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Saturday, I spent an exorbitant amount of money on food, which is totally fine when food is a priority, passion, and pastime.  Among my booty: fresh shiitake mushrooms and parsley.  After scouring through How to Cook Everything, The Art of Simple Food, and Simply in Season, I crafted the perfect menu of skillet fried tofu, topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions seasoned with cayenne and thyme, all garnished with parsley salsa verde (made with lemon zest, salt, pepper, hot Czech black pepper, pepper flakes, garlic, and olive oil).  Yumblr indeed!

Chewing the Fat Fall 2011

Things have been quiet on this Tumblr recently as everyone here at the YSFP winds down summer projects and gears up for the school year ahead. Last Sunday we welcomed 92 incoming freshmen— just about 10% of the class of 2015— to campus before they ventured out on Harvest trips, where they will spend the week volunteering on small-scale local organic farms.

This week we’re pleased to announce our fall 2011 Chewing the Fat speaker series line up, a list that includes Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel, a screening of The Greenhorns’ brand-new documentary, and New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik talking about his new book The Table Comes First. There will also be the usual assortment of workshops (including John Baricelli’s famous tutorial on apple galettes), festivals, and pizza workdays, so check it out! We’re sorry to be leaving summer behind, but still thrilled as we welcome the coming of fall.

Watch on romafarms.tumblr.com

Poet, novelist, philosopher, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer Wendell Berry presents as the Chubb Fellowship Lecturer as a guest of Timothy Dwight College and the Yale Sustainable Food Project (YSFP).

(Fast forward to minute 28 to see the beginning of Mr. Berry’s talk.)

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Classes started yesterday, which means that tomorrow the YSFP will welcome the new school year with our first pizza workday of the season. Come by between 1:00 and 5:00 pm to get your hands dirty helping us out with the harvest, and stick around for pizza at 5:00— we make the dough ourselves, top it with the fruits of your labor in the garden and cook it to crusty perfection in our wood-fired oven. It’s definitely in contention for the best slice in the city (in fact, some would say there’s no competing with ours), so if you consider yourself a pizza completeist— or even if you’re just curious— stop by and check it out!

Sustainable Pasture Management in Kyrgyzstan

Events intern Caroline Tracey ‘14 spent her summer on an environmental fellowship studying pasture management in Kyrgyzstan.  Here, she muses on her Russian lit background and the sociopolitical controversies that shape the country’s agricultural landscape.

I spent a month of this summer in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic nestled between China and Kazakhstan. It was clear to me before I arrived that environmental issues were at the forefront of the minds of the people in the country. For one thing, less than a month before my visit to Kyrgyzstan, a large riot broke out at the Kumtor mine, a gold mine on the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul. The mine accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP, but is owned and managed by a Canadian company. About 1,000 people, some arriving on horseback, camped out for days and blockaded the road from the mine to Bishkek, calling for Kyrgyzstan to receive a bigger share of the mine’s profits.

My studies as a Russian literature major have focused on Russian writers’ treatment of landscape: how authors understand vast, unending landscapes; what kind of culture and specific experiences develop in places marked by vastness. I have also versed myself in the contemporary environmental challenges that come with these kinds of landscapes. During my trip this summer, I planned to find out how the country’s pastoral heritage was faring in the modern economy.

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Horse supplies at Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

Flying into Bishkek delighted me: it felt like flying into Denver, where I grew up. Tall, snow-capped (even in July) mountains are visible in the distance, and the flat, brown land that holds the airport and the city slides up to meet them. From the plane window I could see both dry and irrigated fields; windbreaks; and small reservoirs. There were fewer roads than I was used to; the land wasn’t gridded, as the whole middle of America is, and so the fields took stranger shapes, strips and trapezoids. On the drive into the city, I drove by a young boy herding goats with a stick, and I realized there wasn’t going to be any shortage of interesting things to learn about pasture agriculture.

 Here’s what I found out:

With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the land and livestock holdings of collective farms were parceled out to their employees based on seniority. This immediately led to crisis: most employees had held positions unrelated to animal husbandry - they had been drivers or bookkeepers - and were unprepared to manage their own farm animals. Most - seventy percent, a pasture manager later estimated to me - floundered. Their animals died, and they lost their chance at financial solvency in the new economy. To make matters worse, those that did succeed in raising their animals met the harsh reality of the new system: they worked all year only to sell their animals at market for a price so low it often wasn’t even a profit. Now, the prices are better, thanks to consumers from Kazakhstan, where the economy is much stronger, crossing the border to buy animals in cheaper Kyrgyzstan. The increased demand means that Kyrgyz people have a financial incentive to go into agriculture - farmers in the villages often make more money than middle-class people in Bishkek.

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Abandoned Collective Farm

Kyrgyz “farmers” are more like what we would refer to as ranchers (if you want to talk about vegetable or fruit farmers, you have to specify). They raise animals, and sell them at large, open-air markets. During the winter months, their animals are in their villages’ town pastures, either within the town or just outside of it, and during the summer months, they bring their animals (along with the animals of other villagers who have paid them to look after their animals for the summer) to the rural pasture. The rural pastures are mountain camps where the farmers live in yurts with their families while the animals graze the high range.

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Talas Livestock Market

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Unloading bulls from the mountain pastures for sale at the market

The requirement to bring their animals up to rural pastures, I learned, is one of a group of radical changes to pasture law that were enacted beginning in 2009. Kyrgyzstan was one of the only meat-producing countries in the Soviet Union, and as a result of always-increasing demands from distant Moscow, the country left the USSR highly overgrazed. Until 2009, when the country really began to gain some traction on the challenges of privatization, pastures were private. Now, with the new pasture law, the land is government owned again, and pastures are managed by a village committee. Each town has been assigned a piece of rural pasture that corresponds with the size of the village. The “closed,” or “winter,” pastures within or nearby the towns are not to be used during the summer, so that they can recover from the last year of use.

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Highway overlooking government pastures

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Sheep running in on the rural pasture

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Before I had learned about the distinction between rural and closed pastures, I experienced the distinction firsthand, by being in transit between the two. Having approached a tunnel through a mountain pass, my minibus back from Talas found itself stopped at the entrance, along with a parking lot’s worth of cars. Finally, fifteen confused minutes later, a man on horseback emerged from the dark opening. He was followed by a whole large herd of horses, who tried their best to follow his lead and navigate their way through the herd of cars.

So you can imagine it made sense to me when the pasture manager of the town of Barskoon explained that the reason that people hadn’t made sufficient use of the rural pastures until they were required to by law was that there was not sufficient infrastructure to reach the rural pastures. 2 million som, he said, or about $40,000 - a very large sum of money in Kyrgyzstan, where the middle class makes about $160 per month - has been marked for new bridges to the rural pastures. It remains to be seen, however, whether that money will make it through the government’s extreme corruption.

As I talked to more and more people in Kyrgyzstan about pasture management, I came to the most surprising conclusion I could have: pasturing seems to be moving in a good direction. Certainly it would be hard to create a system that does more damage than the Soviet Union’s system. But I am disposed to expect that the arc towards capitalism is an unstoppable and destructive force, and the Kyrgyz people proved me wrong. They tried out privatizing their pasture land, and fifteen years later returned to a system of the commons. The pasture committee system is still young, and the law still needs changes, but the new system stipulates an attitude toward rangeland that shares both resources and responsibility.

When I describe this, I am reminded of a presentation I saw at the forestry school as part of its grasslands lunch series three years ago. It was on the “buffalo commons,” an idea published in Planning magazine in the 1980’s, suggesting that the emptying American prairie should be returned to buffalo rangeland. The idea was virulently rejected. But yesterday I read in the High Country News that Montana is slowly introducing free-ranging bison. Perhaps with enough committed minds, the commons - east and west - will get their chance to succeed.

“There’s a myth that people in poor communities don’t know anything, or they need help. They don’t need help, they need liberation.”

—Tanya Fields

The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy will be hosting their third annual policy workshop webinar series, Frontiers in Food and Agriculture, this Tuesday, September 17th at 12:00 pm. The series will start with
Tanya Fields, executive director of the BLK ProjeK, and a presentation that explores how addressing food justice and economic development can create small business and career opportunities for underserved women and youth of color.

Register for the webinar here!

Check out a YSFP podcast with Fields and intern Kendra Dawsey ‘14 from last February.

Ron DeSantis: Creating “The Fellowship of a Table”

The letters “CMC” are stitched into Ron DeSantis’s white coat. The terse abbreviation does not do justice to his full title: Certified Master Chef. He’s one of only 67 people alive in the country who can honestly print that on their business card. The lofty epithet of “master” was bestowed upon him after he passed a rigorous ten-day exam that tests one’s skills at freestyle menu planning and food preparation, as well as one’s knowledge of gastronomy and nutrition. Only 12 percent of people pass all the stages; a Navy SEAL candidate can expect a higher success rate.

He is Yale Dining’s current (and first) Director of Culinary Excellence; the position was created for him. Don’t let the “master chef” designation lead you to think Ron wears a cape everywhere or acts holier-than-thou. Once he began speaking at a Master’s Tea in Trumbull College, he struck me as humble and down-to-earth. If he took off the coat and told me he was a barber, I would believe him.

Ron began his three-decade-long professional culinary career in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he went through cooking school and placed 28th in a class of 30. He got better with practice, and after leaving the service enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, “the original CIA.” His Jedi-like education continued when he moved to Germany, which he felt attracted to because all the great chefs he had met at the CIA seemed to have foreign accents. He originally planned to stay for a year; that turned into five years, because it took a while to convince this one pretty German girl to marry him.

As a chef, Ron has cooked at restaurants like the Ritz Carlton, taught at the CIA, served as the presidential chef at Camp David, and consulted for Sonic, McDonald’s, and Borders (he apologizes for the sandwiches they once served in their café).

Food has the potential to evoke strong emotions in people, and Ron says his mission as a chef is to craft memorable experiences with the dishes he serves up, whether it’s to George Bush or some bearded Yale junior scribbling incessantly in a pocket notebook. To him, the Pixar film Ratatouille—particularly the scene where the restaurant critic eats the peasant food and is taken back to a meal his mother made him when he was a young boy—really nails the joy of the culinary arts. Every meal is an opportunity to make someone’s day great.

Eager to show us just how great our days can get, Ron announces that he has talked enough about himself, and leads us into the Trumbull master’s kitchen for a cooking demo. The dish he has in mind is pasta with sautéed vegetables and a white bean velouté sauce. It’s both vegan and gluten-free. Ron sees the trend in American eating towards a more plant-based diet as a good thing, and tries to practice it himself.

He floats to the front of the cutting board, swifty picking up the chef’s knife and beginning to chop up shiitake and cremini mushrooms. The up-and-down movement of the blade reminds me of a sewing machine. Then it ceases.

“Of course,” Ron says, “I’m just showing off.”

He then demonstrates how to chop properly, first on the remaining mushrooms, then an onion and some sun-dried tomatoes. The tips he shares—hone a knife with a steel every time you use it to keep it sharp, place a wet paper towel under the cutting board to keep it from slipping, fold your non-dominant fingers and rest the middle phalanges against the blade—all sound familiar to me; I’ve heard them from cookbooks and other chefs I’ve encountered. It pleases me to recognize a canon of cooking.

Now it’s time to make some sauce. “All blenders are not created equal,” Ron tells us. Well, his blender, “a Vitamix knock-off,” appears to be at the top of the heap. If kitchen appliances were evaluated for overall quality by their potential to cause damage when dropped on someone’s head, this one would be a winner. Ron pours in some cooked white beans and vegetable broth that had been simmering on the gas stove, and then kicks the blender into high gear. The roar of the blades spinning at 30,000 RPM, pulverizing the ingredients into a white paste, compels Ron to yell in order for all of us to hear.

“You really just want to let it run for a while! When the food’s as smooth as possible, you unlock the most nutrients out of it!” That part sounded like something I had heard on a late-night NutriBullet infomercial, so I asked him if it was really true. “Oh yeah!” I guess you can believe some things you hear on TV.

The sauce is composed of just the two ingredients, beans and broth. The simplicity lends potential for a wide variety of meal types. “I would serve this dish to anybody,” Ron tells us as the blender whirlpool dies down. “The beans and stock make a great mother sauce that can be used in all sorts of cuisine. Mediterranean, Asian, whatever.”

Let’s go back to the veggies. Ron tosses the chopped mushrooms into a pan over high heat, with no oil. It’s not long before they begin to sizzle.

“Hear that?” Ron asks us. “Cooking is all of your senses.” He keeps his distance from the whispering mushrooms. “Everybody wants to move stuff around when it’s in a hot pan like this. Well, don’t worry, it’s cooking!” If you don’t disturb the food while it’s cooking, you get more caramelization, therefore more flavor. Ron merely monitors them with a watchful eye. “The equipment never burns food. You do.”

As if he’s received some signal that’s invisible to the rest of us, he snatches up a bottle and drizzles some extra-virgin olive oil into the pan. The hearty Italian aroma of browning mushrooms and hot oil fills the kitchen. Ron notices the pleasant change in the group’s expressions. “See, it’s the smallest things! You can make a room full of people salivate just by sautéing some onions!”

He picks up the pan and carries it around to give us all a peek at the delicious alchemy that’s taking place inside. Heating the mushrooms reduces their moisture content; this causes them to shrink and concentrates their umami flavor.

Into the pan go the diced onion and julienned tomatoes. He leaves it alone for a bit (caramelization!), then dumps the white bean velouté sauce onto the veggies. It smothers the sizzling. Next comes the steaming rotini pasta. Stirring the end result together, Ron mentions how rotini is an ideal noodle to use for a dish like this; the sauce invades every nook and cranny of the pasta surface.

After about 25 minutes total prep and cooking time, the meal is ready. Ron spoons some of the pasta into a bowl and brings it to his face. He takes a slow whiff of it, then holds his spoon in the air like a confident professor holds a piece of chalk. “As a cook,” he says, “What should you do before serving your guests the main meal?”

We know this one. “Taste it,” we answer.

He shakes his head. “Torture them!” He plunges the spoon into the dish and takes the first bite.

Jackson Blum ‘15 is a farm managing intern.

Sweet Pea

Product Development Specialist intern Shizue RocheAdachi ‘15 makes a mean salsa. Here, she shares a radio piece reflecting on her time as a ranch hand.

There is a grace to death––a beauty to be found in the heavy moments that linger as present becomes past. The slaughter of an animal is rarely afforded such moments of grace, however, as carcasses are hung and processed in rapid motion, each worker on the slaughterhouse floor making a repeated slicing motion. Yet when I had the opportunity, as a ranch hand, to participate in a field slaughter after one of our steers had broken his leg in the cattle guard, I discovered that there was another way to carry an animal into death.

This is a five minute piece I put together of some audio taken on that cool morning, as wet clouds hung low providing a welcome respite from the summer heat. It is not a somber or gruesome piece, rather I like to think I captured the sweetness of the event and the sense of ceremony. There is a respect afforded as the eighty-year-old butcher, Tom, pulls the skin from the steer he lovingly refers to as “sweet pea” but there is also an understanding that this is not something to treat as precious. A steer breaks his leg, he is shot, he is skinned, he is cut open, he is gutted, he is sliced in half, and he is loaded into the back of a pick-up truck to hang in a cooler before being broken down into cuts. This is the way it goes.

A Tale of Two Berkshires: finding common ground

What I first saw looked like a scene from a Norman Rockwell: 70-year-old farmers and their families gathered around picnic tables, making small talk, as the hosts put the final touches on the buffet just a few yards away in the sugar house. As in a classic painting of New England farmers, these men wore overalls and leather boots. Many had hearing aids, and some walked with canes. These were not the new farmers of my generation, setting up shop in this region in a quest to return to the land as their parents or more likely their grandparents did. These were not the farmers you would read about in glossy New York Times Magazine articles, or hear their stories on your local NPR station. No, these were the farmer-members of the Berkshires chapter of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, the state chapter of the national Farm Bureau. And I, as a representative of Berkshire Grown, the local food umbrella organization I was working for this past summer, had stumbled into their annual summer legislative picnic, to listen to their concerns, and share what Berkshire Grown was doing to better our local food system.

I quickly realized that these were not farmers I had previously met. I had spent the last few weeks criss-crossing the Berkshires, meeting with Berkshire Grown members from every corner of the county. Small-scale blueberry producers, five-acre veggie farms and grass-fed beef operations – I had become acquainted with the local agriculture scene in the Berkshires, one that is mostly boutique, small-scale, and often-times removed from much of the population that lives in the region. But these farmers were different. They were the Larkins who had been dairy farming in Sheffield since the 1800s, and ran one of the largest (industrial) dairy operations in the region. They were the Leabs (who hosted the picnic at their Ioka Valley Farm) who raise cattle on GMO feed. I so hate to use the word “real,” but I can’t lie: Throughout the event, I kept telling myself, “these are real farmers.”  

The food that they brought to the potluck picnic made this point clear: These farmers weren’t interested in a boutique local food system – they didn’t choose to farm in the Berkshires because it was a hip thing to do. They had been farming in the hills of Western Massachusetts for generations, and are completely different from the back-to-the-land farms down the road from them that Berkshire Grown mostly represents. It’s like comparing Chicago deep-dish pizza and New York thin crust pizza. I can’t argue that one is better than the other; both types of farms are feeding people, they just have totally different missions.

I found myself caught in the crossfire of farmers and politicians – never a pleasant place to be – that sunny July afternoon at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock. After we (the farmers, organization representatives like myself, and politicians) had helped ourselves to the heaping stacks of food – GMO corn that was the sweetest I ever had, green bean casserole, homemade and likely-not-organic pickles, etc – we listened to speeches from the various politicians in attendance. Soon after members of the Berkshire delegation to the Massachusetts State House and Senate started speaking about their efforts pertaining to food/agriculture, farmers immediately started voicing their concerns about the recent GMO labeling propositions. One farmer blurted out, in the middle of a politician’s speech, “Just because those New York City second home folks are willing to pay more for their food doesn’t make it fair to the rest of us locals! We all use GMO feed and they better get used to it. No one knows what real farming is all about!”

This summed up the day for me. There I was, wearing my Berkshire Grown hat, driving my hybrid car, and thinking I knew it all about the local food system, but it was pretty clear I didn’t. It’s a complicated issue, and too often, we think by farming on a small-scale, we’re saving the world. We have to remember: There are folks out there who have been farming a lot longer than us, who are deeply set in their ways, and are feeding a lot of people. I’m not defending industrial agriculture by any means. All I’m saying is that it’s time we start looking at the bigger picture.

Rafi Bildner ‘16 is a farm managing intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

Hopeful Action for an Ecologically Conscious Agriculture: An Conversation with Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and Mark Bittman on the Future of Agriculture

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On Friday April 4th, fellow YSFP intern Eamon Heberlein ‘16 and I made our way to Cooper Union in New York City for an evening of Wes and Wendell. Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, that is.  The talk, entitled “Nature as Measure” was a conversation on the state of agriculture and the ways in which progress in the agricultural sector necessitates a shift from an industrial consciousness to an ecological one.   Nature as measure stood as the condensed title for this transition of metrics.  Encouraging ecological cohesion by comparing agricultural systems to natural processes––striving to achieve the balance seen in natural ecosystems––rather than relying on measures of yields, profit, etc. is the key to developing resilient, sustainable agricultural models.

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Okay, so that last (somewhat run-on) sentence is compelling but not particularly earth shattering; modeling agricultural after natural processes is not a novel concept.  On the train into New York I was unsure how productive the talk would be: What would I really glean from Wes and Wendell that I didn’t already know? Like most of you reading this tumblr, I’d already drunk the Kool-Aid.  I didn’t need convincing that an ecological rather than industrial consciousness was needed to repair our agricultural system.  Wes and Wendell are figure heads in the so-called sustainable food movement, the former titled “a poet statesmen” in his introduction; but why listen to them now? 

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Well, as Wendell so lucidly put it (in his typical fashion) the language of ecological modeling and land respect in agriculture, despite its seeming ubiquity, is still absent in most discussions of systemic change and large scale transformation.  “We’ve spent 200 years increasing our yields, and 200 years decreasing our natural endowment,” Wes stated, and the sort of cultural mentality that engrains such actions is hard to recalibrate.  As Wes put it, we’re in the “talk, no do,” sometime “talk, do,” phase of this so-called movement; we need to be in the just “do” phase.  The talk may be ubiquitous but the activation of that talk on the ground is not.

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So how do we “just do”?  It’s not about having a plan, Wendell stated.  Plans, he says, are futile and he is wary of anyone who thinks he has a “plan” for fixing the food system.  Rather action is momentum.  Being part of the sustainable food movement, or as I find myself describing more often “the reach for agricultural resiliency,” means you’ve made a commitment before we had a strategy.  At least, that’s Wes characterization.  This distinction, this dedication in principle before semantics come into play, is key.  We stumble yet we do not quit, for we have dedicated ourselves to the long haul, not just a singular problem. Our move for change may be clumsy, Wendell stated, but its persistent.

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As we move forward, unsteadily but purposefully, there is reason for hope.  Wes warned that it is hope, however, and not optimism that we must cultivate.  Hope suggests an intention to act upon; optimism is a trap.  Wes warned that optimism and pessimism are just “opposite forms of the same surrender to simplicity.”  Being optimistic would mean ignoring the complexity of the obstacles ahead; it would mean resigning oneself to a sense of unearned contentment.  In other words, change is as slow and complicated as the ecological systems we are striving to learn from.  And change will only be achieved as we move forward, in Wendell’s words, more “humbly, alertly, and pleasingly.”

Change, however, does not rely on the dramatic swinging back of the pendulum from industrial models, Wes noted.  Absolutism, he warned, is unproductive.  Organic agriculture does not have to be the standard, chemicals can be employed sparingly: “I take aspirin but I’m not an addict,” he quipped.  It is more about developing a land mentality.  We must learn to look to the land in labor as we drive across Kansas rather than the horizon in search of snow-capped mountains; we must learn to value our acres year-round, rather than leaving them to erode in April before the bare soil is coated in soy and corn seed.  So the high morality we’re reaching for, it’s not anything as specific as “organic,” or “local,” or any other neoliberal niche market coinable terms.  Rather, we’re reaching for a system that legally and socially actualizes a vision based on a respect for land and a mimicry of natural systems.

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Industrial agriculture is a dragon, Wendell says, and it’s pretty much dead.  It’s brain, the little one it had, is surely dead, but it’s death throws are tearing the country apart.  And so have hope, not optimism, that we might stay the violent thrashes until our fire-breathing aggressor is defeated.  We may not win in a single stone throw, but we can still beat our Goliath.  We’ll probably just need a lot more rocks. 

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So maybe I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid but have I wielded a stone (or two or three)?  Leaving the auditorium I began to consider how I might manifest my hope for a resilient food system in my actions.  Enough with the talk.  We’re moving towards “just do.”

by Shizue Roche-Adachi ‘15
photos by Eamon Heberlein ‘16

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Pauline Chiquet ‘15 is a Pizza and Events Intern, who reflects on her time WWOOFing in Montespertoli, Italy.

Making wine requires a lot of work. Although wine is one of the oldest fermented beverages and has been made for thousands of years, many of the processes have had to change to accommodate the large-scale demand for wine. Today, tractors harvest grapes when they are ready. A different machine is then used to process and crush the grapes. And finally, the wine fermentation process occurs in a factory that is often far from the vineyard itself. Bottles of wine are end up disconnected from their source. This past Spring Break I got to do it all by hand.

Having recently discovered WWOOF-ing, I was interested in learning more about agriculture in a region I was not familiar with. A friend and I ventured off with our bags on our backs, stomachs eager for good food, and virtually no idea how to get to the rural wine village of Montespertoli embedded in the hills of Tuscany, Italy. Many miles and broken Italian conversations later, we arrived at the farm of a man who had vowed to produce wine by the archaeological methods the Italians had used in antiquity.

Each day was a different kind of journey through time, starting with the process of bottling and ending with a walk through the pruned vineyard. Our first day, we bottled over 400 bottles of a sulfite-free red wine called Vinum Rosso. We started by pumping the wine from the shed where it was being aged, across the yard and into a large barrel. With another tube attached to a food processor-like vacuum, the bottles could be filled with wine.

When each bottle was full, the corks could be squeezed to fit inside and then silver, gold, and black caps were set on over the openings. Finally labels were placed on the bottles by hand to obtain the final product. Three barrels of three different wines, approximately 110 cases, and 990 bottles later, we traveled back in time to the beginning of the wine-making process: the vineyard with bare, grape-less vines.

The weather had not been particularly nice to us on our trip. Expecting a warm escape from New England winter, we packed our swimsuits and shorts, but instead found ourselves searching for stores that sold fleece jackets to protect us from the relentless rain and cold. The two weeks of continuous rain, the longest Tuscany had ever really seen, had made everything incredibly muddy. When we set out to prune the vines, the ankle-deep mud was inhibiting. In a way, it forced us to recognize that labor like this without machines was truly difficult.

Despite this, our host was truly passionate about his crops and eager to continue making wines using traditional methods.

What was most amazing about the archaeological wine-making process and the general attitudes towards food at the farm was how closely attached our host was to his crops. Lunch was often picked when it was time to cook, and food, just as the grapes for the wine, was always just a short walk outside. Producing wine on site, like we did, gave it a sense of authenticity I was not used to prior to traveling to Italy. It was something to be proud of.

And we felt it at every meal. We felt the pride hand cracking almonds from the tree in the yard for almond cookies. We felt it after eating a traditional peasant’s stew called ribollita whose simplicity was so comforting. And we felt it with the grin of our host as he pulled out pizza from the oven with fresh chicken eggs whose yolks were so orange they did not even look like eggs—I was skeptical at first, but eggs on pizza are awesome!

Guido Guilandi taught me to be proud of my food. While not everyone has the direct access to the freshest produce as one has living on a farm, food can always be a way of self-expression. Guido began his winery because he was unhappy with the wine he was drinking and believed he could do better. Similarly, food is potential change. The closer we are to what we eat, the greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction we feel around the table.

Since coming to work at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, I have learned to appreciate the possibilities of food. Working as a Pizza and Events intern, I have been able to experiment with different vegetable combinations on pizza, and I am proud each day of what food can accomplish.

School Food in New Haven

Pizza and Events Intern Maddie Marino ‘15 talks about some of the problems associated with institutional food and how the New Haven Food Policy Council is working to fix them.

Microwaved pizza can be a suitable breakfast if the slice has been marinating in your fridge overnight and the herbs have integrated themselves into the tomato sauce and crust is still crispy. But it gets old every day for lunch. I spent this summer working for the New Haven Food Policy Council on an effort to figure out how we can build a food system in schools that does not nourish our children solely with reheated pizza.

The goal of the project was to get more local farm food into public school kitchens. As it turns out, these kitchens are a rare commodity. Most of the “kitchens” in New Haven’s public schools are more like reheating stations. Each school receives frozen pre-cooked lunches in sheet pans from one big Central Kitchen, and then reheats this food to serve to students for lunch. The kitchens in each individual school aren’t doing much cooking of their own, and consequently, aren’t really kitchens.  Staples included ovens, pans, and tongs, but items we might consider fundamental to cooking are absent: no mixing bowls, no cutting boards, no stovetops.

So let’s say hypothetically we tried to bring one school a couple pounds of beets to cook with. What would they chop them on? What would they peel them with? What would they cook them in? Introducing raw farm foods does not seem so feasible in this set-up.  

We took an inventory of each school’s kitchen and found that a couple schools did in fact have cooking utensils suitable for raw farm foods, tucked away in back rooms from before the Central Kitchen system was implemented. So these schools could be good places to start introducing local farm foods. Another idea would be to bring the ingredients to Central Kitchen itself. This would allow the farm ingredients to reach schools that did not have leftover cooking equipment—a welcomed goal as these equipment-barren schools are often located in the poorest communities of New Haven where students are likely not getting fresh veggies at home.

To that point, should we even be spending this much effort to improve the quality of food in schools when many of our citizens do not have enough money for food itself? In the six poorest communities in New Haven, four out of every ten people have experienced food insecurity in the past month. That is, they have not had always had enough money to buy the food they need. So is our farm food goal missing the point?  

This is a question I often return to, but I do think in this case the focus of the project is well-chosen and poised to have long-lasting consequences: feeding our children farm food in schools does not only nourish them better at present, it also sets them on life-long patterns of eating nutritious food. Part of the challenge tied up in food insecurity is getting individuals nutrient-rich foods. But providing these foods will only be beneficial if people choose to eat them. I hope that feeding children nutrient-rich food while they are in school will set them up well to choose nutrient-rich foods once they are on their own. 

New Entry and Food Access in Boston

Events Intern Jake Wolf-Sorokin ‘16 discusses his work with New Entry, a nonprofit serving the Greater Boston Area and questions his own food choices.

Up until leaving for college, I had spent my entire life living in the greater Boston area. For the first 18 years of my life, I knew one farmer by name: my uncle who raised lamb in rural Minnesota. Once I began thinking about the sources of food, it became hard to escape. Where had that tomato I’d eaten on my sandwich at lunch every day—even during New England’s winter—actually come from? Who picked it? Were they treated fairly? Was it organic? If not, what kinds of chemicals was it grown with? How was it shipped to Boston? Would the label tell me anything? Why couldn’t I find out all this information? What structural systems was I supporting by taking a bite out of that tomato? And couldn’t I be asking these questions about everything I eat?

The lack of connection to my food—one of life’s vital ingredients—began to really unsettle me. It seemed every question, generated three more until I’d cast aside the tomato, the lettuce, the turkey and the sprouts. All that was left of my lunch were two pieces of sourdough bread. I’d decided they were ok since they came from a bakery near my home that got its flour from an organic grower in New York. That’s when I began to see food consumption as a political act. In the short term, as someone living in an urban area, I lacked a means of escaping this food system. Without eating sandwiches like the one I described, I’d have trouble living. But by seeking answers to my questions and making efforts to change my habits, I’d be able to make some progress on a longer timescale. And that’s why I decided to intern at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an organization dedicated to helping aspiring organic farmers open viable farms near urban areas in Eastern Massachusetts.

Through my work, I had the chance to meet scores of small farmers aiming to make local farming the norm—or at least more common—again in America. “My goal for the future is to continue farming and to continue to supply people in the community,” Bessie Tsimba—one of these farmers—told me. She moved to the United States from Zimbabwe in 1988. Like most immigrants, Bessie arrived without much land—let alone enough to begin a garden or farm. So for 20 years, Bessie—like most Americans—cooked with grains and vegetables bought at the grocery store. Over time she began to see farming as a reminder of home and a way to promote healthy eating.

In 2009, Bessie seized upon her renewed interest in farming and began a small-scale organic farm. “It’s something we grew up doing back home and I benefit from eating organic,” she said. Five years into her endeavor, Bessie sells her produce to a cooperative CSA and to many of her friends who also came to America from Zimbabwe. “I know the things they miss [from] back home,” Bessie told me. By growing maize and other crops common in Africa, but harder to find in the United States, Bessie has created a community around her farm.

Her optimism inspired me. Like many of the farmers trained by New Entry, Bessie didn’t have the means to give up her other job to farm full time. And despite five years of effort, she does not ever expect her farm to become her principal income. Bessie’s belief in the importance of food as a means of enriching culture and community motivates her.

As an organization, New Entry aims to ensure its farmers have a guaranteed source of income by operating a cooperative CSA. Although this CSA does not provide enough income to support a full time farmer, the World PEAS CSA represents a good first opportunity for many new farmers. Over the last 15 years, New Entry has helped to dramatically increase the ranks of urban, organic farmers in Eastern Massachusetts through its farmer training programs. Yet challenges remain: given the dense population of the region, the sum total of food produced by all these farmers represents a small fraction of the food needed to sustain all of the areas residents.

After spending a summer conducting farmer interviews for an analysis of New Entry’s success and working to promote the cooperative CSA, I left feeling both inspired and realistic. Centering our food system on sustainability and community health will require a dramatic change in our society’s understanding of what it means to consume food. Yet through the dedicated, passionate work of individuals like Bessie Tsimba and organizations like New Entry, these seeds of change in the food system are beginning to grow. Realigning our food system around sustainability and community health will require the collective effort of many individuals, beginning with a desire to understand the nuances of the connection between the food we consume and its source.

Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program supports the extracurricular study of food systems. In our inaugural year, four students proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system. As a part of their experience, they will be checking in with the YSFP (and the world) through our Tumblr – stay tuned to read their reports and revelations! 

It was a late on a Thursday afternoon. Our Mahindra truck bumped along the narrow, curvy road. The horn honked rhythmically as the vehicle spun around the switchbacks, ascending the hills of the Dolakha district. Eventually we pulled off on the side of the road, brandished our umbrellas and stepped out into the rain. Following the narrow path that wound its way down from the road, we walked closer to the plume of smoke rising from the chimney below. Mid-July’s monsoon rains may have sent many in Kathmandu Valley seeking cover, but here in Dolakha the rains marked a season of great productivity. Driving to the Napkeyen Mara Community Forest User Group (CFUG), located some distance outside the district headquarters of Charikot, we passed scores of people—young and old, male and female—tending to their rice paddies as the raindrops fell. When we arrived under the tin roof covering the warm hearth, we were met by a similarly varied group of people. Carrying baskets full of wintergreen leaves from the forest, they arrived at this warm, dry oasis of sorts to deliver their harvest and collect their pay.

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CFUG members deliver freshly cut wintergreen.

The people of Napkeyen Mara and neighboring CFUGs have been collaborating in wintergreen processing—through a community owned enterprise—for the past decade. On this Thursday afternoon, it was time to refill the vat used to distill the wintergreen into oil, so several men emptied the already distilled plants from the vat. Boys and girls and their mothers and fathers delivered freshly cut wintergreen—which would later be loaded into the vat for distillation—to the storeroom. The manager inspected the finished oil and dispensed payments for the fresh wintergreen.

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The distillation vat holds 600 kg of Wintergreen and is refilled once every day during the processing season.

Lazarus Summer Intern Sarah Gross ’17 recently wrote, “It wasn’t immediately clear to me why we were going to the forest besides that forests are really cool. But looking at timber as a crop pushed me to think about our farm.” In many ways, that’s how I felt about this experience. When I asked those delivering fresh wintergreen what they used the money for, they said they paid their phone bills and bought schoolbooks, pens, paper and other household items. It took me a while to realize it, but in essence, this enterprise helped families to continue the area’s traditional subsistence farming. Because the wintergreen efforts provide income, families don’t need to look to food crops as their principal source of revenue. Therefore pesticide use is relatively uncommon in the area since many farmers only aim to produce enough food for their family, and perhaps a bit more.

According to the CFUG and enterprise leaders I interviewed, the business has enabled the establishment of a CFUG based development fund. In an area where interest rates are usually prohibitively high (18-24%), CFUGs have used their group’s royalties from the enterprise to offer the poorest members zero interest loans of up to 10,000 Nepalese Rupees (approx. $100) for two years. This access to capital has allowed many villagers to improve their irrigation systems and invest in livestock, especially goats, which many now raise to consume and sell to other villagers.

The interviews we conducted that afternoon will stay with me for a long time. When we think of agriculture, we can’t just think in the context of food, as many so often do. In her article Stone Soupfor the July 28th issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert notes that “agriculture was ‘invented’” about 10,000 years ago. Those who continue to practice agriculture today, whether living in California’s Central Valley, New Haven, rural Nepal or anywhere in between, inhabit a world dominated by the fruits of civilization that, in Kolbert’s words, “could be said to owe its origin to those first farmers scratching with sticks in the dirt.”

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With other staff from ANSAB, I spent the afternoon interviewing CFUG members and enterprise staff about the role of the enterprise in the region’s system of agriculture.

Agriculture is now more than a technique, for many it is an occupation. Raising food for one’s family is no longer sufficient; farmers need to be able to pay for basic expenses like electricity and propane. In places like Nepal’s Dolakha district, where the concept of agriculture as an occupation is a more recent phenomenon, agricultural people are still working to determine how best to earn a living given their limited opportunities for income generation. This poses great environmental risks as a combination of poor education, a lack of information and the drive to earn money threaten the area’s traditional sustainable agriculture. Through our research, it has become clear to me that programs working to provide alternative income generating opportunities by expanding the definition of agriculture beyond food production— like ANSAB’s ecosystem services certification project (which I wrote about last time)—are an important ingredient in establishing a healthy, economically and environmentally viable system of agriculture in rural Nepal.

            Jacob Wolf-Sorokin is a rising junior at Yale University majoring in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and an Academic-Year Intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. His summer internship at ANSAB is funded through the generous support of the Lazarus Global Food Fellows Program at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the International Studies Fellowship at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for Summer Foreign Travel at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

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