Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #2: Shorten the food chain

We've all heard a lot in recent years about "eating locally"; that is, trying to be more aware of exactly where our food is coming from and choosing to buy locally-produced ingredients for our meals whenever possible. More and more restaurants, such as the Alder Wood Bistro here in Sequim, are getting behind this idea as well. More consumers are also realizing the benefits of buying locally-grown produce and meat, even visiting farms and buying directly from the producer.

What are these benefits? Well, obviously when you can buy directly from a farmer, the food is sure to be fresh. Also, locally-grown food, especially produce, is usually bought in season, which translates not only into better quality and flavor, but also lower prices: Produce bought out-of-season usually comes from another state or even another country, and you can be sure the cost of all that transportation is being passed on to you. In addition, if you've ever visited a local farm and bought directly from a farmer, you will have realized the difference it makes in the way you relate to what you eat. So much of our culture of eating involves relationships, and buying locally-produced food promotes beneficial relationships, not just with an individual producer, but with the community at large. Which brings up yet another benefit: keeping our money in the local economy.

What's happening here is we are shortening the food chain, the often lengthy and convoluted path food travels to become part of our next meal. Between the lines of the benefits outlined above are the less obvious costs, to us as consumers, and to our environment (and even our society) as well. A few statistics: On average, 7-10 calories of fossil fuel energy are used in the process of delivering 1 calorie of food energy to your plate. 20% of the total energy used in food production is consumed on the farm; the rest is spent processing the food and moving it around. (Growing organically uses about 1/3 less fossil fuel than growing conventionally, but that savings quickly disappears if compost is not produced either on-site or nearby.)

By contrast, buying even part of the food we eat can make a big difference in the true cost of feeding ourselves. For example, if you buy a holiday turkey from us, the food chain is very short: We grow the turkey and slaughter it, and you pick it up within a day or so of slaughter. It isn't even frozen. Some customers have come up to help on slaughtering days, adding another level to their participation in their personal food chain.

Restaurants like the Alder Wood Bistro, whose owners Gabriel and Jessica Schuenemann are also helping to set a new standard in our community. They are committed to sourcing locally as much as possible of the food they serve, which is great for small farms like ours. They buy organic eggs from us, which are delivered several times a week, so the chain, once again, is short: From farm to restaurant to consumer's plate, the eggs have traveled less than 8 miles. (By way of contrast, any given ingredient in a typical American meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles by the time it shows up on your plate.)

Our farm is small. We don't have the room to sustainably produce more pork or poultry than we do now, since we are unwilling to compromise our standards of allowing the birds to range freely during the day. It has occurred to us lately that for a production level like ours, our relationship with the Alder Wood Bistro actually is a model for how small farms can be successful. So much of our national food production (and yes, even organic food production) is done on a huge scale, at a huge cost on a number of levels, many of which are kept out of sight. What if more small producers sought out relationships with local restaurants, or even small community grocery stores to help supply the growing number of consumers enthusiastically seeking to connect with these producers?

After all, for consumers to buy locally-produced food, someone has to sell it. Bypassing a number of links in the traditional American food chain by selling either directly to the consumer from the farm, or through a forward-thinking restaurant just down the hill, has become a crucial piece of the big picture for us. It's also an important part of the concept of Pot Pies and Egg Money.

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