Organic. Local. Sustainable.
These were three watch words of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Sustainable Agriculture Conference for 2015, and for good reason.
It is the 30th anniversary of the conference. Agriculture has undergone a dramatic shift in those thirty years! Farmers and food suppliers are looking at the harbingers of the agricultural future. They are concerned about food safety, maintainable business practices, climate change, carbon footprints, and the warning indicators they see. These notices from nature occur both as insidiously as creeping fungus from unseasonable heat and humidity and as sweeping as torrential floods in a field full of harvest that they can’t plow or pick.
Organic in particular got special treatment, as the increased proliferation of GMO’s and attendant chemical saturation has given rise to fear, health concerns, and a lot of consternation in apiary and agriculture fields.
USDA Organic, according to National Organic Program (NOP) standards adopted in 1990, is based on the use of non-synthetic or naturally occurring plant, animal, and mineral materials. It is an expensive, sometimes confusing, and lengthy process for a small, traditional farm to undergo organic certification. They certainly need a fair amount of assistance and resources to complete it, as all inputs to the farm and soil have to be in accordance with NOP regulations to meet the criteria.
Along these lines, there were intensive workshops and several certification services, like Quality Certification Services, set up as vendors or exhibitors. Brian Rakita was at the QCS booth, and we discussed what they do. They are one of the first USDA accredited certifiers. “We specialize in everything from USDA Organic Certification to working with vegan; personal care; and livestock certifications like hormone, antibiotic and clone-free.” They also work with the social and agricultural program certifications in a fair trade vein in accordance with Agricultural Justice Project certifications. What consumers are often unaware of, is that food and agricultural justice can be a higher factor in the safety of their food than other certifications. Not only is it a way to ensure others are treated fairly, but this kind of process ensures the most basic safe and sanitary working conditions; such as available sanitation and restroom facilities, processing tools, and equipment.
If there is any wonder as to the rise of illness outbreaks and innumerable recalls, it is quite often because of undue lack of proper sanitation, human error due to overwork, lack of protective wear, or unsanitary/overused equipment, which is injurious to everyone involved in the agricultural process. Happy and safe workers are more motivated, better equipped, and more productive.
Animal Welfare Approved was right next door and they had resources concerning the labeling of livestock and poultry. Interestingly enough, they provided a useful manual regarding food labeling. It can be just as important to know what not to buy as what to look for! The manual demystified ‘marketing terms’ that are not really backed up by actual animal welfare certifications.
Cover crops, rotations, high-tunnel design, irrigation, and climate-smart adaptations were among discussions or activities via workshops and panels this year. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education organization (S.A.R.E.) does a tremendous amount of work nationally to make sure farmers and producers have access to the resources, education, and yes, even grants needed to learn and sustain healthy farms. They had a wealth of info, books, and web resources for any farmer with questions on practices or funding! They also had some great pubs for county and state officials on how to reach out to underserved and limited resource farmers and how to make programs accessible and easy to understand. Hands-on cooperation is key.
Along those lines Rick Larson of Natural Capital Investment Fund and Margaret Gifford, the founder of Farmer Foodshare and now CEO of Watervine Impact in New York, held a workshop on New Opportunities for Funding Your Food & Agriculture Business: From Crowdfunding to Venture Funding. They covered the various resources a farmer or food business can look for, the amount of work involved and practical steps to take in the business plan and presentation to potential investors. Farmers and food businesses first must create a strategy, set out the plan, prepare information, and perform due diligence in their research.
I particularly enjoyed taking to Doug and Lee at the community-based seed exchange! Anyone who brought seeds could exchange them in certain amounts! They had some beautiful and unique types of food to grow! Painted mountain, for instance is one of Fedco’s listing for the earliest maturing flour corn in the world! The other pictures is Glass-Gem corn. The table was full of seeds, rhizomes, and bulbs just waiting to bloom into something pretty and tasty!
When you come down to it, organic, local, and sustainable practices are the centurions shaping our food supply for future generations. Any agricultural approach seeking to ignore the mile markers we’ve already passed will only shortchange itself and consumers in the long-run. Most importantly, this is the kind of food that people truly care about.
The meals reflected this, and the Saturday lunch was spectacular, you can check out the menu here. A number of awards were handed out! Among them Farmer Foodshare’s Director and Farmer Darin Knapp accepted on behalf of Farmer Foodshare as Institution of the Year- for Leadership in Sustainable Agriculture. I recall speaking with Darin during my Durham Farmer’s Market coverage days, and the awareness of what is actually going on in the community and the real need for fresh food in food deserts was admirable. Also awarded were Chapel Hill Creamery’s Flo Hawley and Portia Knight for Farm of the Year! Anyone who has tasted their cheeses know why! But they also have a great and very concientious operation.
I got to stay for the Meet and Eat Reception of heavy hors d’oeuvres and the food was phenomenal, locally sourced, and beautifully presented.
They also had a build your own taco station with pulled pork from First Hand Foods and assorted toppings.
As Keynote Speaker at the Local Food Feast Michael Twitty iterated Friday, “With your tables communicate the message, with your meals, show where you came from & who you are responsible to.” Farmers are critically aware that they are responsible to the people who buy their food. But not only this, they also bear in mind their own ancestors, many of whom handed down their farms and set a high bar for what was acceptable to feed their families and neighbors. In short, most farmers care – deeply – about what they do and how they do it.
Getting into this heritage of Southern food and culture, Keynote Michael Twitty had more to say Saturday, as I attended his workshop on Kosher Soul Food. Twitty’s discussion was lively, vivacious, and informative. He got personal with us, in a homey sort of way, similar to his last visit to NC at Stagville, in which he revealed the results of his geneology profile and shared with the audience.
This time around, he discussed the Jewish and African-American overlap via life experiences and conversations in his travels. The previous night, he touched on his family’s journey to the states and how they were immigrants and forced migrants, as many Americans are. Saturday’s workshop delved deeper into the racial and ethnic combine of cultural forces that denotes a collusion of cooking and coexisting in strange pastures.
“If a Jew in the South tells you they learned to cook from anyone other than a black woman, they are a liar.”
One such experience was talking with Southern Jewish cookbook author Mildred Covert, who actually recalled her family’s immigration from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Listeners were called upon to step into their ancestor’s shoes and imagine leaving one’s home country for the very last time. For Covert, the country she came from no longer exists!
Here is an excerpt from the discussion:
“I asked her, I said, “When your father emigrated to Brooklyn, what happened to his sisters?” “I don’t know”. I said, “Of course you should.” “Don’t you realize when those people made that trip to America, for the most part, they turned their back? That hug was the last hug, that kiss was the last kiss and that was it. There was no internet. There was no texting. Nothing. You got on the boat, you left, and if you saw each other again, great. But for the most part, that wasn’t going to happen.” So, that resonated for me in the sense of this mental passage experience… when you didn’t have a choice. We talk about that being a very different – it’s not even an immigrant, it’s a forced migrant experience. Like I addressed last night, that parallel is already there. But going back to Ms. [Covert] she said, “My mother got off the boat in New Orleans with her kids. I was the first, the only one born in America. My mother went to go buy bananas to feed her and her children and tried to eat them whole because she had never seen a banana before. My mother wouldn’t buy tomatoes because she thought they were full of blood and eating blood is against Kosher law. So she had to learn how to eat bananas and learn how to eat a tomato.” She said, “Young man, who do you think my mother learned to cook from…? African American women. If a Jew in the South tells you they learned to cook from anyone other than a black woman, they are a liar.””
She certainly did not mince words! After the iconic conversation with Covert, Twitty discussed the cookbook itself, a mixture of Jewish and Southern sensibilities and recipes. See the video mid-discussion on YouTube here.
He went on to discuss his visit to Israel itself, and a conversation which typified the differences and commonalities in Arabic and Israeli cooking, even across the Mediterranean via hummus. This was a loaded topic, but the conversation turned to the origins of hummus, also called hommus and many other variations. What it came down to was shared geneology and experience…
“You come from Ismael and you come from Jacob, are you happy now? Hummus is in both of your bloods. You are both families to each other. You should understand what brings you together and not what separates you. Then all of a sudden the smiles come out, right?”
Thus goes the mixing of worlds, the shared existence of growing and cooking food, across cultures and milleniums. “You know, there’s a saying…”Two Jews, three opinions?” Try having Israeli Arabs, Jews and Orthodox and Catholic Jerusalemites all cooking together hummus. See how many arguments you come up with. “No, you’re not doing it right!” “Of course I’m doing it right.” “You don’t put that much..” “Hold up, y’all, this is my recipe. This is my stuff.” They were all arguing like, “You didn’t put enough of this”. But they ate it and they didn’t leave a drop left for me, so I guess they liked it.”
Yes, there are some moments of discomfort in culture collusions. There were some head-bowing, uncomfortably fidgeting thoughtful audience members. This is what respectful discussion brings about. Awareness, sometimes it’s painful, uncomfortable. It is not easy to look in a mirror and see the features of ancestors who may have been, literally, at odds with one another. It makes people think. Is there any need to think if one is comfortable or sheltered? Not really. It is only by rubbing shoulders with discomfort that one comes to certain realizations, and it only after realizing certain truths as an intrinsic part of history that one can truly appreciate the journeys our produce, our spices, and yes our very livestock have taken to reach us in this unique place and circumstance in time in which we currently exist.
Discussion is as necessary a part of learning food culture as growing and eating it. After the seated talk, the audience was excited to rush back to the kitchen area with Michael and taste the black-eye pea hummus!
He kept it real and simple with Wild Oats Organic seasonings and “Seeking South” hot sauce from Southern Foodways Alliance. Real cooks don’t do a ton of measuring, especially during a demo. When cooking for a larger volume, they know how much they want for a desired result, and so he did. The ingredients are mixed in a large non-reactive bowl as follows with approximate amounts. You can smash the beans into a paste wearing gloves or in a food processor. The texture was toothier and more substantial done by hand.
Black-eyed peas – 2.5-3 quarts
Tahini – 3/4 cup or 6 oz
Fresh chopped parsley – one bunch to taste
Fresh chopped garlic – most of a head of garlic, again to taste
Olive oil – 1/4 cup or 2 fl oz
Lemon Juice – juice of 3-4 lemons
1-2 teaspoons each
Light brown sugar – 1-2 Tablespoons
White sesame seeds – 2-3 teaspoons
Hot sauce – 2-3 teaspoons
He had sliced carrot, red and yellow peppers, and bread for topping with the hummus. It was delicious, and so were the stories of this professor and master of experiential history! Twitty has written his book, The Cooking Gene, which will be published soon. He is the author of Afroculinaria website and on Twitter as @KosherSoul.
We left with the same determination as he resonated to audiences at the Keynote Address for the Sustainable Agriculture Conference of 2015: “Tell the truth with your table”.
Be authentic. Be truthful. Respect history. Respect culture. Love your food. It took many hands and a long journey to reach you.
With thanks to Natasha Williams for her post-production skills in transcribing audio and video for my writing purposes.