Saturday, July 18, 2009

Buying Local in Maryland

By Eric Luedtke.

Maryland’s Buy Local Challenge week starts July 18th and runs through July 26th – and if you haven’t had a chance to try local food, now’s the time. The premise is simple; just eat one thing from a local farm every day during the week. That’s cake. I mean absolute cake. And once you’ve tried it and found out how simple it is, and how much great local produce there is, my guess is you’ll do it a lot more often than one week in July.

Some of you may already be pretty familiar with the local food movement. It’s been around a long time, but has absolutely exploded over the last couple of years. In almost a perfect storm for the food industry, concerns about the chemicals and processing in store-bought food (see the movie Super Size Me if you haven’t yet), increasing recognition of how long-distance conventional agriculture can contribute to global warming, and the Food Network driven obsession with new and unique food experiences have combined to seriously ramp up the popularity of local foods. And the market has responded – there are now successful farmer’s markets in pretty much every corner of the county, and shares of Community Supported Agriculture operations sell out early each spring. [Pause for definition: Community Supported Agriculture, CSA for short, is where a consumer buys a ‘share’ of a farmer’s produce, the consumer gets a box of fresh, interesting produce each week and the farmer has a guaranteed income through good and bad years.]

I’ve become sort of an expert on living off of local food over the last year. My wife Emily and I are always up for a challenge, and last year after reading a book called The 100 Mile Diet about a couple’s attempts to live entirely off of local food in Vancouver, we decided on a bit of a whim to try out the 100 mile diet for ourselves. For about eight months, everything we ate with only a few exceptions came from within 100 miles of our home in Burtonsville. In some ways, it was a lot easier than we imagined. There are a tremendous number of local food producers within our 100 mile radius, which includes most of Maryland and large sections of northern Virginia and southern Pennsylvania. For practical reasons, we made some basic exceptions. We had a social rule, because when you’re going over to someone’s house for dinner it isn’t exactly polite to refuse to eat the food they make. We made exceptions for coffee (which neither of us can live without), spices (who wants bland food?), and baby food and formula (although we began making a lot of our own baby food out of local produce, and ended up using almost no store-bought food for Colin, our now 16 month old son). And still sticking with the spirit of the hundred mile diet, we ate local food as much as possible in places we went, which meant that the only time we had orange juice during that eight months was when we visited my in-laws in Florida.

But it absolutely forced us to rethink the way we eat – something we had taken for granted. We’ve always tried to buy good organic produce as much as possible, but eating entirely local forced us to give up the idea of instant gratification in food. Our modern food system can get us pretty much anything at any time we want – Strawberries in September, Broccoli in January – without paying much attention to what’s in season. On a purely local diet, we quickly found that we couldn’t have anything we wanted when we wanted it. Our angst about that lasted about a week, until we figured out that it’s pretty easy to preserve foods at home. We froze berries, corn, beets, green beans, and local meats. We bought a water-bath canner, which is surprisingly simple to use, and canned our own peaches, plums, tomatoes, tomato sauce, pickles, jam and jelly, applesauce, and rumtopf (a German preserve saved for winter where summer fruits are preserved in rum and sugar). We even air dried our own chilies – though if we had only had the good sense to spend a few bucks on a food dehydrator we could have made our own dried fruits and jerky as well. It also took some time to figure out how to work substitutions – you can use honey in place of sugar in some recipes, some local fruits in place of citrus, etc.

And we researched. A lot. If you look hard enough, the internet has a lot of information about where to get local foods. I like to bake and we ran out of our existing flour pretty quickly. It took us an exhaustive internet search to find Wade’s Mill, which is the closest working flour mill in our region, milling almost entirely local grain. We found and started going to farmer’s markets in Olney and Silver Spring. We signed up for a CSA – at the time we used Sandy Spring CSA but switched to Evensong Farms this year because we liked that the farmer there tries out more heirloom varieties of vegetables and unique things we hadn’t tried much before. We started going to pick your own places like Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Larriland in Howard County, and Blueberry Gardens in Ashton. We learned about new foods we hadn’t tried but which we now love like ramps (a wild leek that tastes intensely of garlic and onions), gooseberries (which our son loves), and stinging nettle (which tastes a little like spinach and obviously needs to be handled very carefully). Even with that experimentation, there are local foods we never got the chance to try, like paw paw, a local native plant whose fruit supposedly tastes tropical. And we got to know producers personally, which was by far the best part about our experiment. Farmers are great people.

We gave up on the experiment mid-winter, when it became clear that we hadn’t preserved nearly enough food to last us through. But a lot of the habits have stuck with us, and the vast majority of our food is still local. We’ve become sort of local food evangelists among our friends, giving away our preserves and telling them about how fun pick-your-own is while they stare at us oddly. But, joking aside, a lot of people we know have started getting into local food as well, and all over the country. It’s an exciting time to be trying it out. In any case, one local food per day over the next week shouldn’t be too difficult, and I encourage you to give it a try. I’ve included some more links below to help you get started.

Farmer’s Market Directory: be sure to ask the farmer if food is local or organic – not all farmer’s market products are.

Pick Your Own Directory

The Montgomery County Farm Directory: a big pdf

USDA Guide to Home Food Preservation

Seasonal Food Calendar

Some of our favorite producers (not all are organic growers):

Apples – Heyser Farms (also carries local eggs and dairy, though not all produce is local)

Cheese – Firefly Farms

Flour – Wade’s Mill

Honey – The Bee Folks

Produce – Evensong Farm

Produce – Charlie Koiner

Thanksgiving Turkey – Maple Lawn Farms