Local Food Writing

Local Food System Fragment

Winter lettuce salad.

When I left a 25-year career in transportation and logistics, food occupied part of my attention. Over the years my blood pressure and cholesterol levels had increased, and when I left transportation they quickly returned to normal, mostly by eating more regular food as opposed to restaurant food.

When we moved back to Iowa in 1993, growing a large garden was part of what I wanted to do with the land. We couldn’t afford an acreage, but managed to find 0.62 of an acre not far from the trail around the north shore of Lake Macbride.

I was ready to produce some of our own food, more than we had in Indiana, but not really ready to embrace local food as anything other than a kitchen garden.

The local food movement was a growing group of individual operators struggling to make a living and an impact in a turbulent world. It remains a nascent system directly tied to our consumer culture, dependent upon disposable income and open mindedness in meeting humankind’s most basic need.

I spent seven years working and living in our local food culture and can say food we consume is not all local and needn’t be. At the same time there are benefits of a local food system beyond living within the season, better taste, and knowing the farmer who produced what we eat.

In our home fall canning leads to a pantry full of soup, tomatoes, hot peppers, sauerkraut, vinegar, apple sauce, pickles and sundry items from the garden and farm. The freezer gets filled with bell peppers, kale, sweet corn, apples, broccoli, blueberries and raspberries. It is food – as local as it gets – driven by what is fresh, abundant and on hand.

Along with home processed goods our pantry has bits and pieces from all over the globe, with each serving a purpose in our culinary lives. Combining ingredients and recipes in a personalized cuisine is where the local food movement lives or dies.

More people seek processed or precooked food because of a perception there is too little time for cooking. If adding kale to a smoothie seems easy, making a stir fry using it is less so. Contemporary consumers want a quick and easy path to making meals and snacks, and don’t have the patience it requires to add many new recipes to their repertoire. Cuisine as an expression of local culture has been tossed out the window by many.

Having worked in the food system, whether at home, on a farm, or in a retail store, has been an important part of my life since retiring in 2009. I found it is a way of life to grow food for direct consumption or sales. It also became clear the local food system is a jumble, even if farmers and consumers want it to be more organized.

One operator runs a community supported agriculture project where members pay in the spring, then share in the luck of the farm, good or bad. Another sells chits to be used to buy farm goods at a local outlet framed as a “store.” Another grows specific crops to sell to restaurants, absorbing any financial risk. All of this and more leads us to a point where an onion isn’t only an onion anymore. In the end it’s not about the onion but the culture.

If someone could organize a local food system, they might make a living. That would miss the point. Local food systems are intended to cut out the middlemen in the food supply chain. At the same time, faced with a need for scalability and the tick tock of the growing season, operators might use the help of an intermediary for marketing and sales.

While some of the trail blazers of a sustainable, local food movement are well known – Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, Fred Kirschenmann, and others – a sense of coherence or agreement on basic terms seems missing among local producers. It is as if operators would rather work inside the bubble of what works for them personally as long as the farm to market system seems to work generally. In a way that is not much different from how corn, soybean, egg and livestock producers view their operations.

Where we go from here is uncertain, although I have some ideas about that based on my experience in our food system.

Farming Local Food

Challenges in a Local Food System

Work Clothes at the Farm

My 2013 decision to develop a barter arrangement with my friend Susan Jutz helped resolve a couple of issues.

I needed the cash income plus a share of the vegetables she grew. More importantly than income, I wanted to become a better gardener and needed a mentor.

By almost any measure our relationship was successful and endured even as Susan sold her farm and moved out of state.

On Feb. 1, 2013 I sent this email proposing an arrangement at her Local Harvest CSA:


Hope you are staying warm. I have an interest in developing a deeper relationship with producing local foods. While our kitchen garden is doing well, I want to explore the possibility of doing more with local foods to provide a source of income. This is a long range project, and if you offer it, I would like to exchange my labor for a share of your CSA this season.

I think you would find this a cheap and reliable source of farm labor, and what I would get out of it would be a deeper knowledge of how you do your work.

What do you think?
Regards, Paul

We worked through details that lasted not only that season but established a continuing relationship now entering its eighth year. I expect the conversation about local food to continue this month with Carmen, Susan’s successor. Greenhouse work usually begins in February.

The Community Supported Agriculture model is the workhorse of the local food system. Instead of producing a few fungible commodities, CSA farms produce many types of vegetables in many varieties, providing a weekly share for members who buy in at the beginning of the season. They also leverage other producers to provide eggs, meat, bread, jellies, jams, and other items they don’t produce for their customers. On Carmen’s farm she produces grass-fed lambs and goats. The presence of livestock on a farm is an important part of reducing reliance on chemical fertilizers. Some CSA farms are more diverse than others but the salient feature is that the main consumer model is changed to include a share the farmer provides.

Operating a small farm is challenging. It requires hard work and specific knowledge about a wide variety of issues. It seems like more work than people with a big job at a large-sized employer are used to. There is also more risk during a growing season. Most local food farmers I know do something off the farm to supplement farm income. Every one of them has a positive disposition despite the challenges.

There is an ongoing discussion about alternatives to the CSA model.

Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farm in Virginia posted an article on Medium in which he wrote, “The romance of neoliberal peasant farming blinds us to our collective power.” Newman’s assertion is small family farms are not competition for, or a sustainable answer to burgeoning consolidation of agriculture. He touched on a number of obvious points, beginning with farmers markets.

Farmers markets are nice for consumers, but expensive to participate in. If some local food farmers produce for the seasonal markets they compromise their flexibility and scalability, he said. I don’t know about the operational advantages of a local food cooperative because many farmers already coordinate activities with each other. A farmer of meat, vegetables, flowers or the like can do better to avoid such markets. At a minimum one requires additional outlets to extend sales beyond the farmers market season.

Newman lays out the challenges small family farms face regarding workforce in a labor intensive business. Putting together a workforce that accomplishes weeding, cultivation, planting, harvesting, pest control, and everything else isn’t easy when the operating assumption is some percentage of workforce will volunteer or work for very low wages. Newman’s idea of forming a cooperative addresses the wage issue but also seems overly idealistic.

In his book The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front of the Good Food Revolution, Ontario farmer Brent Preston tells the story about how he and his spouse found sustainability in the local food movement by transitioning away from farmers markets to wholesale production and sales. This book is a must read for people interested in the local food movement.

Michelle Kenyon, executive director of Field to Family, is establishing a food hub in Johnson County. She’s been featured in the local newspaper. The idea is simple from a farmer’s perspective. Got too much basil? Bundle it to specs and sell to the food hub.

Having an outlet for a farm’s produce is important. Few local farmers follow the traditional CSA model of sharing the farm produce exclusively with members. That would mean all of the extra basil in my example would go to members who would presumably become rich in pesto and pasta sauce. Separating food production from CSA membership provides options for additional revenue streams such as selling to a food hub, to restaurants and to retailers.

A smart farm operator won’t put all their eggs and produce in single basket. They manage a portfolio of revenue streams based on farm production, but include variation in how customers are approached. So often, just having an item when others don’t makes a big difference in exploiting some types of “pop-up” marketing opportunities.

I would like to establish independence from the farms on which I’ve worked since 2013. Controlling everything would free me from outside responsibilities and enable re-designing my garden to expand and produce extra crops that could be sold to others. That has always been a small part of my garden operation but as I progress through my transition to “retirement,” any income generated could help supplement our structure of pension, Social Security and savings. For the time being, I look forward to returning to the farm for another spring of soil blocking. Looking back at this email to Susan, it’s clear I was not wrong to pursue the opportunity.

Cooking Garden Local Food

Saturday Luncheon – Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice

Preparing to cook red beans and rice has been a year-long process because most of the ingredients were produced in my garden or on farms where I work.

The garden produced red beans, okra, tomatoes and celery. Local farms produced onions, garlic and bell peppers. I also grew red pepper flakes and blended the powdered dry spices. Pantry staples of extra virgin olive oil, all purpose flour, and long grain brown rice were USDA organic but not produced in Iowa.

I invested several hours preparing a luncheon meal and time was worth it because of the flavor.

In the morning we discussed my 5-1/2 quart Dutch oven, the enamel of which is wearing off the inside. I’m don’t favor replacing it. Not because of the $350 price tag for a new one from Le Creuset. With a bit of cooking oil on the bottom to prevent rusting it will serve many more years. It is my go-to pan for making red beans and rice. It has been a reliable part of our kitchen.

Cooking is a ritual that evokes memory and skill in bringing a dish together. I soaked a cup of dried red beans in the Dutch oven overnight, then cooked them with half a diced red onion until tender but not mushy. I drained the beans and reserved the cooking liquid, letting them sit on the counter until ready to make the dish.

Around 10 a.m. I started work.

I fried a couple of home made vegetarian burger patties from the freezer and set them aside to drain. (Andouille sausage would be more traditional).

Heating the dutch oven, I added two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and cooked a generous tablespoon of red pepper flakes. I diced half a large onion, red bell peppers, and celery stalks and sautéed them in the oil-pepper mixture with a little salt. Once they began to soften I added two cloves of minced garlic and added home made seasoning — think powdered garlic, curry powder, paprika, and powdered hot, red peppers. I added a few dashes of prepared hot sauce from the refrigerator and stirred until everything was incorporated.

Next came additions. I deglazed the pan with a pint of diced tomatoes. Next, a cup each of sliced okra and long grain, brown rice. I stirred in two tablespoons of all purpose flour, then the cooked beans, until everything was incorporated. I tried not to bust up the beans.

What liquid to use was an open question. This time my answer was two cups of the bean cooking liquid (that’s all there was) plus two cups of water. Other options I considered were canned tomato juice and home made vegetable broth. The flavor of the bean cooking liquid made it a good decision.

Stirring everything together, I brought it to a boil then turned the heat down to a simmer, cooking until the rice was done and most of the liquid had been absorbed. Toward the end of cooking I crumbled the burger patties and folded them into the mixture.

It was ready to eat at noon, making four to five portions.

We seek opportunity to follow our creative impulses and cooking is primal. It provides an opportunity to shed anxiety from quotidian affairs, if only for a few hours. A recipe makes the experience replicable but not really. Cooking is a story of how we sustain ourselves in a turbulent world.


Quiet Holiday

One Cup Portions of Cooked Pumpkin in the Freezer

Thanksgiving was a quiet day at our house. Neighbors were off with their parents, and the two of us prepared a simple meal of holiday fare.

We made some of our favorite dishes — home made baked beans and wild rice. Both of these have complicated recipes so they are relegated to days that can be devoted to cooking.

I worked the phone in the morning, but after that, could be found in the kitchen. I left the house one time — to empty the compost bucket.

The meal was a success, although the baked bean recipe requires some tweaking. I wrote it in my red book of recurring recipes with a note for next time.

The surprise was that seeing the pie pumpkin on the counter I decided to cook it, even though it wasn’t on the menu. I made a loaf of pumpkin bread and roasted the seeds. I made two cups of cooked pumpkin into one-cup balls and froze them for later. I served sliced pumpkin bread with home made apple butter on top at the meal.

Today I return to the home, farm and auto supply store where it is the eight-hour Black Friday sale. I have to be there when the doors open at 6 a.m. I also work on Saturday and there are plenty of uses for the extra money. For now, it’s my main source of socialization outside of home.

I placed a couple of on line orders this week. One for the bulk of my garden seeds for 2020 and another for a sweatshirt a size smaller than I have been wearing. I’ve maintained the 14 percent weight loss created by my anti-diabetes regimen and the current size is too bulky. We’ll see how that goes.

Our daughter had a twelve hour shift working for the mouse yesterday. At a thousand miles away it’s too far away and too busy there for a visit. Thanksgiving was the two of us sustaining a life in a turbulent world.

Local Food

Working Through a Local Food Learning Curve

Sunrise on Another Hopeful Day

I didn’t know where bartering labor for local food would lead. In retrospect, it was not about economics, but learning, access to a greenhouse and participating in farm life.

This Feb. 1, 2013 email to Susan Jutz, one of the first organic farmers and community supported agriculture farm operators in the state got things going.


Hope you are staying warm. I have an interest in developing a deeper relationship with producing local foods. While our kitchen garden is doing well, I want to explore the possibility of doing more with local foods to provide a source of income. This is a long range project, and if you offer it, I would like to exchange my labor for a share of your CSA this season.

I think you would find this a cheap and reliable source of farm labor, and what I would get out of it would be a deeper knowledge of how you do your work.

What do you think?
Regards, Paul

She accepted my offer and I’ve been working at Local Harvest ever since. When Carmen Black bought the farm and CSA operation from Susan, I stayed on. I plan to return next year.

In seven seasons I’ve learned a lot about food production. This year’s garden was the best ever, and if I had more time it could be better still. The education I gained has been valuable and I’m ready for next steps.

I engaged with three farms in 2019: Sundog Farm where Carmen lives, Wild Woods Farm where Kate Edwards leases land, and at Wilson’s Orchard owned by Sara Goering and Paul Rasch. Before tax income was $2,423.08 in cash with another $861.75 in bartered goods comprised of vegetables, greenhouse space, and soil mix for home use. I scheduled my work to do soil-blocking at Sundog Farm and Wild Woods Farm beginning in March, finishing in June. That gave me a month off before working at the orchard sales barn where the season runs from Aug. 1 through Oct. 31. I plan leave work at Wild Woods Farm in 2020 which frees up a day a week for gardening.

What else can I learn? Having a place to ask questions about vegetable and fruit growing is important to a gardener. The greenhouse space remains important, although eventually I’ll want to do this at home. Perhaps most valuable is participating in farm life, getting to know young farmers, workers and volunteers and the challenges they face in farming and in life generally.

Our home freezer and pantry are loaded with produce and that’s one measure of success of what began as a barter arrangement. As winter approaches there is a lot to consider for 2020.


Farmers Came to Town

Gold Rush and Snow Sweet apples purchased on the last day of the season, Oct. 31, 2019.

The soybean harvest was disrupted by snowfall.

Several inches fell in the last 48 hours. Farmers came to town, including to the home, farm and auto supply store.

It will be a wet crop, propane prices are already higher. The main worry is when will farmers be able to get soybeans and corn out of the field. There’s no clear answer.

Farmers sought things to help deal with unexpected winter weather: boots, gloves, salt, sand, feed, bedding, shovels, and the like. We do a fair amount of trade during and after snowstorms.

Employees who farm called in asking for an additional shift because they can’t get in the fields. Our pay is meager, but off-farm income is important in the financial calculus of small-scale farming.

In the nearby county seat there is little discussion of the daily lives of row croppers and livestock producers. Those city folk come to our store, but to purchase pet food, shovels for the walk, disposable hand warmers, and ice melting compounds less harmful to pets. We cater to everyone.

After my shift I diverted along the Interstate to visit the orchard sales barn on the last day of the season. While there, I was recruited to work an event in December. Details are sketchy but why wouldn’t I do it?

I picked a dozen Gold Rush apples for storage and another five Snow Sweet for fresh eating. There were still a lot of apple varieties available.

Hurrying home, I made final preparations for Halloween, which included sweeping and salting the front steps, preparing a bowl near the door for treats, and baking pizza for dinner. Our visitors during the two-hour window for trick or treating were neighborhood children, many of whom made a previous costumed appearance on their parents’ social media accounts.

Regarding the Nov. 5 election, I’m settling into choices. I asked around about the election of our trustee on the Kirkwood Community College board and plan to vote for the incumbent, Tracy Pearson. For school board my decision is not final. I’m leaning toward Carlos Ortega and Jami Wolf. I also like Lauren O’Neil. If she doesn’t win this time I hope she runs again in 2021 when three positions are up. I’ve written so much about the school board election I thought it important to communicate where I’m landing. It seems doubtful most of the hundreds of post readers will find this obscure reference to the election. I’m okay with that. It’s not about me.

Work Life

Apple Season Seven in the Books

Showcasing 22 varieties of apples at Wilson’s Orchard, Oct. 27, 2019

On a brilliant Autumn day I finished my seventh season at Wilson’s Orchard where I work in the sales barn.

It has been a positive experience with my friends and co-workers Barb, Sara, Paul, Jack, Alex, Karen, and Kyle, as well as with the rest of our seasonal staff.

When I began work in 2013 it was for the money. Over the years weekly consultations with our chief apple officer about fruit growing have become the most valuable part of the experience. Socialization one experiences on a fall weekend with thousands of visitors seeking a recurring, positive activity is unique and needed as we age.

Rows of apple trees at Wilson’s Orchard Oct. 25, 2019

I spent more time walking among the trees this year. It is important to view where each week’s apples were and their picking conditions. It’s helpful to customers and kept me grounded in the reality of the orchard. Feedback when a customer using my directions returned from picking made the extra hour most weeks rewarding.

We grow more than 100 varieties of apples and 2019 was a great year for our crop. We finished the season with an abundant variety of apples available for customers, including some that don’t produce every year.

The operation has gotten better at managing apples. I recall years when all we had on the last weekend was Gold Rush and Enterprise. This year 25 varieties were available in the sales barn. If you’re going to manage an orchard having such a variety is an acquired and important skill.

I spent more time discussing apple selection and usage this year. As I talked about which fruit to use for applesauce, crisp and pies, I found myself tending toward traditional usage. The ways people use apples are traditional for a reason and some of the old varieties like Cortland, Jonathan and McIntosh continue to be in demand. Not every orchard grows them.

Home storage apples. My Red Delicious on the left, Wilson’s Orchard variety on the right.

It has been tough giving up every weekend from Aug. 1 until Oct. 31 to maintain this job. When it rains on Saturday or Sunday I don’t work and this year it rained a lot. Inclement weather translated into a 32 percent decrease in income in August and September compared to last year.

With seasonal work done I’ll return to get some Gold Rush apples for storage before the Oct. 31 final day of the season. Next weekend is our post-season potluck, one of the best in terms of food quality I attend. When the entire staff gathers one realizes it takes a lot of talented people to put on the show each year.

I was asked to return next year, and most likely will.

Garden Local Food

Meditation on Hot Sauce

Juan San Miguel’s Hot Sauce Recipe

After planting garlic last week I made hot sauce using leftover seeds: Jalapeno and Serrano peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, apple cider vinegar and salt.

The recipe evolved over time from one Juan San Miguel explained in 1977 when we both garrisoned in Mainz, Germany. Those were days before a four-foot section of assorted hot sauces became standard in supermarkets.

I lost contact with him yet the recipe persists. It is a rare day when there is no hot sauce in the ice box.

We carried the condiment in plastic milk jugs and put it on our army rations while on maneuvers in the Fulda Gap. It made our eyes water and changed regular food into edible fire. We laughed a lot in that peace-time army… and ate sandwiches of bread and hot sauce. I continue to make it mostly the way Juan taught me.

What role does tradition play in our lives? It is significant.

Who wants a life weighed down with endless traditions? I made hot sauce this year after planting garlic. Once is enough. There is little need to make it an annual tradition. If we eschew spontaneity in favor of pursuit of tradition we are the less for it.

I enjoy remembering days of subzero ambient temperatures inside tracked vehicles traversing central Germany and eating hot sauce. Juan’s wife made more than we could use on an operation, although as we returned to garrison some sought to use it up.

Obsession with tradition and it’s traveling partner ritual is not good. Like anything, a little goes a long way. If I could live without hot sauce, why would I want to?


Post-frost Planting

Garlic Patch Oct. 15, 2019

After missing last year I planted garlic on Oct. 15. A couple of clear days dried the ground sufficiently to mow the plot, turn it, and put seeds in the ground.

I increased the number of rows from two to five which if all goes well will yield plenty of scapes and about 60 head of garlic.

Whether I’ll harvest anything next July is always a question. A gardener learns to live with unanswered questions that remain so until season’s end.

This photo highlights a developing process of minimizing the amount of ground I turn over for planting. Garlic needs space with 18 inches between seeds and 36-inch row separation. There’s no good reason to plow up all the ground in the plot. Even though the soil was cold earthworms were near the surface. That’s not to mention the unseen organisms that make soil fertile. I no longer use a mechanical tiller and do everything by hand. It’s good exercise that doesn’t use fossil fuels.

Fingers crossed there is an abundant harvest.

At a meeting of our home owners association board, I announced I’m looking to exit responsibilities as board president. I’ll finish my current term, I said. If the other board members are nice to me I might be convinced to re-up for one more three year term. That would be it. I will have lived 68 years in December and it’s time to focus on other things.

Because of the board meeting I missed the televised Democratic debate. That’s a joke. I haven’t turned on our tube-style television in years. Now that Elizabeth Warren is leading in the polling averages the knives are out. Read last week’s post here for my take on why support for Warren persists now that she is the front runner.

As responses to my email to Solon School Board candidates come in, I’m impressed by the field. Three men and three women who would each bring something positive to the board. Because of a scarcity of information about the election, yesterday’s post really took off, becoming the most viewed new writing on this blog in 2019. The majority of views are coming from Facebook, but I don’t see much discussion in my feed. What that usually means is a group in the district has latched on to my post and discussed it in a private group. Last time that happened, someone trolled me with a letter to the editor of the local paper. Any discussion will be good for what is expected to be a low-turnout election.

I’m sitting on four bushels of apples and need to get to work processing them. It won’t be today or tomorrow as I’m back at the home, farm and auto supply store. I’m blown away by the quality and quantity of this year’s crop. Years like this make gardening rewarding. On deck are more dried apples, small batches of applesauce and apple butter, more juice for vinegar-making, and baked goods for potlucks. Some of the last-picked apples will go into sweet cider, and of course some of them will be eaten raw.

It is fall in the gardening year but even after first frost we are busy planting and processing the harvest. It’s how we sustain ourselves in a turbulent world.

Home Life Writing

First Frost

Eggplant Parmesan Oct. 12, 2019

Daylight remained as I drove into the driveway after a shift at the orchard.

If the garden appeared scorched by the previous night’s first frost, some tomato plants survived and the kale looked resilient.

The weather forecast is a couple of days without rain. I scheduled garlic planting for Tuesday when the ground should be dry enough. Fingers crossed I get a crop in this year.

I picked another bushel of fully ripened Red Delicious apples yesterday morning. This morning I used apples knocked down and damaged during the picking process to make an apple crisp for the county party’s fall fundraiser. In September I bought 30 aluminum food service trays for potlucks. This was the fifth one used.

We were busy at the orchard Saturday. Because of rainy weekends there is a pent up demand for the u-pick apple experience. I was tired at the end of my shift. I fixed eggplant Parmesan for dinner and could go no further. I was so tired I left the dishes to clean this morning. If there was any doubt, autumn has definitely arrived.