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Local or organic?

A couple of years ago, I visited an organic vegetable farm in southeast Minnesota, not far from the Mississippi River. Nestled in a valley that sloped down from rolling pasture and cropland sat Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables, a 40-acre farm.

Featherstone was part of a local food web in the upper Midwest, selling at a farmers’ market, through a CSA (community supported agriculture) and to co-op stores in the Twin Cities. But the partners, Jack Hedin and Rhys Williams, who began in 1995, were having a tough time economically and realized they would have to boost sales if they were to become viable. The farm earned about $22,000 a year — split between the two partners — so they had to take on debt to keep going; this, after a 60 to 70 hour work week.

Hedin told me he made some calls and eventually landed a deal with Whole Foods to supply the natural foods chain with organic heirloom tomatoes. When I visited, they were in year two of the contract, picking the tomatoes before their peak ripeness, then shipping them to Chicago for stores in the Midwest. The deal had become the biggest sales channel for their farm; while still “local,” they were not as local as when they sold in their backyard.

There was a lesson here, one that often gets lost in the debate about which is better, local or organic? Too often this is understood as a zero sum game — that the money you spend on organic food at the supermarket will mean less for local farmers. After all, the food you buy is being shipped from who knows where and then often ends up in a processed food product. I’ve heard the argument that if all the money spent on organic food (around $14 billion) were actually channeled to local food, then a lot more small farms would survive and local food networks could expand. Well, Featherstone was doing precisely the opposite: it had entered the organic wholesale marketplace and then sent its tomatoes hundreds of miles away to survive as a small and, yes, local farm.

As consumers, it’s hard to understand these realities since we’re so divorced from the way food is produced. Even for conscious consumers who think about values other than convenience and price — avoiding pesticides, the survival of small farms, artisan food, and, of course, the most basic values, freshness and taste — choices must be made. Should we avoid pesticides at all costs or help small local farmers who may use them? Should we reduce food shipment miles, or buy food produced in an ecologically sound manner regardless of where it’s grown? These questions arise because we want to do what’s right.

The problem, though, is that these questions set up false choices. What Hedin and others showed me was that when it comes to doing the right thing, what really mattered was thinking about the choice — to be aware, to stay informed, and to be conscious of our role as consumers. But what you actually chose — local or organic — didn’t really matter.

Hedin, for example, was competing against farmers he actually knew on the West Coast, who also supplied organic produce to Whole Foods. I met one, Tim Mueller of River Dog Farm, in the one-bar town of Guinda, California. His farm sold produce at the Berkeley Farmers Market about 90 minutes away, but he was also tied to wholesale markets. (I saw River Dog’s heirloom tomatoes in western Massachusetts.) For these organic farmers, selling wholesale was a foundation for economic sustainability.

Moreover, by expanding the organic market, we may be actually helping local farmers. The USDA surveyed farmers’ markets and found that about a third of farmers selling direct were organic — local and organic, that is. In comparison, just one percent of all American farms practice organic agriculture. So for smaller-scale farmers selling direct, organic food has become a key component of their identity. By bringing more people into the organic fold, through whatever gateway they happened to choose, the pool of consumers considering local food would likely increase too.

That’s at least what Jim Crawford, a farmer from south central Pennsylvania believed. His 25-acre operation, New Morning Farm, works two farmers’ markets in Washington, D.C., and Jim played a key role in the growth of local foods in the region, having started out as an organic farmer in the 1970s. He told me he worried when Whole Foods opened a supermarket near his farmers’ market location in Washington because he thought he would lose customers. But over time, he noticed, sales kept rising. He thought the supermarket, which stocked a lot of organic produce from California, was actually converting customers to organic food and they in turn were finding their way to his market.

But what about companies that have pursued the organic marketplace without any concern for local food? What about, say, Earthbound Farm, which has grown into the third largest organic brand and the largest organic produce company in the nation, with its bagged salad mixes in three-quarters of all supermarkets? The company fiercely competed with other organic growers who later went out of business; its salad was grown organically but with industrial-scale agriculture; and the trucks that shipped the salad around the country burned through a lot of fossil fuel.

But Earthbound was competing with the likes of Dole, Fresh Express and ReadyPac in the mainstream market to offer consumers an organic choice. It did little for local food (a saving grace, since it left the market to smaller players). But Earthbound farmed on 26,000 acres of certified organic land, which meant that 267,000 pounds of pesticides and 8.4 million pounds of chemical fertilizers were being removed from use annually, the company estimated. And as studies repeatedly show, organic farming also saves energy (since the production of fertilizer and pesticides consumes one-third of the energy used in farming overall). Earthbound’s accomplishments should not be ignored — even if they are anything but local.

Which brings me to a final point: How we shop. Venues like Whole Foods are not fully organic because people are often unwilling to spend more than a small portion of their grocery budget on organic foods. It’s too expensive. This is one reason why organic food accounts for just two percent of food sales — one percent if you include eating out. Similarly, local foods, though important, total 1-2 percent. So arguing over local or organic is a bit like two people in a room of 100 fighting over who has the more righteous alternative to what the other 98 people are doing. It doesn’t really matter, because the bigger issue is swaying the majority.

When I shop, visiting the Dupont Circle farmers market in Washington, D.C., on Sunday morning and then going to the supermarket, I make choices. I buy local, organic, and conventional foods too, because each meets a need. Is the local product “better” than the organic one? No. Both are good choices because they move the food market in a small way. In choosing them, I can insert my values into an equation that for too long has been determined only by volume, convenience and price. While I have nothing against low prices and convenient shopping, the blind pursuit of these two values can wreak a lot of damage — damage that we ultimately pay for in water pollution, toxic pesticide exposure, livestock health, the quality of food and the loss of small farms. The total bill may not show up at the cash register but it’s one we pay nonetheless.

So what’s my advice? Think about what you’re buying. If you want local food, buy local. If you want organic, buy organic. The point is to make a conscious choice, because as we insert our values into the market, businesses respond and things change. There’s power in what we do collectively, so is there any reason to limit it unnecessarily?

© Samuel Fromartz 2006, reprinted by permission


About the Author

Samuel Fromartz is a business journalist who has written for Fortune, Business Week, and Inc. Organic Inc. is his first book. He lives in Washington, D.C.

For more information, please visit www.fromartz.com.

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Fix it and Enjoy it

Fix it and Enjoy It is a book with recipes for the oven, crock-pot or slow cooker.

Tasty recipes from fix it and enjoy it

Tuscan-Style Pork Ribs with Balsamic Glaze

J.B. Miller, Indianapolis, IN

Makes 6-8 servings

Prep Time: 30 minutes 
Standing (or Chilling) Time: 2-8 hours 
Baking Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

2 Tbsp. olive oil 
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or 1 tsp. dried rosemary
1½ Tbsp. kosher salt
1½ Tbsp fennel seeds, or 1½ tsp. ground fennel 
2 tsp. pepper 
2 tsp. fresh chopped sage, or 1 tsp. dried sage 
2 tsp. fresh chopped thyme, or ½ tsp. dried thyme 
2 tsp. paprika 
1 tsp. crushed red pepper, optional, depending on how much heat you like 
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground allspice
6 lbs. pork ribs 
3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1. In a small bowl, combine olive oil, rosemary, salt, fennel seeds, pepper, sage, thyme, paprika, red pepper, coriander, and allspice. 
2. Rub spice paste all over ribs and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours, or refrigerate overnight. 
3. Preheat oven to 325° F.
4. Arrange ribs on a large, rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan, meaty side up. 
5. Roast ribs uncovered for 2 hours or until tender. 
6. Preheat broiler. Brush meaty side of ribs with balsamic vinegar and broil 6 inches from heat until browned, about 2 minutes. 
7. Let stand for 5 minutes, then cut between ribs, or serve in slabs.

Tip: You can use this glaze on pork chops, lamb chops, and cuts of chicken.


Curried Chicken Pitas

Sharon Eshleman, Ephrata, PA

Makes 4 servings

Prep Time: 15 minutes

½ cup light mayonnaise or salad dressing
1 Tbsp. honey 
1 Tbsp. pickle relish
¾-1 tsp. curry powder, according to your taste preference 
2 cups cubed cooked chicken 
1 cup halved grapes or chopped apples 
½ cup chopped pecans
4 pita breads, halved 
8 lettuce leaves

1. In a bowl, combine salad dressing, honey, pickle relish, and curry powder. 
2. Stir in chicken, grapes, and pecans. 
3. Line pita halves with lettuce. Spoon ½ cup chicken mixture into each pita.


Black Bean and Butternut Burritos

Janelle Myers-Benner, Harrisonburg, VA

Makes 8 burritos

Prep Time: 45 minutes
Baking Time: 15-20 minutes

1 Tbsp. oil 
1 small or medium-sized onion, chopped 
3-4 cups butternut squash, cut into ½” cubes
½ tsp. cumin 
¼ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. salt 
2 cups cooked, or a 15-oz. can, black beans, drained 
8 tortillas 
1½ cups grated cheese
sour cream 
cilantro, if you wish
salsa
 

1. In a large skillet or saucepan, heat oil. Sauté onions until tender. 
2. Add butternut. Cover and cook over medium heat until tender. 
3. Add cumin, cinnamon, and salt. Add beans. Cover, and heat through. 
4. Put ? of mixture in each tortilla, top with 3 Tbsp. cheese, and roll up. Place seam-side down in a greased 9 x 13 baking pan. 
5. Bake uncovered in 350º oven for about 15-20 minutes, until heated through. 
6. Serve with sour cream and salsa, and cilantro if you wish.

Tips: Tortillas freeze well with the mixture inside so I often make a double or triple batch. You can also freeze just the filling.


Grilled Peach Melba

Stacy Schmucker Stoltzfus, Enola, PA

Makes 4 servings

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Grilling Time: 5-10 minutes

4 large, unpeeled peaches or nectarines 
2 tsp. sugar 
2 cups red raspberries, fresh or frozen
sugar, optional
vanilla ice cream

1. Halve and pit peaches or nectarines. 
2. Press fresh or thawed raspberries through sieve. Save juice and discard seeds. Sweeten to taste with sugar, if needed. 
3. Grill unpeeled peaches cut-side down for approximately 2 minutes. Turn peaches over. With cut-side up, fill each cavity with ½ tsp. sugar, and continue grilling until grill marks appear on skins. 
4. Serve immediately with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzle with the raspberry sauce.


Yam fries

Kathy Keener Shantz, Lancaster, PA

Makes 6 servings

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Baking Time: 20 minutes

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. curry
½ tsp. hot sauce
4 medium-sized yams, sliced like French fries

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, salt, pepper, curry, and hot sauce.
2. Stir in sliced yams.
3. When thoroughly coated, spread on lightly greased baking sheet.
4. Bake at 375° for 20 minutes, or until tender.


Linguine Salad with Peanut Sauce

Gretchen H. Maust, Keezletown, VA

Makes 6 servings

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes

8-oz. box dry linguine
½-1 cup chopped scallions
1 diced cucumber
¼ cup peanut butter

? cup cider or rice vinegar
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup warm water

? cup sesame oil
2 cloves minced garlic
½ tsp. 5-spice powder
hot sauce to taste
dark green lettuce leaves
toasted sesame seeds and tomato wedges for garnish

1. Cook linguine as directed on box, but undercook slightly. Drain. Rinse with cool water.
2. In a large bowl, combine linguini, scallions, and cucumber.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together peanut butter, vinegar, soy sauce, water, oil, garlic, 5-spice powder, and hot sauce.
4. Arrange lettuce on platter. Spoon linguine mixture into the middle. Drizzle dressing over top. Garnish with sesame seeds and tomato wedges.

Variations:
1. For a heartier dish, add cubed cooked chicken or turkey.
2. Serve hot, replacing the cucumbers with cooked zucchini.

Tip: I like to triple the peanut sauce and keep it in the refrigerator to use as a salad dressing or dipping sauce for grilled chicken.

Reprinted from Fix-it and Enjoy-it! Cookbook. Copyright by Good Books. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Review

The author: Phyllis Pellman Good is a best selling author who knows the trick to compile a popular recipe collection; it is obvious this is not her first cookbook. In addition to writer, Mrs. Good is also Senior Editor at Good Books.

The book: presents over 675 recipes, selected from the more than 3,000 passed on by innumerable home cooks, who share their great recipes and cooking knowledge. The core of the book are hearty recipes from Pennsylvania, though you will also find stuffed quesadillas or lasagna, pesto, couscous, and fish dishes like the salmon croquettes.

Value added: in the practical cooking tips and variations suggested for many of the recipes.

We liked: the relaxed approach to cooking and the way the author leads novice cooks from following recipes to the letter to cooking with confidence and to experience with ingredients and measures.

Fix-It and Forget-It Vegetarian Cookbook: 565 Delicious Slow-Cooker, Stove-Top, Oven, And Salad Recipes, Plus 50 Suggested Menus (Fix-It and Enjoy-It!)