Monday, May 7, 2012

Produce Police

Fresh & Local CSA is one of few area farms that sells all food strictly from their property.

Market season is in full swing! CSA shares are being snatched up! But are you buying what you think you're buying?  Back in November, I addressed the concerns regarding fake CSAs and the inclination for some farmers to sell products that do not, in fact, come from their property.

Is it OK for a farmer to sell squash from a wholesaler if it is squash that his consumers want? Do you agree with putting money in a farmer's pocket for items that he never worked to grow? Perhaps there is a place for all of this duplicity that we are not thinking about.

Farming is hard. And that's putting it simply.

I think about the farmer whose property has been reaped and sown through a multitude of generations since the 1800s. (Ironically, a time when farming remained relatively untouched by agri-chemical industrialization.) Now he is at the mercy of a debilitating economy and government subsidies that threaten to pull the cash plug if he does not grow what they tell him to grow. And now, NOW he is faced with a new kind of demand from consumers like me who insist on a product chemically untouched & untainted, grown by his own hands & not the hands of someone another continent away. Yet he must contend with precarious Mother Nature & her occasional stink-bug swarm, horn-worm blight or plain ole drought, & still make up the cost to run a farm, feed a family & pay the bills.

Farming is hard.

But I still assert that if we as consumers do not create the demand for unseasonable produce or products grown 100 miles away, we can change how farmers do business, and in the great grand scheme of things maybe even change the way our government does business with farmers.

I know, I'm an idealist. I get that. But change has to start somewhere. So ask questions at your market tables this summer. Request a farm tour before you invest in a CSA. Rely on resources that act as watchdog groups to help sort the wheat from the chaff. Most importantly, insist on transparency. Demand that if a farmer MUST sell off-property produce or meat, that he label it as such.

Farming is hard. Honesty, on the other hand, should not be.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Save Our Town

Last summer, the Charles Town Farmers Market was a veritable ghost town. With only a handful of vendors and little else, vendors and consumers alike closed the season disenchanted. At a public brainstorming session held this month, market vendors reported an estimated total of 150 customers for the hours the market was open.

How tragic.

In one of the most increasingly developing historic districts in the county, a farmers market should be at the center of weekend activity. New restaurants and shops are operating with a committed small-business community who value an event like the farmers market. Why don't we see consumers valuing it, too?
The burrito bar at Jumpin' Java (109 W. Washington St.,
Charles Town) is the area's best-kept secret.

It's not just the farmers market missing traffic in this area. It's the hip coffee shop that's also a standout burrito bar and regularly features the work of area artists. It's the Mediterranean Cafe who gives young musicians a stage and makes patrons as comfortable in its booths as on their couches. It's the wine shop that defies snobbery with bargain-priced bottles and free weekly tastings. It's the restaurant who serves food from area farms and focuses on seasonal ingredients. Everybody along Washington Street in downtown Charles Town seems to be suffering.

True, the economy drives more and more consumers toward discount stores like Wal-Mart, who continues to prove that big-box stores are killing small businesses dead. But with a number of second-hand shops, one would think Washington Street would see a little more traffic.

The Mediterranean Cafe (132 W. Washington St., Charles
Town) is a home away from home with a very diverse menu.
Attendees packed the small room of the aforementioned farmers market brainstorming session, proving that many in our region feel invested in this event. And I can't help to feel that this is the reason why: Because there's no denying that a farmers market creates a genuine sense of community. It gets people outdoors, supporting small farms, discovering their towns & eating healthier.

A wine shop that caters to the budget-minded oenophile,
Albert & Arnold's (207 W. Washington, St., Charles Town).
So what's it going to take? What do you want to see at your farmers market? What's going to lure you away from a lazy Saturday spent at home versus one spent in your (soon-to-be-more)
vibrant downtown?

Write to Jefferson County Agricultural Development Officer, Shep Ogden ( Tell him what can make the market better. Share your ideas and let him know what's going to work for you, and, inevitably, your community.

A town's vitality depends on its residents. Please make an effort to see this one thrives.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Year-Round Eats

My house is perched on a steep hill, practically in the woods. Vegetable gardening, therefore, takes some creative plotting.

But one thing that is a successful mainstay is my decorative herb garden. Along the stone stairway in my backyard I have planted thyme, rosemary & mint. They are woody varieties so they thrive all winter.

I just put on my knee-high rubber boots & slosh through snow & mud. With my kitchen scissors I snip verdant rosemary or thyme tops to slip into my beef stew.

After all, you can't get more local than your backyard.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


One of the many things I have come to admire about organic farmers is their penchant for purism. Their methods might be painstaking, but they remain true to their philosophies discovering the most ecologically sound, nutritive ways to raise animal and vegetable. Organic growing is risky, but these farmers are unwilling to compromise their standards for the sake of a dollar. For them, making ends meet is a tricky balance of work life and, well, more work life.

Try as I might, I can’t pretend to understand the intricacies of government subsidizing and off-farm income, and what this means to a farmer’s wallet. But as a consumer and part-time farm advocate I can tell you the situation for these farmers is dire. Most cannot afford federal certification for organic labeling. Not to mention they contend with large-scale, factory farms who receive a sizable portion of federal subsidies. Per Jill Etinger’s report on, the California Public Interest Research Group published “Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food,” in which research revealed that nearly $17 billion worth of federal subsidies between 1995 and 2010 supported the GMO supergrowers of corn and soy. This kind of unbalanced distribution of funds perpetuates our junk-food culture and buries the small farmer who is growing carrots instead of corn syrup.

So what’s an organic grower to do? Most have to be creative earning off-farm income. Farmer’s markets are only the beginning. Some charge for on-farm visits during autumn festivals, conduct gardening tutorials, repair machinery or start a community supported agriculture program. All of these sound like reasonable secondary sources of income. Except for one thing: Who is minding the farm when property owners are out delivering vegetables, manning produce stands or teaching classes? Every moment spent off the farm equates to loss of vital time on the property, which has the potential for a loss of income in and of itself. It’s a horrible Catch-22.

Recently, Jimi Foltz of Peace in the Valley farm was charged with growing marijuana plants on his Hedgesville, WV property. Granted, not the smartest, most legitimate means of supplementing one’s income. But can we really dismiss this case as just another in a long line of drug felons?

If you frequent any of the farmers markets in Jefferson County, you know Jimi. Smiling Jimi. Jimi who employs students on his farm. Jimi who enthusiastically lends tips about successfully growing thyme in your garden. Jimi who has given my kids squash because they thought it felt cool and freely handed me rosemary plants because they smelled like Christmas.

Jimi embodies what I appreciate about many of the small farmers in our region. He believes in community. He isn’t consumed with consumerism. He is a true steward of our land. He appreciates beauty in nature on a level that transcends most. (Stop by his table this month at Shepherdstown market and see the wreaths he’s had made out of his leftover flowers and herbs.)

But the recent allegations will most likely mean the end of Jimi and his farm. The state wants $25,000, and if he can’t pony up the dough he can kiss his property goodbye. He won’t even bother to start anew. “My kids are in California, that’s most likely where I’m headed, too,” he admitted to me one Sunday market morning.

We need Jimi here. In fact, we need more Jimis to permeate this area and teach folks a better way to eat, to commune, to live. Think about it. Legislators stuff their pockets with money from companies churning out chemicals to produce our food, but kick the organic farmer in the face for trying to make ends meet.

I don’t condone what Jimi did. In fact, I’ve been quite conflicted by it. But to deny his case as just one more example of our busted food system is to deny the plight of small farmers everywhere.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Farming for the Truth

I confess. I'm a farmers market junkie. I salivate at the thought of folding tables loaded with fresh-picked produce. I delight in chatting with growers about their property, their methods, their devotion to dirt. And once upon a time I thought it was enough that I was supporting area farmers and keeping my food close to home. After all, I was reducing my carbon foot print and keeping the small farmer in business. Go me!

But as I got to know each farmer, I discovered that the things on their tables aren't always on the level.

What do I mean?

For starters, some meat purveyors don't even raise their own animals. A large portion  - if not all - of their stock is raised by somebody else, on someone else's property, sometimes an entire state or two away. Honestly, no matter how skilled the farmer, he or she can't guarantee the animal's humane treatment or healthful diet when it spends a majority of its time on a farm 500 miles away.

Equally shocking is a farmer's propensity for frequenting wholesalers for vegetables they don't grow or aren't growing that season. Tomatoes in May anyone?

But the small farmer is just meeting consumer demand, you might say. Well to that I say: Shame on you, consumer. We wouldn't have the problem of our farmers selling spring-grown South Carolina tomatoes if we stopped eating them in the off-season. And, by the way, folks, if they are coming from a wholesaler there's a good chance those tomatoes are, in actuality, coming from Mexico or Peru.

That Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in which you invested this summer? Did you speak with the farmer direct? Get a tour of his property? Do you know what his methods are? What his growing philosophies are? What he does when hit by a stink-bug infestation?

Choosing a CSA can be a mind-numbing process if you live in an agrarian region. So, the folks at Local Harvest offer some CSA tips for those considering making the investment. The first one on the list? "Don't expect all of your produce to come from the CSA."


Sooooo, let me get this straight. I am going to invest a few hundred dollars in the name of supporting my local farmer, and he isn't even growing the food? So whose risk am I taking on? Whose pockets am I ultimately filling? And this is considered acceptable - nay - STANDARD practice that it warrants top-billing?

It's tragic. Not to mention vaguely appalling.

I urge you to pick the brains of the folks behind your farmer's market tables. Ask them the hard-hitting questions like: Do you grow your own vegetables? What kind of pest-management methods do you practice? Are your animals raised on your property? What are they fed? How do you cultivate your soil? What varieties do you grow? Do you practice biodiversity?

A farmer with truly sustainable practices will answer these questions with little hesitation, look you in the eye, maybe even smile a bit at your savvy. It is the farmer who changes the subject, brushes you off or denies you a visit to his property who may be dirtier than a Peruvian potato.

Just sayin'.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bee-autiful Turnout

"Vanishing of the Bees" saw amazing attendance plus great publicity by The Journal back in August when we screened at the St. Andrews Mountain Community Center. Many members of the Eastern Panhandle Beekeepers Association attended to hear fellow beekeeper Eldon Winston share his knowledge. I'm always thrilled to be in the presence of like-minded individuals, and the Locavore Project ne'er fails to unite us. But it's a simpler task to draw a crowd who already has an interest in the topics we cover from season to season.

How do we reach the folks who have no idea grocery store honey, for instance could be contributing to the bees' demise? Or that factory farming practices are demolishing our ecosystem? Better yet, how do we make them care? We can't. But we can keep putting it in their faces. We can inundate communities with organic/humane farmers markets, government petitions and free events featuring experts, growers and farmers who share the same passion for a sustainable food system. More importantly, we can continue making sound choices in our grocery stores, at our markets and in our kitchens.

After all, setting the example, Albert Einstein says, is not the most important but the ONLY means of influencing each other.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bee the Change

Our existence depends on the honeybee. Without the bees, we have no food. Without the food, we have no us.

It's really very simple.

Over recent years, the number of locavores across the country who are sustaining bee life and home have increased. By building and caring for their own apiaries, these backyard beekeepers are responding to the mystery of disappearing bees coined by experts as, "Colony Collapse Disorder."

"Vanishing of the Bees," hosted by Ellen Page, raises awareness of the tiny insect's importance to our natural food sources and the calamity that might ensue should they vanish for good.

Join The Locavore Project, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2-4p as we screen for the first time in West Virginia this important film. Area beekeeper and native plant grower, Eldon Winston, will conduct a post-film Q&A, provide details about planting a successful bee garden and help you understand how to start your own apiary. Eversweet Apiaries will conduct a honey tasting and Albert & Arnold's wine shop will be on hand to pour honey wine known as mead.