POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 8, 2010:
Farm to City Market
Old concept becomes neo-hip as the sustainable food movement makes headway in Urban Green Country
Sustainability isn't just a concept anymore, it's becoming part of the lifestyles of millions of Americans. For the past few years, people across the country have jumped on the bandwagon of eating organic foods or leading a healthier lifestyle by what they eat.
From this large push for more naturally grown, local food sprouted the sustainable movement; a campaign that has been in production across the country. It has now begun to touch the city of Tulsa's borders.
While the concept of sustainable agriculture might be more widely accepted today, there is still some confusion related to its perception and how to define it. The actual procedures and processes needed to achieve sustainability have gained a much larger degree of acceptance and participation with each passing year as more and more farmers, educators and government agencies embrace it and more and more citizens demand it.
So what is sustainability?
While it does mean something a little different to everyone, there are certain guidelines it must meet. A restaurateur has a little different take on sustainability than a farmer or a school, a parent or a teacher, but ultimately it all comes down to the same set of common denominators.
According to the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990, better known as the Farm Bill, sustainability is: "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application. Sustainability is one in which natural resources such as soil and water, as well as human resources such as labor are used at their rate of recovery."
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, an arm of the United States Department of Agriculture, stands upon three goals or strategies for sustainability, which it calls its "Pillars of Sustainability."
These pillars include: "Profit over the long term; stewardship of our nation's land, air and water; and quality of life for farmers, ranchers and their communities."
"I define sustainable food as an interconnected system of people growing and raising food for their community," said Lisa Becklund, co-owner of The Living Kitchen, a certified organic farm and farm-to-table restaurant concept in Depew, Okla. "It's a self-reliant and interdependent system that works with the natural ecology of the land and soil. The farmers or the folks that grow food are stewards of the land. The consumers are stewards of their community, keeping food dollars close to home, making a system that is interdependent and viable for all."
Lisa Brandborg is the manager of the Cherry Street Farmer's Market, and she described it as such: "I would define sustainable food as being grown with natural practices and inputs. Food grown in such a way that it does not deplete the ground where it is grown. Working with nature to produce food that grows well in that location."
For a restaurant owner and chef, it's a bit simpler still. Libby Auld, local chef and owner of Eloté Café and Catering in downtown Tulsa said, "Sustainability is knowing where your food comes from and doing your best to shop locally."
They all imply the same thing, but they all look at it from a different perspective.
More to the Farming Front
As you begin to look at the history of the sustainable initiative, it becomes apparent that it is not new. In fact, it is the very system that previous generations employed. We simply moved away from it with huge industrial farming techniques, mechanization and chemicals.
A process as seemingly benign and arguably practical as tillage of the soil sets the environment up for tremendous losses in top-soil erosion through wind and water, as well as a loss of soil organic matter and even water holding ability. Not to mention, the damage to the environment due to the burning of fossil fuels.
According to the USDA and the website sustainablefoodlab.org, a farm with four feet of the richest, blackest top soil in the world in 1919 has two feet less today because of machination and tillage and the erosion it causes. And the average non-local produce travels over 1,000 miles before we eat it.
A no-till farm avoids these issues by growing a larger number of crops in rotation and paying closer attention to what crops are actually in the rotation, which can carbonize and enrich the soil naturally, according to sustainablefoodlab.org. Several larger operators are even growing and processing products than can be converted to bio-fuels which they in turn use to run the equipment they do require, albeit a much reduced need.
Many farmers have seen up to a 30-percent increase in yields on crops grown after their no-till and crop rotation programs were adopted, according to sustainablefoodlab.org. Certain crops add nitrogen to the soil, while others fix nitrogen in the soil that comes from the air and still others promote weed suppression as cover-crop growth. Cutting edge methodology finds farmers planting shade tolerant cover-crops in forested areas or under taller plants that prevent weed growth and encourage double and triple utilization of the same real estate.
Many sustainable farmers are planting bug resistant crops around the perimeters of their fields eliminating the need for pesticides altogether. Some co-mingle them with the crops in the fields. According to the USDA, more than 400 insects and mite pests and more than 70 fungal pathogens have become resistant to one or more pesticides to date.
"Buying locally produced foods does not require significant transportation or storage, both of which are very energy-intensive and pollute our air and water," said Rita Scott, president of Sustainable Green Country and coordinator of Buy Fresh, Buy Local Green Country. "It also yields produce that first and foremost tastes better and is more nutritious. Locally grown fruits and vegetables are usually harvested within 24 hours of being purchased by the consumer. Produce picked at the height of freshness tastes better. Because locally grown produce is freshest, it is more nutritionally complete. Nutritional value declines, often dramatically as even a small amount of time passes after harvest."
Auld agrees. "As far as food is concerned, it just tastes better! If you get a tomato from a local grower selling it to a local supermarket, they are able to pick the tomato when it is ripe and sell it when it is ripe," she said. "If during tomato season, the supermarket is still buying from Central America, the tomato is picked weeks before it is ripened and then sprayed two separate times. Once to keep it from ripening during travel and then again once it reaches the Tulsa warehouse to make it ripen. Which one do you think tastes better?"
"Locally grown food tastes the best," Scott said. "My neighbor grows a variety of corn called 'Incredible.' When it is picked fresh in the morning and I prepare it at lunchtime -- Oh, my God -- amazing taste from the field to my plate, in a matter of a couple of hours."
Other benefits of the Buy Local way of life include increased regional economic health as well as a self-sufficient community, Scott said. A community that produces its own food enables people to influence how their food is grown. In addition, it reduces reliance on far-off food producers, thus stabilizing its own food supply.
Buying locally grown foods keeps money within the community, therefore contributing to the health of all sectors of the local economy, which in turn increases the local quality of life, she said.
A farmer growing with the intent to sell products for long-distance shipping, high yields and longer shelf life cannot compete with the level of bio-diversity that a local farmer can, limiting options as a consumer.
"Additionally, the more bio-diverse a farmer is, the less risk there is in terms of loss," Scott said. "If a grower is only growing one crop, and it develops a fungus, they risk losing the whole crop -- a loss that is not sustainable."
This in turn plays into the concept of crop rotation, which contributes to enriched soil with less chemical additives.
According to A History of American Agriculture, in the early 20th Century, a farm family (one in every four Americans at that time) completely supported itself and fed 12 other citizens as well with virtually no chemical subsidy to the land.
Today, there are a mere 2 million farms in this country that feed us all, according to agclassroom.org.
In turn, The American Farm Bureau estimates that the average U.S. farmer produces food and fiber for more than 155 people in the United States and abroad. And yet, the limited products they grow, mainly corn and soybeans, are not available to those people without further processing as they are inedible in their harvested form.
According to the USDA and Sustainable Food Lab website, they are commodities that must either be fed to livestock or manufactured into end user goods before we can consume them. Consequently, the balance shifts because in fact we must spend other resources to turn that into something we can consume down the line. Most of those farmers can't even support their own families without additional outside income.
Debbie Shanks, owner and proprietor of Shank's Farms in Leonard, Okla., works a second job to make ends meet. She has been selling vegetables at the Cherry Street Market for 13 years. She learned sustainable farming from her father-in-law, whose philosophy was, "You needed to rotate your crops, let part of the ground rest, and plow back cover crops (such as legumes and clover) to build up the soil, all of which I believe is part of sustainability farming."
Lisa Becklund also subsidizes her farm income by teaching cooking classes at OSU's Seretean Wellness Center, albeit "very part-time."
"Many farmers are seeking the pastoral, simpler way of life, but they can't give up being consumers for themselves and their children and ultimately they can't support their debt with farming alone," she said. "Living below your means is a concept that is not readily accepted by many, but it's the way to that which we seek."
Additionally, she and her partners hold regular Farm Table Dinners, focused around products that are harvested in one way or another from their 55-acre, certified organic farm just west of Bristow. This may be a Lavender Feast, A Garlic Lover's Dream, or the Late Summer's Harvest event. All feature produce and products from their fields and goat herd to capitalize on the local harvests of the season. Huge family style tables are set in the yard, and everyone communes over great food and with others who hold the same philosophy.
Strong and Growing
Other local farmers say essentially the same, which is that it's really hard to succeed. Consistently, across the board, all answers say that it's a genuine love for the land and for farming, and an irascible spirit to have the ability to withstand the disappointments of bad weather, any number of pests and diseases and a multitude of other frustrations.
Shanks philosophizes, "What it takes to weather the storm of farming is someone who loves the land, who loves to see something grow, and enjoys seeing the smile of appreciation on the faces of the people who buy the local produce."
"In order to be a sustainable farmer, one must find joy in it. Go with the punches so to say, but also start small," Becklund said. "If you want it to be your only job, the idea isn't necessarily to make more money but to reduce your need for spending money."
Doug Walton, Community Foods Coordinator with the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture explains the challenges this way: "For any farmer, our current food system makes it very difficult to earn enough income from farming to offset the time and energy required to produce and market those crops and livestock. A small but growing minority of farmers in Oklahoma are attempting to utilize more sustainable practices such as raising crops organically, using grass-based forage for livestock, and/or marketing directly to customers. They stand a chance of greater profitability by producing a product in high demand, and one that is very different and most likely superior to its industrially produced counterpart -- while moving things in a more sustainable direction."
The Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture is a non-profit educational foundation for sustainable agriculture near Poteau, Okla., and has a world-wide reputation for pioneering sustainable farming techniques and training for farmers and ranchers, home and community gardeners, food entrepreneurs, educators, consumers, conservationists and health advocates. The center gives farmers, ranchers, gardeners and educators from around Oklahoma the tools they need to be successful in challenging times, but people from all over the world tap into that knowledge base as well.
So, why buy local? Organizations such as SARE, The Oklahoma Food Cooperative, The Oklahoma Sustainability Network, the Oklahoma Food Coop and The Kerr Center as well as Sustainable Green Country, Sustainable Tulsa, local farmers' markets and the Oklahoma Farm to School initiative are all working hard to educate consumers, school dietary personnel, restaurants, teachers and most importantly youth to the benefits of buying fresh and local.
Recently, State Rep. Seneca Scott, succeeded in getting the Healthy Corner Store Initiative passed in Oklahoma.
House Bill 3015 makes healthy corner stores eligible for Agricultural Linked Deposit Loan Packages of up to $350,000. "Healthy corner stores" are defined as those grocery stores certified by the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry that market fresh fruits and vegetables and nutritious foods.
Additionally, the sale of beer and tobacco must comprise less than 10 percent of its gross sales -- excluding gas and other non-grocery items. If you noticed the last name similarity between Rep. Seneca Scott and Rita Scott of Buy Fresh Buy Local, it's no coincidence -- they are mother and son.
"By providing these low-interest loan packages, Oklahoma may be able to eliminate the 'food deserts' in local communities that leave many Oklahoma residents driving long distances to get groceries," Seneca Scott said in a recent press release. "This bill is a way for both rural and urban communities to gain needed grocery stores without the long drive.
INCOG maps show huge disparities between the number of healthy stores available to Oklahomans, not only in rural areas, but larger metropolitan ones as well.
If there is a minor stumbling block in the bill right now, it's that it is tied to the prime lending rate and goes dormant below a certain percentage rate. Unfortunately, as of press time, the rate is in fact below that threshold.
That's not an issue for the owner of the Tulsa-based Blue Jackalope Grocery & Coffee, Scott Smith, who's been in business for two and a half years.
His shelves have a varied inventory that includes fresh fruit and vegetables as well as locally raised beef and specialty items. Additionally, he offers a variety of everyday shelf items, soft drinks and other beverages, as well as a cup of coffee made from locally roasted beans.
According to Walton, since 1940, Oklahoma has lost 100,000 farms, and the average income of the remaining 83,000 farms is a mere $8,220.
What happened? Basically, farmers lost access to local produce markets such as grocers, canneries and downtown street corners, ousted by products grown on a large scale, stored and shipped great distances under refrigeration, and well beyond local season of harvest -- all subsidized, Walton said.
And so it is no wonder that more than 12,000 acres of prime farmland in Oklahoma is lost per year to development and other uses.
The Future of Food
One of our most precious resources, and more specifically our very future, is our children.
The Oklahoma Farm to School project is devoted to the relationship between farmers and school districts across our area. Their ethos is simple: Farmers and schools have several things in common. They both plant seeds and nurture growth, and with some patience and hard work, can reap bountiful harvests. They both rely on experience gained from years past, on sufficient planning and on consistent effort, to ensure the greatest possible yields.
The most successful are those able to adapt to changing environments, creating practical and innovative solutions as new problems and opportunities arise.
A growing number of schools are finding that serving fresh food from local farms and providing students with meaningful hands-on experiences can go a long way toward improving healthy food choices. These Farm-to-School initiatives are demonstrating that students will eat more nutritiously when offered a variety of fresh high quality foods.
According to Chris Kirby of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture's Farm to School Project, farm-to-school programs feature school purchases of food (usually fresh fruits and vegetables) from local farmers. Nutrition lessons can be coordinated with the fresh produce being served for lunch. Programs can also include Ag-in-the-Classroom curriculum, school gardens, food tastings and cooking classes, indoor learning labs and farm/farmers market visits, all of which get students excited about healthy food.
Their site goes on to say that Oklahoma currently has 540 school districts, with 1,844 schools serving students more than 167,000 breakfasts and more than 375,000 lunches every day of the school year.
Aside from the reasons discussed above, freshness, the health of our local ecology, bio-diversity and the preservation of our rural communities, the benefit to the farming economy would be substantial. If half of the schools in our state featured one serving of Oklahoma grown cantaloupes at one meal, on one day of the year, this would require nearly 5,000 melons. Or, one serving of Oklahoma grown tomatoes for one meal in half our schools would likewise require over 18,000 pounds of fresh whole tomatoes. Multiply that by any reasonable number, one day a week for instance, and the sheer numbers would make a noticeable difference.
Shanks, whose second job is at a local rural school district said, "I also feel we need to start educating our students at the high school level in our agriculture classes more about farming about how it affects our lives."
"I can't believe our universities and land grant colleges do not even offer an Organic Farming or Sustainable Agriculture degree," Scott said. "Organic food has become a billion dollar industry, and yet there are no in-state two or four-year programs? Conferences and workshops are offered, but that is not enough. Sadly, conventional farming practices, teaching how to apply chemicals to the land, application of petroleum-based fertilizers, and large scale cow calf operations instructing routine injection of antibiotics and steroids, and GMO and round-up ready seeds, are the only education options offered"
Although Tulsa's Platt College has not created additional programs or courses focused on sustainable foods, the school is working to incorporate more about the movement into the classroom. After the campus recently opened Foundations, a restaurant allowing culinary students the opportunity to learn culinary and operational skills, another addition began to branch out in front of the building. To learn how to grow and cook with sustainable foods, Platt College created its own almost 1,000-square-foot garden.
Kelly Crisp, chef instructor at the school, said he realized the need for the garden after noticing instructors were beginning to incorporate information on sustainable foods into their lesson plans.
"We talk about how it is becoming important all the time," he said. "It's not just a trend anymore."
Now, the garden is ripe with color as students from the college's Garden Club grow anything from various herbs and tomatoes to cantaloupes, eggplants and cucumbers.
"We've tried growing just about everything," Crisp said.
Students then use these plants in the classroom as well as the restaurant, giving them hands-on experience with growing sustainable foods, he said.
A number of local farms, agriculture and restaurant folks are walking the walk, as well as talking the talk: Three Springs Farms, The Downing Family Farm, Living Kitchen Farms and Natural Farms, as well as more than a few restaurants including Eloté, Café Samana, Local Table, and quite a few others.
One farmer answered it this way when asked, "Who do you see locally that's really taking this a step further?"
Her answer? "Tulsa! I see more and more Tulsans at the farmers market each week, trying new things, asking questions."
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