Thursday, September 13, 2007

Our Daily Bread

Issues around our food—local vs. corporate sources and the nature of how and where it’s grown—may represent some of the most basic and yet, important questions we can address as Americans and/or westerners. Discussions about how our food gets on our plates (or into the polystyrene containers at McDonalds) get to the very basics of where we are at and where we might be heading, as we plow deeper into the 21st century.

For nearly three years, I’ve been receiving periodic emails and updates from the Slow Food Portland email group that I’ve been a member of. While I’m not terribly active in the group, particularly now that my daily orbit finds me north of Portland most of the time, Monday through Friday, the information that comes across the transom via this group is rarely not worthwhile. The periodic events that I hear about are always worth considering. Too often, I’m not able to attend. Last night, however, Mary and I finally were able to get out to one and it was wonderful.

Brunswick’s Frontier Café, along with Crystal Spring Farm, also in Brunswick, hosted a Food + Journey Tour and Picnic Dinner, held at Crystal Spring (part of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust).

Our connection with Crystal Spring comes from Mary’s regular trips to the farm nearly each Saturday for their abundant and varied farmer’s markets that are held there. Featuring many local growers and other food vendors, this has become one of our favorite sources for locally grown food. When I received the Slow Food email, it seemed like a logical thing to do, seeing we had nothing on the calendar, to get out into nature and learn a little more about one of our food sources. Plus, the thought of meeting other people who probably shared some of the same values we had around food was also a selling point.

The weather couldn’t have been any better. Arriving just before the start of the tour, the late day sun shown brightly over the green fields, pregnant with the abundance of the farm's rich late summer cash crops. The crisp, fall-like air, requiring a jacket or sweater, seemed fitting and harvest-like, creating the perfect arena for our walk across the grounds and out into the growing portion of the farm.

The farm’s manager, Seth Kroeck, along with two other local growers, provided a low-key, but informative environment for learning more about local food production. For anyone without knowledge of where thier food is grown and what’s involved, this was a great introduction. For others, like my wife and I—amateur growers, but learning all the time—it was a chance to acquire an even better understanding of what local agriculture is and what it means for our area. It also helped to validate many of the conscious decisions we’ve made over the last decade to support local farmers, ranging from buying local, at supermarkets, farmer’s markets and food stands, our participation in two CSA’s, as well as frequenting restaurants and others that support local food producers.

Kroeck, a very unassuming host and soft-spoken, gave a good overview of what life as a small local farmer is like. He talked about the growing process, how he’s added sheep to the farm and the role that animals play in farming, as well as touching on some of the bigger issues related to organic entities, like Whole Foods and others and the potential issues local farmers are facing in selling their food and making a living from the land.

Two other local farmers, Nate Drummond and Gabrielle Gosselin, from Six River Farm, in Bowdoinham, were along on the tour. These two farmers, just completing their first year running their own operation, are farming a parcel of land on what was once Harry Prout’s farm, on Merrymeeting Bay. When Prout got too old to farm, about a decade ago, his land was acquired by a gentleman who wanted to keep this rich parcel of land in production and more specifically, given to organic farming practices. Through Maine FarmLink, which is a farm transfer program that connects farmers seeking farmland with retiring Maine farmers and farm owners who wish to see their agricultural lands remain active, Nate and Gabrielle were able to locate this small, six-acre parcel of land, where they are growing organic vegetables. They also participate in the Saturday farmer’s market that is held at Crystal Spring, bringing their produce and connecting with local people who value locally-grown food. They represent what Maine FarmLink’s intent has been—to stem the tide of sprawl and maintain the state’s agricultural heritage for now and hopefully, the future.

The tour alone would have been worth the trip, but upon returning to the barn, a feast fit for a king had been prepared by Finn MacDonald, Frontier’s arts and events director and Loryn Kipp, who is the Café’s food director and heads up outreach, like this Food + Journey.

From the start, which consisted of fresh, organic carrots, halfed, for dipping in a wonderful, homemade, ranch-style dip, to bread and cheese, to the main course of beef and lamb burgers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, various chutneys, pickled beets, washed down with organic wine, beer, or just plain water, this was a great way to end the evening.

What was particularly gratifying for Mary and I and I think the 25, or so other people who participated, was the conversations that were struck up, by previous strangers, around food, its production and the accompanying issues associated with this topic. We met other writers, teachers, people who had come to Maine from other states and even countries (New Zealand). There was a couple from Damariscotta, who are documentary filmmakers, in the midst of producing a film about local food and all its attendant issues.

In an era when community, centered around food and conversation doesn’t happen enough, I felt fortunate that Mary and I had availed ourselves of this wonderful opportunity. I know we came away enriched and satiated. Better yet, we got to connect a little more with people who share similar values.

[The only “downside” of the entire evening was that I didn’t bring my camera to capture a few photos and in particular, the breathtaking vista we got to view on our walk back to the barn, at dusk. Oh well—there will be future opportunities to do some shutterbugging—JB]


weasel said...

The tone and tenor (as well as the content) of your last two posts put them among some of my favorite writing by you. I feel inspired to redouble my efforts to eat local now (maybe I need to arrange a meeting or two in Brunswick so we can grab lunch!)

Joe said...

Sounds great, Jim. I had hoped to go, but we had some large, unexpected costs this month and couldn't budget this event.

Though I did win a Frontier GC at the Hike & Bike, which I might have been able to use for part of the cost. (That was a pretty good story, actually.) Oh well, too late for that now.

Weasel, if you're meeting Jim in Brunswick, remember that Joe lives and works in Brunswick.