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The Heat of Summer in America’s Heartland

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Roadside attraction inviting visitors to a local farm stand and a place to stay in the Coon Valley, WI.

There’s a lot I love about the Midwest, but mostly it’s the people. And summer. Despite the worst drought on record raging through much of the lower and mid-region corn belts, you wouldn’t notice it at first glance in and around the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul

Train running alongside of the Mississippi.

Out here in support of the Twin Cities Public Television debut of Food Forward, all I can see is lush green grass surrounding smaller suburbs and rural enclaves as I make my way down the Mississippi river valley and over to La Farge, Wisconsin, headquarters for our founding sponsor, Organic Valley.

Lodging at OV’s unofficial rural HQ – The Kettle.

After meeting up with the team in the main offices, we head through Amish country and over to Spring Green, WI for a picnic dinner and to see Shakespeare’s Richard III. Afterwards, I’m invited to stay at ‘The Kettle’ for a restful night of sleep below a bright and shiny milky way, deep in the back woods of rural Wisconsin and I’m reminded of how lucky and thankful I am to have these opportunities.

Back to civilization and its straight to the St. Paul farmers market in search of food rebels. Amidst a sudden mid-summer downpour we amble through the aisles and met up with several local pioneers, including Mary Falk of Love Tree farmstead selling her artisan sheep milk cheeses and Dean Schwake of Big Woods Bison, offering low fat, high protein meat.

Dean Schwake of Big Woods Bison at the St. Paul’s farmers market.

 

Then it was across the street to meet with Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market. Lenny is a true visionary focused on supporting small-scale and local family farms. We spent a good day of filming with Lenny and look forward to sharing more about his operation soon.

Friendly midwestern service with a smile at the 1029 Bar, NE Minneapolis.

Finally, I watched the airing of Food Forward yesterday at legendary local hot spot, The 1029 Bar in Northeastern Minneapolis.

 

At this popular Sunday sports bar, we were able to coerce our lovely waitress into switching two monitors from the British Open to our episode on urban agriculture, sans sound. Sure, I’ve seen it literally hundreds of times now, but to watch it far from home, with just the crisp high definition picture, amidst an amazing display of really good food from the Smack Shack with none other than local host Doug Utter, was a real treat. Even though they are nationally known for their lobster rolls, it was the roasted leg of lamb sandwich with harissa, saffron aioli and fennel seed slaw that I’ll remember and will come back for again. Out of site, really.

Written by greg.roden

July 23, 2012 at 9:08 pm

The Food Forward Airstream Road Trip is over.

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After two months visiting farms, ranches, restaurants and schools across California the Food Forward road trip is shifting gears. I’m parking the Airstream and letting my family out while Greg and I and the rest of the team refocus our efforts on getting the pilot on-air and funding the entire series.

The Food Forward road trip says goodbye for now.

We still plan to visit several cities later this year to screen our pilot episode on urban agriculture and interview food rebels for future episodes. Only this time, we’ll be flying to get there.

The truth about the road trip is that we tried to do too much with too few resources. Because of the logistical challenges of planning and executing a cross-country road trip, the project consumed too much of our collective energy, not to mention our finances. The road trip was meant to play a supporting role to Food Forward the TV show, but it began to eclipse it.  We owed it to our supporters, our sponsors and ourselves not to let that happen.

What’s more, day in and day out with my family proved to be very challenging. OK, make that extremely stressful. It’s one thing to take a family vacation, it’s another to try to work on the road, coordinate farm visits, participate in conference calls, and schedule and conduct interviews with my family in tow.  I felt a bit like Chevy Chase in the movie Vacation, trying to soldier on in spite of one mishap after another. Only it wasn’t quite so funny at the time and it didn’t feel like much like a vacation.

For the record, I was the one who grew most weary of the road. It’s a wonder that my family didn’t kick me out of the truck and leave me by the side of the road. My wife and kids are remarkable travelers; adaptable, ever-curious and always ready for another adventure. It saddened me to tell my 6-year-old son Everett that our trip was over.

“But I want to see New York and all the tall buildings,” he said. “I want to see the world.”

I take solace in the fact that our trip helped spark in him a love for travel and adventure. Plus, he and Ava got a first-hand look at where their food comes from, an education that most adults never get.

In many respects, the trip, albeit short, was a great success. We held our most successful screening to date at the Brower Center in Berkeley. We sold it out! I was able to connect several school districts with the Root 4 Kids, a farm-to-school campaign launched by Annie’s Homegrown, one of our sponsors. And we shot some great video Organic Valley dairy farmers Ward and Rosie Burroughs, coming soon.

Best of all, I met people and saw things that I’ll carry with me forever, people like Stephen and Gloria Decater, Jared Lawson and Nancy Vail, Mark McAfee, Patty Karlin, Bryan Kaminsky, David Hill, Bill Niman, Nicolette Hahn Niman and places like Covelo, Pescadero, Bolinas, Richvale, Ojai, and Denair. Most of all I was struck by the kindness and commitment of all the people I met. Thank you to everyone who fed us, sheltered us, gave us a place to park and welcomed us into their lives. These people and experiences will continue to inform and shape Food Forward.

I especially want to thank our partners, Organic Valley, Annie’s, ISA and Animal Welfare Approved who believe in us and the mission of Food Forward.  Together, we still plan to do great things. Greg and I are committed to documenting this movement and the people behind it. I just won’t be doing it in a diesel-swilling truck pulling a 45-year-old trailer. This road trip is over, but Food Forward goes…forward!

Meanwhile, I’m going to continue to write about about some of the great people I met on the road. Look for that here in the weeks to come.

Written by stettholbrook

July 5, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Chef profile: Gjelina’s Travis Lett

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Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice Beach’s main drag, is one of LA’s priciest stretches of real estate. Restaurant space goes for about $8 a square foot. As such, I expected more style over substance from the neighborhood’s food scene.

Travis Lett.

So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon Gjelina. The always-crowded restaurant isn’t exactly a secret, but I wonder how many people realize they’re eating at one of Los Angeles’ premier farm-to-table restaurants.

The restaurant, and the recently opened take-out counter next door, don’t trumpet their organic produce and the small farms they support. Chef Travis Lett lets the food do that talking. And judging by the crowds, people are listening. They do as many as 1,000 covers a day on a menu in which vegetables get a starring role. The meat and fish shine as well. Lett has plans to open another restaurant in Hollywood, too.

I chatted with Lett recently in the leafy courtyard next to his restaurant. Here are a few nuggets from our conversation:

“You won’t see a Sysco truck at my restaurant or any of the commodity food system vehicles out here. My partners and I make less money because we spend so much on the raw ingredients, but we’ve developed a community of people that are really interested in that but at the end of the day we’re not too concerned about the spreadsheet thing. We’re not really that concerned about that. We’re just trying to make the right choices and we’ve achieved great popularity.”

Gjelina's to go menu.

“I try not to talk about organic or sustainable. I call it the O and S word. They’re good words and have real meaning but I try not to use them. I try to let the energy of the food to engage people and then try to back into it and say, ’hey you know why that cauliflower tastes so good? Because this guy right there grew it and he’s at the bottom of the Sierra and he gets this great run off and it’s the season for cauliflower right now.’”

“I allow the reaction to based more on the joy of eating.  I’m trying to find other ways to introduce people to that world so it’s not perceived as an elitist thing or as something for the wealthy.”

Kitchen scene at Gjelina's newly opened take-out restaurant.

Written by stettholbrook

June 30, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Posted in Food Forward Road Trip

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School lunch reformers

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School lunch reform has become one of the rallying cries of the good food movement. It’s also a subject of great interest to me personally. Food Forward plans to devote an entire episode the subject. It’s a pretty easy cause to get behind, right? I mean,

WISH charter school students and community association president Erika Higgins Ross get busy in the garden.

who can argue against feeding kids healthy, fresh food? Unless you’re the federal government or a member of the industrial agricultural complex, just about everybody supports school lunch reform. The tricky part is actually pulling it off.

I spent two days in Los Angeles recently talking about the subject with teachers, administrators and students and I gained a new appreciation for the complexity of the issue. I visited the tiny WISH charter school in the Westchester neighborhood under the path of planes landing at LAX and I met David Binkle, deputy director of the LA Unified School District’s food service program. Because many schools lack even basic kitchen facilities, the solution isn’t simply preparing healthier food for kids. First, you’ve got to figure out where to make the food. Then you’ve got to find a way to pay for it.

Although it’s a public charter school, WISH stands outside the mammoth LAUSD and this gives the school a great deal of local control. The school is at the end of its first year. Before it opened, a dedicated parent spearheaded efforts to create a healthy food service program. After much research, the school contracted Revolution Foods, an Oakland-based company that makes healthy foods at centralized kitchens and then delivers them to school sites. There is no equipment on hand to make food at the school so the program is a great fit. In addition to the quality of the ingredients what’s cool about this program is parents can pre-order their kids’ food online, clicking no dairy, or vegetarian, basically whatever they want their kid to eat.

WISH kids dig Annie's Root 4 Kids seeds markers.

WISH, a K-5 school, is also incorporating a school garden into their curriculum where kids spend quality time tending vegetables and eating them. They’re also installing a chicken coop for Fluffy, a much-loved chicken. I was also able to connect them with the good folks at Annie’s Homegrown, one of our partners and a big believer in farm-to-table education.  Annie’s is trying to get 1 million kids to plant seeds as part of their Root 4 Kids campaign.

Fluffy the chicken is a big hit with WISH 1st graders.

After WISH, I met Binkle at the fortress-like Newman Nutrition Center, the food services hub of the mighty LA Unified School District. The facility opened in 1979 and originally made 8,000 lunches a day for 50 schools. Today, it prepares 22,000 meals for more than 425 schools, many of which have no kitchens no they depend on a central kitchen for their daily bread.

Binkle, a chef turned food services director, surprised me. I thought he was going to tell me what the district needed was greater per pupil spending (currently .77 cent per student) to improve the quality of the food. While the district has increased servings of fresh fruit and vegetables, done away with soda pop, and just recently, banned flavored milk,

David Binkle, deputy director of LAUSD's food services department.

what Binkle really wants, is do away with the entire federal school lunch program because of the waste and inefficiency he says it creates. Federal regulations stipulate what children must be served, whether they want it or not. As a result, thousands of pounds of food are thrown in the trash every day.

“There’s clearly enough money,” he says. “It’s just being wasted. The whole (federal school lunch program) needs to be blown up.”

Written by stettholbrook

June 23, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Raw power

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After two great days learning about the Burroughs family’s grass-based, organic dairy in Denair, Calif. we packed up the trailer and headed 90 minutes south to Fresno to visit another food forward dairyman–Mark McAfee owner of

Mark McAfee, raw milk rebel.

Organic Pastures. Organic Pastures is a raw milk dairy, one of only two in the state.  Mark is a former paramedic who took over his grandparents’ 650-acre farm just west of Fresno. He says he spent the first half of career treating people who were sick and in the second half now helps prevent them from getting sick by producing raw milk.

If there ever was a man to sell the country on the virtues of raw milk it’s Mark. He’s a fast-talking, passionate advocate for raw milk and after spending a few hours with him at his farm, I’m convinced if more people knew the real story about raw milk it would transform the dairy industry.

Raw milk is simply milk that hasn’t been pasteurized or homogenized. The milk goes from the cow straight to the bottle. Given our industrial food system that process freaks some people out. It used to freak me out before I started drinking raw milk. Isn’t milk from a cow kinda dirty? If it comes from the typical confinement dairy operation where the cows stomp around in mud and feces all day in crowded conditions you better believe it’s dirty. It’s positively teeming with pathogens and nasty bacteria. That’s what the pasteurization is for. Heat the milk to about 145 degrees and you’ll kill most (but not all!) of the nasty bugs living in the dirty milk. The process also happens to kill any of the beneficial bacteria and enzymes.

Raw milk, on the other hand, is alive with beneficial bacteria and enzymes. It’s hypoallergenic. It doesn’t produce lactose intolerance (pasteurized milk does). It promotes digestion. And it contains beneficial ratios of fatty acids.

“Raw milk has the kind of bacteria you want for your kids for a healthy immune system,” Mark says.

The raw deal.

The way he describes it there are two kinds of milk: raw milk fit for human consumption and raw milk not fit for human consumption. The latter kind is the milk that gets pasteurized and is what most of us drink.

Mark’s cattle live their life eating grass and also happen to live about four times longer than the typical dairy cow because they’re fed a healthier diet (i.e. grass) and not milked as frequently. And they don’t need antibiotics to keep them well.

All the confusion and fear about raw milk benefits big industrial dairies, milk processors (the guys who do the pasteurization and homogenization) and the Food and Drug Association (the guys who regulate the industry). However, the confusion and fear do not benefit consumers or cows. Of course there are dairies who sell raw milk that should not because of poor practices, but a Grade A certified dairy like Organic Pastures, which is certified organic and accredited by Animal Welfare Approved for its humane treatment of its livestock, should put your mind at ease. The state tests the dairy’s milk, but Mark says he does his own testing 20 times a month.

While it’s often seen as hippie food, I think raw milk is going to hit the mainstream as more people discover the facts about where their milk really comes from. Mark’s business is growing about 20 percent a year and he’s about the launch the Raw Milk Institute (no web site yet), an industry advocacy group, to help other dairies go raw.

“We see this really exploding,” he says.

Written by stettholbrook

June 18, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Ward and Rosie Burroughs: Grass Farmers

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Our trip to California Cloverleaf Farms just outside of Turlock, Calif. felt like our first journey into the heart of Big Ag country. Cruising around the Bay Area and Northern California for the past four weeks was great. but somehow I felt

Rosie and Ward Burroughs.

all the small family farms were the exception to the rule. And the rule is large, high production farms and ranches that dominate California’s Central Valley. When people talk about industrial agriculture and all its attendant problems (use of petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers, crowded conditions for livestock, dependency of antibiotics, monocrops, animal waste) this is where it all happens.

The road to meet Ward and Rosie Burroughs at their California Cloverleaf Farms, a 3,000-acre ranch and dairy that supplies milk to Organic Valley, was a tour through the dark side of American food production. We passed grim, windowless warehouses where thousands of factory farmed chickens live their short, miserable lives. It’s hard not compare them to concentration camps. They certainly look the part.  Stark “biohazard” signs warned people to stay out. Next came the sinus stinging stench and blight of confinement dairy operations, cows kept in tight, mud and manure-caked quarters without so much as a blade of grass. This is where the vast majority of milk cows spend their short lives (about three years before the intensive milking takes its toll).

These really are happy cows.

As I reached the end of the road and entered the Burroughs’ ranch with the Sierra in the background I felt myself relaxing as the high volume industrial farms gave way to green fields of rolling pasture and hundreds of cows doing what they were made to do: eat grass. Make no mistake. This is a big farm and in the Bay Area there’s a notion that only small farms can do right by the land and animals. But the Burroughs’ diversified farm will disabuse you of that idea right away.

With some prodding from their kids, Ward and Rosie Burroughs set the family farm on the road to sustainability and transitioned the farm to a grass-based, organic operation. Ward had been a conventional dairy farmer, feeding his cattle in a confined operation, calving year round and using whatever chemical products that were at hand. But he saw another way forward and figured out how to make it work. Pasture-based dairy ranching was once the norm in the United States, but over the past 50 years it has been replaced by chemical dependent, confinement operations where the animals see very little precious grass.  Ward looked to New Zealand for advice because there’s a thriving grass-based agriculture scene there. Out here in the Central Valley, they are the oddballs bucking the industrial agriculture system.

Zeb Burroughs oversees the day-to-day dairy operations.

“We had to stick our necks our and do it all on our own,” says Rosie. “It was really scary.”

The shift to pasture-based cattle ranching has produced a shift in their thinking as well.

“Our focus isn’t on milk production,” says Rosie. “It’s on grass. We don’t say we’re dairymen. We’re grass farmers.”

Written by stettholbrook

June 11, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Michael Passmore: Fish farmer

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After leaving Bryan Kaminsky’s Natural Trading Co. in the Sierra Foothills, we headed down Instate 80 in search of Passmore Ranch in Sloughhouse, Calif.

Fish rancher Michael Passmore.

Owner Michael Passmore was another guy David Hill at Chef’s Table suggested we meet. We were all tired after a hectic schedule and didn’t know what to expect when we pulled through the automatic gates at a dry, sprawling ranch southeast of Sacramento.  The 86-acre ranch was dotted with half a dozen ponds and a very large, but half-built home.

Passmore and his wife Vandy are fish farmers. While they’re growing their business they’ve put construction of their home on hold. “Home’s don’t make money,” says Michael. But apparently his aquaculture operation does.

Using technology from a UC Davis scientist who lives nearby, Passmore farms sturgeon, black bass and catfish. He sells his fish to chefs and to the lucrative live fish market, delivering his fish in specially outfitted tank trucks. The fish take about 18 months to grow for the live market. The restaurant-bound fish grow for 36 months or so. In a few more years he hopes to sell caviar once his female white sturgeon mature. They take about eight years before they bear eggs.

A live catfish plucked from one of the mobile holding tanks at Passmore Ranch.

Passmore is a cherubic, jovial guy who was quick to offer me a beer as we toured his property.

“We had no clue we were going to be fish farmers,” he says.

He put in a bass pond and then thought, well, if one is good how about six? It helped that his wife was out of town at the time of his seemingly rash decision but now his fish get top dollar.

Aquaculture has gotten a bad rap because of it’s ecologically unsound practices but Passmore Ranch bills itself as sustainable because they don’t rely on wild fish to stock its ponds, they recycle their water and the feed is made from pork and poultry and fish byproducts. Many fish farms rely on feed that comes from all wild fish sources, a drag on ocean resources.

While Ava and Everett took turns jumping on the trampoline

Everett, aloft.

and riding with Michael on his ATV, Vandy whipped up a great lunch of grilled sturgeon and grilled cheese/sturgeon sandwiches–much better than it sounds.

Again, as a road weary family, I was struck by the ready hospitality we encountered at Passmore Ranch. Thanks for having us.

Our gracious hosts: Michael and Vandy Passmore.

Written by stettholbrook

June 3, 2011 at 4:33 pm

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