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Home / Articles / Food / Food Writing /  One Bite at a Time
Warshawer
Steve Warshawer tends to his animals at the off-grid Beneficial Farm.

One Bite at a Time

Food lies at the heart of a local energy and entrepreneurial economy

March 11, 2009, 12:00 am

The guy wearing the sandwich board that reads “the end is nigh” has the easy job.

“Where is everybody going and what’s with all the handbaskets?” asks one bumper sticker that is uncomfortably apt. Yes, times are bleak enough that small nations are collapsing, big nations are teetering, dictators are back in vogue and Cleveland, Ohio can’t figure out how to stop the rampant looting in abandoned neighborhoods full of foreclosed houses. People in Cleveland are even stealing broken bits of concrete because, in the words of Everest mountaineer George Mallory, “It is there.” To proclaim the proximity of “the end” is a failure of imagination: It too is there, just over yonder.

Weird—fortune cookie weird—if you think about it because, should you pry your eyes away from disaster long enough to look the other direction, there’s nothing but opportunity.

Despite those who insist there’s no real difference between politicians or their parties, there has been a clear sea change in American politics and policy. That short, cranky, ill-spoken dimwit is no longer the president of the United States, and his henchmen are no longer running the show. We have made it clear we are not down with torture, nor are we cool with blocking abortion funding and stem cell research or selling off huge tracts of beautiful land to slick suits in search of nothing more than oil. New Deal 2.0 is imminent and it is as deeply green as one can expect from something as awkward as government. Speaking of which, the federal government is now OK with states growing pot if they want to, so long as the crystallized, super-stank, kind bud from outer space is “medical.” And isn’t it always?

But two areas where progressives are still waiting with bated breath for policy to pan out in a positive direction are food and farming. On the one hand, it looks good: Barry and Michelle are food dorks who like to extol the benefits of fresh, organic ingredients and are almost as capable of naming pretentious chefs and obscure vegetables as they are minor points of constitutional law. There is a formidable movement afoot to encourage the svelte, savvy presidential couple to dig up the White House lawn and plant an organic garden in its place. On more than one occasion, Obama decried the evils of the “farm bill” in which Congress blindly hurls around $25 billion a year at industrial agri-businesses with a pittance worth of half-composted millions allocated to organic and small-scale farms.

On the other hand, Obama ducked out of voting as a US Senator last time the farm bill came around, which is rarely seen as a bold, confidence-inspiring move. What’s more, Obama, as president, appointed former Iowa governor (and former presidential candidate) Tom Vilsack as his secretary of agriculture. If Vilsack wasn’t always wearing a baseball hat inscribed with the moniker of some giant agricultural conglomerate, he would be pecked to death by hungry birds because he is so in bed with the corn industry that his eyeballs are actually made of corn. Of course if Obama hadn’t won the Iowa primary by swearing up and down that he loves his wife only a little less than he loves corn, he might not be president now, so he owes Iowa big-time, which is the same as owing corn. From that perspective, it makes sense for him to choose Vilsack. But it remains pretty safe to allege that industrial corn production is a bigger threat to the world than, say, Nazi Germany ever was.

In New Mexico, where corn is less of an industrial mainstay and more of a revered demigod of the harvest, without which enchiladas would suck, we don’t know a Vilsack from a flour sack. When we wonder whether this porky white dude, leaving a trail of corn wherever he goes, will be good for New Mexico, we hear nothing but the sound of crickets. But then, if Obama has made one thing clear as president, it is that he is not going to do everything for us. The American dream rewards those with the initiative to do for themselves. We, the people, according to Obama, are going to have to step up and start working toward the nation in which we want to live. Since this administration has so far done little to address food and farm issues, the presumption is that Obama’s suggestion goes doubly for such topics.

Here in New Mexico, an organization called the Santa Fe Alliance has responded by saying, “Oh yeah, Big O? If that’s how you want to play it, we got your missing piece right here.”

Vicki and Roy were sitting at a table in a bar. Let’s be honest, there were drinks involved. But there was also a clearheaded desire to do something about the tricky economic and social landscape that dominates New Mexico. Using more than a year’s worth of collected conversations and information about food production and energy use in New Mexico, they whipped out a pen and went to work—as so many have before—on the bar napkin in front of them. The scheme that resulted was called “Movida,” which sounds like a kind of Ebonics-Spanglish term for “more life.” Pretty close to the truth actually, but it is more practically called the Regional Food and Fuels Project.

Vicki Pozzebon is the executive director of the Santa Fe Alliance (SFA), an organization dedicated to promoting local and independent businesses, and Roy Wroth is the chairman of SFA’s board of directors. When they went to work on their napkin, they knew some startling things about New Mexico. They knew food security among the populace was only worse in Mississippi among all the states: 16 percent of New Mexicans are going hungry or are at risk of going hungry. Pozzebon and Wroth also knew that this was not a simple matter of getting people more food, but that it was a basic economic problem. Good, healthy food is not available to people at an economically competitive rate because processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods are
subsidized (through the farm bill) and sold for artificially low prices, particularly in rural areas.

As advocates of local business, Pozzebon and Wroth also knew that it was important to keep wealth localized if communities are to grow and be healthy, but money is consistently lost through spending at chain stores and “big-box” franchises like Walmart where profits are sucked away to corporate headquarters. Food is the No. 1 source of dollar leakage for regional communities and Pozzebon and Wroth used their napkin to try to envision a system whereby food could be sourced as locally as possible, both to reduce consumer cost and to maintain community wealth. Energy costs are another top source of wealth drain on communities, so the Regional Food and Fuels Project that was hastily scratched on the napkin considered the deep relationship between food and energy, and concluded that the two cannot be effectively separated, but must be confronted simultaneously.

Some bar napkin scrawls, it turns out, are better than others. The Lydia B Stokes Foundation was sufficiently impressed with the project to offer some initial funding to encourage development of a full strategy. The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (a kind of national parent organization to SFA) assisted with additional funds and Santa Fe County is also on board.

Now SFA is working with regional communities, farming and energy stakeholders and the Santa Fe Complex to create a detailed model of how money and energy flow in the northern New Mexico regional food system.

“We’ll use the results to create and implement a platform for fostering targeted innovation and entrepreneurship within the food community,” Pozzebon says. “The result will be a scalable system, with potential national application, that enables food growers and consumers to work together cooperatively to reduce the carbon-based energy intensity of our food and increase the local retention of food dollars.”

Because I process information better on a full stomach, I connived an invitation to dinner at Pozzebon’s house with a few of the partners and stakeholders that fit into SFA’s ambitious plan. Over a meal of plump, perfectly moist, locally raised chickens and hearty winter vegetables, Pozzebon and Wroth described challenges, potential solutions and next steps in moving toward a more localized economy. Other guests included Robin Seydel, membership coordinator for La Montañita Co-op; Sarah Noss, executive director of the Farmers Market Institute; Kate Manchester, editor and publisher of Edible Santa Fe; Kathleen Chambers, team leader of SFA’s Farm to Restaurant Project; and independent energy guru Mark Sardella, executive director of Local Energy.

Eating with these people is like going for a dip with Olympic swimmers: Their knowledge of the traditions, culture and economic impact of food is expansive. Listening to the conversation arc around the table, it became clear that the much-touted flavor and nutritional benefits of eating fresh, local food are almost coincidental by-products to the real value of supporting our regional farmers. Food, and the energy required to produce it, are basic building blocks in the game of existence. Small-scale farmers—unlike their mono-cropping counterparts in big agri-business—are de facto stewards of land and water, requiring balance and conservation for consistent, bountiful harvests.

Most such farmers, however, are wedged into an economic girdle often derisively called “boutique” farming. Farmers have a shot at making a living if they can carve out a niche at the Santa Fe Farmers Market or sell wholesale to La Montañita—relatively wealthy Santa Fe can afford high prices for produce. Meanwhile, rural communities, where much of the food is produced, have little access to it. The effect is not only unfair, but it reinforces a cultural bias that natural, organic and local foods have a limited market of privileged consumers. The key to kicking that particular Humpty Dumpty off the wall is a new paradigm of the distribution network.

SFA’s Farm to Restaurant program has already been facilitating relationships between food producers and chefs and restaurant owners for some time. Santa Fe has an abundance of restaurants that are dedicated to cooking with local ingredients, a practice that has blossomed over the past few years as supply has increased and networks have extended. One of the best ways to become familiar with just how good fresh local food can be is to visit one of the many restaurants in Santa Fe that use such ingredients for the majority of their supplies. Such a visit not only offers a satisfying meal and a few hints on creative ways to prepare local offerings, but reinforces the larger economic picture: The restaurant is a revolving money hub that gives money to local farms, waitstaff, and the craftspeople who built the bar and the sconces and finished the floor. It also facilitates the deals its patrons make over local business lunches. Maybe the paintings on the wall are for sale. Maybe the wine and beer are from local producers as well. Instead of watching those food dollars flee from the community, one can almost taste the money being reinvested into wealth for everyone.

The goal of the Regional Food and Fuels Project is to compound the effects of such relationships into a more expansive network of farmers, markets, restaurants, local governments and other stakeholders in order to extend the distribution of foods on a truly regional basis, including into disadvantaged, rural areas, while maximizing efficiency and shared resources.

As I wash my dinner down with a glass of surprisingly good New Mexico wine, the dream of access to a considerably more local diet for everyone seems reasonable. Using that as the building block for a substantively more energized system of local economies that benefits New Mexico across the board even seems remotely possible.

Pozzebon has just about enough moxie to pull it off, Steve Warshawer says. Warshawer is the enterprise development coordinator for La Montañita Co-op. He helps identify and create new relationships with farmers and food producers of all kinds, and he helps coordinate the distribution efforts of the co-op. But he’s also a farmer. Warshawer runs Beneficial Farm, one of the oldest CSA (community supported agriculture) programs in the state. Beneficial distributes straight to its members—individuals, families or restaurants that have purchased shares in the farm’s harvest. Recently, he tweaked the model to be more cooperative: Members receive goods from a network of small farms.

Rather than sitting in what passes for a lush valley in New Mexico, Beneficial Farm is on a mesa top, situated among rocks and forest. It looks better for harvesting firewood than vegetables. But Warshawer’s farm exemplifies the merger of food and fuels. The farm is entirely off the grid, supported by solar power and aided by lots of water harvesting. Abundant chickens, cows and llamas roam the farm and long furrows of tilled earth, placed on the contours of a natural, sloped opening, stand ready for spring planting.

As we walk the grounds, Warshawer describes the stewardship that had been mentioned over the dinner I attended. He speaks about a vision for tending to the wild landscape, for maintaining the health of native grasses and being as diligent about forestry as about soil and husbandry. Tending to his farm while also working for La Montañita, Warshawer is aware of both the challenge of growing enough food in New Mexico to realistically serve any significant portion of the populace and of setting up effective-enough distribution mechanisms to deliver it. He describes the 300 mile “foodshed” that La Montañita uses to map its local region and talks in detail about the necessity of greenhouses to extend the growing seasons, and better relationships with southern New Mexico producers and neighboring states.

It’s a huge, daunting task to think of what SFA wants to do with the Regional Food and Fuels Project, but Warshawer has thrown his full support behind it. He is participating in a request to the United States Department of Agriculture for additional funding for the project and he’s participating in all of the project’s stakeholder meetings.

On March 3, SFA hosted a forum at the Santa Fe Complex that was attended by more than 100 farmers and ranchers, renewable energy wonks, policy folks, interested and conscious consumers, Farmers Market and Farmers Market Institute board members, restaurant owners and other business owners.

People are more energized than intimidated at the scope and import of what’s involved. Over the coming months, similar forums will be held in Dixon, Española, Los Alamos and the southern part of Santa Fe County to pull more stakeholders into the process, gather more data points and build a plan for implementing a vaster network of regional economic partnerships.

It’s a new era of possibility,” Warshawer says. “Who knows what it will bring?” Warshawer himself has a sandwich board message—but it doesn’t claim the end is nigh—it says “meet me every Thursday, and I’ll give you a big bag of food.”

 

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