ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Anatomy of a Thanksgiving Meal

Turkey Collaboration Slide Show

By Lisa M. Hamilton

In celebration of Thanksgiving, I'm offering a photo essay that documents a unique raising turkey collaboration in the one-time poultry capital of California, Petaluma. A local Slow Food group, whose members wanted to raise heritage breed turkeys as part of the organization’s efforts to save endangered food species, got together with the local 4H club, which was focused on breeding another endangered species, young farmers.

"Sometimes when I explain what we do people look at me like I'm a monster," Cathy Thode, one of the project's organizers, told me. "I see it differently. We've raised these birds from day one, we know everything they've ever eaten, and we know that right up to their last breath they were never once mistreated. If you're going to eat meat, well, I think this is the way it should be done."

While some of the images are not for the faint of heart, if you eat turkey, the story is worth a trip.

Cones with feet

Images: © 2008 Lisa M. Hamilton

Postcard from a Slaughterhouse

T&E3This post was contributed by Joe Cloud, a former landscape architect who took a career course change and bought a family-owned slaughterhouse in Harrisonburg, Virginia, near his family's farm. His partner in the venture, True and Essential Meats, is Joel Salatin, the grass-based livestock farmer featured in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. These small operations are fast disappearing (the former owners were in their 70s), meaning smaller farmers lack options to slaughter livestock. Cloud hopes to grow the business of sourcing from local farms but that is still just a small portion of the operation.

By Joe Cloud

As owner/operator of a small local slaughterhouse, I see a lot of pigs over the course of a month.  Some of them are raised in industrial operations in Pennsylvania.  We buy them to make sausage in my plant. The rest are brought in by small farmers from all over Virginia to be slaughtered and processed for sale in farmer's markets, at restaurants, and directly to consumers.

The pigs all spend a day to several weeks in the humble little barn behind my plant.  The moments when I go out to feed and water them are among the best parts of my day.  Alone in the cobwebby old structure, I talk to them, bring them their corn ration, and take a moment to just watch them being pigs. I like to touch the pigs while feeding them -- lay a hand on a round hip, feel the warmth and the coarse bristle against my skin.  Perhaps this is strange, knowing we will soon take their life, but I appreciate the sense of connection. This morning it was cold, and I had to smile looking at a pile of Joel Salatin's Polyface pigs peacefully sleeping in a big pile to keep warm.

It is fun to step into a pen full of hogs – and informative. Joel's little pig dudes run up eagerly like curious dogs, and immediately cover your legs with inquisitive round snouts checking out the smells.  No fear or shyness here. They run and jump around, snuffeling  excitedly.  Black, tawny, red, spotted, their coats literally shine with health. Glossy bristles give their bodies a bright sheen.

But when I step into a pen of industrial hogs, the atmosphere is completely different.  Sunk in a sleepy torpor, they lack awareness, and they startle with alarm. When you surprise a pig, they bark like dogs and scurry mindlessly around. Perhaps I should say hobble – many of them limp.  Raised on hard concrete, their feet and joints are malformed, and they live in pain. The deep sawdust in my barn is the best they have ever had.  Their white flanks and shoulders are covered with bloody scrapes – they have been fighting, working to establish their dominance hierarchies in middle age.  Unlike Joel's hogs who are raised together in their little band in the woods, the industrial hogs have no sense of a pecking order because they have not grown up together.

We'd like to process hogs from small local farms, but that isn't an option right now. There aren't enough hogs raised locally.  We bought a going concern with two dozen employees and customers to take care of. But the hope is to build these new local markets. Then maybe all the hogs out in the barn will be like Joel's. One day.
Image: T&E Meats

Chewy Nuggets

What’s for Dinner? - Michael Ruhlman has an interesting thread at his blog on staple meals - what people actually cook for dinner. The variety among people who responded (177 comments and counting) is pretty astounding, with a lot of ethnic food -- more than I would have predicted.

Let’s Do the Math - An engaging post at Ethicurean points to a study that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions occur “during the production of food, not from transportation.” Eating locally is equivalent to driving 1,000 fewer miles a year. But switching out of red meat - for just one day a week - to a vegetarian meal equals 1,160 fewer miles driven per year.

Out of Softshell Crabs - Senators want to declare the Chesapeake blue claw crab a disaster, triggering $20 million in emergency aid for the fisherman. The bay suffers from hypoxia stimulated by agriculture and urban water run-off - essentially choking oxygen out of sea life.

Sustainable Sushi? - I took a quick look at at the rising tide of sustainable fish in Japan, of all places. They still love their bluefin tuna and whale, but sustainable fish is slowly gaining ground (beachhead?) in supermarkets.
- Samuel Fromartz

Mackey Interview, Part 2

In the second installment of the interview with John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, the focus is on humane meat, sustainable seafood and local food. The first part of the interview can be found here.

Fromartz: There has been a bit of buzz about your humane meat program, which institutes a five-star rating system based on the humane practices of the livestock producers. When will it roll out?

Mackey: We'll roll it out this summer. It got delayed because we were doing it under the Whole Foods-funded Animal Compassion Foundation but we're now shifting it to a third party, the Global Animal Partnership. We think from a credibility standpoint, third party certification is better. Organic is third party, Fair Trade is third party and we think that will have more credibility with our customer base. But this summer, you will start to see the one-through-five rating. (One being the most basic rating and five, the highest, with background here and here).

Fromartz: Have you found enough livestock producers to fill out the meat case? Are there enough grass-based producers, for instance?

Mackey: Well, it's not just for our grass-based producers. All of our meat will be in the program eventually because if they want to sell at Whole Foods, they have to be rated. But if you're asking, have we found that many producers that have the highest ratings, like three, four, and five? The answer is we don’t have enough yet but we think what will happen. As we create more transparency into welfare practices, the desire to have a higher rating is going to kick in. Customers are going to prefer the better ratings, so we're going to see those getting one's and two's try and get three's and four's

Fromartz: Do you expect those with a three or four rating get a premium over the one's and two's?

Mackey: I do. To even get a three, it has to be a pasture-based system, which rules out almost all meat sold in the United States right now. And I don't mean just access to outdoors but a real pasture-based system.

With chickens for example, "free range" is a myth – the birds are not in cages but they are in a big barn. When the consumer thinks of free range, they think the chickens are out running around in pasture but that's not the case. So to get a three under the Global Animal Partnership ratings system, animals will have to live outside and have access to shelter, rather than the other way around - living indoors with supposed access to outdoors. Once there's more transparency and the ratings are out there, the consumer demand is going to be push a lot more producers to get into organic and animal welfare production – they're going to get better scores, a premium and more brand loyalty.

Fromartz: So when are you going to do more in seafood?

Mackey: In terms of sustainability?

Fromartz: You are selling some MSC-certified fish but it's not across the board. (The Marine Stewardship Council certifies whether wild populations of fish are sustainably harvested).

Mackey: We've had quite a few meetings on aquaculture and are coming with standards this summer on farmed fish. That's probably the biggest initiative we've got.

But sustainability in seafood is a huge issue, and I don't have any good answers to it, because world demand for seafood is doing nothing but going up. I think having good aquaculture standards will help. But of course, as you know, demand is very strong for wild caught – and wild caught is hunting and gathering with very efficient technology. It's the tragedy of the commons. I was just looking at our stores in the New York area, and the only certified fish we had was salmon from Alaska and some sea bass. We need a lot more than that.

Fromartz: Yes, in my opinion, your fish case needs the most work.

Mackey: I hear you but is there someone else that's doing more? We're out there working, we're doing monitoring, we've cut off some species. We recently stopped selling orange roughy, and we don't have a lot of species because of sustainability issues. It puts us at a competitive disadvantage against other retailers who do sell those fish.

I think we need someone other than MSC to do sustainability certification, to encourage competition. When we started our Whole Trade label (Whole Food's fair trade designation), we started working with Transfair and Rainforest Alliance. The competition between the two has been intense and that leads to innovation. On the seafood front, there's only one game in town, MSC. We need half a dozen competing to certify sustainable fisheries.

Overall, though, I am very frustrated about it and I don't feel we're going enough. But frankly, I don't know what to do about it.

Fromartz: You've also put a lot of emphasis recently on local foods. Is it growing?

Mackey: I do think it's a fundamental trend, and it's going to grow. But I don't think the locavore movement is going to sweep America.

The simultaneous trend along with local is ethnic and international foods – Asian food, Middle Eastern Food, Mediterranean food. It's not just in the big cities,  there's been a big explosion in different cuisines and that's happening at the same time as local, but they both reflect a growing awareness people have about food. People are looking for authentic artisan food rather than industrial food, or fast food.

Fromartz: Both trends -- imports and local -- are rising?

Mackey: Yes. And there's also whole trade, ethical trade, that's a huge trend that's only going to grow. As Peter Singer said in his book (The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter), the local food movement sometimes lacks a perspective on the globe. Developing countries need to sell in other markets and fair trade gives them a premium when they do that.

Fromartz: So fair trade is growing too?

Mackey: Our goal is to have 50 percent of our foods from developing world be ethically traded in the next 10 years. Right now it's substantially less than that.

Fromartz: I know you need to wrap this up, but one last question: Does anything in the business keeping you awake at night?

Mackey: The truth is the last year was a terrible year for me personally and I had plenty of sleepless nights, while I was being investigated. I feel like I've gotten out of jail, with the SEC dropping its inquiry and not recommending any enforcement actions. Symbolically and emotionally, I feel like I've been liberated. That's really how I feel.

We've got some short term concerns. We've got to integrate Wild Oats, we've got some additional competition, we've got a slowdown in some of our comp sales, and we have an economic environment like I've never seen in my 30 years in this business. I've never seen $133 a barrel oil, I've never seen this kind of real estate crash, we got the Iraq war dragging on, we're sort of in turbulent white water and I don't know what rocks lie ahead because I've never been down this river before.

Fromartz: And your stock price is at the lowest since 2003.

Mackey: The stock was definitely overvalued, trading at 60-70 times earnings. It was a bubble and it popped. But I'm looking to get past 2008 and our earnings back on an upward track. I anticipate that happening next year.

Fromartz: Thanks for the time.

With Gardens Booming, I Harvest Greens

FirstCrop Organic Bok Choy, Lettuce and Spinach from the Garden

The jump in food prices -- and perhaps just the delight of growing Real Food -- has people gardening again, including me. Vegetable seed sales have overtaken flowers, community gardens are booming, and  spending on vegetable gardens rose 25 percent last year, NPR reports.


I took the plunge three years ago, when I was working on my book, Organic Inc. Before that project, I had absolutely no interest in growing anything. But having met farmers around the country, I figured, "I could do that" and took the plunge.

The motivation wasn't economic, though clearly there was an economic benefit, since we were spending about $50 a week on fresh veggies. There's also a guilt factor, since much of that money was being spent at the farmers' market and the advice on how to grow these plants came from those same farmers I used to buy from on a regular basis.

Even though my spending is now way down, my farmer mentors are incredibly encouraging. When I admitted I was guilty asking for yet more advice, Jim Crawford of New Morning Farm replied: "I've got a lot of other people to buy my veggies."

The first year was abysmal, but things quickly improved. Last year was the first time I had a three season garden (spring, summer, and fall), courtesy of a planting schedule worked out with farmer Jim and another great farmer in our area, Heinz Thomet of Next Step Produce. That meant we bought very little produce from June through Thanksgiving last year.

This spring has been cool, so the tomatoes I started are still in flats, though the greens are going gangbusters. The picture above is of our first bok choy and full head lettuce, and the last of the spinach we've been eating since April. We've got a ton of lettuce coming in, from full heads to spring mix. There's nothing like eating lettuce you've picked out of the garden an hour before.
- Samuel Fromartz

Farm Bill Policy Chokes Out Local Foods

In Saturday's Times, a vegetable farmer I know, Jack Hedin, wrote an Op-Ed that has been getting a lot of attention. I had written about Jack in Organic Inc. and also blogged on the disastrous floods that struck his farm in Minnesota last summer. Now, trying to expand his land, he has run into a roadblock erected by US farm policy that effectively marginalizes local fruit and vegetable production outside of California and Florida. Here is Jack's piece, reprinted with permission of the author.

My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables)




Rushford, Minn. - If you’ve stood in line at a farmers’ market recently, you know that the local food movement is thriving, to the point that small farmers are having a tough time keeping up with the demand.

But consumers who would like to be able to buy local fruits and vegetables not just at farmers’ markets, but also in the produce aisle of their supermarket, will be dismayed to learn that the federal government works deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding. And the barriers that the United States Department of Agriculture has put in place will be extended when the farm bill that House and Senate negotiators are working on now goes into effect.

As a small organic vegetable producer in southern Minnesota, I know this because my efforts to expand production to meet regional demand have been severely hampered by the Agriculture Department’s commodity farm program. As I’ve looked into the politics behind those restrictions, I’ve come to understand that this is precisely the outcome that the program’s backers in California and Florida have in mind: they want to snuff out the local competition before it even gets started.

Last year, knowing that my own 100 acres wouldn’t be enough to meet demand, I rented 25 acres on two nearby corn farms. I plowed under the alfalfa hay that was established there, and planted watermelons, tomatoes and vegetables for natural-food stores and a community-supported agriculture program.

All went well until early July. That’s when the two landowners discovered that there was a problem with the local office of the Farm Service Administration, the Agriculture Department branch that runs the commodity farm program, and it was going to be expensive to fix.

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.)

In my case, that meant I paid my landlords $8,771 — for one season alone! And this was in a year when the high price of grain meant that only one of the government’s three crop-support programs was in effect; the total bill might be much worse in the future.

In addition, the bureaucratic entanglements that these two farmers faced at the Farm Service office were substantial. The federal farm program is making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow fresh organic vegetables.

Why? Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California, Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself. Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states, they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce markets.

That’s unfortunate, because small producers will have to expand on a significant scale across the nation if local foods are to continue to enter the mainstream as the public demands. My problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

Last year, Midwestern lawmakers proposed an amendment to the farm bill that would provide some farmers, though only those who supply processors, with some relief from the penalties that I’ve faced — for example, a soybean farmer who wanted to grow tomatoes would give up his usual subsidy on those acres but suffer none of the other penalties. However, the Congressional delegations from the big produce states made the death of what is known as Farm Flex their highest farm bill priority, and so it appears to be going nowhere, except perhaps as a tiny pilot program.

Who pays the price for this senselessness? Certainly I do, as a Midwestern vegetable farmer. But anyone trying to do what I do on, say, wheat acreage in the Dakotas, or rice acreage in Arkansas would face the same penalties. Local and regional fruit and vegetable production will languish anywhere that the commodity program has influence.

Ultimately of course, it is the consumer who will pay the greatest price for this — whether it is in the form of higher prices I will have to charge to absorb the government’s fines, or in the form of less access to the kind of fresh, local produce that the country is crying out for.

Farmers need the choice of what to plant on their farms, and consumers need more farms like mine producing high-quality fresh fruits and vegetables to meet increasing demand from local markets — without the federal government actively discouraging them.

The New Local Middlemen

Middlemen are often derided as making a buck off the back of the little guy. What this simplistic picture misses is the vital role wholesalers play in creating markets for smaller, and yes, local, farmers who can't sell direct or who want to diversify their income stream.

This isn't a sexy business. You won't see stunning pictures of farmers in lush fields. More likely, just a steel warehouse with forklifts and trucks at the concrete loading dock. Some of these businesses, like Organically Grown Co., in Oregon, are working hard at reducing their carbon footprint by running trucks on biodiesel, retrofitting their warehouses, replacing lights, and migrating to reusable plastic produce bins instead of waxed cardboard boxes. Others I've come across include Co-Op Partners Warehouse in the Twin Cities, Veritable Vegetable in northern California, and Tuscarora Organic in the mid-Atlantic. There are many more, but not nearly enough.

Amid the din of the Iowa Caucus, NPR this morning profiled one start up in northern Michigan making a go at creating a local wholesale produce business. It's worth a listen. Expect more entrants into this niche as local food grows.

- Samuel Fromartz

This is Brooklyn?

I grew up in Brooklyn. I spent many hours on the subway, going to Coney Island, or to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. I went to school on Clinton Hill, skated in Prospect park, and cleaned up Fort Greene park on the first Earth Day. (There were empty drug vials in the park then, now there's a farmers' market). But in all that time, I never saw anything like this, ever. It shows how much the urban farm and garden movement has come, and it rocks. The farm, pictured above, is located on asphalt covered in 2 feet of compost. It's from an article by Kelle Carter, farm field coordinator for Seeds of Change, the organic seed and food company. I came across it looking for seeds. Worth a read.

Who Needs California?

OK, we're getting to the time of year when produce fiends like me begin to wish they live in California, because the veggies there never stop. But this past year, I had pretty good luck in DC, growing my own and eating veggies from the garden from late-April through this week. It may even go longer, though today we had our first real snow and it might have blown out the lettuce. We'll see.

Here are some pictures taken last Sunday of the veggies we've been eating (not pictured are kale and Swiss chard, both still going strong). Many people give up the garden in August, but for me that's when things really got going. I seeded a lot of greens, especially Asian greens in August and September, and am still reaping the bounty. For awhile now, most of the produce we've been buying is fruit. That little patch of mesclun mix lettuce, by the way, would amount to more than one pound.

Click on the image to start the slide show: