From all corners of the Olympic Peninsula, WA, and via ferry from Seattle, farmers, foodies, and friends traveled to share the bounty of the summer harvest. Talkers came in the form of foodies and philosophers. Doers came in the form of real estate agents, lawyers, farmers, farm workers, and chefs. At an event hosted by the Kitsap Community & Agricultural Alliance (KCAA), these groups gathered to be seen, be heard, and inspire action.
Held at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds, the event was called the Local Chef Showoff, a Tastebud Explosion. Chefs from Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Port Orchard, Keyport, Gig Harbor, Suquamish and Silverdale cooked gourmet dishes with locally grown and harvested fruits, vegetables, grains, seafood, and livestock. Grilled clams and oysters, cassoulet (a French comfort food bursting with flavor), Trinidadian curried goat and goan curry vegetable samosas were among the dishes being shown off by these local chefs.
The KCAA event reflects the local food movement taking hold of the Olympic Peninsula.
Local food movements are heating up around the U.S. Some movements arise in response to E. coli outbreaks, meat contamination, or animal rights concerns. Each movement varies in accordance with the regional location, personalities, and motivations of those involved. The common thread is that participants reject the processed food options that line most grocery store shelves. They seek an increased variety of whole foods, and many are demanding organic options. Although niche grocery stores have developed in high-end markets and most grocers offer some organic options; affordable alternatives are not yet available to the masses.
This situation begs the question: Can local farmers fulfill those consumer demands?
Whether the local farmers are capable of growing the food is less of an issue; more complicated is whether those farmers can survive on the earnings from such a business and whether consumers can afford to pay for locally grown products. Keynote speakers Nash Huber and Kate Dean addressed local farmer concerns to the crowd of about 300 listeners.
Nash Huber has been farming in the area for over 40 years and has always practiced organic, conventional farming methods. After outlining his farming experience, which included years of barely scraping by, Nash’s speech turned philosophical. He reflected on the relationships that sustained him – with teachers in local high schools, FFA and 4-H leaders, adjacent landowners, merchants who bought his produce. When he needed advice, manual labor or mechanical expertise, Mr. Huber usually could not afford to hire someone to perform those services. He had to rely on a network of informal relationships to fill those gaps. The community, as a whole, has to have a vision of supporting local farmers and eating locally, which includes these types of relationships.
The last decade has brought more success to Mr. Huber, he successfully farms for profit and his operation employs 30-35 people on a regular basis. (See more details at his website, http://www.nashsorganicproduce.com/). He recently incorporated his farm to ensure that the land would be farmed after his death.
Many in the local food movement have been around for as long as Mr. Huber. For example, Michael Pollan has been writing about these same issues for decades. You do not need understand why local food movements are so popular to know that they are growing in number and gaining momentum. For the first time in decades, Congress vigorously debated the Farm Bill, eventually passed in 2008, a year behind schedule. That unusual amount of debate, and some additional provisions in the bill, can be attributed, in part, to local food movements.
Another source of energy for the local food movements are the young people getting involved in farming. Specifically, young people who do not come from a farming background are breathing life back into organic and conventional farming. Kate Dean is such a farmer and she took the stage after Mr. Huber.
Kate Dean was a contributing founder to Mount Townsend Creamery, and now works with Jefferson LandWorks Collaborative. (See more details at http://www.jeffersonlandworks.org/). She farmed for 10 years before starting the creamery and having two children. She is currently dedicated to preserving farmland in Jefferson County, Washington. The organization does this by assisting farmers to develop financially successful farming operations, rather than merely protecting the land from other development. Through her work with LandWorks, Ms. Dean develops creative and unusual financial relationships for farmers, in order to keep farmland from being otherwise developed.
Ms. Dean identified many of the financial hardships facing farmers. For current farmers, retirement is difficult to achieve without selling the farm to commercial real estate developers, or keeping the farm in the family by passing it to the younger generation. Yet, lack of interest from the younger generation leaves most family farms vulnerable to sale. For new farmers, land acquisition is the biggest challenge because they are competing with the commercial developers who have deep pockets.
Another financial obstacle for new farmers is raising capital for buildings, machinery, seed and other start-up costs. Even if a farmer can make it through these daunting financial challenges, she still runs the risk of financial ruin from a finicky marketplace, dramatic weather or increased cost of living.
Ms. Dean combats these insecurities by assessing the unique financial situation of each client. A 33-year ground lease might work for one client, whereas farming on publicly owned land fits another farmer’s business plan needs. Approaching local investors in the currently dismal economy supplied start-up capital for one farmer. She noted that federal policy is almost silent on the issue of protecting farmland from commercial (or other) development. She hopes that legislators will strengthen what programs there are, such as conservation easements; and add other programs to create new avenues for young farmers.
These measures still do not protect farmers from increased costs of living. In tune with the health care debate raging in Washington, D.C., rising private health care costs are a hurdle that farmers face alone. Young, idealistic farmers may evade health care costs for a time, (by avoiding visits to the doctor); but there needs to be affordable health care for longstanding farmers. Longstanding farmers, farmers with children, and farmers with medical conditions cannot ignore the substantial financial burden of health care.
Within the content of their speeches, Ms. Dean and Mr. Huber emphasized the essential roles that talkers and doers have in the local food movement. Talkers fire it up! They keep the momentum going by inspiring others to take an interest in food, farming and related social issues. Talkers start conversations about food safety, food security and nutrition and taste. Foodies do this by demanding local ingredients from restaurateurs, philosophers by starting conversations about the eating culture and sustainability of the industrial agriculture model of “modern farming.”
Doers are ready to go! Doers farm the land, they get their hands dirty planting, weeding, and harvesting. Doers milk the cows and goats, watch for blight and go to market. Doers invest in farmers, loan money, and craft land trusts to sustain farmlan ds. Doers open value-add ed businesses such as canneries, meat butcheries and granaries where local farmers can affordably prepare consumer goods for sale.
It was easy to get fired up in the warm, friendly atmosphere of the Kitsap County Fairgrounds, among like-minded folks and with a belly full of delicious food. The other attendees seemed to feel the same way, strong applause followed each presentation and several people stood to applaud. Yet, the doers among us were quick to depart. The chefs had dishes to clean, the farmers had evening chores to do, and the real estate developers and lawyers had creative financial instruments to draft.