Friday, March 11, 2011

No, I Don't Believe in Gnomes

“The fight to save family farms isn't just about farmers. It's about making sure that there is a safe and healthy food supply for all of us. It's about jobs, from Main Street to Wall Street. It's about a better America.”
- Willie Nelson quotes (American country western singer)

If you are a seasonal eater, this is not your favorite time of year.  I look in our CSA box and it’s grim.  I get 10 pounds of root vegetables – and a lone chili pepper (I am still wondering where that chili pepper came from. I’m still looking like the Michelin Man here in Berlin.)  In October, this bounty of beets, potatoes, celeriac and even the rutabaga make me all giddy.  I think of all the soups and roasts I can make with all that vegetable goodness.  By March, I long for something that resembles anything green.  And that does not include the mold festering on my unused vegetables from the last CSA box.
            To those who aren’t familiar acronym, “CSA” stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Basically the idea is this:  you pay a certain amount in “shares” of a farm and then you reap the dividends in the form of fruits, vegetables, eggs, or whatever the farm is peddling.  If this sounds all tree-hugging, Summer-of-Love, pinko-commie to you, a good chunk of it is. CSA’s are an outgrowth of the biodynamic farms started by philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s (Austria, 1861-1925).  Dismayed by what he thought as the artificiality of chemical fertilizers,[1] Steiner, who emphasized the interconnectedness of land, economy and society, believed that robustness could be returned to the earth via natural means. Biodynamic farms rely upon crop rotation, composting and a series of “preparations” which harnessed the supernatural terrestrial and cosmic “forces” of the earth in returning to its bountiful state.[2] These farms were critical to Steiner’s vision of uniting economy, polity and society with nature. Basically, biodynamic farms were and are the forerunner of today’s CSA’s and organic farms. 
Frankly, I find most of romanticism in biodynamic farms to be a bit, uh, odd.  But what I do find interesting is that that the social aspects of biodynamic farms might be one of the few socially and environmentally equitable means of saving small farmers and food production in the US. According to the USDA, out of the 2 million farms in the US, about 80% are small farms[3], and 90% of all farms are family owned.[4]   The risks are considerable for the small farmer: production risks, market vulnerabilities, financial risks, institutional risks and human risks.  All of these factors combined make farming, well let’s say, a lot less lucrative than investment banking. (And we wonder why there is a lost generation of farmers….)
            CSA’s hedge much of the above risks by spreading them through their shareholders.  While the shareholders benefit from fresh, local (usually organic) food throughout the year, they also risk losing their investment.  But as the risk is shared across a group, this insures that the farmer does not go down with the drought (or hurricane, market glut, etc.).  Furthermore, farmers are ensured to have a steady market for their goods.  As many small farmers cite marketing (in the form of farmer’s markets, restaurants, etc.) as one of the biggest problems of farm solvency, through a CSA that problem is circumvented.  Farmers are insured economic security and in return, shareholders are rewarded with quality produce and farm goods. Considering that conventional farms only receive a 15 to 20% net return on gross sales and only 65% of small farmers report any profit from farming, this insures that a new generation of farmers have the necessary economic incentives to continue producing on a small and quality oriented scale.
            I am a large supporter of CSA’s.  In an ideal world, we would all be able to take advantage of them, but unfortunately CSA’s are only available to those who can afford it.  And those who can’t afford it are the people that need the produce the most-in urban areas, areas of industrial agriculture and/or high concentrations of poverty.[5]  Everyone should have access to healthy food – and that includes those who are food stamps, middle-income families, the elderly – EVERYONE.
            I challenge the United States government to make quality nutrition and food security a priority for the entire country – not just those who can afford CSA’s, not just those who have access to a farmer’s market, not just those who have a supermarket within a mile of their home, not just those who have an income, not just those who don’t have to worry about their grocery bill.  According to the USDA, one in seven Americans is at risk for hunger.  43.6 million live in poverty – the highest level ever in the history of poverty statistics.  31% of small farms have a net loss every year. Thousands more go into insolvency due to debt.  Could government supported CSA’s be the answer?  Even if you don’t believe in gnomes, Rudolph Steiner may have given us a hint as to how. 

Root Vegetable Hash

This is a great way to use up root vegetables without too much effort.  It is an excellent way to get rid of all those root vegetables hanging around your CSA box.  And root vegetables are cheap this time of year.  Dirt cheap.  Add some poached or fried eggs and you got yourself a sustainable meal for very little money.

4 pds. of root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, parsnips, celeriac, turnips, sweet potatoes, beets, etc.) peeled
3 medium onions, peeled
3 tbs. olive oil
1/2 tsp. sea salt
ground pepper to taste
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1.     Preheat oven to 400ºF. Grease a large rimmed baking pan/sheet with 1 1/2 tsp. of olive oil.
2.     Cut the root vegetables into 1/2 in. dice.  Take the onions and cut them in half.  Repeat the process again until there are 8 wedges. 
3.     Take the onion wedges and leave them on one side of the pan.  Take the remaining root vegetables and place them in a single layer (or as best you can) on the pan. Brush the vegetables with the remaining oil, until all the vegetables are coated.   Sprinkle salt and pepper unto vegetables.
4.     Roast vegetables for 45 minutes, tossing every 15 minutes (use a heat-proof spatula).  Before the last toss, add the chopped garlic and thoroughly combine it with the vegetables.  They are done when the vegetables are browned and tender. 
5.     Serve either warm or cold.

[1] Bit of history of science here: Fixing nitrogen is means of chemically transforming nitrogen in the air into ammonia.  The Haber-Bosch process developed in 1909 as a way of fixing nitrogen through non-biotic means. Previously, it was considered almost impossible due to the chemical structure of nitrogen (it has super-strong triple bonds tying it together).  Fixed nitrogen is crucial to all metabolic processes of life.  If any of you remember from elementary school, Native Americans used to plant beans with corn.  Beans (legumes) contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots.  When the beans die, the fixed nitrogen is released into the soil it surrounds thus enriching the soil for crops.  The development of the Haber-Bosch process allowed nitrogen to be fixed on an industrial scale, thus setting the course for industrial fertilization.
[2] Yes, this is also the same Rudolph Steiner who founded the Waldorf Schools, based upon his theory of Anthroposophy (ανθρωποσοφία, from ἄνθρωπος "human", and σοφία "wisdom").  What Steiner envisioned was a total transformation of society into transcendental entity that tied the life “forces” of nature and society together. I find it completely batty (Anthroposophy believes in the existence of gnomes. And not the garden kind.) But I do thank Steiner in developing a holistic method of agriculture that considers the welfare of the earth and society as paramount values.
[3] The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers a “small” farm as a farm that makes sells less than $250,000.
[4] Just because it is a family farm does not mean that it is not a large farm.  Some of the largest farms in the US are family-owned.
[5] The online magazine Slate has an interactive map of food deserts across the US.