As we prepare for the Eat Local Challenge, I find myself continually re-defining what it is we will do during this month.
At first my response was simple, and I guess it still is. It's a challenge: how locally can you eat? And we will work our hardest to eat as locally as we can.
Holly and I defined our foodshed as 150 miles. It was tempting to go with 100 but it seemed too limiting, to the extent that a lot of our choices would be "exceptions."
However, I am discovering that what we are doing is much different than drawing a line on a map. We are learning, in sharp detail, exactly where nearly all of our food comes from. It's getting more interesting every day.
Certainly some clear lines are drawn. For instance, we thought that getting our produce from within 150 miles would be no problem. The magnificent Portland Farmers Market opened in early April, after all, and it fairly brims with fresh vegetables from our verdant Willamette Valley farms.
But verdant is the key word. We can eat greens until we grow floppy ears and buck teeth, but the only alliums we can find within our foodshed are leeks and maybe green onions. No garlic. No onions. And no potatoes or carrots, either, unless we tramp well past the 150-mile circle into, say, Joseph, Oregon, 300 miles away near the Idaho border.
With that in mind, can we live without onions, carrots, potatoes, and garlic for the month of May? Well, we can certainly try. What about canned tomatoes? What about opportunities to use a fabulous local ingredient (say, a nice lamb shoulder) that require opening a can of tomatoes and chopping up two onions? I think it will be tough to balance whether to try and substitute local ingredients (say, leeks for onions), and omit totally un-local ingredients (tomatoes), or to just focus on the fact that we bought a quarter of a spring lamb from a grass-fed lamb producer in Springfield, 100 miles away, and we want to make a tagine for supper.
Here on the last weekend of the month before the Eat Local Challenge, I can say with certainty that we'll take each case individually.
Meanwhile, beyond the clear cut lines of the 150 mile border, we are finding some interesting gray areas.
One thing we thought we'd surely have to make exception for was cooking oil. Olive oil is from lots of places in the world, but not Oregon. We get excellent California olive oil in bulk at the co-op, but that's certainly not within our foodshed. And what about the other oils we use regularly, like peanut oil, canola oil, and sesame oil? They're all organic, but I wonder if even the producer (Spectrum) could tell us where the seedstock comes from. (Having written that, I realize that it will be worth a phone call, at least.)
Then I remembered ghee — clarified butter, which we make all the time when we're in an Indian phase. We have excellent local butter from Noris dairy. This butter makes wonderful ghee. While ghee isn't good for everything (can't use it for mayonnaise or salad dressing, for instance), it's useful as a high-heat cooking oil.
Also, I found out from a friend that there is a burgeoning olive grower and oil producer in Dundee, Oregon — about 45 miles from us. They're not producing yet, but someday . . .
And today when we were at the Farmers Market, we found Green Man Gourmet, a small Portland-based producer of sesame oil and sunflower seed oil. The purveyors, Bruce and Molly, live near us in Southeast Portland, and they were happy — elated, really — to talk to us about their oils, and where they came from. They could tell us that this particular batch of sunflower oil came from sunflowers grown in North Dakota. So, way, way out of our foodshed, but we knew exactly where. This was getting interesting. We bought a bottle of their sunflower oil, which is thick, creamy-textured, delicious — unlike most sunflower oil I've had, this stuff tastes rather gloriously of sunflower seeds — and very expensive. We also bought a three-pound sack of the seedmeal left over from the cold-press process. I mixed a bit of this into a paste with some whey (left over from making cheese) and fed the paste to the chickens. They loved it.
What we're finding is that there are some sources that, while not technically in our foodshed, are produced locally, or have local connections, and because of that, we have the additional advantage of knowing exactly where the plants were grown.
Another grey area we met with was regarding one of our favorite grass-fed beef ranchers at the Market. Ben and Nikki Roberts produce grass-fed and -finished beef, as well as organic eggs, on their historic Rickman Gulch Farm. During our last market visit, when we asked Ben whether he finished the cows on grass, he said yes, but he allowed that sometimes he supplemented their feed with grain. But, he said, it was never corn — it was organic wheat, which he grows and grinds himself.
This was impressive enough, but later that day we learned that he and his wife till their soil and manage their ranch using horses, not petroleum-powered vehicles. At this revelation I nearly fell to my knees in amazement and reverence, because I think that the maintenance of this kind of farming and knowledge is one of the most important things that farmers can be doing right now. And here is a farmer who is doing it. So we decided right then that he would get most of our beef business.
Today when we went to buy some meat, we asked about the farm's location and found out that they are based in Pomeroy, Washington . . . 300 miles away. So here is another exception that we will grant. The beef travels nearly 150 miles outside our foodshed. Yet the feed for the cows travels not at all. And how do you calculate the foodmiles expended, or, in this case, saved, when the feed for the cows is produced without using petroleum? It brought into sharp focus the importance for me of reducing foodmiles not only as a measure of distance and bioregion, but also as a way to reduce the dependence on petroleum, petroleum-powered vehicles, and our transportation infrastructure.
Back home, I made some stock, realizing that we will be needing a good supply of ELC-approved vegetable stock in order to make tasty meals out of all of the local goodies. The stock comprised an interesting array of super-local, regional, and far-flung ingredients, but in the end, I wrote "OK for ELC" on the tub when I put it in the freezer.
Here's what was in it:
Carrots (California? From the fridge)
Leeks (Oregon, within 100 mi)
Lovage (2 miles away at a garden we're working. In place of celery)
Garlic (Oh, golly, probably Mexico)
Parsley (0 miles: Front porch plant)
Thyme (0 miles: Front porch plant)
Bay leaves (Far flung, exact origin unknown)
Sunflower Seed Oil (Processed within 2 miles, from seed grown in North Dakota)
Chickpea cooking water (from chickpeas grown on the Columbia Plateau by Shepherd's Grain, which is outside the foodshed but the closest and best provider of wheat, chickpeas, and lentils that we have)
And writing this I think...how far does our water travel to come to us? By what power?
And so it begins.
Patrick & Holly live in Portland, Oregon. Their blog Letter from Hen Waller records their experiences in urban homesteading, human-powered transportation, and otherwise living la vida local.