Volume 16, Issue 29 - July 17 - July 23, 2008

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The Joy of Eating Locally

The locally grown food on my plate tastes better — but that’s only part of the story

by Margaret Tearman

My husband and I sat down to a delicious dinner of roast chicken, red potatoes tossed with rosemary, and zucchini sautéed with onion. Dessert was peach crisp.

The chicken, potatoes, squash and onion came from the Lamb’s Quarter CSA in Owings. I clipped the herbs from pots on my patio. The peaches were grown down the road at Swann’s Farm. Other than a little olive oil to sauté the squash and the flour, butter and spices that put the crisp in our dessert, everything on our plates was produced no more than 10 miles from our home in Calvert County. This wasn’t by chance. I am on a mission, determined to do what I can to change the way we eat — and live.

My Carrot — and My Stick

Three unrelated episodes catapulted me on this journey.

It began last winter when Jim and Patty Bourne, owners of a family farm in Owings, called to let me know they were changing to Community Supported Agriculture. I believe I was the second person to join their Lamb’s Quarter CSA; 38 others followed. We members pre-pay the farmer in mid-winter for a season’s worth of produce, thus providing the farmer the capital needed to purchase seeds, plants and equipment. Beginning with the first spring crop and continuing throughout the 20- to 22-week growing season, each of us receives a share of each week’s harvest.

By signing on, I agreed to share not only the harvest but also the ups and downs of farming. Some weeks I will pick up a box overflowing with just-picked produce; other weeks the box will be lighter. Mother Nature plays a big role. Pounding hail, driving rain or summer drought will often dictate what is in the box. It is a risk, but one I find worth taking.

Shortly after handing the Bournes a check, I picked up Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver’s best-selling book about food. I had tried to read it once before but put it down, peeved at the author; I thought she made eating only food in season or produced locally seem too easy. A successful author who already owned a 100-acre Virginia farm, Kingsolver didn’t have to show up in an office every Monday morning; she had the space and time to plant, harvest, preserve and shop around for what she didn’t grow.

Now personally invested in a farm, I gave it another read. From Kingsolver, I learned about the decline of biodiversity in farming and how — and why — giant chemical companies control the type of seeds planted. When did those heirloom varieties disappear from the grocers’ shelves and why? I knew asparagus in Maryland wasn’t grown in December when I grabbed a bundle for Christmas dinner, but I never gave a thought to where it came from and how it got to the Whole Foods in Annapolis. It was labeled organic, and I assumed that also meant freshly picked — like yesterday. Kingsolver’s book led me to question what I was eating and how, when and where it was harvested.

With the answers came a guilty punch in the gut. I see now that our cheap, abundant food supply is not necessarily a good thing. You would think those bland, tasteless tomatoes I bought in February would have given me a clue.

The third — and hardest — kick was delivered by the documentary film King Corn, produced by two recent college grads who followed the corn trail, camera in hand. Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis left their homes on the East Coast for Iowa, where they convinced a farmer to give them one acre of his land to grow corn.

As they tell it, with the help of “real farmers, powerful fertilizer, government aid and genetically modified seeds,” the two novice farmers produced one acre of corn. While waiting for their crop to grow, they documented the life of an ear of corn — from field to market to end-use. Today’s farmers don’t grow much corn to eat — as in corn on the cob — but instead sell their harvest either to feed lots, where cattle are crammed into pens and corn-fattened for market, or to processing plants to emerge as high fructose corn syrup.

Horrified by what I’ve learned about America’s food production and consumption, I have vowed to change the way I shop and eat. No more mass-produced corn-fed steaks or pale, tasteless tomatoes in February. No more lettuce out of a bag.

Eating Well

Editor’s Note:

We’re joining the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission’s statewide Buy Local Challenge Week, July 20 through July 27, pledging to shop locally and eat all we can — at least one locally produced food a day — from the farms and fields of Chesapeake Country. Join up at http://www.buy-local-challenge.com.

My first share of the Bourne family farm was a spring box of greens: arugula, heirloom lettuce and baby bok choy. For the first five weeks, we ate a lot of greens. Just as we tired of arugula, the growing season moved on. Our next boxes held new onions, beets, baby red potatoes, cauliflower and radishes. I am looking forward to cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, beans, tomatoes and yams. I also buy the Bournes’ fresh eggs and organic, free-range chicken.

We need to keep eating long after the last pumpkin is picked, so I am planning for the harvest-less winter months. I am freezing what I can and learning to can what I cannot freeze. A friend promises to bring her pressure cooker and know-how to a canning party; I’ll provide the beans, jars and a bottle of wine.

I am also finding sources for other foods I use routinely, including meat, cheese and dairy products. I doubt coffee beans will ever be grown in Maryland, but I can get them locally roasted. A savvy friend tipped me off to organic California olive oils, each bottle a vintage from olives locally grown — out there. I will continue to enjoy wine imported from France, Australia, South America and California, but I will also sample vintages from Maryland and Virginia. Whenever reasonably possible, I will buy local.

I don’t need asparagus in December. Instead of eating anything I want — because it’s available when I want it — I will instead be eating what I need. But I will be eating well. The meat, dairy and eggs on our table will be hormone- and antibiotic-free, and our fruits and vegetables will be either in season or carefully preserved, all grown without chemicals.

At the same time, I will be doing my small part in keeping my community — and my body — healthy.

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