Spring 2011

From farm to fork

Food isn't just a necessity, it's a way of life


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JONATHAN COHEN
Shannon Hayes '95 lives on her family's farm, where she writes cookbooks and blogs about eating local.

Contemplating the meals she’s fed her family in the past 72 hours, cookbook author and third-generation farmer Shannon Hayes ’95 chortles. It’s a few days until winter solstice and the darkest time of year on Sap Bush Hollow Farm, a grass-fed livestock operation in the rocky hills of Schoharie County, N.Y., where Hayes, her husband and her parents tend pastured poultry, sheep, pigs and cattle. Snow blankets the dormant fields, and even the laying hens have slowed, yet the family’s table groans with a rich variety of locally raised and ecologically produced foods.

Today, roasted beets, butternut squash and onions accompany a meatloaf of hot Italian pork sausage and ground beef. For brunch yesterday, there was a hash of slow-cooked brisket with carmelized onions and red peppers, topped with poached eggs and homemade Hollandaise sauce. Two nights ago, the family dined on roasted pork shoulder served on a bed of rutabaga and apple purée. What they didn’t grow and can, freeze or store themselves, they acquired through barter with fellow farmers.

“What am I missing?” says Hayes of the nearly supermarket-free menu. “Wonder bread and pbj? We have a pretty damn good diet.”

Hayes is one of a growing cadre of farmer-writers preaching the local-foods gospel as a delicious means to revitalize local communities, boost public health and steward ecological resources. Perhaps the biggest challenge she’s had to confront in her own work is the assumption that for folks on a budget, local, ecologically conscious and tasty food is out of reach — a privilege of wealth and a certain sociopolitical demographic.

“I had an inferiority complex when I started on my locavore diet,” says the author, whose staples while she was earning her creative writing degree included Eggo frozen waffles and brown-and-serve sausages. Today, her cookbooks help readers eke the greatest flavor and value from grass-fed meats. “I realized one day that our income is as low as those of most people who live in these hills,” she says. “We could afford [to eat like] this, and as I did the research, I discovered there were a lot of people who could do it — it just takes domestic skills.”

In her latest book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity in a Consumer Culture, Hayes details how 20 families like hers, from Alaska to Vermont, have forged alternative economies through personal resourcefulness and a network of rich community connections. In her forthcoming Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover’s Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies, and Living Deliciously, the author details the tricks frugal homemakers once knew by heart — slow-cooking to transform tougher cuts of meat or coaxing multiple entrées from a single chicken — that make local meats from small, family farms as affordable as a meal at the drive-through.

Growing veggies and relationships

Two hours south, in the fertile Hudson Valley, vegetable farmer David Hambleton ’95 hews to a diet as seasonally varied as what Hayes serves up at Sap Bush Hollow Farm. He and wife Margaret Fallon ’95 pick and freeze enough blueberries in July to last through the winter, eschew lettuce with a commute longer than the trip from his own fields back to the house, and in winter opt for tomatoes they canned themselves the previous summer, in lieu of fresh alternatives shipped from California or Mexico. Even so, he’s wary of labels.

“We try to eat as locally as possible and buy from local farmers and bakers, but we’re not purists,” he says, noting a weakness for Breyers ice cream. “People who are purists, really adamant about things, sometimes do a disservice to their relationships with others. It’s healthy to be flexible.”

Forging and maintaining relationships turn out to be central skills in Hambleton’s work as manager of the nonprofit Sisters Hill Farm, which grows affordable, fresh vegetables for residents of Dutchess County and the Bronx, where the farm’s owners — the Sisters of Charity of New York — are based. Hambleton runs an active apprentice program to train aspiring farmers and grows enough vegetables on the five acres he oversees to provide for 281 families who participate in a distribution model known as community-supported agriculture, or CSA. In a CSA, customers pay for a subscription before the growing season begins to help the farmer buy seed, fuel and equipment and then share both the risks and rewards of the harvest through a weekly vegetable allotment.

Events throughout the season — from a garlic harvesting party in July to a winter squash harvest in October, as well as potluck picnics — bring customer-members to the farm for a brief spurt of collective enterprise and community building. When late blight ravaged tomato crops throughout the Northeast in 2009, Sisters Hill CSA members attended an impromptu Beer and Blight party in the fields to help Hambleton and the interns nurse along as much of the crop as they could before plowing under the casualties. In 2010, they celebrated their largest harvest to date: 87,000 pounds of produce picked in the 24 weeks from late May through early November and distributed to members as well as to soup kitchens and food pantries in Dutchess County and the Bronx.

The last time he did the math, says Hambleton, his members paid just $20 each week for produce that would have cost two times as much at the grocery store. The low-income families who paid only what they could afford realized an even greater value. Despite a price increase in the interim, the sliding scale still tops out at a scant $30 a week. And every Sisters Hill member receives produce far fresher than what area supermarkets offer.

Farmers are rooted in their beliefs

“[As a student,] I felt that a lot of environmentalism was being against things,” says Hambleton, who first visited a CSA with Associate Professor Richard Andrus as a junior in environmental studies at Binghamton. “I really wanted to be doing something positive, saying here’s something that will help the world, communities, individuals.” The farmer he met on that 1993 field trip planted the seed of a principle Hambleton still nurtures. “I was inspired by what he had to say,” says the father of two. “He was living a life according to his beliefs and ideals and doing something positive.”

Like Hayes, Hambleton recognizes that buying directly from local farmers has profound implications for how things go in the kitchen. “If you don’t cook and you don’t eat vegetables,” he says, “then this farm, at least, is not a great deal.” But even for families where fresh produce dominates the menu and home cooking is second nature, coping with seasonal cycles and unfamiliar vegetables can pose a challenge. Hambleton and his interns craft a weekly newsletter with a harvest report and recipes featuring the produce members receive — from garden staples such as zucchini and leeks to such peculiar fare as celeriac and kohlrabi. “We realize it’s not convenient to be a member of a CSA,” he says, “so we try to make sure everything is really clean and universally appealing. Our members aren’t just die-hards who want to save the Earth. They’re people who really appreciate great food.”

Perhaps as a result, says Hambleton, despite Wall Street’s gyrations over the past two years, participation in the Sisters Hill CSA has held steady. “We haven’t seen membership slip at all,” he says. “It was gaining really fast before the economy went sour, and there’s still a lot of interest. The people who are members know this is a great deal and they find a way to make it work.”

Hayes has seen similar loyalty from Sap Bush Hollow customers: While 2010 sales weren’t the farm’s best ever, the numbers were still well above average. Perhaps, she muses, that constancy owes to the community within which the farm exists. “We realized that our customers didn’t seem the least concerned about the economy. Because they live in a life-serving economy tied to the local food system and the local community, they weren’t affected by the global downturn.”