2014 was a great year for us. We launched our CSA, had our first on-farm births and we even brought our horses home. We also learned a lot, with one of the lessons being that a consistent topic of conversation when we’re around is that of the state of our food system. This topic almost always invokes staunch opinions and a spectrum of fury that is, at times, disconcerting. Food has become a political lightning rod for people of all walks of life. Self-appointed badges of culinary localism and food system subversion have become the norm. It’s unfortunate that a biological necessity and cultural gathering tool have become such a platform for anger and judgment. The thing is though, if you’re intellectually honest, our current food system is perfectly designed for this country.
Let me preface this by saying— this post has been a long time in the works. It’s hard to talk about such a polarizing topic without appearing filled with angst or equally as pious and judgmental as those I’m about to talk about. Many a lament have been written about the woes of places like Whole Foods, [link] [link], so I’ll spare you those diatribes. However, being introspective, it’s hard to ignore the fact that even with the quality of food we produce at Ham Sweet Farm, we sometimes stop by Culver's for a ButterBurger or order take-out from the Chinese joint in town. Sometimes we’re just short on time, on the go or just plain hungry for salty, greasy food. Between our full-time jobs and the farm, we're just not able to cook meals every night like we used to. So we are part of the problem, right? We consume the “evil” fast food burger. We support the monoliths of agriculture and meatpacking. The answer isn’t so easy though, it’s more of a “sort of”.
While we do eat that stuff, it’s not solely as a matter of convenience; we make our choices based entirely on flavor. We’ll pass five McDonald's to get to Culver's (a small midwest chain who makes burgers to order from meat that's never been frozen), for instance. If you’ve never had a ButterBurger, you can’t understand. If you have and disagree, I call B.S. and that you’re being intellectually dishonest. For us, regardless of where the food comes from, it needs to taste good. This, in my opinion, is the first of two key considerations when talking about our food system. [Note, I'm not talking about engineered flavor, I'm talking natural flavors from fresh products.]
Without flavor, everything else is irrelevant. Who cares that you bought local tomatoes if they taste bad? Who cares if the pig runs around in a field of rainbows if they taste bad? Regardless of what it is you’re farming, if it tastes bad, you’re farming it wrong. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with someone once regarding local [to them], grass-fed beef. This person is a self-appointed “locavore” and despises factory farming. When talking about the beef, they pointed out, and I paraphrase here, “ The meat doesn’t even taste that good and is very tough, but it’s important to support local ”. This, my friends, is absurd on two levels.
1 - Local does not equal flavor, nor is it inherently better. Proximity is the wrong determining factor when choosing a food product. Some things just aren’t good in certain regions. Western slopes of Colorado will never compete for flavor with Michigan sour cherries or Georgia peaches. Pigs raised in the desert will never compare with pigs raised on “green stuff” or "in the woods." We’ve put a tremendous amount of social pressure on supporting the local farms, and while that’s true in part, local doesn’t make the product tasty, it may just save you gas. Raising certain varieties of produce or livestock in certain areas may even be detrimental to the environment, taking too much water or causing too much destruction in order to produce edible units of food. This is especially true with foreign produce, which has significantly impacted foreign markets and results in products traveling for weeks at a time to get to you from its country of origin. Consider substituting your desire for asparagus in December with some lettuce grown in a greenhouse in the US, perhaps even near you. You need to support flavor and common sense before blindly supporting "Local."
2 - You’re facilitating an inferior product. If the product is bad, I don’t care how local it is, don’t buy it or else you’re an enabler. With the proliferation of small farms and the race to be the ultimate local eater there is an increase in inferior “local” products. Some of these animals are kept in only marginally better conditions than your typical CAFO, but because they’re local, people have deemed them “better." If you try a local cut of meat and don’t like it, tell your farmer. Tell the farmer you’re unhappy with the product. Tell them what kind of a product you want. Because, if you’re of the mind to support local farmers, you need to invest in this feedback loop. It’s crucial. It’s how we improve and grow. One of the farms we work with has listened to their customers and is reevaluating their beef plans. They are considering different breeds that do well on grass only, while naturally providing more marbling. They’re not doing this because they had an itch to change, they’re doing this because they heard from restaurants and the public that a different product is desired.
The ideal of local has far exceeded the importance of flavor in this country with the most "foodie of foodies" exchanging local farms like kids exchanged pogs and baseball cards. Eating hyper-locally has seemingly become this badge of honor for those who spend their spare time lamenting about the brokenness of our food system. “I eat local so I’m better." Jump down off the soapbox for a minute and realize that there is nothing remarkable about this for the majority of the rest of the world. If you’re in Paris or Tuscany or Accra, the food just … IS. There is no label of “locally grown” or “farm to table”, it’s just a tomato that tastes good fresh in the summertime, and canned in the winter. It is the sweetness of an onion after the first frost. It’s just, “a pig." Flavor is king and king alone.
The other part of the puzzle when examining our food system is the volume of cooking in this country, or lack thereof. We’ve become a culture centered on convenience, speed to table and price. Cooking is reserved for the special occasion or the desire to impress. Continuing to look at other cultures, cooking is in fact, a daily occurrence. It’s the time when you learn about the day of each of your family members. Maybe you argue about today’s news. You may even tell a new funny joke you heard. More than anything however, it’s a consistent gathering of family around a home-cooked meal, the things memories are made of. Ask any chef worth a damn about food memories and they inevitably rewind back to their grandmother’s kitchen and the aromas and flavors coming out of it. I sometimes wonder if, in 30 years, grandmothers will no longer be the culinary idols they are today. Perhaps this is a bit hyperbolic, but cooking is a dying art within the average household, with familiar smells of sauce on the stove going by the wayside. Cooking, however, is how we make the aforementioned flavors sing, creating those memories and not be just a bowl of necessary caloric intake.
Cooking is where our food system takes a huge turn, and in my opinion, the worst turn. Look at any store, Whole Foods included, and they are littered with pre-made or boxed meals, vegetables out of season to satisfy your tomato and strawberry fix in January. In other cultures, produce and meat get to be free. They share no burden of making a social statement. Eating seasonally in other cultures isn’t an accomplishment; it just is what you do. No one in Italy would expect citrus out of season or olives before they were ready for the year. Cuttlefish from Venice would never show up in Amalfi. Each region has what they have, and there is no forcing the issue otherwise. Prepared foods in Europe are largely a foreign concept, and not being able to cook could be the difference between getting the blessing from the matriarch of the family to marry her son or not. If you did eat at your local trattoria, you’d boycott the establishment if you found that they poured a sauce from a jar. Just look at the guidebooks for any foreign country, I can promise you that in any large city, there is mention of a remarkable market with amazing produce and ingredients. This is not an intended tourist stop by the locals, this is just where and how people shop for the day’s meal.
If you want to talk about how to change the food system, or any system for that matter, you need common ground on which to broach a conversation. If you were to look at the usual State-of-The-Food-System conversation, you may think that the common ground is ire against Big Ag and CAFO operations. The catch is, in most cases, this is a conjured up common ground riddled with assumptions, misinformation and a total lack of experience and understanding. How many people in this country have ever set foot on a farm, let alone work and provide off of one, or have even seen a factory farm with their own eyes? With so little experience, how can this be the platform on which we talk about enacting change? If you’re taking an honest, hard look at what this country demands, it’s cheap, easy access and quick-to-table foods. This cheap, easy and quick-to-table food desire is not exclusive to the uncaring consumer, it's perhaps even more prevalent amongst the culinary 1%'ers. Vegans want pre-made tofu and "chicken-flavored" sausages to cook up. Soccer moms want Annie’s mac and cheese for their precious little snowflakes. Even the most local of local food supporters want plump, boned-out chicken breasts, rather than a whole 3-lb. chicken. Our food system provides for this variety in spades. You can get whatever you want, whenever you want it, at whatever price point you want it. It is, essentially, perfectly suited for this country, no matter what side of the political food spectrum you fall on. Even if you’re in the small percentage who does cook and eat seasonally, there is a farmer's market in just about every area these days and small farms nearby if you put in the work to find them. Boxed food, big farms, small farms and even Big Ag are all part of the world’s most perfect food system. We, quite literally, have something for everyone.
So what is our common ground if it isn’t access and convenience? It’s cooking. It’s something we all can do. It’s something we’ve all done [hopefully!] and it forces the issue of flavor mixed with togetherness and slowing down. If we are to fix our food system, we all, as a society, need to get back to cooking. Cooking is our common ground. I’ll give you an instance of this very point; I work in advertising and one of our clients is, well lets call them a big producer of fresh foods. The juxtaposition between my “farm life" and this client is about as severe as you can get… or is it? I get asked all the time, “Doesn’t it make you sick to work on that account?“ to which I always respond, Not even a little bit and here’s why. We share the same enemy… packaged foods. Our goals are to get people back to cooking a meal for their family. Note: COOKING, as this is not pre-packaged, par-cooked product. This is a product that requires someone to stand at an stove or oven, and cook a meal. Would I rather someone buy an organic box of mac and cheese or a CAFO piece of meat with bagged celery and carrots? All day, every day, I vote for the CAFO meat and veggies. If people buy those things, regardless of the ways that food is produced, they are cooking and getting back to the core of what food is— togetherness and flavor. So, in the simplest of terms, it’s my job to get people cooking more, both in my day job and with our farm.
Cooking is the language we both understand when talking about the many virtues of our "cheap" cuts of meat, the stuff we can hardly even give away. Many farmers end up eating their own blemished produce because, even in markets, people will bypass a bruised apple or an ugly carrot for something more familiar, more polished. Despite the intensely meaty flavor of beef hearts, people hesitate to buy them— is it because hearts remind them of Valentine's Day? Their own mortality? Who knows. We have a freezer filled with feet, gizzards, livers, hearts, hocks, bits and bones in every imaginable size and from every animal we raise and sell for meat. Those bits and bones contain some of the best nutrition and flavor we can provide, and it's the cheapest of anything we sell... if only people would buy them and commit to the process it takes to glean that flavor and nutrition for themselves, their family and friends by preparing and cooking it.
Putting the blame of our food system woes on Big Ag, the government or even worse yet, farmers, is short-sighted and wrong. Everything you eat is Farm-to-Table. It may not be the bucolic red barn with animals skipping around that you have in your mind, but that milk, those potatoes and that corn, all come from proud family farms. Some of them are big, some of them are small, but they are all working to put food on their tables and yours. They are the ones working tirelessly, with significant annual investment, on the promise of a return at the end of a growing season. If they have a bad year and crops don’t grow, they are SOL. They now need to struggle until next season to make ends meet. Yet, as they struggle to survive, many in this country snub their noses at the work of these people. Criticism towards large-scale farmers is at an all-time high, and if you don’t believe me, ask our farmer friends who supported a GMO sugar beet initiative and then had $80,000 in hay, and a tractor, burned to the ground as a result.
The people to "blame" for our food system are you, your neighbors and us. If our country continues to exist and thrive in a boxed or pre-cooked food culture, and one centered around a too-busy-to-cook culture, we will forever be in the current food system. One needs to look no further than the aisles of any supermarket, Whole Foods, or your local food co-op (if it even still exists), where shelves upon shelves, freezers upon freezers, are lined with “organic” boxed options. If the general public, even those paying a premium for organic goods, doesn’t exist in, or support, a cooking and meal-driven culture, how do you have any common ground on which to talk to them about food? How do we explain why free-ranging pigs taste better, and tomatoes in season are divine? They won’t get it. They also won’t care. They still want their tomatoes in December and their limes in the fall. All the Big Ag companies have stepped up to the plate to meet these demands, providing options galore for however it is you want to eat.
The conversation needs to shift and the attitude of judgment towards those not shopping “organically” need to stop. We need to focus less on labels or proximity and more on getting back to cooking in our homes and flavor on our plates. We need to get back to preparing meals for our friends and family, while creating flavor memories for generations to come. To put it in the most simple of terms, if you don’t know how to cook a pork chop, you’ll never be able to understand why our pork chop is better.