Midwestern way of life - complete
At the same time I’ve come to realize that Kermit’s old lament, ‘it’s not easy being green,’ also echoes true in finding local foods - it’s not easy. Especially here in the Midwest – an area that once had the popular nickname of being America’s Breadbasket. For half of the year we look out across brown, scrubby fields spotted with snow and ice. That’s when the produce aisle at the mega-mart draws us in with those dewy, misted shelves of produce.
According to the 2007 Illinois Food and Farm Act, more than 90 percent of the food in our state is imported, traveling an average of 1,500 miles to reach our plates. And this is not just produce – we’re talking about meat, poultry, eggs and too many other foods to list, which are also making the trip.
We can shorten this distance, but it takes extra work. And in the process, we can learn more about our food than we ever knew before.
“Local food is infinitely better. You’d never trust a stranger with your credit card, but you’ll trust them with your food. The farmers at our market offer an open invitation to visit their farms,” Doug Sassman, owner of the Heritage Farmers Market in Pekin, Illinois, said.
Sassman opened his outdoor farmers market three years ago and didn’t close even when the first snowflakes began to fall. This winter has been warmer and even busier for Sassman as the market has moved to an indoor location. The market features beef, pork and eggs raised by Sassman himself, plus poultry and produce from neighboring farms, along with a selection of local cheeses, wines, honey, jams, breads and more.
It’s the ‘infinitely better’ part that really brings us back to local foods. The politics of sustainability aside, local food truly does taste better and is better for you. In February 2009, the American Society of Horticultural Science published the results of research done by Donald R. Davis of the Biochemical Institute at the University of Texas. Davis’ research shows that our nation’s fruit and vegetables are not as healthy as we’ve thought.
With a culture of our size in America, we require mass production to keep us fed. However, as Davis’ study shows, the fertilized crops that make this happen are becoming diluted for high yields and larger specimens - all in a shorter amount of time. This is resulting in produce with higher carbohydrate counts and less vitamins and minerals.
But, what about taste? How do we bring a sense of pride back to the food culture we have in the Midwest? That’s where terroir comes into play.
A French word that translates as terrain or 'sense of place,' terroir (pronounced tare-wahr) embodies how a region's climate, land, soil, and often too, way of life, produce a variety of foods with particular characteristics that cannot be found elsewhere. Terroir started as a way of describing and denoting a variety of wines - like Burgundy and Champagne.
Over the years, the concept has
expanded across Europe to include regulatory descriptions of not only
wine, but also coffee, tea, olive oils, butters, cheeses, meats, honeys
and breads. Terroir offers an opportunity to protect and savor our food's
cultural heritage and promote local foods based on their uniqueness and
“Economists see terroir as a device to help restore and protect rural communities; if farmers can earn more money, they're more likely to stay on the land. Others believe that promoting terroir could help quell fears about food safety. The one group that has yet to embrace the concept, however, is the American consumer. Just say terroir . . . and you're likely to get a blank stare,” Jane Black of the Washington Post in the 2007 story The Geography of Flavor: Bringing a European Idea Down to Earth: Producers, Farmers Pin Hopes on the Appeal of 'Terroir.'
Last year, Amy Trubek, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont, published The Taste of Place, A Cultural Journey into Terroir. In the book, she explains the complex concepts behind terroir while showing how important terroir is to bridging our desire for local foods and challenging typical American food routines.
“By paying attention, and saying that variability of taste rather than conformity of taste is the final goal, terroir can help us become a food culture with more diverse palates (and along the way perhaps support unique small scale farmers and food artisans) . . . it is my hope that embracing terroir intelligence creates something broader - a new sensibility towards food and drink and those that commit their lives to nurturing the environment and crafting good products,” commented Trubek in an Inkwell online discussion.
Supporters of terroir fear that the movement could go in the same direction of ‘organic’ – in that too many regulations on geographical areas and labeling restrictions could deem it an ineffective marketing tool only pandering to the elite or connoisseurs. When in fact, terroir has the opportunity to help many small farmers and producers become more competitive in their own neck of the woods and possibly even beyond, in the global market.
“Rural economists looking for alternatives to commodity crops for Midwestern farmers have watched such projects with interest and have conducted research to determine which heartland foods might have broad appeal,” Black writes.
This is something Jim Hicks of the
Blue Ridge Family Farm knows first hand. Located near Chillicothe,
Illinois, Hicks raises two small herds of sheep annually. Since his sheep
are pasture raised, we take a walk through the dewy grass to see them up
close. As we walk, we talk about how to reach customers.
“We receive several inquiries from people looking for lamb and once we get a customer, they spread the word to their friends. The lamb in the grocery store travels quite a distance and is often from an older animal. But our sheep are lovingly raised and pampered. That’s something you can tell when preparing our lamb at home. It’s sweet and tender,” Hicks adds.
Word of mouth has been sustaining our local farmers and producers for a while now, but it doesn’t make it easy for consumers new to local foods to get in on the action. On the other hand, creating an entirely new market system to make local foods easily accessible will take time. It’s more than just a website, an article or a farmers’ market. It’s a mindset.
It’s getting up early every Saturday morning with shopping basket and cash in hand and sweating out the early crowds around the blueberry stall. It’s making the drive to a local meat locker for a great steak. It’s calling a farmer and asking to pick up a fresh chicken or a dozen eggs.