July 29, 2008

Thinking Globallyeating locallyGas Prices, Green Trend Fuels Growth in Local Food Choices

By Karen Hansen

Jeffrey Shoaf of Bloomington, a yoga instructor and massage therapist, recently volunteered part of an afternoon to help harvest garlic at Congerville's Blue Schoolhouse Farm.

Hartsburg resident Shelley Thomas started the Logan County Locavores blog to teach others about the importance of locally grown and produced foods.

Normal resident Christina Reinhart, a strong proponent of buying local, took home goodies including zucchini, onions and Swiss chard from vendors at a recent Normal farmers' market.

The trio of Central Illinoisans have joined a growing number of people getting closer to their food.

An increasing number of Americans are looking beyond supermarkets - where produce travels 1,500 miles before reaching the typical Illinoisan's plate - in favor of knowing farmers by their first names.

Whether people worry about salmonella scares or wince at their carbon footprint, whether they savor the flavor of produce dusted with fresh, fertile earth, or simply enjoy the social nature of a farmers' market, they are staging small-scale rebellions against the notion of a pre-packaged, paper-or-plastic society.

In 1990, the U.S. had just 50 Community Supported Agriculture programs that allow people to buy shares of a farmer's harvest during the growing season. Today, there are more than 1,000. Three million people will visit U.S. farmers' markets this year, spending an estimated $1 billion. Countless more will grow their own.

Whether the cost is more or less expensive is debatable.

"I think people are starting to take control," said Terra Brockman, founder of The Land Connection, an Evanston-based non- profit agency that works to promote sustainable farming and the availability of local, organic foods. "It's coming from all different directions."

Almost 40 percent increase

Thomas, a 40-year-old part-time nurse, describes herself as a "conservative, evangelical Christian" who is open-minded about environmental issues. She started her blog with information on where to buy local milk, eggs, honey, produce, beef and more in April after becoming more aware of the relationships between fuel and food.

"There's a lot of energy that goes into shipping your food across the country," said Thomas, "and we live in the breadbasket of the United States."

Recent food scares involving everything from spinach to jalapenos may also be one reason Congerville farmer Henry Brockman can no longer provide food to everyone who asks.

Membership in his Community Supported Agriculture program - among the largest in Central Illinois - increased almost 40 percent this year. His CSA now has 188 members - up from 135 in 2007. And there are another 20 or so people on a waiting list.

"(People) start to realize how disconnected they are from their food," said Brockman, who works family land in the Mackinaw River valley.

Brockman grows more than 600 varieties of organic herbs and produce. He offers 26 weekly pickups in Bloomington, Eureka and Morton for $364; food delivered that evening is picked that morning. He also holds an annual potluck and farm tour near the end of each season.

He attends the Tuesday Bloomington pickups, greeting each person as they arrive.

"You can't get much closer than that," said Brockman, who is Terra Brockman's brother. "They see me every week. They can talk to me every week."

Up close and personal

For many customers, that face-to-face interaction and feeling of community is important.

"You talk to everybody. You find out where they're from," said Reinhart. "It's important to get as many people as possible to stay (and shop) in your community."

Thomas agreed.

"It's great to personally know the people who grow your food," said Thomas, who also has beefed up her own vegetable garden to get extra nutrition and shave about 30 percent from her produce bill. "You learn to trust them and you can ask them about things that might be important to you, like whether or not they've sprayed certain things with pesticides or herbicides, or if this is peak season or if there might be a better batch the next time they come back."

For Shoaf, helping at Blue Schoolhouse Farm wasn't something he planned. Operators Bill and Mercy Davison were looking for volunteers on their blog, and Shoaf had an afternoon off work. The three hours he spent there were "a blast," a social, communal event, he said.

"I really enjoy their food and who they are as people," said Shoaf. "The quality of their food is so different than the supermarket - it's so fresh. I really think it's the way we were meant to eat."

Still pale green

But if there is a frustration, it's that while our collective conscious is greener, it's still something of a pale shade.

"I don't think we've peaked in any sense," said Terra Brockman. "People are different in their priorities and what's important in their lives."

For instance, Bill Davison has a couple hundred regular customers at the downtown Bloomington farmers' market who will spend $15 to $20 weekly, another few dozen in Normal. He also runs a small CSA in Eureka and delivers produce to places like downtown Bloomington's Common Ground grocery and the Garlic Press Market Caf in uptown Normal.

But financially, it's a struggle. He'd like closer to 1,000 regular customers and much more interest from Twin City restaurants.

"I can grow a lot more than I can sell," he said.

Local, organic food also is criticized for being too expensive. In a survey for Walnut Acres, an organic food company in Colorado, more than four in 10 people said cost was a barrier to purchasing organic food. The issue is one Terra Brockman has heard again and again. Her brother's CSA is just $14 per week, very competitive with store prices, she said.

"You tend to get what you pay for in life. We don't go for the $3 watch because it's a piece of crap," she said. "I don't think you're being ripped off by shopping with a local farmer."

And Shoaf pointed out that with the cost of fuel where it is - gas was still hovering around $4 a gallon last week, while diesel was pushing $5 - "our local organic food is really cost-effective."

Consider Atlanta resident Aaron Ware, superintendent of the East Lincoln Farmers Grain Co.'s Atlanta elevator. He raises free-range chickens and sells fresh eggs for the bargain price of $1.50 a dozen.

"Grandma used to raise chickens; she always sold the eggs," he said. "I enjoy hearing that rooster crow in the morning."

Pantagraph reporter Michelle Koetters contributed to this report.

------------------------------------------------Fun with food

Glossary of terms

Community Supported Agriculture: Subscriptions that allow people to buy a weekly portion of a local farmer's harvest of fruit, vegetables, eggs and other farm products. CSA members typically pay for the season up front, and pick up "shares" of what is in season from spring through fall. Members reap the bounty of a good harvest, but also share the risk of a lean crop.

Locavore Supports growing-your-own and purchase of food from farmers' markets, maintaining that food is tastier and healthier. Movement was coined by a group of San Francisco women who encouraged others to eat food produced within 100 miles of their homes.

Organic Food grown without the use of conventional chemicals or pesticides. The U.S. government also has a set of standards that allow growers to be certified as organic.

For more information

Blue Schoolhouse Farm: http://blueschoolhousefarm.blogspot.com

Henry Brockman's CSA: http://henrysfarm.com

Logan County Locavores: http://logancolocavore.blogspot.com

Henry Brockman's CSA: http://henrysfarm.com

Logan County Locavores: http://logancolocavore.blogspot.com


The personal touch

One of the ways Central Illinois farmers stay connected with their customers is through e-mailed newsletters and blogs that often offer insights into both farm and family life. Below is an excerpt from an e-mail sent by Mercy Davison of Congerville's Blue Schoolhouse Farm last fall that offers a glimpse into life with her husband, Bill, and two young sons, Noah and Ben:

Hello friends!

We have some sad news to report ... we will have very limited head lettuce for the rest of the season. The shortage can be blamed on two things: weather (too hot and dry) and deer (too hungry!). The deer also munched on the beets, endive, and radicchio ...We'll still have lots of other fall goodies this Saturday at the market, of course! In particular, we'll have a diverse selection of fall greens, including bok choi, tatsoi, and collard greens.-

All of these fall greens are in the mustard family (which is a HUGE family of plants!), but their flavors are different. They're all pretty mild at this point in the season. We like the collard greens the best - sauted, they have a great flavor and consistency ... We cook them with a bit of garlic and onion, salt and pepper. It's very tasty just like that as a side dish OR added to a variety of other dishes ...

There's also a slight possibility that Bill will be bringing a small amount of ARUGULA! If that excites you, be sure to get to the market early!

Otherwise, life is good out here. Noah got to ride in a combine this Tuesday, harvesting corn with the farmer across the road from Bill's field. When asked, Noah stated that it's more fun to use a combine than to harvest with Bill! Ouch! Too bad combines cost a quarter of a million dollars and only harvest food you can't eat. If not for that, maybe we'd consider gettin' one. Ha ha...

As you probably know, the boys are in a daycare/preschool program in Eureka. It's called "Noah's Ark," and it's affiliated with the Mennonite church. Given the religious affiliation, it came as no surprise to me that the boys have been taught to say (or sing, to be precise) prayers before snacks and meals. (Neither Bill nor I grew up in houses with mealtime prayers.) So within days of starting at Noah's Ark last year, Noah started insisting upon mealtime prayers at home. He'd stop us mid-bite when he would suddenly remember that we needed to sing the Johnny Appleseed prayer. We've been very happy to incorporate prayer time into meals, as we agree that we should be thankful for so many things, including our fantastic food.

Recently, I decided that we could switch it up with some "talking prayers." I explained to them that we could go around the table and tell God what we're thankful for. It's been pretty hilarious. They both tend to thank God for whatever is within view (like "Thank you God for the crayons and the milk and the counter and the food and the table ...") or whatever they picked that day ("Thank you God for the head lettuce and the beets and the grapes ..."). I'm sure God appreciates the detail.

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