Last month, the Tampa Bay Times published a two-part series by food critic Laura Reily entitled Farm to Fable. You may have seen links to these articles — one about restaurants, one about farmers’ markets — floating around the internet. Though the immediate focus is on restaurants and markets in the Tampa Bay area, the lessons are true everywhere there are people interested in and eating local food.
The bottom line is — there’s a lot of fraud in local food, both in restaurants and at markets. Reily has a parade of examples of restaurants highlighting particular menu ingredients as coming from particular farms, but the farm says they don’t even grow that item. Or a restaurant includes a list of local farms on a chalkboard or at the bottom of their menu, but have never done any business with some of those farm. At farmers’ markets, Reily says, some of the folks in overalls claiming to be farmers are actually resellers, buying up conventional produce at auction and passing it off as locally-grown organic. It’s all pretty shocking — or it should be. But as I was reading, I found myself both saddened at how pervasive the practices seem to be, but also gratified that someone was calling attention to something that I have long believed was happening.
When I first starting becoming interested in local food a decade ago, I signed up for a CSA with a farmer I knew personally and had known even before he started farming. There was no question in my mind that he was legit — I knew him; I knew his kids and his wife; I saw him a few times a week, covered in dirt, and heard about the latest challenges and triumphs in his new farming life. And occasionally I got berated for eating Subway in his presence.
That farmer was John Eisenstein of Jade Family Farm. You may have seen his picture on price cards at the stand. John’s weekly CSA newsletters were the first reading about local food I did — he talked about the benefits of knowing your farmer, the difficulties of completing all the paperwork required to acquire and maintain an organic certification, how unfairly maligned okra is, what to do with ALL THOSE CUCUMBERS, the benefits of knowing your farmer, etc… It was a good early education.
A decade later, not only do I like okra more than most people I know, I am also totally sold on the importance of knowing your farmer. This is partly thanks to John, but also partly because as my interest in and knowledge of local food grew, the more skeptical I became about some of the claims I saw being made.
I’d visit a farmers’ market advertising its “local foods” and find few or no actual farmers. I’d visit a retailer known for its local produce and see that much of what they were selling was either not in season or not grown around here at all. I’d question what it really meant if a label said “naturally grown” (not a regulated term) or “organically grown” (not a regulated term, though the word “organic” — without the “-ally” is highly regulated); I’d wonder why places would label food as “local” without identifying its source.
I’d read farm names on menus and know that several of the named farms, while technically local, were really more like industrial agriculture facilities than the kind of place most people think of when they think about local food. I realized, in time, that the claim “local when possible” is almost meaningless when printed on a menu, and if a “farm-to-table” restaurant isn’t calling out the producer of an individual ingredient (protein in particular), that individual ingredient probably isn’t local.
A big part of why Dusty and I kept going down the local-food rabbit hole was because we were dissatisfied with the transparency — and even honesty — of the middlemen supplying our allegedly local food. We were very lucky in our pursuit of truly local food to be already acquainted with several local farmers “doing it right”. Many of those farmers are people we work with today at the stand but who I met for reasons totally unrelated to farming — I’ve known Hannah Smith-Brubaker of Village Acres for about as long as I’ve known John Eisenstein, and I met Mike Nolan of Earth Spring Farm not too many years later (all three of these, by the way, I met through The Circle School). When Dusty and I met, he also had his own farm connections, and a good friend of his is a farm inspector for Pennsylvania Certified Organic, one of the most respected organic certifying agencies in the country.
As Dusty and I together looked for sources of humanely raised meat for our own use, we met farmers, like Jonas & Judy Stoltzfus of JuJo Acres and Brooks Miller & Anna Santini of North Mountain Pastures, who came not only with glowing references from existing friends who knew them personally, but who also allowed us to visit their farms to see for ourselves what they were doing. The network kept growing.
When we bought the stand, of course, we inherited an even larger network — though we found that very little of it wasn’t already connected in some way to the folks and farms we already knew.
There is some irony here that I’m extolling the virtues of personally knowing your farmers while also acting as a middle(wo)man myself. Part of me would like to say that in a perfect world, there would be no need for a Radish & Rye Food Hub, because everyone would be buying directly from the farms — but I also know that that’s probably not realistic for a number of reasons, and the more I think about it, I’m not sure the time and resources it would take for that to happen would look so “perfect”. So, in this world, in this reality, I think there is a real use for middlepeople, and Dusty and I are happy to be a connection between farmers and eaters in the Harrisburg area.
Dusty and I are passionate about good food and about local food, but we’re also passionate about honesty and transparency. What we’re selling isn’t “local when available”, it’s just local. If it isn’t available here, at this time, from a supplier we trust, we won’t have it. We identify the source of every product we sell so that you can be confident that you know exactly what you’re buying.
Part of what we want to provide is what we felt we were missing in our own quest for local foods — a convenient, affordable way to buy a wide variety of local foods from farms we know and people we trust — but a just-as-important-part is to connect you with the farms whose produce, dairy, and meat you’re eating.
Many of our farms host regular visiting days — Village Acres is hosting an on-farm breakfast this Saturday, North Mountain Pastures has a visiting day on June 4, etc — and all are available to visit by appointment. We encourage you to visit the farms, follow them on Facebook and Instagram, and ask us or them any questions you have about their growing practices. Dig as deep as you like — but if you prefer to rely on and trust us, know that our commitment to local, sustainable food is deep, and we’ll never lie to you or deliberately mislead you about the provenance of anything we carry.
May 4, 2016