Monday, March 30, 2009

Buy Local: Find the farmer

Stone-Buhr is a company I never heard of until a segment played on the radio the other day about them; they are marking their flours so that you can go online and see the farmers that produced yours. The original story is in the New York Times. If you go to you can see for yourself how it works. Type in the code, and see pushpins on a map. Click on a pushpin, and see a profile of a farm. See pictures, watch videos, and get a sense, filtered as it is, of the people who made your food. The site even tells you how many generations have been farming. The concept is called traceability.

Traceablity is the next great thing for foodies. The NYT article states that people are hungry for connections with their food producers. But why? Is it because modern life is riddled with anonymity? Or because we are saturated with quantity but starve for quality? Perhaps we want to brag to people about how we are doing the right thing that is also the cool thing right now. My favorite answer is from the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: "Michael Pollan, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said FindtheFarmer was one part of a bigger effort to reintroduce trust into the food system."

Traceability is long overdue when you think about the outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by jalapenos and peanuts in recent memory. The reason that the outbreaks were so difficult to stop is because the produce could not be traced. The New York Times asserts that "if food producers know they’re being watched, they’ll be more careful." And "if the peanut processing company that was the source of the recent salmonella outbreak had live webcams in the production facility, “would it have allowed things to get so filthy?” Mr. Pollan asked. “The more transparent a food chain is, the more accountable it is.”" Even if the producers don't keep their acts clean, an outbreak could be caught sooner.

Traceability for now is a marketing tool, designed to get customers to buy a product that has added value over other products in the same markets. But it has added benefits:

“We never knew where our wheat went to. The story always ended at the grain bin and the big commodity operations,” said Fred Fleming, 59, who operates Lazy YJ Farms in Reardan, Wash., which is part of FindtheFarmer.

“Now we can actually have a conversation with our city customers. We can get back to the old days,” he said.

Here in Frederick, you can still benefit from "the old days" by developing relationships with your local producers. We are in an era where we are losing our family farms to factory farms. In Frederick, we are well into the slide. But a lot of exciting cultural shifts are happening in the local food universe; traceability is just one of them. In the near future I plan to cover the following topics (but may get sidetracked or add more subtopics before I am done.)
  • Why the best restaurants buy local foods
  • How the buy local movement intersects with protectionism, and why this could be a bad thing.
  • As always, what foods are in season at your local farm markets in Frederick
  • The carbon emissions of food production and transport (hint- the low carbon option is not always what you think)
  • The fun experiences that I have visiting farms with Yeon
  • Delicious recipes, as always
My next planned entry is an interview with chef/owner Bryan Voltaggio of Volt Restaurant in Frederick. I can't wait.

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