire to travel the 7 miles to the cattle, leaving us time to get them to safer ground. We had a plan.

So last Monday  (7/12) night, Sam, my 13-year-old son Emmett, and two other riders hauled the horses two hours to the ranch house where we lease the pasture. They set up cots, slept a little, and were at the pasture at daylight. I met them that morning with food and water. Together, we gathered the cattle until late afternoon.  

Back at the ranch house, Emmett fell asleep before he could finish eating his sandwich. While he slept, we checked the rest of the cattle and headed back, feeling like we'd executed the first part of the plan.

The Elbow Creek Fire on July 20th.

The next morning, I called Ed to see what the fire did overnight. For two days, the crew held the southern line through back-burning and we began to breathe a sigh of relief. Then, on Thursday (7/15) afternoon, we heard rumors that another fire had started to the west and it was moving quickly toward the cattle. The fire (later named the Elbow Creek Fire‚Äč), was gathering speed, burning on both sides of the Grande Ronde River. 

Exceptionally dry conditions and the steep terrain overwhelmed local fire crews quickly. With four active wildfires in the region, not including one of the largest in Oregon history—the Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon—there was very limited help to send. Ed called after his briefing. His tone had changed and, reading between the lines, it was clear he didn't know if they would be able to stop this fire. He suggested we move our herd of cattle closest to the new fire out of the area.

That evening, Sam went home, saw his wife and 2-year-old son, and  loaded up the horses. I grabbed food and water and headed out, this time leaving Emmett home. We called Marvin, one of our favorite truck drivers, and asked him to meet us at the corral in the morning.  

When we gathered at daylight, it was beautiful and crisp, but the huge columns of smoke to the north and the west made what would have otherwise been an enjoyable task surreal. At 6:30, Marvin arrived and we loaded the truck with 33 pairs, then traveled several miles to the next group of cattle, to consolidate them into a smaller pasture.  We took a break in the heat of the day, when the cattle were so deep in the brush we had to walk right into one to find her.  

We came back in the evening, finishing up by moonlight. We did the same thing the next day. When Marvin arrived at 6:30, we loaded out the last of the smaller herd, before we finished collecting the cattle we missed the day before. The timber was so dense that it sometimes felt like luck to find any at all. I glanced at a wolf pup and kept searching. The smoke made the temperature more bearable, and we were able to gather all but two of the cows in a 200-acre pasture, with good water and enough feed to allow us time to see what the new fire would do. 

It’s been five days now, and the Elbow Creek fire hasn’t moved much closer to our cows, instead heading west and—almost ironically—south, towards the ranch where we brought the first two truckloads and where my kids and I live. When I look out our front window, there's a sea of tents and porta potties, and a helipad two fields in the distance. During the most recent briefing, we were told that there were over 1,000 firefighters on this fire, more than doubling the Wallowa's population of 805.

The drought set up the conditions for these fires, each of which has caused us to consider our relationship to our animals in a new context: In times of stress, we forfeit good management and a grazing plan in favor of being able to leave quickly. When there's no rain, we have to compromise our goal of constantly moving cattle to green and lush pastures, and think about how many animals the land can support.

This isn't over yet, but I've come to realize along the way that we can't control or obsess over the financial implications. Every time I worry about how we’ll make our budget work, or if we'll be able to pay down our operating loan, I go down a path that ends with decisions that are ultimately detrimental to our people or our land. And those are relationships that can't always be repaired. Digging out of a financial hole can be time consuming, but it’s possible. And in a year like this, something has to give.

My relationships with the people who care for our animals are ones I hold most dear. And also the myriad relationships with customers and friends in the culinary community, who have texted and emailed and called. There's no doubt that this will continue to be a challenging year, and so we'll keep looking for different ways to make it work. As I have before, so many times in this business, I am finding all the solace I need from you, the people who support us and have our backs.

Thank you.


Read my interview with Cory Carman about why she chose to raise her animals on pasture, and how she sees it as a vital tool in reversing climate change and building a more resilient and vibrant local food system.

Your Food, Your Legislature: Hits and Misses Tallied for Oregon's Food System

The Oregon Legislature adjourned "sine die"—which translates as "without a day," i.e. with no appointed date for resumption—on June 26, after a session marked by the usual rancor between the GOP minority (which staged a virtual "walkout" over objections to Governor Brown's COVID restrictions, the third year in a row for that maneuver) and the Democratic majority. Despite that and the fact that the session was conducted online due to the pandemic, there was some progress on strengthening our food system. Below is a summary of the hits and misses of the most important bills affecting our local food system:

Hits

Oregon supports more small meat processors.

Grant program to increase small-scale meat processing capacity (HB2785): The grant fund was allotted $2 million, plus an additional $300,000 for OSU’s Clark Meat Science Center. According to a report from Friends of Family Farmers' Amy Wong, "This long-overdue investment should be considered a major milestone for small farmers and ranchers who have pushed for expanded processing for decades." What this program means for you is that, in the future, more locally grown, sustainably produced meat from small Oregon farmers should be coming to your table.

Bovine Manure Tax Credit (HB 2451 and SB 151): This measure died in committee. It would have continued funding tax credits for factory farms that use methane digesters to product natural gas. The vast majority of these credits have gone to Threemile Canyon Farms, the 70,000-cow mega-dairy supplying most of the milk for Tillamook cheese products, which is owned by an out-of-state corporation. It's a big step forward that our legislature rejected a highly greenwashed process that maintains investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, one that also props up a factory farm system that harms small farmers, rural communities and our environment, not to mention the animals it exploits.

More fresh produce for Oregonians on food assistance.

Double Up Food Bucks (HB 2292 and SB 555): The Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) program assists recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets, farm share sites and retail outlets that participate in program. This important program was funded at the $4 million level—a big jump from the initial $1.5 million funding level in 2019. Nearly one in four Oregonians experienced hunger during the pandemic and this program is a triple win for eaters, farmers, and local communities.

Farm to School Grant Program (part of the Education Dept. budget): The Oregon Farm to School Grant Program, which was in danger of being eliminated altogether, was awarded $10.2 million, maintaining its current level of funding.

Misses

Oregon Organic Action Plan (SB 404): This bill would have increased funding to the Oregon State University Extension Service for new positions related to organic production as well as funding for expanding the market for organic crops and products. Assurances were made to advocates that it would be included in the final budget reconciliation bill, but at the last minute it was dropped from the bill.

Bill to pause permits for dairy CAFOs dies in committee.

Moratorium on permits for industrial dairies (SB 583): Sadly, as posted in the mid-session report, this bill that would have allowed a pause in the permitting of new and expanding mega-dairies died in committee. Lobbying by powerful industrial agriculture interests have once again prevented the state from enacting reasonable protections of Oregon’s air, water, climate, rural communities, small farmers and animal welfare.


Thanks to Amy Wong, Policy Director for Friends of Family Farmers, for her help in compiling this report.

Your Food, Your Legislature: Mid-Session Report, and How You Can Help

The Oregon Legislature is at its midpoint, where bills have either been scheduled for a public hearing and work session and are moving forward, or are dying in committee, or are being sent to a Rules or Revenue committee where the mid-session deadlines don’t apply. A summary of the most important bills affecting our local food system is below, with links to take action.

Lobbying by Big Ag has killed the mega-dairy moratorium bill for now.

Moratorium on permits for industrial dairies (SB 583): Sadly, this bill that would have allowed a pause in the permitting of new and expanding mega-dairies has died in committee. Lobbying by powerful industrial agriculture interests have once again prevented the state from enacting reasonable protections of Oregon’s air, water, climate, rural communities, small farmers and animal welfare.

However, advocates were able to secure a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment and they need as many concerned constituents as possible to submit testimony to let legislators know it's not a subject that's going to get swept under the rug by powerful interests. Food and Water Watch has produced a template for your testimony that you can copy and paste into the legislative submission form. (Choose the meeting date of April 1, 2021, at 1 pm, then click on SB 583 to copy and paste your testimony.) Also consider sending a copy of your testimony to your legislator. For additional information on mega-dairies in Oregon, read my article "Big Milk, Big Issues for Local Communities."

Oregon needs more local meat processing facilities.

Grant program to increase meat processing capacity (HB 2785): Unanimously passed out of committee with a recommendation for passage, this bill establishes a grant program to fund the building, upgrading or expansion of local meat processing facilities. Oregon’s already acute lack of meat processing capacity has been exacerbated by COVID-19, and investing in processing capacity will go a long way in creating food system resilience post-pandemic. Amy Wong of Friends of Family Farmers said this program would build "infrastructure and hopefully technical assistance for bringing existing, and potentially new, processing facilities up to standards compliance."

It is critical for the members of the Ways and Means Committee and your legislators to understand the importance of helping rural communities recover from COVID-19 and build long-term rural economic development. E-mail committee members and also e-mail your legislators to let them know how much you value and support access to local food. For more information, read about how important access to local meat processing is to Oregon growers.

Oregon should expand access to organic food from local farms.

Oregon Organic Action Plan (HB 2269 and SB 404-3): The Senate bill (SB 404-3) had a successful public hearing on March 15th and is scheduled for a work session on March 29th. The House bill (HB 2269) would increase funding to the Oregon State University Extension Service for new positions related to organic production as well as funding for expanding the market for organic crops and products. This bill likely will end up in the Ways and Means Committee and it will be important for you to e-mail the Co-Chairs and let them know that we want more organic production in Oregon. And consider e-mailing your legislators to let them know how much you value and support access to locally grown organic food.

Funding for Double Up Food Bucks program (HB 2292 and SB 555): The Senate bill (SB 555) had a successful public hearing and work session and is currently in the Ways and Means Committee. The House bill (HB 2292) would continue funding to assist recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP) to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets, farm share sites and retail outlets that participate in program. With nearly 1 in 4 Oregonians currently struggling to afford to buy enough food to feed themselves and their families, the number is closer to 1 in 3 in Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. E-mail your legislators and let them know that this program not only helps keep our neighbors healthy by providing them with fresh, locally grown food, but also benefits our communities and supports local farms.

Manure digesters are a false solution to methane emissions.

Renewal of the Bovine Tax Credit (HB 2451 and SB 151): This bovine manure tax credit proposed to give taxpayer money via tax credits for an additional six years to industrial facilities like feedlots and mega-dairies that have methane digesters that produce biofuels. While industry claims that digesters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the fact is that burning biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants—including smog-forming nitrogen oxides, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide— potentially offsetting other greenhouse gas reductions. Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for Food and Water Watch, said they presents a false solution that doesn't address the underlying problem of methane emissions. At this point it looks like the House and Senate versions of the bill may have died in their respective committees and the tax credit will not be renewed.

Stay tuned for future developments in the 2021 Your Food, Your Legislature series as the legislative sausage gets made! 

Make a Difference in Our Food System: Join a Commodity Commission!

Love West Coast albacore? Passionate about beer? Want to do something to change Oregon's food system for the better? If you care about where your food comes from and how it's produced, please consider joining one of Oregon's commodity commissions. Most include a member of the public, so check out the list of the positions available and make a difference in our food system!

This year the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is recruiting for 70 commodity commission seats, with a deadline to apply on March 15, 2021. Oregon’s 23 grower-funded commodity commissions support promotion, research and education to improve market conditions for their commodity.

A key point: they also give commissioners direct access to key Oregon agricultural opinion leaders and decision makers. Which means that new commissioners could help set the state's priorities going forward, encouraging the adoption of more regenerative, innovative practices rather than the business-as-usual, industry positions it has in the past.

Each commission has a board that includes producer and handler positions. Producers grow or harvest the commodity; handlers are the first to purchase the commodity from the producer and often are processors, distributors, or marketers. Most commissions also include a member of the public. Time commitment varies depending on the commission, and due to COVID-19 restrictions, remote attendance is an option.

Here are the commissions seeking public member applicants:

  • Blueberry
  • Clover Seed
  • Dungeness Crab
  • Fine Fescue Seed
  • Raspberry Blackberry
  • Strawberry
  • Sweet Cherry
  • Tall Fescue

Get more information and application forms. You can make a difference!

Your Food, Your Legislature: Mega-Dairy Moratorium, Biogas, Organic Plan on Tap

The Oregon Legislature convened its 81st session on January 11 of this year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the session will be held remotely with public hearings in both chambers done over videoconference. Governor Brown and the leadership of the House and Senate are planning to focus on the state's response to the COVID pandemic, addressing the damage from the climate change-related wildfires last year and the danger they present in the future, as well as dealing with the usual budget issues.

With all that, there are still bills dealing with Oregon's food system that are on tap for consideration. Here's an abbreviated list of what's coming up:

A moratorium on mega-dairies will be a hot topic this session.

A moratorium on permits for industrial mega-dairies (HB 2924, SB 583): Put forward by Rep. Rob Nosse (D-42) and Senator Michael Dembrow (D-23), these bills temporarily prohibit the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) from issuing a permit to construct or operate any new industrial dairy, or to expand on an existing industrial dairy. "The moratorium would allow a pause in the permitting of new and expanding mega-dairies until meaningful protections can be enacted to protect Oregon’s air, water, climate, rural communities, small farmers and animal welfare," according to a statement from a coalition of community, farm, environmental and social justice organizations. One of those, Food and Water Watch, is encouraging citizens to sign a letter asking their legislators to co-sponsor the bills. For more information, watch a panel discussion on the topic.

Oregon Organic Action Plan (HB 2269SB 404): Increases funding to the Oregon State University Extension Service for new positions related to organic production as well as funding for expanding the market for organic crops and products. 

Meat processing facilities are critical for a robust food system.

Grant program to increase meat processing capacity (HB 2785): Establishes a grant program to fund upgrades to establishments under a program of state meat inspection. "So many of our [local] meat producers have been negatively impacted by Oregon’s lack of processing capacity," according to Amy Wong, Policy Director of Friends of Family Farmers. Oregon has lost several small processing facilities in the two years, crippling local farms and ranches who need to bring their animals to market. She said this program would build "infrastructure and hopefully technical assistance for bringing existing, and potentially new, processing facilities up to standards compliance." Read about the importance of access to local meat processing to Oregon growers.

Funding for Double Up Food Bucks program (HB 2292SB 440, SB 555): Continuation of funding to assist recipients of supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers' markets, farm share sites and retail outlets that participate in program.

Manure digesters aren't the panacea they're cracked up to be.

Renewal of the Bovine Tax Credit (HB 2451, SB 151): A bovine manure tax credit gives taxpayer money via tax credits to industrial facilities like feedlots and mega-dairies that have methane digesters for the production of biofuels. The problem is, as outlined in an issue brief from Food and Water Watch, "despite claims that digesters reduce greenhouse gas emissions, burning biogas actually releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants including smog-forming nitrogen oxides, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, potentially offsetting other greenhouse gas reductions." Additionally, less than half of methane emissions from an industrial agricultural facility are actually captured by digesters. In addition, digesters, because they are heavily incentivized and subsidized, actually spur the expansion of these kinds of industrial facilities, according to Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for Food and Water Watch. She said they presents a false solution that doesn't address the underlying problem of methane emissions. Needless to say, consumer and watchdog organizations will be active in making sure this bill does not make it onto the floor for a vote.

Stay tuned for future installments in the 2021 Your Food, Your Legislature series as the legislative sausage gets made this session!

My Proudest Moments: 2020 in Review

I'm not normally a person who lives in the past, sifting through decisions or the lack thereof, weighed down with regrets (not that I don't have some, mind you). I tend to move forward instead, looking at tomorrow with anticipation of what it might bring. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to look at the major stories I posted in 2020, a year, as so many have already said, unlike any other in living memory.

First up, on January 13, was a big moment in the 14 years I've been writing Good Stuff NW, and that was a top-to-bottom redesign of this blog, originally begun as an exercise in a new marketing medium that turned into a whole new career as a journalist.

But now to the proudest moments of the last year:

Your Food, Your Legislature

Oregon's Capitol in Salem.

I'm extremely proud of this annual series of reports that follows Oregon's yearly legislative sessions at the Capitol in Salem, focusing on the bills that affect our food system. They give a comprehensive look at legislative process, from the inception of bills, through the committee processes that can amend, kill or pass them on to be voted on in the House and Senate chambers. These reports give you the chance to express your opinions to legislators, which I sincerely hope you do. Look for the new series to start in January on the 2021 session.


Farm Bulletin

Carol and Anthony Boutard

I have been publishing contributor Anthony Boutard's missives from Ayers Creek Farm since 2007, almost exactly a year after first starting this effort. Anthony and his wife, Carol, have been instrumental in teaching me what conscientious, thoughtful, respectful farming looks like, and what it means to steward a piece of ground. His always-stunning prose, as well as his and Carol's friendship, has shaped this blog in ways beyond counting, and I encourage you to read back through them both here on the new site and in the archive. You won't be sorry.


Farmers' Markets Take on the Pandemic

Farmers' markets learned to cope.

When COVID-19 hit in March, there was no guarantee that our up-to-that-time robust local food system would survive. With the governor instituting a lockdown that month and with a great deal of uncertainty about how the virus was spread or how long it would last, restaurants closed down and grocery stores were being inundated with shoppers "stocking up" (i.e. panic buying) dried beans, canned goods and paper products. The future of farmers' markets was uncertain, but working with state officials and pivoting on a dime as regulations changed, our open-air markets have thrived and provided a lifeline to our small farmers. I'm proud my series of reports on this topic has kept the community informed.


Local Food Gains Traction

Our local food system is thriving.

I've been so amazed and inspired by our farmers and ranchers in this pandemic, and I've been taken aback by how fervently the community has embraced and supported them during this most difficult year. From figuring out home delivery to starting Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions to holding a virtual celebration of local vegetables, our food community has proved their ability to overcome obstacles even in a pandemic.


Pesticide Contaminates "Organic" Compost

Result of contaminated compost.

This story originated when I was talking with my neighbor about her extensive vegetable garden. She mentioned that she'd just found out that the gorgeous organic compost she bought from a supposedly reputable local company was contaminated with pesticides. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) became involved, and a lawsuit seeking compensation is in process. It's a story you can be sure I'll be following as it develops.


COVID Outbreaks Threaten Essential Food Workers

Crowded conditions and lack of proper protective equipment have proved a deadly combination among essential workers at food processing plants like those owned by Tillamook Cheese as well as workers harvesting crops in the fields.


Wildfires

Skies turned dark at mid-day.

The intense wildfires that raged through Oregon this past summer and early fall had a devastating effect on our rural food system. Many of our farmers and ranchers lost homes, livestock and fields of crops ready for market, some barely making it out with their lives. Many had to move themselves and their animals multiple times to stay ahead of the unpredictable flames. This on top of a punishing pandemic that has no end in sight. Really, 2020?


Dungeness Crab: MIA

No crab for the holidays in 2020.

I love our local shellfish and the family-owned businesses that comprise the bulk of Oregon's coastal fishing industry. This story explains the too-opaque, behind-the-scenes machinations by powerful players stifling progress in the name of profit and hurting our food system. (Not to mention our holiday dinner plans.)

Dungeness MIA This Holiday: Crabbers Getting Lowballed by Processors

With price negotiations stalled and the entire West Coast fleet
essentially tied up at the dock,
it looks like holiday crab feeds are going to have to wait.

Every New Year's Eve for the last several years we've gathered with friends for a crab feed. While our get-together wasn't going to be possible in this year of COVID, we wanted to keep the tradition going by having our own crab feed here at home, maybe even ZOOM-ing with our friends for at least a toast, if not the whole feast.

Gorgeous, delicious Dungeness.

But in calling around, there was almost no whole, fresh crab to be found. Odd, since the season for the 2020 commercial Dungeness season opened on December 16.

Is this yet another reason to curse 2020?

In doing a little digging, it turns out that the curses would be more appropriately flung at the large fish processors that dictate the price they're willing to pay crabbers for this quintessentially ephemeral delicacy. The 800-pound gorilla among these processors is Pacific Seafood with 3,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenue. Next largest is Bornstein Seafoods with 170 employees and $40 million in annual revenue, followed by Hallmark Fisheries and Da Yang Seafood.

According to Tim Novotny of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commissionan industry-funded agency that's part of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) Commodity Commission Program—each of the state's six major ports has a team of negotiators that, together, meet and propose the price crabbers believe their catch is worth each season. In 2020, the price they went to the processors with started at $3.30 per pound for live crab.

It's not just us: the whole economy of the coast is hurting.

Hallmark and Bornstein countered with a price of $2.20 per pound, then Pacific Seafood came in with a proposal of $2.50 per pound, all roundly dismissed by fishers as barely enough to cover their costs, not to mention not worth risking their lives for in winter's cold, rough seas. Crabbers then came back with a price of $3.20 per pound, which was rejected by processors.

The pandemic is playing a part in negotiations as well, with crabbers saying if crews experience an outbreak it could shut down their season entirely. For their part, processors are nervous about the market for crab, with restaurants only open for takeout and not ordering in their usual volume, and with retail customers hesitant to venture out to stores to buy product.

Pacific Seafood—which Novotny described as "the straw that stirs the drink" because of its position as "the big dog" in the market—is irked that it's being blamed for ruining holiday celebrations. An article for KCBY in Coos Bay quotes Jon Steinman, vice president of processing at Pacific Seafood, as saying "the notion that Pacific Seafood is holding up the Dungeness season is absurd.

"'We are one of many other major buyers on the West Coast,' Steinman said in a statement. "We have to do the best we can for our customers, our fishermen, and our team members who are counting on us to run a good business and be here for this season and years to come.”

Lyf Gildersleeve, Flying Fish.

It is possible that the ODA could get involved in the negotiations if a request is made by both the crabbers and the processors.

"By law, Oregon allows [processors] and fisherman to convene supervised price negotiations with oversight from the ODA," said ODA's Andrea Cantu-Schomus in response to my e-mail. "A request for state-sponsored price negotiations was made to ODA, [but] ultimately there was not enough participation [from both sides] to hold negotiations."

The opaque nature of the negotiations is frustrating to Lyf Gildersleeve of Flying Fish, a sustainable seafood retailer in Portland, who would like to see a more transparent process rather than what he terms a "closed-door conversation" between the haggling parties. "Processors always lowball the price to make another fifty cents per pound," he said, noting that, for the most part, "people will pay whatever it takes" to have their holiday crab.

And as much as I'd like to make this about me, the delay in setting a price for this year's Dungeness catch isn't just inconveniencing my holiday plans, it's hurting the whole economy of the coast. From fishing families to retailers to the small coastal towns already hard-hit by the pandemic, it's compounding the devastation wrought by job losses and the lack of tourist dollars,.

So, with price negotiations stalled and the Oregon and California fleets* essentially tied up at the dock, it looks like our New Year's crab feed is just going to have to wait.

You can find tons of recipes in my Crustacean Celebration series.

* Washington's Dungeness season has been delayed until Jan. 1 due to elevated levels of domoic acid, a marine toxin.


UPDATE: After more than three weeks on strike, on Friday, January 8, commercial Dungeness crab fishermen accepted an offer of $2.75 per pound from Oregon processors, a significant reduction from the crabbers' previous proposal of $3.25 per pound.

Find tons of recipes in my Crustacean Celebration series.

Eventful: Fill Your Pantry & Winter Vegetable Sagra!

Spring has always been a favorite time of year, coming, as it does, at the end of a cold, damp season here in the Pacific Northwest. The warming temperatures, the first taste of the peppery greens emerging from the soil—it rings my chimes every time! And of course the abundance of summer can't be beat, starting with the region's justifiably renowned berries and the ensuing cavalcade of summer vegetables and fruits.

As colorful as it is delicious!

But I'm finding that, in the last couple of years, fall and winter have wangled their way into my heart, especially with the emergence of new, packed-with-flavor varieties that local farmers have adapted to our maritime climate, many of which can thrive in the field without row covers or hoop houses. I'm not just talking about beets and turnips here, either, but a whole plethora of chicories—bright red radicchio, speckled castelfranco, curly endive and escarole, and even an Italian outlier called puntarelle—with their slightly bitter bite, as well as new squash types that will make your old butternut blush, along with other upstarts like purple sprouting broccoli.

To celebrate this season of deliciousness and sample it first-hand, on Sunday, December 8th, Friends of Family Farmers and the Culinary Breeding Network are joining forces to once again to present the Fill Your Pantry and Winter Vegetable Sagra. Fill Your Pantry is a one-day community bulk-buying event encouraging you to stock your pantry for the winter with items from local farms such as storage vegetables, fruit, beans, pasture-raised meats, grains, canned goods, and other products. Take a look at the incredible list of products and sign up to pre-order. (Pre-ordering is encouraged, with orders to be picked up at the event. Farmers will bring a limited amount of product to sell at the event.)

Order ahead or buy at the event.

The Winter Vegetable Sagra—"sagra" being Italian for a rural festival—will have some of Portland's best-known chefs offering (free!) tastes of dishes featuring the many different varieties of winter vegetables being grown by Oregon farmers, along with cooking demonstrations and activities for kids. Not only that, and this speaks volumes to me, there's a cookbook swap where for every good quality cookbook you bring in, you can swap for another one of your choice!

It's all happening on December 8th from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at The Redd, Portland's hub for local food and farms, at 831 SE Salmon St. in Portland.  Past events have been not only a showcase of the vitality of our local food system, but an opportunity for the community to celebrate the bounty that is available to us year round.

Photos by Shawn Linehan Photography.

Quillisascut Farm: Hands-On Approach Teaches How a Local Food System Works

"It was mind-opening to hear others' opinions, perspectives and how passionate they were about them. I was inspired to see how beautiful everyone's cooking was and how sustainably it was done. To see that it CAN be done with effort and knowledge."
- Culinary student attending Quillisascut Farm School

In the far northeastern corner of Washington State, among the high desert pines populating the northern reaches of the Columbia River, Lora Lea and Rick Misterly have created a hands-on learning center where students spend a week immersed in a living example of what a local food system looks like. No lemons spark the salads; instead, the kitchen uses verjus made from the pressed juice of unripened grapes—the vines left from an abandoned attempt to make wine in the farm's early days. No branded items are allowed at the table, save for wine bottles (thank heavens).

The farm table.

I was invited to Quillisascut Farm to experience the program that now exposes dozens of students a year to small intensive workshops like Farm Culinary 101 (the workshop I attended), Edible Education, and Chefs of Color, among others. Each workshop has a particular focus, and most are aimed at professional chefs and culinary students, though serious cooks and those interested in building strong local food systems will find them perfectly approachable.

Lora Lea Misterly.

Lora Lea and Rick originally bought 26 hillside acres in the early 80s, intending to build a self-sufficient homestead where they could raise animals and have a garden to feed them throughout the year. She had grown up on a dairy farm in the area, so they started with both cows and goats, but Lora Lea was increasingly drawn to goats because of their intelligent and inquisitive natures. She also began making cheese from their milk.

The school building.

They built a home with a cheese room and cellar for Lora Lea, and eventually added another 10 acres to the property. The couple marketed their cheeses to chefs in Seattle, Rick making the exhausting twelve-hour round trip deliveries. Several of their customers became interested in visiting the farm after hearing of their integrated approach to farming and making food from what they grew themselves. These customer visits and the inclusive approach the Misterlys took led them to start offering classes to culinary professionals, students and food writers. The visits prompted Rick to build a large straw-bale building that houses a professional kitchen, a large dining room, a living room for nightly gatherings and dorm rooms upstairs. (He also included a large double-wide barn entrance that farm equipment could access in case the school idea didn't work out.)

Rick demonstrating the farm's compost system.

Conservation and use of resources is a key tenet of the curriculum at the school, and the very first workshop on the week's schedule was a demonstration of making the compost that enriches the soil that feeds the plants, animals and people who live there. It's a holistic approach that underlies everything at the farm, which depends on a well system for water—the bathroom mantra "if it's yellow, let it mellow" is drilled into students' heads—as well as the need to make use of every part of the plants and animals harvested.

Slaughtering and eviscerating the farm's chickens.

A typical day at Quillisascut begins in the pre-dawn dark after a (very) quick cup of coffee made by the saintly staff who volunteer their time at these workshops—and fyi, that 5:45 start time was tough for this freelance writer. The morning session usually begins at the barn up the hill with anything from butchering a neighbor's heritage Karakul ram killed earlier that morning, to slaughtering and eviscerating several of the farm's chickens, to helping Lora Lea milk her goats.

After the early morning session, a large breakfast of farm-grown fruit and eggs, with breads made from grains milled onsite, is served buffet-style off the butcher block counter in the kitchen along with (thank the goddess once again) lots more (locally roasted) coffee. Each day has a "Word of the Day" theme—the first word was "Respect"—which students are encouraged to consider as they move through their assignments. The schedule moves swiftly from breakfast to classes on cheesemaking with Lora Lea, or a foraging walk with Chef Kären Jurgenson, or feeding and watering the pigs, chickens and goats. At least one morning is dedicated to harvesting whatever is in season in the garden (top photo), which will be pickled, cooked, baked or otherwise utilized in meals that week.

Making bread with Chef Don Reed.

The hearty farm lunches are prepared by students, who are divided into four or five-person "teams" for the week, afte which classes continue apace with field trips to other area farms—John and Michelle Progar of Meadowlark Farm's innovative organic cropping system was fascinating—a presentation on bees and pollinators with beekeeper Steve Schott or bread baking with Chef Don Reed. After dinner is discussion and reflection on the day's activities led by Lora Lea, followed by well-earned sleep.

[Quillisascut] really created some sort of special bond.  Maybe it was the community that type of work creates, but on the last day, our final word was "grateful." It was a wonderful experience and one of those places your soul likes to stay for awhile even after you have left." - Professional chef attending Quillisascut Farm School

The farm school at Quillisascut has drawn participants from around the country, indeed from around the globe, but is primarily attended by students from Seattle-area culinary programs who compete for scholarships to the workshops. The school has become successful enough that it provides the bulk of the farm's income, and Lora Lea has cut back her milking goats to seven from a high of around 40, and they have found a distributor for the cheeses so that Rick no longer needs to make the long deliveries to Seattle.

Student making goat cheese.

Now in their mid-60s, the Misterlys believe that their primary mission is to spread the message about the hard work and care it takes to produce good food, with the intention that not just the education, but the interactions with the people and animals, as well as the quality and flavor of the sustainably grown food that students harvest, make and eat, will become an integral part of their lives as they move forward in their careers.

See more photos from my trip to Quillisascut Farm on my Instagram feed.