Eating High on the Food Chain

The Real Cost of Organic Food

TIME: What makes Organic so Special?

Each week at our farmer market stands we learn about books and articles that have led customers to Smith Meadows. Jeffrey Kluger’s article in TIME, “What’s So Great About Organic Food?” is one of the most recent.  A better title would be, “How to Live and Eat High on the Food Chain”, but moral didacticism attracts fewer readers.  The cluster of consumer comparisons coupled with Kluger’s synopsis of recent research  is a good guide for the average American.  The overwhelming culture and politics of food often keeps people from making sensible choices that benefit them and their family.  Ultimately the article reaffirmed my philosophy on life and food– the fewer the steps from the earth the better it is.  The other thing I gained from the collection of consumer comparisons is confirmation on how to best describe the differences in taste, texture and palatability of our meats.

Ingredients for our Veggie Empanadas

Ingredients for our Veggie Empanadas

It’s hard to live in conscientious balance with available resources for families or individuals on a budget.  The best approach is to make informed choices that harmonize with our lifestyles and means for survival. As Kluger states, “We still have to get smart about what the people who bring us our food are selling, to find the right mix of the commercial and the local, the organic and the industrial. There’s a lot more than just groceries on the line — there’s health and long life too.” I try to manifest this approach in the products I prepare through Smith Meadows Kitchen.  We are not purists.  When Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms or Moie Crawford of New Morining Farms is out of garlic, I do buy a bag of garlic bulbs at Restaurant Depot.  It’s not easy maintaining a rolodex of farming cohorts with ingredients on demand, but each year gets better.  When I run short, I thank the chain of industrial progress that keeps me in business that week.

Chef Comparison: Riad Nasr (right) and Lee Hanson, Minetta Tavern by Danny Kim

Chef Comparison: Riad Nasr (right) and Lee Hanson, Minetta Tavern by Danny Kim

Now, on to the matter of taste.  We attract new customers to our farm and markets in many ways.  The hardest sell continues to be the ones who ask, “Can I taste the difference?”  Pleasing a variety of palates is a complicated business with nuance that often defies expression.  These are a few of the responses I have cultivated over my ten years at farmers markets. Our eggs don’t have that sulfur taste. There is more texture to our chicken. You will have less water in the pan when you cook our sausage.  You won’t have a lingering feel of grease in the back of your throat when you eat our steak. Our lamb doesn’t have a heavy, oily taste that stays with you all day.  Our pork tastes sweeter than what you will find at the grocery store. I was happy to see the chef taste comparisons in TIME’s article reveal almost the same results.

The most poignant part of the article is the realization that in 2050 farmers around the globe will have to feed 9 billion people.  According to Kluger only 5% of arable land remains unused.  We will have to increase our food production by 50-100% to meet the demand.  It’s easy to see how these overwhelming facts would support the supposed need for chemical fertilizers, antibiotics and pesticides that allowed this country to produce 28% more corn in the 1990’s.  For me, however, these facts point to another question: How can we redefine the amount of arable land?

Hiu Newcomb with Grandson Stephen

Hiu Newcomb with Grandson Stephen by Jessica Reeder

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Hiu and Hana Newcomb at Potomac Vegetable Farm near Tysons Corner in Fairfax County.  Their narrow 20 acres of productive land and Blueberry Hill Cohousing stands along Leesburg Pike in stark contrast to anything else around.  It is sandwiched between 2 developments of 6000 square foot houses with multiple car garages, balconies and porches that sit on 1 acre plots.  Disconnection is an understatement when I compare these gargantuan trophy houses to the 19 homes surrounded by cultivated fields at PVF.  In her article, “Farming Out of Context” for Flavor Magazine, Hana describes how they are growing food (in conjunction with Ellen Polishuk of PVF West in Loudoun County) for 485 CSA members. “We have been growing vegetables and flowers and herbs in these gardens using organic practices for so many years now that the soil is practically self-sufficient.”

Housing development behind Potomac Vegetable Farms in Vienna

Housing development behind Potomac Vegetable Farms in Vienna

There is a real fear that we will not be able to feed so many in the coming years. The resulting appeal of chemicals and industrial farm practices is only temporary when you consider the deleterious effect on the environment. It is hard to compare Smith Meadows with Potomac Vegetable Farm, but the Newcombs have achieved an enviable redefinition of what arable can mean. Smith Meadows has the advantage of being a five-hundred acre farm in a county that is still mostly agricultural.We currently grow enough meat and eggs to support seven farmers market stands in the DC area where hundreds of individuals and families shop with us each week. Our mission in the next five years is to produce twice as much food without compromising the current excellent quality of life for the animals or ourselves. We hope to provide customers with one of many ways to live higher on the food chain in a conscientious way.

Cows on Pasture at Smith Meadows

Cows on Pasture at Smith Meadows

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Nancy is a first generation Italian-American who makes good food and thinks about it. She has lived on this farm since 1998.