I had a variety of reactions to Dan Barber’s article in the NY Times, What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong - from enthusiastic agreement to head-shaking at the reductionist assumptions about the food system (Big Food would have been thwarted by the farm-to-table movement if only we had been eating the less-popular varieties of flora and fauna? I don’t think so.)
Since the weather over the last few days has been truly crummy, it seemed like as good a time as any to put pen-to-paper...
Opening the American palette to greater varieties of lesser-known foods is one common-sense solution to a host of problems. It would increase access to nutritionally dense foods, reduce food waste, increase biodiversity, and reduce dependence on mono-cropping/breeding.
But, as Barber points out, many edible crops are planted not for direct consumer use, but for the health of the soil, to ward off pests, for feed, and otherwise to maintain the integrity of a sustainable farm without the use of chemicals. There’s a tone of admonishment (directed at himself and others) for not having actively sought to incorporate these crops into our diet.
I cringe when I hear or read those sentiments – that those of us that have committed to eating sustainably haven’t yet done enough because we haven’t done this one other thing. Heirloom grains are just the latest in a long line of trends that threaten to turn an otherwise worthwhile evolution in the American palette into a competition of martyrdom and one upmanship.
We need to welcome more people into the sustainable ag fold, not chastise those that are here for not doing enough. But, I agree with the proposal, if not how it was delivered.
To create demand for lesser-known crops, let’s make it easier and more palatable for consumers to buy them. Some good places to start:
1) Recipe writers & Bloggers – Farmers need recipe writers & bloggers to create attractive recipes for these items that consumers may not know how to cook, and include the recipes at the farm stand and farmers markets. Many consumers may not know how to cook unfamiliar items, and including a cheat sheet with the purchase can go a long way. Farmers market managers can be helpful in coalescing this effort.
2) Chefs – Innovative chefs are to the American palette what haute couture is to clothing. They get the ball rolling, introduce new flavors that modify and move into the mainstream. Get the chefs on-board with new flavors and consumers will soon follow.
3) Merchandising – Does an heirloom variety cook and behave like a well-known variety. Place them next to each other with signage that explains both the similarities and the flavor differences.
Creating demand, a market, and income from these crops would make sustainable farms more profitable, and there’s no better way to ensure the continued growth of sustainable agriculture than to ensure the financial security of sustainable farmers.