Thursday, January 29, 2009

Getting to Know Your Butcher

MattWhile it's great to buy your vegetables, fruits, and meat straight from a local farmer, we all end up at the store for some items. A good local seafood shop (or fishmonger, which is one of my favorite words), a vegetable stand, or butcher can be a great asset. You can count on someone there to get advice on what to buy that day, where items came from, and a smile. Sure, if you're lucky you might get service like that at the supermarket, but I can't remember the last time I did.

With this thought in mind, I'd like to point to a post on the A Spoonful of Sugar blog about the author's trip to her butcher shop for a demonstration on how he breaks down a pig into the cuts of meat us omnivores know and love.

His family business, Perry & Son has been serving loyal customers in Alveston, just outside Bristol, since 1985 and Mike prides himself on keeping the old skills alive as well as sourcing all the meat he sells from within a 35 mile radius of the shop. More often than not, though, the meat is far more local. For most of this year, Mike has been buying in his pigs from a farm just one mile down the road. Beat that for low food miles!

On one level, he looks like the stereotypical `jolly butcher' but he's so much more than that. This is a man who cares deeply about the quality of the meat he's selling and it is important to him that it is not only local, but the absolute best he can lay his hands on. He is concerned about the decline in the number of craft (or master) butchers due to supermarket monopolies, but at the same time he is heartened by the increased focus from celebrity chefs on the older, cheaper cuts of meat. As supermarkets don't do more interesting cuts like beef (or pork) cheeks, customers are moving back to traditional butchers to get the cuts that are being promoted.

The last part is a great point that hits home for me. I make homemade pancetta and guanciale from pork belly and pork jowl I get from my meat CSA, but if I didn't have that, I'd have a hard time finding those ingredients in a supermarket. Butchers can hook you up with whatever cuts you want, whether that's veal shanks for osso buco or bones and scraps to make homemade beef stock. Perhaps best of all, they can tell you exactly where the meat came from so you can decide whether you want to buy it or not.

Shopping locally enables you to get a lot more information out of the person selling you things. While the guy down at SuperGrocerMax can tell you the hamburger costs three bucks a pound, he may not be able to tell you a whole lot more about it. You may find the local butcher has a lot more information to share - if you just ask.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Farmers Market Jealousy

MattI don't know about where you live, but right now in the Boston area, there's not much action at the local farmers markets. In fact, I don't think there are any that run through the winter around here. So, when I see posts like this one on The Kitchn, I get extremely jealous. The site often runs photos from farmers markets around the country and today one from Los Angeles is featured.

Amazing Citrus
This photo is enough to make my mouth water! It's enough to make me, a confirmed Winter-lover, extremely jealous of the warm weather it must take to grow all that citrus. I'm not quite ready to trade in my skis for a sun-hat just yet, but it's nice to at least live vicariously through blogs posting their latest farmers market finds.

If you're looking for more photos of bounty from farmers markets, check out this flickr group dedicated to celebrating “the joy of locally grown produce.” And hey, while you're at flickr, stop by Farm Aid's page and say hi!

The citrus photos on The Kitchn's page are by Emily Ho and Gregory Han. I'm not sure which one took the above photo, but they both deserve our gratitude for sharing the beautiful photos.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A return to Depression-era cooking?

MattIn these days of financial turmoil and worry, the Great Depression of the 1930s is mentioned a lot. Thankfully, for most of us, times are not that tough yet, but there are still lessons to learn from that era. After all this borrowing and credit card debt, maybe some frugality is what we need.

The Chicago Sun-Times recently published an article about how people were able to feed their families during the Depression on sometimes just pennies per day. Stews and soups were a popular choice, made with whatever people could get their hands on (sometimes the cheapest cuts of meat or bones available, or even “Depression Soup” consisting of 1/3 ketchup and 2/3 boiling water).

The best part of the article was the pointer to a series of “Depression Cooking” videos on YouTube from “93 year-old cook and great grandmother” Clara Cannucciari. In the six episodes currently available, she demonstrates a recipe her family used at the time and discusses what it was like growing up during the Great Depression. The first episode, “Pasta With Peas” is embedded below:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

For Matt, it's time to celebrate... with organic wine?

MattThe Presidential Inauguration this week inspired a lot of us to celebrate with our favorite adult beverages. Is there a way to drink and keep it environmentally friendly? Yes! There are a growing number of organic liquors (especially vodka), but organic and biodynamic wines represent a great way to keep your drinking sustainable.

I’m no expert and occasionally resort to picking wine based on the label designs or the glowing recommendations of wine shop employees, but now I’ve got a great source of information in the Denver Wine Examiner. And better yet, the writer focuses exclusively on an organic wine each day (many of them quite affordable), often including a tasty recipe to go along with it. “Wine Basics” at the bottom of each page enlighten the non-experts such as me, which is a nice bonus.

So, Pinot Noir and Szechuan-Style Baby Back Ribs? Sounds like a good way to celebrate to me!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jen says, "Let's Keep Making Change!"

JenIn addition to getting a new president yesterday, we got a new Secretary of Agriculture as Tom Vilsack was officially confirmed by the Senate. But there are plenty of key positions yet to be filled at the USDA. And many policy insiders have opined that there's actually more opportunity to create change in these yet-to-be-filled positions than in heading the enormous Department of Agriculture.

Over at you still have a chance to become one of the more than 77,000 "Americans for a sustainable USDA." The petition, which started by advocating for a sustainable Secretary of Agriculture, now lists the "sustainable dozen:" 12 candidates for positions that range from Deputy Secretary of Agriculture to the under secretaries, deputy under secretaries, chiefs, directors and administrators who manage the individual programs within the USDA. These programs fall under the headings of Rural Development, Marketing and Regulatory Programs, Natural Resources and the Environment, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, and Food Safety, and are instrumental in either advancing sustainable agriculture or hindering its progress. In other words, we've got to get good people in these positions to fulfill our mission of building a sustainable, family-farm system of agriculture that keeps our farmers on the land and delivers good, safe food.

It's incredible to think that the staffing of the USDA has sparked the interest and activism of nearly 80,000 people! The Good Food Movement continues to grow and grow more active by the day! Sign the petition for a sustainable USDA today and let's keep working for the change we want to see.

Farm Aid shows Senator Roberts what "small farmers" are really like

JenAs we mentioned last week, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) disparaged small and organic farmers yesterday during Secretary of Agriculture-nominee Tom Vilsack’s confirmation hearing, claiming small farmers don’t produce real food. Roberts described the typical small farmer as "about 5′2″…and he's a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman's Quarterly — he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab — and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he's very happy to have that."

The Ethicurean had a brilliant idea, asking folks to contribute photos of small and organic farmers on Flickr and tag them to create a giant photo album of small farmers. Which got us to thinking about our own Farmer Heroes campaign, which asked Farm Aid fans to upload photos and stories about their farmer heroes at So here’s a note we’re sending to Senator Roberts to let him know that we’ve got plenty of small farmers for him to meet!

Dear Senator Roberts,

Farm Aid thinks that you might be interested in meeting some "small farmers," so we'd like to introduce you to Farm Aid's Farmer Heroes ( The photos you see there are of farmers who were nominated as heroes because they do something even more valuable than growing a few organic apples. These people are rebuilding our food system, bringing good local food with values to their communities, nurturing us--body and soul.

These small farmers are heroes and they're the people we work for every day. We bet a few of them would even invite you out to their farm to show you what a real small farm looks like and how much food (and how many different kinds of food!) a real small farm produces. We'd be happy to help arrange that for you.

Farm Aid

Matt has 50 ways to green your eating

MattAnd no, I didn’t mean to say, “eat your greens” (although that’s always good advice too). Bon App├ętit magazine has a web feature up highlighting “50 Ways to Eat Green” that “help cut down on landfill, pesticide use, overfishing, and the consumption of fossil fuels.” Sounds good, right?

Some of the ideas are great (like making your own vegetable stock with whatever veggies you might be about to throw away), while other ideas aren’t quite as ingenious (eating more chocolate?). Still, it’s a quick read with some good facts and tips, especially on choosing sustainable seafood. Give it a shot.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Farm Aid's take on the Vilsack confirmation hearing

JenJudging from the two hours of Senate confirmation hearings I watched this morning, Vilsack will take the office of Secretary of Agriculture on January 20th. Before beginning their questioning, the ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee congratulated Vilsack on his nomination and expressed their eagerness to work with him. When the questioning finally began, there were a couple highlights that demonstrated that the Ag committee and Vilsack have some good ideas they'd like to see through. And then there was a moment when a collective groan was heard from the members of our staff who were listening to the hearing... but we'll get to that.

The chairman of the Senate Ag Committee is Democrat Tom Harkin from Iowa, a strong Vilsack supporter. His first question linked the issue of agriculture with healthcare reform. Vilsack responded in a thoughtful way about the progress made in the 2008 Farm Bill, which included support for fruits and vegetables for the first time. Vilsack pointed out that many schools are offering fresh produce to schoolchildren but that every school should be doing it and it is the job of the USDA to help make that happen. Specifically, Vilsack said his USDA would work aggressively to link schools to local producers of fruits and vegetables. In response, Harkin deplored the poor quality of foods available in some schools, where many children eat a lunch of soda and candy from vending machines. Harkin then moved on to a question about the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), stressing that every farmer should have access to the program. Vilsack answered by saying that he would have to get into the job first before determining the issues with CSP (understanding the barriers and limitations of the program) but agreed it is an important program for farmers and the environment alike. Harkin followed up by saying that the CSP is an important opportunity for farmers but that the economic stimulus package currently in the works will also help farmers. Farm Aid anxiously looks forward to seeing what the stimulus package offers to farmers and rural residents; in fact our board advocated for a farm stimulus back when the original bailout was being considered.

Questions from other senators explored issues of increasing the demand for ethanol, child hunger, the problems dairy farmers are currently facing with product pricing, farm payment limitations, crop insurance, civil rights, organics and the need to uphold the organic standards, and broadband internet access and development in rural areas. And then came the zinger that had those of us at Farm Aid seething: Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas went on at length about "production agriculture" and the real farmers who are actually producing our food, as opposed to what he called the "small family farmer," who "with all due respect" is a "retired gentleman farmer from VT whose wife is employed as a stockbroker downtown and who has 40 acres, a pond, and an orchard of organic apples." Roberts stressed that Vilsack's job would be to serve those real producers (and not the small family farmers of VT, evidently). Vilsack responded eloquently that one of the strengths of our agriculture is its diversity, not just geographically but also in terms of all the kinds of agriculture we do here in the US. He also pointed out that during his stint as an agriculture attorney during the farm crisis of the 80s, he got to know many farmers and that their job is much more than producing food, but also encompasses "family, faith, community, hard work."

We at Farm Aid would have liked to have been present to point out that it is the small, diversified, family farms who helped to build this country and who make up the family farm food system that so many eaters are demanding right now. We need organic apples as much as we need corn and soy and it isn't just the huge commodity farms that should be represented in our national farm policy--our agriculture policy needs to reflect the diversity of our agriculture. We look forward to working with Vilsack to make that vision a reality.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Hilde Toasts to Health in 2009!

HildeFor many Americans, New Year's brings with it a recommitment to health. Whether it's spending more time at the gym or eating less junk, the motivation for improving personal health and fitness seems to peak as the calendar year turns. Along with our personal resolutions, Steph Larsen with the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska (a recent Farm Aid grant recipient organization) urges us to fight for the health of our farmers and, in turn, the health of our country through health care reform. Self-employed, most farmers are on their own when it comes to health insurance. According to a recent Access Project report, 23% of farmers struggle with health care costs; and of those who struggle, 42% of their income on average is spent on insurance premiums and other medical costs.

Without a stable and affordable health care system in place to keep America's family farmers on the land and thriving, our country will continue to face challenges in growing the farm-fresh and sustainable food we need to keep our population healthy and energized. Furthermore, it becomes all the more difficult to attract new farmers to the land. Good food = good health = good food = good health. Whether we're talking about our own bodies, family farmers or the state of the nation, let's resolve in 2009 to think about the health needs of all!

To learn more about health care reform issues and for some suggestions on how to get involved, check out Steph's recent post to the Ethicurean.