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March 9, 2006
Extreme Local Eating
Here in Humboldt County, agriculture abounds, from the cows grazing in the foggy Arcata Bottom to the fertile fields of warmer Willow Creek. Even in mid-winter, I can walk right into the North Coast Co-op and find enough local food to fulfill my body's nutritional needs if not its every craving. Potatoes, kale, winter squash, kiwis, carrots, leeks, lettuce and rutabagas await me in the produce section. I can also purchase cheese, milk, beef, eggs and at least three types of fish. Clearly, we wouldn't starve.
Yet like so many things, the devil is in the details. Jam we made last fall from "You-Pick" berries was gelled with sugar -- distance to the sugar cane growers of the Imperial Valley, 1,000 miles. Seasoning our meals with anything besides the rosemary bush in the back yard also poses a problem in winter, when I'm used to relying on dried herbs packaged far away and grown who-knows-where. While I usually take pains to support local businesses -- coffee-roasters, chocolate-makers, bagel-bakers and olive-curers, to mention a few -- the ingredients to their Humboldt creations often originate in distant lands. Even the local label butter comes from Fresno, because the grass-fed cows of the North Coast naturally make bright yellow butter that, despite its authenticity, is unappealing to consumers.
And so, for the duration of the experiment we bought Humboldt Creamery whipping cream to churn our own local butter, beautiful and yellow and perfect for braising kale or basting potatoes. Hurting without my sugar and coffee fixes, I ate spoonfuls of Big D Ranch honey and picked mint from the back yard for tea. Previously I had been toying with becoming vegan, but cheese, milk, eggs and even some grass-fed beef found their way into my belly, all grown much closer than the organic soybeans in my soymilk (Iowa) or tofu (also from the Midwest). On an afternoon bike ride to Mad River Beach, I passed the cows whose kin have been providing me with protein. I gave thanks, and also hoped that the farmer I called about local beans would respond soon.
Most difficult for Peter, whose German upbringing included loaves and loaves of dark, crusty bread, was the lack of wheat. We called around to local farmers and learned that grain is grown up in the Scott Valley, just southwest of Yreka and less than 90 miles away as the crow flies. Although the driving distance from Arcata is certainly longer than 100 miles, our destination was within the designated circle.
We called ahead, then wound down through the Scott River canyon into the remote agricultural valley to find a 25-lb bag of wheat sitting out on the porch of a farm house, "Thanks!" scrawled on the side. The next morning we woke up and made pancakes at our snow-covered campsite. Doused in our homemade butter and precious honey, they were a sweet celebration of local possibility. We returned home to begin baking, and within two days had grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch.
Over two weeks, we created a number of wonderful meals from the bounty of Northern California -- Brussels sprouts steamed in butter and garlic, homemade kiwi ice cream, hedgehog mushrooms with kale and mashed potatoes, cheeseburgers and cabbage salad, to name a few. Our kitchen hummed with cooking activity. The fruits of our labor were tasty and healthy. We enjoyed the exquisite flavor of local eggs and the association of our carrots with the care and cultivation of a real human being who lives in Orleans. The bean farmer called me back, and I began to think I could do this forever.
At the same time, the cost of eating local in both time and money was substantial. As a student, I am richer in time, but even so -- preparing all my meals from "super-scratch" was more work than I anticipated. It took either Peter or me five hours to make a loaf of whole-wheat bread, an hour to make pasta, a half-hour for mashed potatoes. There was no such thing as, "I'm tired, let's get take-out," and certainly no Kraft instant dinner. While the nutritional and spiritual benefits of fresh, home-cooked foods is evident, I was amazed to recognize how much of my usual meal preparation has been outsourced to factories, bakeries and restaurants.
Financially, the Hundred-Mile Diet carries a cost as well. Small farmers in Northern California don't receive the federal subsidies that giant agri-business enjoys, so prices are ironically higher for Humboldt-grown veggies than for the same crops grown on megafarms in the Central Valley or the Midwest. As a member of the North Coast Co-op, I regularly choose to pay more for my food because of my values, but training my eye to look for the "Local" label rather than the "Sale" label resulted in an additional increase in my grocery expenses. For those who normally shop at Safeway, the price difference is even steeper -- some items cost half as much at a conventional grocery store. For families struggling to make ends meet, the price makes the decision simple. Cheap food is infinitely better than no food, even if we all pay the hidden costs of subsidized petro-farming: pollution, pests and poor nutrition.
For me, the greatest lesson of our local food adventure has to do with another human factor: the economic challenges of the small-scale farmer. For the most part, eating locally on the North Coast means patronizing family farms that are themselves struggling to make ends meet. We paid seven dollars for enough wheat to make 20 loaves of bread. I shook the hands of several farmers who went out of their way to sell me 10 or 20 dollars' worth of food. These people are our neighbors and their livelihood depends upon our support. They are the people who will feed us when food no longer floats our way on waves of cheap oil.
My purchase of McKinleyville eggs or Willow Creek winter squash not only feeds me but also nourishes our local economy, fostering a healthy agricultural community. While I'll probably start drinking coffee again (soon!), I'll also look forward to the farmers' markets this spring. There, I can continue to shake hands with the people who grow my food, investing in Humboldt County harvests for years to come.
Shannon Tracey is studying environmental education with the Massachusetts-based Audubon Expedition Institute. She will receive her master's degree in May.
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