Monday, December 22, 2008

Farming a Wedding, Part 3: interested parties, ins and outs, what have you's

In the last 50 years the food system, like most other industries, has leaped, bounded and thrusted itself into the future.  Fertilizers, insecticides, mega-farming and genetic modification have created a miasma both literally, in the fields and waterways of our country, but also figuratively, in the minds of people worldwide.  

Many have simply forgotten where their food comes from, and how it came to be.  We have forgotten that asparagus shoots up in the spring, strait up, one at a time;  that cows have been grazing on grass and nothing else for thousands of years;  that strawberries taste better in the summer because that is when they are in season.  These simple facts, known to human history for generations beyond memory, are being lost with breathtaking efficiency.

And it is dangerous.  In a 2006 E. Coli outbreak in Dole's bagged Spinach,  104 cases of infection occurred in no fewer then 26 states, and one case in Canada.  Dole, "The world's largest producer and marketer of fresh fruit and vegetables" (according to their website) sells fruits and vegetables in 90 countries worldwide.  It draws from uncountable fields across the globe, spending unheard of amounts of money and natural resources to bring mediocre quality fruits to the American table.  Dole has no reason to determine the sources of its product, if they did perhaps the FDA investigators may have had better luck.  ("they were unable to determine how the contamination originated")

Dole's product, and much of the product distributed to places like Mohonk Mountain House, is very difficult to source.  The food is grown in one place, sent to a sorting factory, mixed with other food of other farms, sent to a packing plant, which may service several brands (this happens very commonly with beef), where it is mixed again, then sent to a distributor to be delivered to stores across the country.  There is no system in place to determine origin.  A section of tomatoes in your local supermarket may contain fruit from the same country, but determining which farm, town, county, or state it came from is literally impossible.  

On the other hand, if a small local farm has an outbreak, the damage is limited to the locale for which it serves, and the ability of regulators to determine the scope and necessary response to the problem is comparatively simple.  The problem can be dealt with efficiently, and the farmer will likely lose her entire operation to lawsuits.  Dole on the other hand, with $6 Billion in annual profits, can afford to pay off hundreds of settlements out of court, not even cracking the ivory tower at the top.

There is simply no comparison in terms of safety.  Small farmers must produce safe and high quality food to stay afloat.  Mega-foods have little or no concern with these pedestrian issues, profit margin is the only concern, as one can plainly see

E. Coli, a relatively rare bacterial infestation, is not the only reason to look to local farms.  Whole unprocessed farm foods have much higher nutrient contents, much lower rates of dangerous bacterium, dramatically different (and healthier) fatty acid ratios, and no refined grain or sugar.  This is a modern recipe for health and longevity.

This is only one reason we have chosen to source our wedding from local farms.  It is one of the most complex and difficult to grasp, as we simply don't understand how the system works, and how it can damage our lives, all in the name of higher profits.  Small farms are about livelihood, family, community, virtues that are often discussed in the upper echelons of american politics, but little concern is actually paid to them.  

We have seen these communities at work, and they are more then just a discussion around a liberal dinner table.  They are the last best hope for our food, our health, and our society.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Yet another confusing diet plan, but it's so pretty!

It actually doesn't look all that bad.  Although it suggests way too much water, a fine way to tax the kidneys in the long term.  But I like the attempt at dethroning the miserable food pyramid. Sadly the diet seems to be a ruse to get rich folks in Boca to go through an expensive diagnostics regimen with the joyful inventor of the the diet scheme, Dr. Robert D. Willix Jr..

My suggestions?  A bit more complicated, but some ballpark information can be found here, here, and here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Farming a Wedding, Part 2: Brook Farm

We drove down the long road adjacent to rolling pasture and a rickety looking fence on a cold saturday morning just before thanksgiving.  The Brook Farm Project is a farm which sits directly under the imposing and vast cliffs of the Mohonk Preserve in New Paltz, NY.  We decided to visit the farm with the hopes that they might be able to supply some of the food for our wedding.  The farm actually sits on the Mohonk property, and is used by lease.  Using their food would epitomize the local food movement we are trying to support and sustain.

But as noon approached it was difficult to think of anything but the bone chilling cold that had descended on the Hudson Valley the night before.  
The farm runs primarily as a CSA.  As we walked over from our car, we saw folks picking up a reasonable share of the available (and dirty!) produce from large baskets.  To know what a "reasonable" amount was, a large billboard stated how much of which produce was kosher to add to each member's "share".

We saw Dan immediately, wearing a Dickie's bodysuit that looked as if it were made for a Giant, some beat up work gloves and a furry earlap.  I was jealous, freezing in my ripped bluejeans and felted jacket.  Dan is a very tall man with a deep voice and a warm and engaging disposition.  He chatted easily with his members, showing real and honest fondness for each.  We got his attention and began talking with him about our ideas for the wedding.  As he listened to our plan his eyes glowed with excitement, he immediately jumped on board, the season is perfect (late september), the chefs will be elated, Mohonk needs something like this, so they can really get it.  

Dan is a true believer.  As we talked with him we learned just how powerful community can be.  His CSA is not just a food supply service.  Each member must work a commensurate amount to their share value (full share, half share, student share, see the CSA .pdf), engaging the member in the production, as well as the consumption of their produce, meats and eggs.  The ties members have run very deep, forming a community like those of simpler times, yet fully integrated into the modern world.  This is not an anachronism, it is an efficient, economical and virtuous system that works as well now as at any other time in history.  

Listening to Dan talk about farming and the movement for local and organic (or uncertified, but of higher standard, as Brook Farm is) food is infectious.  We left Brook farm still shivering, but with the assurance that they could provide all of the produce necessary for the wedding reception.  

In return, Dan asked Karina and I to come back in the Spring and work on the farm.  A task we are only happy to accomplish.  

The only trick now?  Make sure Mohonk buys produce only from Brook Farm.  This will likely turn out to be the hardest part: getting Mohonk to do what we want.

We'll see.   But at the moment I am still infected by Dan's optimism and belief in the spirit of his community, so I will hold to that for a little longer!


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Farming a Wedding Part 1

So many changes.   But I love change, so all is well.   Karina and I are getting married next year.   I always thought planning a wedding would be fun, I didn't know it would be this fucking fun!

I have been working on the food.   We are getting married at the Mohonk Mountain House, a colossal frankenstein of a hotel that sits in what must have been an edenic hideaway for the Mohicans 400 years ago.   The house abuts a long lake, surrounded by rocky cliffs. The cliffs themselves are a maze of tunnels, caves, rockfalls, and dwarf pitch pines that have clung to these cliffs far longer then human memory.

But it is the food that is the most important aspect of our wedding.  Mohonk works through a set of distributors, standard practice for a food operation so large.  There are hundreds of guests each day that need to eat, and the menu has to stay fairly steady.  They have made some steps in sourcing locally, but an operation so large cannot be supported by small farms, unless some unifying force brings all the farms together.

That force is us.  We have a unique event of just over 100 guests.  They have to prepare and deliver our food independent of the main kitchen.  We have a unique opportunity to drive the Mohonk staff directly into the local farms of the region.  

Luckily those farms are close by and they are amazing.  So I will be posting about each one over the next few weeks.  

The Farms: