Tag Archives: sustainable food system

We’re on the cover!

We’re thrilled to be on the cover of the Winter 2017 Maker’s Issue of Edible Blue Ridge! Thank you so much to Natalie and Eze for your great work and attention to detail. You can read the full article here.

 

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No Cause for Alarm: Food Safety and Farmers’ Markets


We read this recent opinion piece in the New York Times after a skeptical friend sent it to us. A few days later, another friend, a science journalist, sent the same article to a group of farmers (including us), asking if anyone would draft a letter to the editor in response. After checking out the piece and its source–this unpublished working paper–we agreed that the author, Marc Bellemare, was overstating his results when he sounded the alarm that farmers markets are correlated with a higher incidence of food-borne illness per capita. To his credit, Bellemare reminds readers that the correlation that he found does not imply causation. But reports like this get picked up and repeated without the caveats that Bellemare included in his article. We agree with our journalist friend who said that the New York Times gave Bellemare a big megaphone for results that are less than conclusive.

To understand the difference between correlation and causation, imagine reading that states with more traffic accidents also had more food-borne illnesses. Another way of saying this is that there is a positive correlation between traffic accidents and food-borne illnesses. It would be difficult to imagine anyone arguing that traffic accidents caused the illnesses, or for that matter, that illnesses caused the accidents. Similarly, there is nothing in Bellemare’s results that would prohibit the conclusion that food-borne illness caused increases in farmers markets, rather than the other way around.

Still, a correlation between two variables is usually the first clue that they might be related. The stronger the correlation, the more likely it is to catch a researcher’s eye. If you look at the figure above, you see one of Bellemare’s main results. It shows a correlation between farmers’ markets per capita and a variable that is not well-explained in the paper, but which presumably represents all reported outbreaks of food-borne illness. The green dots are the actual data, the red line is a type of trend-line, and the blue shape is the uncertainty about the location of that trend-line. The steeper the trend-line, the stronger the correlation, so a flat line would indicate no correlation.  Look at the actual data points (green dots). If you were looking at the data for the first time, without the blue shape and red line, would you think there was a relationship, or would this just look like a blob of points?  If you do think there is a relationship, is it a strong relationship?

We don’t think so. To us, it looks like a shotgun blast of points that show no trend. But even if you think it does show a trend, it would still just be a correlation.

Mistaking correlation for causation is a common error that we have written about before. What bothers us most is the New York Times should have known better. By publishing the piece with the headline, “Farmer’s Markets and Food-Borne Illness,” the NYT is implying that shopping at farmer’s markets increases the risk of contracting a food-borne illness. This, despite the fact that in the conclusion of his unpublished working paper, Bellemare himself writes “from a policy perspective, it would be a mistake to take the results in this paper and discourage or encourage people to purchase food from farmers markets on the basis of our results.”

That said, we welcome a discussion of ways to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. It is the responsibility of small and large producers alike to ensure the food that they sell is safe. Regulators rightly focus on larger producers, whose products are available in supermarkets nationwide. Higher risk foods, like cheese and meat, are also more closely regulated, even at farmers’ markets. It is likely that small producers of lower risk foods, like vegetables, are not inspected because the risk of an outbreak is low relative the impact it would have, since each farm serves a small area, and not an entire region.

And therein lies the main safety mechanism for consumers. By shopping at a farmer’s market, you are buying food grown by a member of your community. No-one wants to make their neighbors sick, and we all know that word travels quickly if there ever is a problem. Farmer’s markets give customers the opportunity to make food safety judgements for themselves, by asking producers about their practices, or by visiting their facility. It is when food production is removed from the community that it becomes necessary for the government to step in and inspect on the consumer’s behalf. So until there is actual evidence that food purchased at a farmer’s market is unsafe, we can relax and continue to enjoy farmers’ markets for their fresh nutient-dense food, local economic benefit, and sense of community.

We did send a letter to the editor in response to Bellemare’s opinion piece, but the Times declined to publish it. Here it is:

To the Editor:

Marc Bellemare writes that certain outbreaks of food-borne illness are correlated with the number of farmers markets per capita in a state (“Farmers Markets and Food-borne Illness” Op-Ed, Jan. 17). He rightly concedes that correlation does not imply causation, so for the Times to publish his non-peer-reviewed analysis seems premature and risks sowing undue fear of local food. To imply that farmers markets are to blame ignores that, as Bellemare writes, “most…illness [is] caused by consumers who undercook or fail to wash their food,” no matter where it is purchased. Food at supermarkets is anonymous. But at the farmers markets where we sell in central Virginia, customers can ask about food safety issues including pesticide applications, use of growth hormones and antibiotics, and worker conditions. The Times’ ill-considered publishing of Bellemare’s results stands to misinform consumers.

Ben Stowe and Heather Coiner

Day 6: We’re hiring for the 2016 season!

Our business is growing fast, so we have created a new position for 2016! We are hiring a second intern to work closely with Heather in the bakery.

Apply now for 2016 by sending a resume and cover letter to littlehatcreek@gmail.com.

General description: Little Hat Creek Farm is a small diversified vegetable farm and wood-fired bakery. 2016 will be our third season of selling at three farmer’s markets and through a 25 member CSA. We use ecological farming practices on one acre of annual vegetables and a small fruit orchard. Our bakery specializes in naturally-leavened breads made by hand with local flours. We also produce pastry using the fruits of our farm. This winter, we are expanding our business by building a self-contained bakery building to house the oven, which will allow us to take on additional sales outlets for our baked goods. We are hiring an intern to help us grow and develop these outlets. This is a training position.

Skills desired: You are a good fit for this internship if you love making and sharing good food and if our farm+bakery business model excites you. You get as much pleasure out of mastering a technique as you do in creating new recipes using ingredients from our farm. You also want to have a hand in producing those ingredients. You are creative and a self-starter who can also perform routine production tasks. You are consistently attentive to cleanliness and organisation. You are able to work quickly and efficiently while attending to detail, and you are able to problem-solve on the fly. You are punctual, able to safely lift fifty pounds, and able to meet deadlines.

Duties: You will be responsible for routine bakery tasks like mixing, shaping, and baking bread and pastries, dishwashing, oven and firewood management, ingredient restocking, and general cleanup. Beyond this, your experience will be shaped by your interests and our needs. We currently fire the oven and bake bread three days a week, but this may increase as we take on new accounts. On some days, additional duties may include farm activities, including greenhouse work, harvesting, mulching and weeding; post-harvest processing like pickling, jamming and drying; deliveries; marketing and developing new sales outlets; and/or recipe development.

Duration and Hours: April 2016-October 2016 with the possibility of continuing into the winter. Working hours will not exceed 50 hours per week and may include late night or early morning shifts in preparation for our Wednesday and Saturday farmers’ markets. You will have 1.5 days off each week.

Meals: You will have access to our farm produce, including eggs and bread. Should you live on the farm, you will have access to a shared kitchen and the possibility of also sharing meals with us and another worker.

Compensation: Stipend TBD. Indoor housing with a shared bathroom and kitchen is available as part of your compensation. You will have access to the food the farm produces, and receive training in marketable skills.

You will learn how to:
-operate a large wood-fired oven
-make pastries and naturally-leavened bread on a commercial scale
-adjust recipes to account for weather and ingredient variation
-develop new recipes
-handle food safely
-grow, harvest and process fruits and vegetables
-market farm products
-successfully grow a small local food business

You will also have access to the logic behind everything we do. We make a point of sharing the details of our farming, baking, and business practices, so we encourage you to ask about all aspects of starting and running a business like ours. And because there are many ways of doing things, we also take you on visits to 2-3 other farms and bakeries over the course of the season.

We will consider proposals that give you creative space while meeting our needs.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Day 5: 2016 CSA signups are now open!

We are excited to announce that signups to our 2016 Community Supported Agriculture Program (CSA) are now open!

Purchasing a share entitles you to 19 weeks of ecological produce from our farm and a loaf of wood-fired sourdough bread. We pack our CSA boxes with fresh fruits and vegetables that are picked at their peak, so that our members can experience the best our farm has to offer from the beginning to the end of the growing season. We also publish a popular weekly newsletter with farm news and recipes to help you make the most of your box.

To keep things interesting, every year we introduce a few new varieties. For 2016, we are adding carrots, beets, broccoli raab (rapini), as well as new varieties of tomatoes and squash. But we are keeping prices, pickup times, and locations the same! For more details on our CSA, please go here.

You can sign up by filling out this form. We sold out last year, so don’t dally too long. We look forward to welcoming you to our community!

Day 4: We bought the farm!

When Ben and I moved onto this property in 2013 we signed a two-year lease with the owners who had farmed the land for a decade as Appalachia Star Farm. Leasing is a great way for prospective farmers to start farming without enormous resourse outlay. For example, we benefited from the work the owners had done working the fields, installing infrastructure, and developing markets. And some farmers craft long-term leases that give them the stability of owning while allowing them to keep their cash. In the end, we opted to buy.

And, as of Thanksgiving, we now own this beautiful little farm!  Michael and Katherine, we will do our best to carry on your legacy of stewarding this land.

The biggest barrier that we faced was, as you might expect, accessing credit. Few lenders will consider offering credit to a small business with less than two years’ track record. And it is challenging to make a farm look as successful on paper as it actually is, because the lifestyle is rich in ways unrelated to the bottom line.

But in a twist of conventional wisdom, the government bureaucracy made possible what the private sector couldn’t. The Farm Service Agency, an offshoot of the U.S.Department of Agriculture, offered us a great loan with a competitive interest rate and a repayment schedule that accomodates our seasonal cash flow. And we have an loan officer whose policy in times of trouble is to “just call me”. Strange as it may sound in today’s cut-throat lending climate, it’s enough to make us feel like our lender is actually trying to help us.

The Farm Service Agency and its many farmer-friendly loan programs are funded by the 2014 Farm Bill. We never could have imagined that there could be such great support for small farmers tucked into its nearly $1 trillion budget.

Healing cherry trees with garlic

Folks ask us all the time what it means to grow “ecologically.” We like to think of our farm as a living system that is not really all that different from the forest and fields around it. We humans help orchestrate and direct what happens, so we too are part of the whole, and it makes our lives easier if we harness systems that are already in place, instead of trying to fight the forces of nature. So making sure our plants are happy means making sure a bunch of microbes, insects and other animals are all happy.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate how we do is through examples. Just yesterday I noticed that a few of our pie cherry trees had oozing trunk wounds (see photo below). Trees ooze sap when they are trying to reject an infection or an invading insect–in this case, I suspected a bacterial canker, which is common in stone fruit. To treat it, I looked to a cheap and cheerful, but time-tested antibacterial remedy: garlic. This ubiquitous vegetable, along with other alliums, is an indispensable feature in many cuisines because it helped keep foods safe prior to refrigeration.

I pounded a whole head of garlic with a little salt (another handy antibacterial substance), and pressed it onto the wounds. In a week or so, I will douse that spot with a fermented brew of beneficial microbes, to recolonize the bark crevasses with the good guys. This is akin to eating yogurt to recolonize your gut after taking antibiotics.The main ecological idea here is competition; there are only so many resources on a plant’s surface, so the more good guys there are, the lower the chances are for a bad guy to gain a foothold. Last year when I did this, they dried up and stayed that way for a year, so I’m optimistic that we’ll continue to have many more bowls of cherries.

 

An emerging community of craft bakers

This last weekend, on our way back from the PA Association of Sustainable Agriculture Conference (PASA)–which was totally inspiring–we stopped in on the McGrath’s Brick-Oven Bakehouse in Mecanicsburg, PA.  The McGraths converted their garage into a small wood-fired bakery, using an oven very similar to the one we are about to build here at Little Hat Creek Farm. This is the most recent stop in a journey that has taken us to visit many wonderful bakers, all of whom serve to confirm our desire to serve our community and bake beautiful, living bread.

In December, Ben and I drove all over North America to visit friends and family.  Along the way, we met Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Bakery outside of Asheville, who inspired us with her open-hearted energy and delectable apple pie. Next, after a detour to sunny California to visit Heather’s family, we stopped in on Eric Schedler of Muddy Fork Bakery in Bloomington, IN (Ben’s hometown), who showed off his brand new brick oven and bakery, rebuilt with lots of help from his community after a disastrous fire in March 2014. And then we visited Stefan Senders at Wide Awake Bakery in Ithaca, NY, who hand-built a beautiful and sophisticated rotating hearth white oven. We stopped and visited the oven I baked in while running my first business Pannier Bread Company. While researching our new oven, we have talked to bakers in Hudson, NY and Elora, Ontario. And then, last but not least, right here in our own neighborhood, we welcome Great Day Gardens and Living Culture Farm to the fold!

Does it seem like craft bakeries are everywhere? Not quite. All of these bakeries are less than five years old, and they are all wildly successful. The bakers vary dramatically in their backgrounds, but have converged on a passion for good bread and connection to earth and community that has resonated with us. And they share freely of their knowledge and experience, drawing us and others into their budding community.

It occurred to us, when we were back in the car, that there are more than a few similarities between this emerging community of craft bakers and that of organic-type farmers. They share knowledge, create community, steward the earth, and are obsessed with food! One important difference, though, is that there are far fewer bakers than there are farmers. The young age of these bakeries suggests that craft baking is where organic farming was maybe 10 or 15 years ago. If we imagine the PASA conference in the early 00’s, there would not have been over 700 farmers there, eager to learn more about growing sustainably.  Back then, the idea was still gathering steam — USDA organic certification only started in 1990!  Fast-forward 15 years, and as PASA approaches its silver anniversary, the sustainable farming community is, in the words of Brian Snyder, PASA’s Executive Director, “hitting its stride.”

We want to be around in 15 years when the craft bread movement hits its stride!  We will strive to make a meaningful contribution to that movement, by continuing to push the excellence of our baking, by sharing our experience, and by connecting with others.  Support your local baker and help us change the meaning of “bread”!

Bittman says: “Butter is Back”

Mark Bittman changed my life a few years ago with his book, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The book not only expanded my horizons in the kitchen with its simple recipes, but also served as a sort of desk reference for vegetables, fruits, and grains I had heard of but had never tried.  At the time of the book’s publication, Bittman was a food writer for the New York Times, and I started paying attention to his column.  I liked his recipes for their attitude of, “if you don’t have this ingredient, or the time, or the inclination, just make this substitution/change to the recipe.”  It’s an attitude that led me towards more flexible, adventurous cooking.

More recently, Bittman has transitioned his Times column away from recipes and towards food politics.  He is currently (in my opinion) one of the most articulate advocates for sustainability, real food, and sensible policy.  I was delighted to read his March 25th column, “Butter is Back”.

When I read it a couple of days ago, it was at the top of the “most emailed” list of articles on the Times website.  Perhaps that’s because he says it’s ok to eat butter.

But I enjoyed his essay because of the way he spells out the differences between “real food” and what Michael Pollan famously termed “edible food-like substances.” From the article:

 You might consider a dried apricot (one ingredient) versus a Fruit Roll-Up (13 ingredients, numbers 2, 3 and 4 of which are sugar or forms of added sugar). Or you might reflect that real yogurt has two or three ingredients (milk plus bacteria, with some jam or honey if you like) and that the number in Breyers YoCrunch Cookies n’ Cream Yogurt is unknowable (there are a few instances of “and/or”) but certainly at least 18.

The number one reason that I like being a farmer is that I like food.  I like being around large quantities of fresh food.  When I started working on farms five years ago, it was that aspect of the lifestyle that got me thinking, “Man, I could get used to this!” Added bonuses to farmwork are that I get to work outside, work hard, sleep well, and see a physical product of my labor.  As a beginning farmer, it makes me glad to read an essay like Bittman’s and feel like the pendulum is swinging back to the side that I’m working on.

Happy eating, everyone!  See you at the first Charlottesville market of the season next Saturday!    –Ben

Our 2014 CSA is now open for sign-ups!

We are excited to announce that our 2014 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is now open for sign-ups!  Starting in June 2014, we will pack you a weekly box of fresh vegetables and wood-fired bread from our farm.  By participating in our CSA, you are giving your food dollars to your neighbours and making it possible for us to provide nutritious and delicious food to our community.  For more details please see our CSA info page.

Yes, there’s an early bird discount! Sign up and pay your $200 deposit by Jan 1, 2014 and get a $30 discount on your total price. That’s like getting one week for free!

Ready to sign up?  Click here to fill out our on-line form.

Thank you for your support!

Ben and Heather