Monday, June 30, 2008

Local Food (times two)

This weekend was the Farm and Garden Tour, where farms in the Asheville area have open houses all on the same weekend. Great idea, really. Consolidate everyone's open house so that it's well publicized and people are more likely to visit. However, this makes it pretty chaotic, as you might imagine. Saturday, for example, I woke up at 4:30 to get ready for the North Asheville market, which is one of the busiest markets. I set up at around 6:30. By 11:30 I had sold every last bit of cheese except for a few containers of ricotta and some plain chevre. Keep in mind that I probably take over 200 lbs of cheese to market with me. Needless to say, I beat the all-time market sales record (and bragged about it quite a bit--we're competitive). Cullen held the record previously, and so he said it was just because I'm a girl and have sex appeal. I told him to go to hell.

Anyways, after market I had to go back to the farm to help set up for the farm tour. Since we practically sold all the cheeses we'd taken to market, we had very little soft cheese. I tubbed up some chevre, but not nearly enough, so we had to pasteurize again in the midst of explaining the cheese kitchen to people. It was hectic. I think we were finished at around 7:30, but I really have no clue. It was amazing to see how many people visited the farm. I was tremendously encouraged by it, actually. People are genuinely interested in where their food is coming from. They're asking questions, listening, and supporting local farmers. It's really a sight to behold. What encourages me even more is that I have a lot of people who buy cheese from me who I suspect can't easily afford it. They're placing quality over quantity, and the intimate experience of market-going over the sterility of the grocery store. I wish out cheese was more affordable to more people (although I am told that compared to a lot of places in the US our cheese goes cheap), but in truth, we really can't lower the prices due to the rising cost of grain products. As more farmers grow corn and soybeans for biodiesel, sources of grain and hay are becoming more scarce, and so the price of the grain that we feed our goats has risen 50% within the past few months. We raised the price of the cheese 50 cents to try to compensate a little, but as gas is more and more expensive as well, you can imagine that costs often outweigh income. We love what we do, and so we deal with it, but we're not (as most organic farmers are not) raising prices to get fat off our income. We're dealing with a system that isn't conducive to the survival of small farmers.

I read a great article recently about why organic food tends to be more expensive. One example of why is that, if a farmer wants to buy organic compost, they will most likely have to order it from far away unless they live somewhere like California, and so they will have to order a huge quantity--more than they can use alone. So they might have to go in with several other farmers and do the legwork themselves. For producers of organic meat--unless the farmer has his or her own slaughterhouse, they have to take their meat to a butcher, and for their meat to still be considered organic after processing the facility has to be completely cleaned, which entails another fee and probably the use of some serious chemicals to clean the equipment. There are few facilities exclusively dedicated to processing organic meats. Then, there's the price of gas, which is almost unavoidable unless you have equipment for making your own biodiesel and vehicles that can run on it. So, in short, it's a conundrum. I'd like to think that there will be, in the near future, a farm bill that will support small farms and local food, but prospects look grim.

That brings me to another thought about local food. Is it really possible to support an entire community with food? I live in Asheville--pop. 68,889. There are few farms in Asheville since it's a fairly urban and suburban area which is losing more and more of it's beautiful land to developers and gated communities. There are lots of farms in neighboring counties and further out away from the city, but judging from the way vendors at Asheville markets get cleaned out on Saturdays, I seriously doubt that local farmers can sustain the city. It's time we thought of something more hands-on and personal--the victory garden. Sharon over at Causaubon's Book talks about this fairly frequently, but I think I should reiterate. We can rely on others for some of our food. For example, we can't all raise enough wheat to support ourselves. But we cannot expect local food to save our souls. We have to take some initiative as individuals. Yes, support local farmers, but grow some tomatoes in your backyard. If you don't have a backyard, grow veggies in containers, buckets, old boots even. Start your own little garden, screw up, learn from your mistakes, and over time you will improve.

I heard several people talking about how they used to buy shares of a cow, and that's how they obtained their milk--local, raw, clean, and safe. We had people asking us if they could buy raw milk from us (which is illegal in our case, since we aren't licensed to sell milk at all; and technically we need all of our milk for cheesemaking anyway), and it made me think--what if the state supported this sort of local endeavor? What if the state invested in some dairy cows for interested communities and sold shares of the cows through local farmers? Great idea, no? But again, you're dealing with a nation that does not (yet) value local initiatives as much as large scale operations. But I think that with a little people power we might make a slow shift in this ideology. That's my hope. And then, you never know--the government could surprise me. I've been wrong before.

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