A view from the dinner table at Sierra Valley Farm.
It was late August, eight of us crammed into one car. We were on our way to Beckworth, California, a small town about sixty minutes outside Truckee towards Sierraville. Our destination was the Sierra Valley Farm for an event they called “Dinner in the Barn.” During the drive, we all spoke about this philosophical movement called Slow Food and how our community of Lake Tahoe was embracing it. I didn’t know much about the term Slow Food at the time, but was about to experience it first hand.
Our food...fresh from the dirt.
We pulled up on the dirt road to a small farm. It smelled fresh and the surrounding mountains glowed in the afternoon light. As we approached the barn, Gary Romano, the owner/farmer of Sierra Valley Farms greeted us. He had a huge smile on his face and welcomed us warmly. We were just in time for the tour while the cooks busied themselves picking vegetables and cooking under the shaded patio. Gary enthusiastically grabbed our attention with a small toast and we set off on a walk around the farm. As we approached the healthy looking leafy greens planted a bit crooked in rows no bigger than my back yard, he mentioned that the deer love to graze in his lettuce. We laughed, and to me it seemed only suiting for organic farming near Lake Tahoe. He explained that they help fertilize the land and play a role in the growing of his vegetables. As we came to the end of the tour, we sat on picnic tables under a beautiful old awning with plants surrounding us in every direction. We were at the site of their local farmers market and Gary spoke passionately about Slow Food.
Be sure to check out Sierra Valley Farm grown produce at New Moon or any of the farmers markets in the Tahoe/Truckee area.
Slow Food is a concept, a philosophy, and a movement back to our roots of traditional family dinners with healthy, local food. Slow Food non-profit, founded in 1989, has been hugely important for the namesake of Slow Food and perhaps defines it best, “Slow Food is good, clean and fair food. We believe that the food we eat should taste good; that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health; and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work” (“Our Philosophy” 1). Yet another aspect of Slow Food is embracing our food culture, but what is American food culture? “As a concept, our national cuisine seems to be food without obvious biological origins, chosen for the color and shape of the sign out front: arches, bucket, or cowboy hat” (Kingsolver 155). We get little recognition for California grown crops, “One state that exports more fresh produce than most countries of the world…our country is not only arches and cowboy hats, after all. We just don’t get credit for this as ‘American Food’ because vegetables are ingredients” (Kingsolver 157). The produce grown in California creates different cuisines from all over the world. As America is a melting pot of cultures, so is our food. Our culture could be our ingredients, grown right here in our country. Back on Gary’s farm, we were embracing Slow Food in every way possible.
We sat in Gary’s barn as the sun started to set in the distance. I eagerly waited for our dinner and pushed the hunger back by enjoying the surrounding landscape amongst good friends and interesting conversation. When the first course was served, a polenta dish with fresh eggs and greens, I tried to take my time and absorb the flavors while appreciating where this meal had come from. The greens had been picked nearly an hour before and the food was cooked in the open air about fifty feet away using local ingredients, prepared by the chefs of Moody’s, a restaurant in Truckee.
Strawberries growing the week after Thanksgiving in the greenhouse at the Shaw Family Farm.
As the evening progressed so did the meals, fresh picked tomatoes, carrots and beets, local wine, meat, and company. To top the dinner off we were served a pie with tomatoes, corn, and berries, a combination I had never heard of, but it lived up to the truest sense of a finale. I felt no guilt in indulging, for the food was healthy, fresh, and I knew exactly where it came from. In fact, I could see the carrot tops and lettuce growing a mere twenty feet away. I never had felt better about what I was putting into my body. Thus, my interest and strive to eat slowly, locally, and healthy was born.
Barbara about to collect the eggs from the hen house. From there they go into her car and straight to the buyer.
To dig a little deeper behind Slow Food, I looked into its roots, where it came from, who developed it, and why it was created. The Slow Food organization was founded at the Opera Comique in Paris “…by the pugnacious yet ingenious Carlo Petrini of Piedmont…” (La Rosa, 25). The group “is much more than just a club for gourmets of extravagant and rare dishes. Today, the emphasis is on preserving the biodiversity of our planet and, in connection with this, the battle of the small, independent producer against multinational food organizations and agricultural bureaucrats” (La Rosa 25). The organization has developed this movement, but the people have developed the meaning behind it. It’s more than a group of people; it’s a concept, a philosophy, and a way of life for many. From Paris to Italy and all over the world, Slow Food has arrived in Truckee.
One of the few Roosters, probably lookin' for a hot babe.
You might be thinking, “How does this apply to me? Why should I be interested in some philosophical food culture?” According to Barbara Shaw of The Shaw Family Farm in Glenshire, “There are different appealing and personal factors for everybody.” Whether it’s your health, the environment, supporting local businesses, or animal rights; the theory behind Slow Food encompasses it all. For Barbara and her family, it hit home. After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, her family wanted to make a contribution for the betterment of our food culture in the United States and more specifically in Truckee. They started by building the infrastructures for their greenhouse and chicken coop. “With 100 animals, four bee colonies, 33 vegetable beds and a large greenhouse spread over their 40-acre Glenshire ranch, the Shaws decided to not just talk about changing the way we grow our food, but to actually do something about it” (Siig 1).
The Shaw Family Farm takes the old produce from New Moon and let's the animals eat what they want before turning it into compost.
In present times, we move quickly. We race to get to class on time, eat while driving in our car, and call a protein rich power bar or a shake a healthy meal. It’s no wonder that our industrial food system has sped up too: “Birds are raised and slaughtered in half the time of fifty years ago” (Food Inc.). With more food being produced in a shorter amount of time, the foods safety is inevitably put at risk. “In 1972, the FDA conducted approximately 50,000 food safety inspections. In 2008, the FDA conducted 9,164” (Food Inc.). The news channel is often reporting on food illnesses and there are recalls on meat, vegetables, and other food products. With the average American eating 200 pounds of meat each year (Food Inc.) something has to give. Accidents happen, especially with that much production at such a fast rate.
The outdoor garden. Even with the snow there are still greens popping up.
Not only is our production system speeding up, so is our consumption rate. "Owing to synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, genetic modification, and a conversion of farming from a naturally based to a highly mechanized production system, U.S. farmers now produce 3,900 calories per U.S. citizen, per day. That’s twice what we need” (Kingsolver 14). Where are these calories going? While some are exported, a lot of them end up in the form of a liquid candy called soda. “According to the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA), consumption of soft drinks is now over 600 12-ounce servings (12 oz.) per person per year” (“Soft Drinks: America's Other Drinking Problem” 1). This much consumption of soda can easily be linked to America’s growing problem of diabetes: “One in three Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes. Among minorities the rate will be one in two” (Food Inc.). If these numbers could teach us a lesson, it would be to slow down. Living in Northern California, that option presents itself in the form of locally grown foods, seasonal produce, and fresh ingredients, all of which are easily attainable, even in Truckee.
Truckee's finest heritage birds.
I wouldn’t have thought that we had a local farm in Truckee. With our climate, it is hard to imagine this being a possibility, yet we do have a local farm and we have many options as to where we get our food. There are farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture boxes that you can pick up filled with local, in season produce after paying in advance), local grocery stores (New Moon’s produce is mostly grown in California), and a few restaurants that follow the meaning of Slow Food. Mark Estee, owner of Moody’s, Baxter’s, and Burger Me has been preparing his food depending on what’s fresh, in season, and what he can get that’s locally grown since he opened Moody’s ten years ago, “In season means buying everything that’s grown locally as much as possible. Seasonal and local go hand and hand.” Moody’s has become known as the place to drop your food off. Mark will take pretty much anything you’ve got, duck eggs, produce, even mushrooms at one o’clock at night and add it to his menu (as long as it tastes good). His menu is ever-changing depending on what’s available on a local level.
What's going on in there? The birds laying area.
Eating what’s in season and grown locally not only helps our local economy, but it is also environmentally beneficial. The average meal travels 1500 miles from farm to supermarket (Food Inc.). The closer to home your food is grown, the fewer miles it spends on the road to get to your table, the less fuel it demands per pound, and depending on how you buy, the less packaging it will take. Therefore, the consumer gets more for their buck. If the environmental savings are considered, the potentially slightly pricier local option is always the more cost-effective choice, aside from the fact that we are already paying for our industrial food system with our taxes, “…about $725 per household each year. That plus the sticker price buys our “inexpensive” conventional food” (Kingsolver 117). That $725 per household goes toward “…direct Farm Bill subsidies for corn and wheat ($3 billion), treatment of food-related illnesses ($10 billion), agricultural chemical cleanup costs ($17 billion), collateral costs of pesticide use ($8 billion), and costs of nutrients lost to erosion” (Kingsolver 117). Kingsolver brings up another valuable point, “Food transport has become a bizarre and profitable economic equation that’s no longer really about feeding anyone: in our own nation we export 1.1 million tons of potatoes, while we also import 1.4 million tons.” If you purchase your food and ingredients on a local level, you also get the benefit of knowing exactly what is in your food by developing a relationship with the rancher or farmer grew it.
Believe it or not, this is in Truckee!!
You might think that eating organically will give you the same benefit, but it’s important to take a deeper look, through the label. This might mean doing a bit of research. Neil Zevnik touches on the philosophical side of “organic” verses the marketing side in his article The Organic Conundrum:
I discovered that it’s important to distinguish between “organic” the philosophy and “organic” the marketing label. Organic as a philosophy speaks to a worldview, a set of feelings about how humankind should relate to our immediate environment and the planet; organic as a marketing label has simply to do with a set of requirements and restrictions implemented by the government to provide a basis for consumer comparison and to prevent outright fraud (Zevnik 1).
Yes, that's snow on the ground.
Mark Estee explained that he buys as much of his produce organically as he can, but sometimes farms are organic without having been certified. It’s a lengthy process and takes up a lot of time and money to become certified organic, “You have to record where you bought your seed, when you planted your seed, when you picked it, when you washed it, where you sold it, and if it doesn’t get sold then what did you do with it” (Estee). For farms like Sierra Valley, Gary is certified organic, but only because his wife is willing to do all of the paper work. Many such farms are run by only one person and it’s extremely difficult for them to attain the certified organic label. This is where doing research can filter in local farms with organic practices. Mark visits the farms himself and he’s found that all of the farms he buys from are more than happy to share information with him, a good sign when it comes down to having good farming practices.
Another label that is important to consider is the fair trade label. “It encourages sustainable, social, economic and environmental development of producers and their organizations” (“Aims of Fair Trade standards”). Purchasing products marked with the fair trade label is a simple way for the consumer to help reduce poverty through their everyday shopping. Kingsolver makes a good point that “most people no longer believe that buying sneakers made in Asian sweatshops is a kindness to those child laborers. Farming is similar” (Kingolver 67). As a consumer, you are making a vote with every item that you purchase. If you are purchasing food grown locally you are keeping people employed, helping our economy, and lessening the environmental impact by reducing green house gas emissions from food that travels miles upon miles just to end up on your plate. This is often more expensive, but you can’t put a price on our environment. It’s paying for the true cost of food up front; taking into consideration the environmental impacts of your purchase.
When I started this project, I was overwhelmed with information about our current industrialized food system. I wanted to know how I could change my lifestyle and in doing so help to change the system, one trip to the grocery store at a time. I found that we have an abundance of options in our area despite our climate and that a couple of extra dollars goes a long way. Ultimately, the best option would be to grow your own food, but understandably this isn’t much of an option for many people. It’s time consuming and takes practice. I’ve started by growing a variety of herbs on my windowsill. Another great way to reduce waste is to create a compost bin. It’s surprising how much food we through away. Lastly, purchasing food from local sources with organic farming methods, supporting fair trade, and becoming a more conscious consumer is an effective way to reduce your environmental footprint and sustain our local economy.
Have you ever had a duck egg?