The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Its so wonderful to open Jayne Baileys Bakery and Café door and enter into a world of good smells, warmth and friendly chatter. Downtown Nahcotta was not the same when Jayne and Bob Kelim closed for a winter vacation. We couldnt get our scone-fix and more than that theres nothing quite like coming in from the cold to sit over a steamy bowl of homemade soup (and letting someone else worry about the dishes).
So heres my shout-out to all our local restaurateurs providing nourishment for body and soul through these dark days. But lets think about this a bit more deeply where do our amazing chefs get their raw materials? Where does the magic start?
What does it cost to grow peas?
Jimella Lucas, Jim Karnofski, Mia Boyle and other slow-food revolutionaries have been scheming about local food policy for some time. So when I got the heads up about a meeting at Brady and Tiffany Turners Pickled Fish (the fourth floor restaurant at their Adrift Hotel) I ambled over to see what was cooking.
Farmer Fred Johnson was holding court explaining both his struggles and triumphs coaxing produce out of his soil. Ive been working my land for 10 years and I think Im finally beginning to figure out how to grow things nobody grows better tomatoes but what does it cost to grow peas? Im not sure.
Farming especially the way Farmer Fred does it takes a special kind of attention and personality. We do everything by hand, he says. You know I finally raised my prices on greens to $7 a pound this year but whats the price for Earthbound [a commercial organic brand available in most grocery stores] around $3.50?
The problem is that most of us want nutritious and, even better, locally produced food but we may not be willing to pay for it. But would we if we had a complete understanding of the benefits?
Freds greens go from soil to table in a matter of hours rather than weeks they almost sing theyre so fresh and flavor equals nutrition, measured in a fluid concentration called a Brix unit, as described by Kathleen Sayce in her column last week. An easy way to think about it is nutrition density. As Sayce said, The higher the Brix, the better. (One degree Brix is one gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution.) Unfortunately, you wont see any nutritional or Brix data on vegetables in the store.
But the big question both for Fred and local chefs is would we, the consumers, pay a premium knowing that our food was produced locally and therefore was healthier for us? Fred is hoping folks will answer yes.
Gathered around the table to discuss this were many of our outstanding local restaurateurs. David Campiche, owner and proprietor of the Shelburne Inn, Restaurant and Pub asked, Is delicotta squash harder to grow? I dont know but it certainly makes for beautiful presentation on the plate. But we need to keep our food costs to 30 percent to be viable.
Lucas suggested chefs might ask Fred for specifics theyd like him to grow, or get a list from Fred on what grows best and when it will be harvested so they could do better menu planning. Turner queried Fred about delivery, Should we consider a central drop off point for fresh produce?
Kelim asked if Fred had a business plan. Well, thats what I trying to work out here, said Johnson. Maybe we form something like a commercial CSA [community supported agriculture]. My question is, how can we create a localized food system so that everybody wins? How can we securitize our dirt? What he means is that our soil is like a community bank account. Rather than being raped of its nutrients and bombarded with chemicals the standard for industrial agriculture Freds soil has been lovingly amended to produce healthful products.
As Wendell Berry writes The soil is the great con-nector of lives, the source and destination of all ... Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.
Support local farmers
Now we were getting down to the, ahem, root of the issue soil. Fred has learned the hard way that youve got to feed the soil so it can feed you. Mr. Biochar, Jim Karnofski, has been preaching this for years and has been, behind-the-scenes, collaborating with long-time organic gardener and author Steve Solomon. He spent much of his life in rural Oregon founding Territorial Seed Company, which he sold in 1986 to retire. Now he lives in Tasmania.
I skyped with Steve last year in the lead-up to publishing his latest book, The Intelligent Gardener, Growing Nutrient-Dense Food (new society Publishers, $19.95). Heres the essence of his message: First, you find out what the actual chemical nature of your soil is. Then you add nutrients calculated to bring that soil into a fertility profile that produces nutrient-dense food. Sounds simple, right?
Well, a mere 300 pages later and, if you successfully put Steves hard-earned knowledge into practice, you can accomplish that task. His book is practical, clear and thorough. Along the way, youll learn about geology, animal husbandry, chemistry, composting, remineralization and health. I couldnt recommend it more highly. But if youre not a gardener, there is still a role you can play as an educated citizen.
We all want to enjoy nutritious food lovingly prepared by our brilliant local chefs, but have we ever made it a priority, as a community, to support our local farmers? Arwen Norman, who pulled magic out of the soil from the Rutabaga Farm in Nahcotta and provided weekly bags brimming with produce, has thrown in the trowel. She will be looking for another place to farm. I dont know all the reasons for her move, but I cant help but think if we had supported her more and understood the profound importance of the task she was taking on, she might still be here getting ready for spring planting.
And, even after 10 years, Fred still has to interrupt his farming to refinish hardwood floors to make ends meet. Hes made a commitment to creating soil health in order to produce delicious food. I wonder if theres a way we can acknowledge the importance of this in our community and support his efforts?
I think Chief Sealth meant earth and soil as synonymous when he said, We are part of the earth and it is part of us ... What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. After all, as water and soil scientist Daniel Hillel points out, the Latin name for man, homo, is derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.