Local Dining From Farm to Fork - 405 Magazine

Local Dining From Farm to Fork

Whether or not transporting food from far away is a waste of energy (and it might not be), availing yourself of Oklahoma’s bounty has the benefit of supporting area entrepreneurs who make every effort to provide top-tier cuisine with total transparency – and that should whet anyone’s appetite.

The Word “Local” Has Become One Of Those Labels –
Like Green Or Fair Trade – That Represents Both A Growing Awareness About The Effects Of Our Purchasing, And The
Desire To Make Sure That Consumption Is At Least Somewhat Conscientious.

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Although arguably an idea as old as the hills – calls for “buying American” have long been a hallmark of the push to provide economic stimulation and job security in the United States – the idea of limiting one’s scope of consumption as a method of reducing ecological impact gained wider popularity after the 2007 publication of “Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally,” a book by Canadian writers Alisa Smith and J. B. MacKinnon. Released in Canada as “The 100 Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating,” MacKinnon and Smith’s memoir about their decision to eat only locally produced foods for a year became a tangible example for those looking for ways to live lightly and reconnect food with a sense of place, an association sometimes lost in a time when products can often travel thousands of miles from origin to plate.

While not the only point in the book, the motivation to eat locally as a way of limiting environmental overhead was a key point, and the inspiration for many locavores, both before and after the publication of “Plenty.” The idea is that by reducing the number of miles that food travels before you consume it, you’re reducing the emissions caused by its transportation, thus slimming down your carbon footprint. It’s a concept that seems to make sense, but one that Austin-based author and historian James McWilliams calls into question.

In his book “Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong,” McWilliams proposed that life cycle assessments of products, rather than simple distance calculations, are a more valuable way of ascertaining how much ecological “cost” should be associated with any given product.

“A life cycle assessment is simply a comprehensive look at all of the energy that’s used to bring a product from farm to fork,” McWilliams explains. “They’re valuable because they’re broken down in terms of sectors of production, so you can see where the energy to make a particular product is being most aggressively consumed. What we have found through life cycle assessments is that the stage of production that actually uses the most energy is not transportation, as a lot of people assume. Transportation actually accounts for a small percentage of the energy that’s used to get food to our plates.”

In the world of dueling scientific studies, several have been found to prove that ultimately, large-scale production of certain items may not be as ecologically devastating as it would seem – and might even, in some cases, be more economical. A Swedish study found that in terms of reducing use of fossil fuels, it was more environmentally beneficial for Swedes to purchase tomatoes grown in Spain, rather than those grown in their own country, where energy-greedy greenhouses were necessary for production.

Upward Harvest's 3,400-square-foot greenhouse.

Food miles may sound outrageous when applied to a single meal, for a single individual, but when factored in to the size of shipment and divided amongst thousands of other recipients, the number shrinks dramatically. Efficiency of transportation accounts for quite a bit of ecological cost, as well; rail transport has been revealed to be safer and more cost- and fuel-efficient than using trucks, when both were compared side by side in a 2002 study.

Concern about “food miles” aside, are there still good reasons to search out local products? Despite cautions about viewing the locavore movement as a solution for worldwide food problems, the answer for James McWilliams is a hearty “yes.”

“I actively support local farms. I like the idea of sourcing our food as locally as possible when it makes sense to do so. I went to the farmer’s market yesterday, and was reminded of the social benefits that come from buying food directly from the farmer. I think it’s really an important element of buying food that we’ve lost.”

In addition to the relational gains of reacquainting consumers with farmers, Oklahoma Food Co-op president Bob Waldrop says that getting your food locally could also be a little safer.

Upward Harvest facilities

“When you become part of the Oklahoma Food Co-op, you become part of a community,” Waldrop says. “We have transparency in our production practices.

“There has never been a food recall of meat processed in an Oklahoma processing plant that has been inspected by the USDA. That’s a critical thing. They’re proud of that record and they’re intent on keeping that record. We have 19 different meat producers in our co-op, and it’s all done in USDA inspected plants, so they (consumers) can expect the highest degree of safety. I know the names of everyone who grew the meat in my freezer; I can call them up and ask them questions. You’re not going to find that type of transparency and relationship at a big box store.”

That type of open door policy may not be feasible for every farmer in the state, but it’s firmly in place at Upward Harvest (upwardharvest.com), where the Flatt family grows microgreens and herbs. Available at metro area grocery stores (including various Uptown and Buy for Less branches), and soon through online ordering, which will allow customers to come and eyeball the unique aquaponic operation for themselves, the farm’s hyper-efficient system (consisting of a 3,400-square-foot greenhouse on a single acre of land) has the ability to produce 50,000 microgreens per month. Travis Flatt says that the microgreens’ dynamic nutritional value is magnified by the fact that the plant is still alive when sold, a perk that is at least partially due to their short travel time – another benefit of local food.

Upward Harvest Owners Olivia and Travis Flatt.

“If you eat a big head of romaine, you’re getting a lot of mass, but little nutrition, especially if it’s been shipped from somewhere. All of the plants we sell are still living, roots still intact, until you harvest them.”

Despite the ambiguity about local consumption’s lessening our tread on the earth, there’s no doubt that creating connections between people who care about where their food comes from will yield results that have positive environmental impacts. Jennifer Bloodworth of JS Farms, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) based in Purcell, relates how such relationships are already bearing fruit in her area.

“A friend of mine runs the local farmer’s market and she owns Café 77 in Noble. We were discussing how to recreate the farmer’s market in Oklahoma, the kind you see on the east and west coast, teaching classes, etc. and the discussion just snowballed. I asked what the restaurant did with their food scraps, and she said, ‘Well, they just go in the trash.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t you give me your scraps, and we can reduce your carbon footprint and I can repurpose your waste (as compost).’ She started doing research about how to make that happen, and now we’re getting other businesses involved. That compost helps us grow food for the community.”

Jennifer is also an advocate for Oklahomans taking the local adventure a step closer; their own backyards.

“If it [growing] intimidates you, start small, a 12-inch diameter pot with a few things, and once that is successful you’ll want to add more to that.”

For the home-grower who develops a taste for more, Jennifer has co-founded the Central Oklahoma Homesteaders group – find them at facebook.com/oklahomahomesteader – where ambitious souls can find answers to questions about raising chickens, composting and other earthy topics. Jennifer says that even the most urban among us can indulge their green thumbs.

“There are a ton of ways to get creative. I’ve seen people use plastic shoe organizers on fences to grow vertical gardens. It’s just thinking outside the box. The more you grow in your yard, the less you’ll have to mow. If you start small you won’t be intimidated and you’ll pace yourself.”

For those starting from scratch and wondering what to plant, when, visit osufacts.okstate.edu to find an Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet about garden planning.

Economic advantages also play a part in the positives about locally focused consuming; generally speaking, a larger percentage of the money spent goes directly to the producer when you buy local, and you’re supporting Oklahoma jobs and a certain degree of food independence.

Urban Agrarian Harvest

“California is facing a drought,” says Matthew Burch, founder of Urban Agrarian, referencing that state’s status as the producer of nearly half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States. “We certainly have the ability here to raise a lot of our own food. I think that this year local food may be a little more on the radar because of the drought in California … it’s important to have a local foodshed just for that reason, because you never know what the weather’s going to do and we don’t want to rely solely on one part of the country because those prices could skyrocket.”

Metro eatery Nonna’s receives much of the produce used in its dishes from Cedar Spring Farms, which was established for the purpose of supplying the restaurant with fresh fruits and vegetables. Owner Avis Scaramucci places a premium on quality, and says that nothing beats fresh produce.

“When you’re serving in a restaurant,” Scaramucci says, “If you want great food, you have to begin with great ingredients.”

“I’ve never regretted it; it gives me the ability to use really nice, fresh ingredients. We have the advantage of not harvesting our products until they’re truly ripe, which gives them the ability to be at the peak of freshness and the peak of taste.”

Scaramucci also points to a heightened sense of responsibility, as a local grower/producer, that might encourage more mindful practices.

“Anybody growing local will have a different commitment because it’s used in that area; that’s just a different thing from growing and sending it halfway around the world. Everything I produce, I’m responsible for.”

The wholesomeness of the local food movement – the desire to reconnect with the people who produce what we eat, the move to connect place with nourishment – seems to echo a simpler time, one that Scaramucci believes we would do well to emulate once again.

“I think it’s past time that we come back to some things that at one point we probably called old fashioned, but were probably the very best of practices,” Scaramucci says. “We’ve kind of come full circle, even though we’ll still use supermarkets and have things shipped – you can’t have everything fresh – but to add to the possibilities, all the products that are left to grow until they’re truly ready to harvest, that are watched and properly maintained and handled … it’s just a whole different mindset and a commitment to producing something that tastes good and is good for you.

“And that’s a good combination.”

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Locavore Lingo

Getting excited about the prospect of local food? If you’re new to the quest, here are a few helpful hints about sourcing local stuff.

Find a farmer’s market. The term isn’t an automatic synonym for “locally grown;” there may be products there – depending on the size and location of the market – that have originated elsewhere, but your best chance for getting fresh-from-the-farm foodstuffs on a whim will be at a local farmer’s market. The National Farmer’s Market Directory has a page listing many of our state’s markets at nfmd.org/ok. Simply click on your town to find one.

Investigate CSAs and co-ops. When you want to get serious about your sourcing, consider joining a group designed to promote ongoing relationships between farmers and consumers, like a CSA or co-op. What’s the difference? A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a subscription service that is paid for upfront, before the growing season, and provides weekly deliveries to clients during harvest times. Online green guides like Ecovian’s at ecovian.com/s/oklahomacity/csa can help locate CSAs near you, but asking at farmer’s markets and local health food stores can provide clues as well. Co-ops like the Oklahoma Food Cooperative at oklahomafood.coop/ are organizations that require a nominal fee for membership, and then give you the ability to purchase available products monthly, as needed or according to supply.

Browse brick and mortar stores. As with farmers’ markets, the title of “health food store” isn’t a guarantee of local offerings – although most have at least a minimal presence of Okie-grown food – but as demand grows, more and more shops are cropping up that are intended to fill that need. Matthew Burch founded local food retail/distribution center Urban Agrarian in his garage in 2008, and has since graduated to a 5,000-square-foot space in the Old Farmer’s Market District downtown, providing retail and wholesale products to both individuals and entities committed to local food. The Made in Oklahoma Coalition (miocoalition.com/) branding campaign has made identifying locally produced items – ranging from Shawnee Mills flour to paper towels – easy in mainstream markets like Homeland and Crest, and herb and microgreen purveyors Upward Harvest can be found in the aisles at Buy for Less and Uptown grocery stores.

Engage with locally focused eateries. With the surge in consciousness about food’s proximity of place, many restaurants have made local sourcing a part of their plan, with tasty benefits. Nonna’s Euro-American Ristorante and Bar has grown much of its own produce for years, and many of the metro’s favorite dining haunts (The Loaded Bowl, Irma’s Burger Shack, Local, Ludivine, The Mule, Packard’s New American Kitchen and Whiskey Cake, to name just a few) openly cite their use of locally-provided ingredients, while the Made In Oklahoma Coalition website has an exhaustive list for those looking to dovetail their dining out with efforts to eat local. The level to which an establishment uses local products will vary from place to place; ask if you’re curious.

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Drinking Locally

Talk of limiting one’s consuming to state or regional boundaries may cause a bit of panic among Oklahoma’s oenophiles, but the wine scene in our great state has grown considerably over the past several years, and a new development has brought its visibility – and fun level – to new heights.
Debuting this summer, the Oklahoma Wine Trails are an interactive way for natives and tourists to experience Oklahoma wine and wineries. Ten cleverly named itineraries (“All You Do Is Wine” and “Forgive Me, For I Have Zinned” are two examples) take travelers on trips that can range in length from a weekend to a few hours, depending on the trail chosen.

Part cultural enterprise, part scavenger hunt, the Oklahoma Wine Trails provide the opportunity to either discover or deepen your knowledge of our state’s wines by traveling the trails and collecting stamps in a passport which can also serve as a journal if you want to keep notes, and then redeeming them for keepsake charms which represent each trail, once all of the wineries on a given route have been visited. Maps of each trail along with instructions and more information can be found at OklahomaWineTrails.com. Self-guided and limited in scope (each trail includes two to four wineries), the venture is meant to encourage leisurely exploration that can be accomplished with relative ease.

Far from being an exhaustive list (many wineries and vineyards were not included based on limited operating hours or distance), The Oklahoma Wine Trails nonetheless serves as a winsome introduction to the unique wine culture of our state, which has expanded significantly in the last decade. Jamie Cummings, program administrator for Oklahoma Agritourism, explains that local wine production has moved beyond a quirky niche market, to being an economic force and a competitive challenger to other U.S. producers.

“The Oklahoma wine industry has seen a surge from three wineries in 2000, to more than 60 today. That’s a 1600 percent increase in the last 10 years. Although the Oklahoma Grape and Wine industry is still very young, the state ranks 31st in wine production. All Oklahoma wineries produce around 4,000 cases of wine per year.”

A survey undertaken by the Oklahoma Grape Industry Council in 2010 to gauge the economic impact of the wine industry on Oklahoma estimated the retail value of Oklahoma wine sold at around $4 million, with over 100,000 wine-related tourists visiting the state, and more than $23 million in wages paid to Oklahoma workers.

So, the encouragement to eat and buy products grown and manufactured in Oklahoma as a way to stimulate our economy and provide Oklahoma businesses with revenue would seem to translate to sipping home-grown grape products as well. But more than that, there’s an aspect of state pride that comes with learning about Oklahoma wines. Wine writer Matt Kramer says in his book “Making Sense of Wine” that great wines are unique because their taste is inextricably linked with place. That they invariably, in his words, taste as if they came “from somewhere.” Kramer maintains that “somewhereness” can’t be faked, or even fully explained, but “when you taste a wine that has it, you know.”

Most Okies have a deep and abiding love for their state, and immersing oneself in locally produced wines might be a very productive way to deepen that relationship, if for no other reason than to search out the vintage that might hold that elusive taste that clearly says, “Oklahoma.”