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Devour: Loco for Local

March 12, 2008, 12:00 am
My brother is on a quest to live off the land.
Over the past few years, eaters from Appalachia to Arizona have begun taking on the grand experiment of trying to eat only local food, and many have published popular books about their experiences (see the "Locavore's Reading List"). As the local food movement has grown, famous writers and regular Joes alike have reduced their diets to farmers-market fare, dandelions and roadkill; San Franciscan locavores have sworn off any food that hails from more than 100 miles from the Mission; and even Google has climbed on the bandwagon: The Café 150 restaurant on its campus serves a daily menu grown almost exclusively in Silicon Valley.

Here in New Mexico, from their 7-acre farm on the Pecos River, 35-year-old Eric Biderman and his very pregnant wife, Karleen Whitcomb, are stewing up plans to live a year-or maybe a lifetime-on food raised no further from their dining room table than the distance of a homerun. Yes, Eric Biderman is my brother, and the plans are so far just plans, like my New Year's resolution to only buy beer made in New Mexico (which lasted until the first Walgreens sale on Dos Equis). Becoming a locavore is harder than you might think.

Eric and Karleen don't have the advantages of a famous writer's book deal (nor the coffers of a billionaire company like Google) to help them in their quest to eat local. They do have more than a decade of farming experience between them. They have a greenhouse, fenced off pastures and a mostly working tractor. And above all, they have a practical, non-extremist approach that makes you think-whether you're related to them or not-they may just pull it off.

A few weeks ago my wife and I drove out for a late afternoon visit at the farm. By now I know the route by heart. Exit I-25 when Starvation Peak comes into view, hang a left at the train tracks and slog down a muddy lane of dogs and double-wides into the San Miguel Valley, a swath of acequia-fed fields spread across a fertile floodplain. It's another half-mile to the slate-shingled Pumice-Crete house my brother designed and built in protest, it would seem, against the right angle. Parked outside is Eric's Dodge flatbed-which he has converted to run on vegetable oil.

"Come on," Eric said, putting on his coat. "Let's go see the new baby lamb."

Outside, the afternoon had cooled into evening. Three husky sheep and the spindly baby-straight from The Little Prince's box-shied from our advances into their pen. I couldn't blame them for being less than gregarious: Eric slaughtered one of their buddies last fall. (I showed up after the event to find him standing uncertainly in his workshop, the belly of his shirt stained dark. The severed sheep's head lay open-eyed on the concrete floor, beside its own intestines. It had taken maybe 20 seconds, he told me, to hack through the thick neck skin, "but it felt like 10 minutes.") Standing over the pen, he picked up the baby, cuddled it for a moment and then sent it scrambling back to the fold.

"I'm starting to realize that it's all about the animals," he said, stopping in the greenhouse to check on the chickens. "They keep the land healthy, and if you know how to use every part, they can provide most of the nutrients a person needs."

Back in 1998, when he first staked a down payment on this acreage and set up camp in an army tent under the boxwood elders, my brother planted more vegetable beds than one man could harvest. Those were his salad days-literally. His decision to take his architecture degree from Yale and become an organic farmer was not exactly in keeping with the family tradition of careers in law and education. Like 98 percent of Americans, my brother and I did not grow up on a farm; our South Capitol Santa Fe house, I remember, was walking distance to the old McDonald's. We did harvest June chokecherries from the bushes in our yard, but Eric's real interest in agriculture grew from summers spent on farms here in New Mexico, as well as farms in Israel, California and even Castro's Cuba. He spent the next several years-first alone, and then with Karleen and some idealistic interns-working sunup to sundown, boxing up family-sized bundles of kale for a community-supported agriculture endeavor and peddling lumpy tomatoes at the farmers market. Although they managed to organically grow just about every crop New Mexico's climate will allow, there was one product they just couldn't turn: a livable profit.

It was not a matter of supply and demand, for they had plenty of both. "The problem," Eric told me that afternoon, "was that capitalism and natural systems just don't mix.

"Probably the most natural food system is hunting and gathering, since you don't need to introduce any new species or till any ground," he explained, as we headed back up to the warmth of the house. "But it takes vast amounts of land to support a single family, and there are far too many people on the planet right now for that to work. Raising animals on perennial pasture, if you rotate the grazing, is the most sustainable human-made system I've seen. Soil fertility actually gets better every year, even though you're pulling nutrients out to feed yourself."

And that's what they're already doing, to some extent, in the late summer and fall when as much as half of their diet comes from the farm. But now, in the late winter, even the carrot soup Karleen had made for supper was chock-full of interstate produce.

"We've got some lamb in the freezer," she told me, "and the chickens are laying a few eggs a day. We have some squash, tomatoes, garlic, raspberries and corn that we've stored, but we're not ready to stop shopping yet."

"Maybe next year," Eric said. He pushed aside a copy of Small-Scale Pig Farming, opened his laptop-no ledger books here-and double-clicked on an Excel spreadsheet titled, "Feed a Family."

"Eventually," he said, "our goal is to get up to 90 percent of our food off the farm or the surrounding land, year 'round."

The spreadsheets showed his calculations of a yearly diet for a family of four. It was remarkable in its precision: He figures they'll need 312 turnips, 10 pounds of cilantro and 156 pounds of lamb, for example. The spreadsheet also displayed land use (20 percent veggies, 80 percent livestock), a weekly menu (Thursdays: amaranth porridge for breakfast, lamb chops and pickles for dinner) and farm inputs like chicken feed and mason jars. He's also set up a worksheet detailing how much nutrition they'll need-calories from protein, micrograms of B12-but he confessed that he's getting less and less interested in such a Western approach to nutrition.

Instead, he and Karleen are taking their diet advice from a deceased Cleveland dentist, Weston Price, whose pre-World War II survey of the food cultures and teeth of isolated communities-from the rye- and dairy-eating Swiss to the blood-drinking Masai-offers a compelling argument against the modern diet of sugar, vegetable oil and what author Michael Pollan calls the first fast food: refined flour. The people in these communities, even though they'd never touched a toothbrush, barely had any tooth decay and, as other researchers of the time proved, they were relatively free from other "Western diseases" like diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Price's book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, is in its eighth printing and The Weston Price Foundation has more than 200 chapters worldwide. Although he's been dead since 1948, Price is a darling of the burgeoning locavore movement.

What traditional cultures knew, Eric and Karleen are trying to learn before they take their supermarket sabbatical. They're studying how to prepare and store foods to maximize the nutritional value, like soaking wheat so that it will germinate-and release its otherwise indigestible nutrients-before they grind it, and boiling bones with the cooking stocks to make use of the marrow. They're banking on the common-sense idea that fresh, whole foods, grown in nutrient rich soil and properly prepared, will provide enough nutrition to not only survive, but to live well.

"I've never actually tested it," Eric said, "but I'd guess that one little leaf of wild Quelites has more vitamins than a whole head of iceberg lettuce, and one bite of liver from a grass-fed animal gives me more strength than a 16-ounce sirloin from a conventional animal." Maybe he's right, or maybe just hopeful.

They admit there are a few items-baking soda, for one-that they just won't be able to replace, and they won't be so zealous as to turn down a dinner invite to the table of a friend or family member (which is why they're only aiming for 90 percent farm diet). But their efforts are not a showcase; they are an approach to life. Eric runs his a design-build firm, Wingspan Construction, on the same principles-building homes from local materials that work with natural systems-and their nonprofit, Food and Shelter, undertakes watershed restoration projects and educational programs based on sustainability. And as Eric is quick to point out, their quest is far from extraordinary.

"Sixty years ago," he told me that afternoon, "everyone in this valley was living off the land." True enough, hermano, but that was 60 years ago. In a nation with more full-time prisoners than full-time farmers, and in an age when we've all but forgotten the sage advice of Wendell Berry, who once wrote, "What we need is here," I'm taking Eric and Karleen's plans to grow their own food as a mini-revolution, a sign of healthier times to come.

See pictures of the Biderman farm at: and find out more about
Food and Shelter at


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