Monday, March 31, 2008

Food Fight!!

Food fight grows over the cream of the crop

By Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 9, 2008

Josiah Citrin was livid. As chef-owner at Santa Monica's M�lisse -- one of only three Michelin two-star restaurants in Southern California -- Citrin is used to getting what he wants, particularly when it comes to sweet, fresh English peas. But Wednesday morning, the McGrath Family Farms stand at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market was sold out, and Citrin was on the warpath.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Farmers Market in Santa Monica, CA changing

Food fight grows over the cream of the crop

By Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 9, 2008

Josiah Citrin was livid. As chef-owner at Santa Monica's M�lisse -- one of only three Michelin two-star restaurants in Southern California -- Citrin is used to getting what he wants, particularly when it comes to sweet, fresh English peas. But Wednesday morning, the McGrath Family Farms stand at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market was sold out, and Citrin was on the warpath.

It wasn't a matter of the peas not being there that made him angry; he could see boxes of them behind the table. But they had all been ordered in advance -- mainly by produce companies that would sell them to restaurants and markets across the country.

"The chefs who actually come to the market every week need to be supported," Citrin fumed to anyone who would listen -- and quickly a who's who of the L.A. food scene gathered around: Jason and Miho Travi of Culver City's Fraiche, considered by many the best new restaurant in Southern California; Donato Poto of seafood temple Providence, Vicki Fan and Kazuto Matsusaka of trendy Beacon, Mark Peel of landmark Campanile.

Quinn Hatfield, chef-owner at the tiny, highly regarded Hatfield's on Beverly Boulevard, joined in.

"This is my last day here," he said. "I don't want to compete with the produce companies. Look at all of these trucks. This isn't a farmers market anymore; it's some kind of boutique wholesale operation."

It may seem like a tempest in a pea pod, but it's one more sign that the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers' Market, one of the most cherished food institutions in Southern California, is undergoing profound change.

Though ordinary shoppers can still rub elbows with famous chefs while buying just-picked fruits and vegetables from folksy farmers, there is no denying that the market has also become an important economic engine.

Those same fruits and vegetables you buy for your family might also wind up on tables at fancy restaurants in Las Vegas and New York, flown out by major produce companies such as LA Specialty and FreshPoint Consolidation, a subsidiary of restaurant supply giant Sysco Corp.

Inspired by the chefs, home cooks have adopted many of the ingredients themselves, and now former rarities such as Meyer lemons, blood oranges and fingerling potatoes can be found at high-end supermarkets across the country, many of them bought at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market by specialty produce distributors Frieda's and Melissa's.

For the small farmers who grow those items, the market is an economic lifesaver -- a place where they can earn more than commodity prices for growing ingredients that can't be found elsewhere or that taste better than what the big farmers grow.

Though no hard figures are kept, some growers say that as much as half of what they sell at the market is bought by produce companies.

As a result, what had long been a kind of informal meeting place for many of Southern California's foodies and chefs is no longer quite so clubby. What chefs once regarded as a combination of culinary laboratory and kaffeeklatsch -- a place to find new ingredients and ideas and swap gossip, sometimes seemingly in equal proportions -- is more and more a place for big business.

"It used to be that everyone thought how great it was to be out there picking things for ourselves; it was so exciting," said Matt Molina of the white-hot Mozza restaurants, co-owned by star chefs Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton. "Then all of a sudden it began to become a business, a big-money business. Now farmers are sometimes catering to the big people, so local restaurants are sometimes getting left behind.

"I can understand why Quinn [Hatfield] gets upset. It's turned into a very tricky market. It's not just this little mom and pop thing anymore, the way it was back 20 years ago."

Farmers markets started out in the late 1970s as a way to help small farmers and bring fresh produce to home cooks. Chefs, drawn by just-picked freshness and often hard-to-find ingredients, enthusiastically adopted them.

And gradually the markets became something more than just a place to shop. Cooking in a restaurant, even a very fine one, can be isolating -- both creatively and socially. Night after night, chefs churn out the same menu items, and the only way they can meet other professionals is by driving across town for a late drink after closing.

Surrounded by ingredients at farmers markets, chefs found that they could let their imaginations roam free of the constraints of the menu. Many items that we now regard as fine dining staples got their start this way. What could you do with the green garlic some farmers brought in? Or all of those fava beans? Or stinging nettles, for goodness' sake?

At the same time, chefs could connect with their colleagues, catch up on family news or compare linen services and valet parking companies.

Now they say that the increasing commercialism of farmers markets is threatening that. Today, along with shoppers and chefs, there are representatives of big commercial produce distributors walking the market, often trailed by workers with truck dollies to help tote away purchases.

Chefs, including Citrin and Hatfield, accuse corporate buyers of hogging the best produce, keeping it out of the hands of hardworking, hands-on cooks like themselves.

But Peel, who has been shopping at the Wednesday market most weeks since opening Campanile in 1989, points out that it wasn't so long ago that the same complaint was being leveled by shoppers against him and other chefs.

"Farmers markets started as a way for farmers to sell directly to home cooks, then chefs started going there and home cooks would moan about the chefs coming in early and scooping up everything good," he said. "I'm a chef, and I'd kind of roll my eyes and say, 'Get out of bed earlier.' Now the same thing is happening to us."

The average shopper probably hasn't noticed much of a difference. If you want to buy only a pound or two of English peas, they're still there; it's the 10-pound purchase that gets tricky. And as far as the real treasures are concerned, well, those have been out of reach for years. To get your hands on James Birch's fragrant Persian mulberries or Jerry Rutiz's candied wild strawberries, your best chance is befriending one of the chefs who have long claimed almost all of them.

Certainly, there's nothing preventing Citrin and Hatfield from phoning in their orders in advance, as do other chefs and produce companies. But Hatfield says the spontaneity of choosing what's best at the farmers market and letting it inspire his menu is one of the great things about being a chef.

"To me, that's what going to the farmers market is all about," Hatfield said. "If I'm going to have to pre-order things in order to be sure I get them, I might as well just stay in bed an extra of couple hours every Wednesday morning."

Chris Kidder of Brentwood's Literati II shops the market regularly, but he has started to pre-order more of the things he needs.

"But I am still going to go there to get other things I might not know about or to find the very best products," Kidder said.

On the other side of the argument are farmers like Phil McGrath, he of the hotly sought sweet peas.

"Look, I don't want to make anybody mad, but is it so hard to pick up the phone?" he asked plaintively. "Can't they call us up the day before and say, 'Hey are you coming down tomorrow? Could you bring some peas?' "

The issue goes well beyond mere convenience. Farming is a business that runs on highly perishable stock, and when something is harvested it must be sold quickly, particularly when it's as fragile as English peas, which start to turn from sweet to starchy within hours of being picked. Peas that don't get sold are good only for compost.

"Someone calls in an order, and that's a sale that's already made and paid for as far as I'm concerned," McGrath explained. "When I bring something to the market and put it out on the table, that's a gamble. I don't know whether I'll sell those or not."

One of the most constant of the commercial shoppers at the Wednesday market is Karen Beverlin of FreshPoint. Her company ships produce from the Santa Monica Farmers' Market all over the country, including to restaurants in Las Vegas and New York. But Beverlin said 90% of its sales are in Southern California, to customers as varied as Providence restaurant and the USC dining hall.

"I think we're helping the family farmers who come to the market, and isn't that what it's all about?" she said. "I don't haggle about prices with the farmers I buy from. . . . In most cases, I'm paying exactly the same prices for most of what I buy as you would if you just walked up to the table.

"We do want the farmers markets to remain vibrant, and I think we're helping that on multiple levels: We're helping them economically, we're encouraging a vibrant community and we're giving chefs access to high-quality, local, seasonal produce, much of it sustainably grown, even if they can't come to the farmers market every week. How can that be bad?"

Caught in the middle is Santa Monica market manager Laura Avery, who has run the operation since 1982, just a year after it opened.

"There is certainly a wide range of opinions among farmers, among chefs and among the produce companies," she said. "They're all trying to get more small-farm produce into restaurants, which is great. But we want to be sure to keep stuff on the tables for regular customers and smaller restaurants who come every week."

One idea Avery has been considering is separating the wholesale activity from the main market -- allowing it either before the 9 a.m. opening or at a different location.

"We're all of us interested in helping the farmers, but we need to separate the two," Avery said. "That's what has to happen in a very nice, positive kind of way. Certainly, we're victims of too much good stuff, of too many happy customers. But I think we can make it work."

Friday, March 21, 2008

March 16, 2008 New York Times
Leaving Behind the Trucker Hat
Tivoli, N.Y.

THEIR Carhartts are no longer ironic. Now they have real dirt on them.

Until three years ago, Benjamin Shute was living in Williamsburg, where he kept Brooklyn Lager in his refrigerator and played darts in a league.

Raised on the Upper East Side by a father who is a foundation executive and a mother who writes about criminal justice, Mr. Shute graduated from Amherst and worked for an antihunger charity. But something nagged at him. To learn about food production, he had volunteered at a farm in Massachusetts. He liked the dirt, the work and the coaxing of land long fallow into producing eggplant and garlic.

He tried growing strawberries on his roof in Brooklyn, but it didn’t scratch his growing itch.

And so last week, Mr. Shute could be found here, elbow-deep in wet compost two hours north of New York City, filling greenhouse trays for onion seeds. Along with a partner, Miriam Latzer, he runs Hearty Roots, a 25-acre organic farm.

“I never thought I wanted to farm,” Mr. Shute said. “But it feels like an honest living.”

His partner, Ms. Latzer (the two are not a couple) is 33 and a former urban planner. Her parents, a professor and a librarian, “think its crazy that I’m a farmer,” she said. “They wonder what planet I came from.”

This one. Steeped in years of talk around college campuses and in stylish urban enclaves about the evils of factory farms (see the E. coli spinach outbreaks), the perils of relying on petroleum to deliver food over long distances (see global warming) and the beauty of greenmarkets (see the four-times-weekly locavore cornucopia in Union Square), some young urbanites are starting to put their muscles where their pro-environment, antiglobalization mouths are. They are creating small-scale farms near urban areas hungry for quality produce and willing to pay a premium.

“Young farmers are an emerging social movement,” said Severine von Tscharner Fleming, 26, who is making a documentary called “The Greenhorns” about the trend.

While this is hardly the first time that idealistic young people wanted to get back to the garden, the current crop have advantages over their forebears from the 1960s and 70s, many of whom, inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog or Wendell Berry’s books about agrarian values, headed to the country, only to find it impossible to make a living.

But the growing market for organic and locally grown produce is making it possible for well-run small farms to thrive, said Ken Meter, 58, who studies the economics of food as an analyst at the Crossroads Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group for local food initiatives that is based in Minnesota.

“A lot of people in our 20s went to the land and wanted to farm and had a lot of enthusiasm, but not many resources,” he said. “It has only been the last five years where the payment from working your fingers to the bone and supplying urban markets with high-quality produce has been enough where you could imagine making a living.”

Whether young, first-generation farmers constitute a flood or trickle is difficult to say. But many long-time observers of small farms say they have noticed an increase in recent years among college graduates who want to farm, even if they intern at established farms or rent tiny parcels.

“We’ve had a big spike in the last decade and especially in the last few years of people who are new to farming applying to sell at Greenmarket,” said Gabrielle Langholtz, manager of special projects for the Manhattan-based Greenmarket, which runs 46 farmers’ markets around the city. “Maybe they went to liberal arts schools and read Michael Pollan,” she said, referring to the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” (Penguin Press HC, 2006), “and shopped at farmers markets and said, ‘I’m going to buy a farm upstate and sell to Greenmarket.’ ” The typical size of farms that sell at Greenmarket is 50 to 100 acres, she said.

Nationally, there were 8,493 certified organic farms in 2005, using just over 4 million acres of land, more than double the acreage in 2000, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. (The federal government introduced a uniform standard for organic certification in 2002.) New York had more than twice as many certified organic farms, 735, in 2007 as it did in 2004, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. The agency estimates there are three to five times that many organic farms in New York which, like Hearty Roots, choose not to spend the $500 to $1,000 it costs to become certified.

Put that together with research indicating organic farmers are on average 46 years old, compared with an average of 52 for all farmers, and the numbers seem to reflect what experts say they see in the field: the demand from consumers for food produced on a small scale, bought directly from farmers, has allowed a younger generation to enter farming, even as global markets drive many conventional farmers off the land.

“It has opened up a better opportunity than we’ve had in a while for entry-level farmers,” said Stephen R. Gliessman, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies sustainable agriculture. He said many of his students in recent years have started farms after graduation.

When Mr. Shute led a seminar called, “So you want to be a farmer?” in December in New York, it was standing room only with over 40 people, he said.

Just a few years ago the prevailing style statement in Williamsburg featured metrosexually groomed urbanites wearing trucker hats and pristine Carhartt jackets and quaffing Pabst beer. Now some are choosing the real life behind the pose.

At a recent fund-raising party for Ms. Fleming’s film, in a warehouse next to the Williamsburg Bridge, men in shaggy beards and women in thick sandals sipped Sixpoint Lager from mason jars and snacked on Crane Mountain chèvre.

Guests included Rachel Mark and Betsy Devine, who own Salvatore Brooklyn, a cheese maker in Boerum Hill, and Rick and Michael Mast, tall brothers with Amish-length beards, who are starting a chocolate factory in Williamsburg.

The Billyburg scene has changed, said Annaliese Griffin, who contributes to a blog called Grocery Guy. “Having a cool cheese in your fridge has taken the place of knowing what the cool band is, or even of playing in that band,” she said. “Our rock stars are ricotta makers.”

When John Bliss and Stacy Brenner, both 34, first moved to Maine to farm seven years ago — Mr. Bliss from Tucson, and Ms. Brenner from Philadelphia — they knew little about farming.

“My lesson learned from that first year was that if the soil is good, it won’t let you down,” Mr. Bliss said.

On their Broadturn Farm, in Scarborough, they plan to raise sheep, chickens, pigs and turkeys along with vegetables this year. Like many new organic farms, Broadturn uses the Community Supported Agriculture model to survive. Such businesses sell food subscriptions that entitle consumers to weekly boxes of produce in season. Broadturn’s 20-week subscription costs $500.

Mr. Bliss and Ms. Brenner moved to their current site last year after winning a bid to rent a parcel on the outskirts of Portland controlled by a land trust seeking to preserve open space.

A similar set-up is what allowed Ian Calder-Piedmonte, a philosophy major from Cornell University, to join three years ago with a former classmate who had started Balsam Farms on 60 acres on the South Fork of Long Island. For about $150 an acre, they lease town land across from East Hampton high school, and the Peconic Land Trust leases them acreage in Amagansett, where they operate a farm stand on Town Lane.

“If we can find affordable housing, which is a challenge in East Hampton,” said Mr. Piedmont, 28, who spent two years in Italy after graduation, “we’re going to have two interns this summer.”

Although publications like Small Farmer’s Journal, published since 1976, often present the life of the small farmer in a heartwarmingly “Little House on the Prairie” light, a recent article in Sheep! about the dangers of jackals and one in Backyard Poultry about preventing chickens’ drinking water from freezing, are a reminder of the old-school risks of farming.

“We lost all of our soybeans last year to Japanese beetles,” Ms. Latzer said. She often wakes up at 5 a.m. and collapses into an exhausted sleep by 9 p.m. She earns enough to afford health insurance, but if the landlord doesn’t renew their five-year lease, the enterprise could become untenable.

A number of colleges have added organic farming classes because of demand from students. “A lot of them come out and realize they’re not cut out for it,” said John Biernbaum, a professor of horticulture in Michigan State’s new one-year certificate program. Last year, the first, there were 9 students. This year, 18.

Some feel the strong tug of the land. On March 1, KayCee Wimbish, 32, a former second-grade teacher, moved from her Harlem apartment up to Tivoli to raise sheep and chickens with Owen O’Connor, 22, a Wesleyan dropout who helped come up with the name of their enterprise, Awesome Farm.

Ms. Wimbish grew up in Tulsa, Okla., a child of the suburbs, and it wasn’t until she moved to New York that she discovered farmers’ markets and the politics of food. She worked the last two summers at Hearty Roots and became hooked on the agrarian life. “Moving to New York City,” she said, “was what first got me interested in food and farming.”

Source: New York Times >>

Friday, March 14, 2008

Railroad Street Youth Project's Culinary Arts Program

Dine With the Railroad Street Youth Project!

March 24--Guest chefs include our Level 2 students under the direction of The Red Lion Inn Executive Chef Brian Alberg
March 31--Guest chef Terry Moore, The Old Mill, Egremont, MA
April 7--Guest chef Luis Zambrano, Viva, Glendale, MA

Tickets to each dinner are $50/pp and directly benefit RSYP's Culinary Arts Program!

All dinners seat at 6pm at Pearl's in Great Barrington. To make a reservation, contact Steve at RSYP, 528-2475 or

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

EPA may exempt factory farms from emissions reporting

"Factory farms may not be held accountable for toxic gas emissions if the Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) decides to change the current reporting requirements. Although the EPA acknowldeges that factory farm emissions are linked to public health concerns of nearby workers and residents, agriculture industry lobbyists are encourgaing the EPA to drop reporting requirements based on claims that the reports are not being used. Without these reports rural communities will not have much to hold these factory farms accountable for the pollution that they produce. The EPA is accepting public comments on this issue until March 28, 2008."

This is quoted from the Community Food Security Coalition newsletter. For more info visit:

Monday, March 3, 2008

My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables)

March 1, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor to the NY Times

Rushford, Minn.

"IF you’ve stood in line at a farmers’ market recently, you know that the local food movement is thriving, to the point that small farmers are having a tough time keeping up with the demand.

But consumers who would like to be able to buy local fruits and vegetables not just at farmers’ markets, but also in the produce aisle of their supermarket, will be dismayed to learn that the federal government works deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding. And the barriers that the United States Department of Agriculture has put in place will be extended when the farm bill that House and Senate negotiators are working on now goes into effect.

As a small organic vegetable producer in southern Minnesota, I know this because my efforts to expand production to meet regional demand have been severely hampered by the Agriculture Department’s commodity farm program. As I’ve looked into the politics behind those restrictions, I’ve come to understand that this is precisely the outcome that the program’s backers in California and Florida have in mind: they want to snuff out the local competition before it even gets started.

Last year, knowing that my own 100 acres wouldn’t be enough to meet demand, I rented 25 acres on two nearby corn farms. I plowed under the alfalfa hay that was established there, and planted watermelons, tomatoes and vegetables for natural-food stores and a community-supported agriculture program.

All went well until early July. That’s when the two landowners discovered that there was a problem with the local office of the Farm Service Administration, the Agriculture Department branch that runs the commodity farm program, and it was going to be expensive to fix."

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

WHERE'S THE BEEF? or better: Where's the beef FROM?

Atlantic contributors follow the decline of the meat industry by Nathan Deuel

The American Way of Beef

These days, the thought of ingesting hamburger gives many people pause. Massive beef recalls and books like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation have impressed upon readers' minds the image of the modern beef cow, packed tightly in an enormous feedlot, standing in a cesspool of its brethren's manure as it gorges itself on an excessively medicated mix of corn and rendered animal protein. Although livestock diseases have devastated farms in Europe, American factory farming has earned an especially bad name for its carelessness and inhumanity. As B. R. Myers wrote in his May 2005 Atlantic piece "If Pigs Could Swim," "Livestock are treated better in Europe because Europeans want them treated better. They are treated worse here because we hardly think of them at all. It's as simple as that."

Over the years, other Atlantic contributors have made note of America's declining meat standards and suggested alternatives to the federally subsidized farm industry, where the typical cow lives a short and unhappy life that leaves consumers with cheap, fatty slabs of beef. In "Back to Grass," his article in the May 2003 Atlantic, Corby Kummer makes a case for grass-fed beef—meat obtained from cattle that have been allowed to roam free throughout their lives and to sustain themselves on their natural diet of grass and silage. Beef raised in this way, he explains, not only tastes better, but is also leaner and more healthful. ...

Such nostalgia for traditional ranching methods is not new. In "Caesar's Meat" (September 1960), J. Frank Dobie recalled the tasty steaks of yesteryear.

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Join Us March 12, 2008, call for reservations



What a book! Quite thought provoking. Winne wants us to "reset the table in the Land of Plenty." How do we close the gap between those of us eating better, more nutritious local foods and others of us who have to get on a bus to get to a supermarket?

“‘Closing the Food Gap’ is a deeply moving account of Mark Winne’s long career as an advocate for policies that will ensure adequate nutrition for the poor.

"Reading this book should make everyone want to advocate for food systems that will feed the hungry, support local farmers, and promote community democracy-all at the same time.”

-Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, and author of Food Politics and What to Eat

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