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What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

foragefoodI’ve long wondered what it would be like to dedicate a week to eating only wild-foraged foods and this has been my week to give it a try.

The foraging experience is vastly different depending on the season. Early spring is abundant with fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, and savory mushrooms. Late summer has an array of ripe fruits and tree nuts. But mid-summer, while lacking in tender greens and beefy fungus, serves up a main course of berries – strawberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, serviceberries, elder berries, and huckleberries. I timed my week-long foraging experience to coincide with this wild-berry buffet.

I have some broader inquiries to make about the experience but here are some initial observations about the week.

1. It takes time: The first four days of the week all started with a couple hours of picking huckleberries in the mountains around the Spokane. My rule has been to pick only enough for each day, so each day has arrived with nothing in the cupboard. In this sense it’s the ultimate slow food. I’ve enjoyed the quiet time in the mountains for reflection each morning but the time required would make it difficult to fit into my non-sabbatical rhythms.

I could imagine making one day a week a forage day, sampling what nature offers up and intentionally making time to head out into the wilderness.

2. I’m surprised I’m not more hungry: My daughters’ softball tournaments later in the week led to afternoon foraging, which meant going long stretches without any food. To my great surpise my cravings have been minor during these long stretches. Early in the week I was cranky and hungry, but with six days under my belt my hunger has subsided. Last night I actually had leftovers from dinner.

I find this to be true every time fast. The first couple of days are miserable but after getting over that hurdle there is a quiet contentment that comes over my body and mind. At first I rebel against the limitations as a small crisis, but then the crisis passes and the limitations become a path to a strange peace. I suspect that this experience is what compels religious ascetics.

3. Berries get old after awhile: It seems like a dream come true to eat your fill of huckleberries every day but I’m kind of sick of them at this point. Thankfully I discovered purslane, a nice-tasting wild green that grows abundantly in our garden. There is a poisonous lookalike (spurge) that grows right alongside it so you have to be careful, but it is fantastic in a little stir-fry. It is also renowned for containing more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green vegetable.

I also discovered an old apricot tree on conservation area land in Spokane Valley. I have avoided gleaning from working farms but the apricot tree is wild at this point so it’s fair game. Because the tree isn’t being watered the fruits are small and the sugars are concentrated. Wow! The best apricots ever.

The purslane and apricots are good examples of the tasty but hidden abundance that surrounds us.

I’ve also eaten thimbleberries, serviceberries, and tiny strawberries.

4. There is enough: The first couple of days were filled with urgency. I wondered if I could gather enough each day to sustain me. I even picked strawberries the size of sunflower seeds, thinking that they might be all I would have for the day. I now know, at least this time of year, there is enough. Huckleberries are the perfect example.

Spokane is part of what I’ll call the Huckleberry Belt. You go anywhere in the mountain regions of Eastern Washington and Montana and you’ll find that huckleberries are a cultural icon. Red-fingered pickers sell them at stands on every corner in tourist towns and high-end boutiques carry lines of huckleberry soaps, make-up, and gourmet candy.

Whole families in this region dedicate summer-weeks for camping and picking berries, filling coolers with them for jams, pies, and the freezer. Everyone has their “secret spot” for picking and no one is too eager to share the details of the location. It’s one of those, “I’d tell you where we go for berries but then I’d have to kill you,” sort of situations.

There is a strong culture of scarcity around this legendary berry, primarily because it only grows in the wild. Despite their best efforts, hortculturists have failed to cultivate huckleberries for commercial growing. Like morel and porcini mushrooms, farmers can’t grow them and package them for Costco. It’s a wild plant and you have to go into the wild to harvest. Go here for more background on this.

This wildness lends itself to the sense of scarcity that surrounds the berry. If a food doesn’t grow in crop rows or through industrial practices, we can’t imagine there is enough and so we sneak around to keep others out of our patch or some even pay $80/gallon plus $35 shipping to buy them online.

Well I’m here to bust the myth of scarcity that surrounds the huckleberry. My foraging week has led me to the mountains almost every day and every place I go is packed with berries. Huckleberries are everywhere. They are not scarce, they are abundant and there is enough for everyone in the Inland Northwest to harvest till it hurts – your back and your tummy. (I’ve learned that it is actually a little uncomfortable if you eat too many.) If you live in Spokane there is no need to drive to the Canadian border to your families secret spot. Just drive 30 minutes to Mount Spokane and hike around a little and you’ll find your fill.

In a cruel irony it is often our fear of scarcity that leads us to degrade natural places to grow crops or harvest timber which leads to actual scarcity. Haiti is an extreme example of this but the truth holds everywhere. Our fear of scarcity is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An alternative posture to a fear of scarcity is to live in wonder of the abundance of what nature offers up. Foraging has helped reinforce this perspective in my life this week.

5. Be careful: For every edible in the wild there is often a poisonous lookalike. Only eat what you know and rely on more than one source of information to identification. For example, my primary ID book says that purslane doesn’t have a poisonous lookalike, but all my other references point to spurge as similar to purslane. I’m grateful to the clarification provided by my these sources because in our garden the spurge grows right next to the purslane. So close that sometimes I’ll grab a handful of purslane and a spurge plant is mixed up in the harvest.

I’ll follow up with more observations later in the week.

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage – Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

Food Safety Modernization Act Headed for Passage – Fate of Small Farms Amendments Uncertain

I reported earlier on the fears that the Food Safety Modernization Act now before Congress could put small farmers’ out of business and send a destructive ripple through the burdgeoning local food movement. Yesterday the bill passed a cloture vote in the Senate which means it will likely soon be passed and put into law. The amendments to lower the negative impact on small farmers are still up in the air, and it sounds like there is an epic battle going on right now among legislators, big food lobbyists, and locavores.

Huffington Post yesterday even went as far as to say “Locavores Hold Up Food Safety Bill in Senate.” They’ve subsequently changed the headline to “Local Food Advocates”, but yesterday it was all about those pesky, food-luddite locavores who were gumming up the works. I guess we officially have a Locavore Lobby in this country now.

Grist has been all over this so I’ll turn it over to them:

Two very important amendments to the bill are currently the subject of fierce lobbying by industry. We’ve already extensively discussed the Tester-Hagan amendment, which would exempt small and very small farms and food processing businesses (defined as those that make under a certain amount of money, and that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales like farmers markets or CSAs), from some of the bill’s requirements.

It’s worth noting that such direct sales of agricultural products totaled just $1.2 billion in 2007, or 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales, according to the USDA. That’s the tiniest drop in the bucket, but it’s growing fast every year — sales are up 105 percent in the last decade, double the rate that overall agricultural sales have grown.

Which may explain why agribusiness groups considers such small operations enough of a threat that they’re taking the legislative route to block any further growth.

If you want to get your food wonk on, go to Grist and read up on the whole interesting process. Here is a good place to start:

Will the Food Safety Modernization Act harms small farms and producers?

Grist reports that it’s still not too late to call your Senator:

There’s still time to tell your senators that you want them to ignore these industry lobbying groups and pass a bill that will better protect all Americans from food-borne illness and known carcinogens in their food. Call them today: Go to www.Senate.gov to find your representatives’ contact information or call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121.

Because if you’ve read the 20,000 words of debate that Grist has published about this bill, you hopefully agree with our panelists that the system it will create, though concerningly vague in places, will be better than the one we’ve got now.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article,While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn’t going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn’t seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino’s marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino’s for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberalHuffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.”

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.”Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying “Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas,” adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I’ve done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn’t sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss,“ace New York Times Reporter” didn’t do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that’s been done on the story, I’m the only “reporter” that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn’t have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn’t speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I’m baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn’t.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I’m flattered that the “So Good” food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I’ll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn’t take the “tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza” bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That’s why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don’t follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It’s actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

A recent Chicago Tribune article had one of the more thorough treatments of the debates between industrial agriculture pragmatists vs. local food idealists.I was intrigued to hear about an upcoming book;

…economist Hiroko Shimizu and University of Toronto geographer Pierre Desrochers are finishing a 2011 book, tentatively called “In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet,” that argues locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that, among other problems, ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food and to the economic health of developing countries.

Food security can suffer if “you put all your eggs in one local basket and something goes wrong,” Desrochers said from his Toronto office. “I also have a problem when local food activists want to promote food that is either not economical or cannot compete with foreign food in that area.”

Go here for a brief article of the same name by Shimizu.

The whole Tribune article is worth a read but I should clarify one point regarding the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets. The article offers that as a counterpoint to farmers market elitism but early reports are that while many markets take food stamps, few consumers are taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, this has been true at the Millwood Farmers’ Market where we haven’t had a lot of food stamp transactions this summer.

Go here for my response to these debates.

Hello, My Name Is Craig and I’m a Recovering Conventional Consumer

Hello, My Name Is Craig and I’m a Recovering Conventional Consumer

I enjoyed being a part of the Food & Faith Forum this past Saturday put on by the Faith and Environment Network. One of the highlights for me was meeting one of my heroes, Fred Fleming of Shepherd’s Grain renown. Fred co-founded the co-op that markets grains grown using no-till practices, and a wholistic approach to agriculture they call Sustainable Agriculture, which falls somewhere between Organic and Conventional farming.

I got a kick out of Fred’s introduction. He said, “Hi my name is Fred and I’m a recovering conventional farmer. I’m 10 years into my program.” He echoed the sentiments of the other farmers who are in recovery mode, having been driven by the rapid rise in technology into unsustainable practices that erode the land and make them reliant on expensive and harmful chemicals. They are stepping back and experimenting with a more holistic approach. I admire Fred’s efforts because not only are they innovating sustainable practices they are also innovating a sustainable business model.

I had a chat with Fred about the Inlander editorial that was critical of their efforts. My response is here. Paul Haeder’s basic gripe is that they use Round Up to control weeds and that they invited a rep from ADM to a farming summit who had never been to an actual wheat field. Hint Hint Hint – Shepherd’s Grian is in bed with ADM, the agricultural death star, the evil industrial food complex. What Paul didn’t understand in his critique is that it’s not ADM that has Shepherd’s Grain in its tractor beam, it’s Shepherd’s Grain that is drawing in and converting ADM.

According to Fred, the Spokane ADM mill on Trent that processes almost all the flour in our region, is the only ADM mill in the country that allows a grower like Shepherd’s Grain to process their flour separately. Fred explained that this unusual arrangement has captured the imagination of ADM’s management and as a result Spokane’s mill is seen as a kind of model of the future. In a world where everything is rapidly commodifying, in Spokane, flour is decommodifying and consumers like that and that makes corporate offices of multi-national corporations take notice. It’s actually quite remarkable and it’s all happening right here in Spokane.

In order to innovate more sustainable food practices, it’s going to take folks like me and you stepping forward and saying, “Hello, I’m a recovering conventional consumer.” But it’s also going to take farmers like Fred because consumer demand only goes so far.

I’m reminded of what Vincent Miller says, “Consumer culture seems endlessly capable of turning critique into a marketing hook.” The flour we buy from the store is essentially all the same, just marketed in different ways. For example, Bob’s Red Mill is milled in Spokane with all the other flour (Western Family, Stone Buhr, Gold Medal, etc.) and then shipped to Portland and run through their stone grinders so they can capture our consumer imagination with the phrase, “Stone Ground”. If we want more than good feelings that come from marketing hooks, actual different food in the package, we should celebrate when an ADM executive makes his first visit to a wheat field. Fred Fleming gets that and we’re all better for it.

Chicken Dignity

Chicken Dignity

I’ve been in research mode with my farmer friends trying to learn about the differences between locally raised meat products, and those that are mass produced through big agribusiness. The basic premise of our experiment is human dignity, and the belief that it is important to know and care for the people involved in bringing our food and other products to market. But as I learn about the processes of bringing meat to market, I’m reminded that I need to add another dimension of dignity to our premise; chicken dignity.

Rich Mouw, one of my mentors, helped me understand this dignity when hedescribed the comments of a man at a gathering of Mennonite and Dutch Reformed farmers;

Colonel Sanders wants us to think of chickens only in terms of dollars and cents,” he announced. “They are nothing but little pieces of meat to be bought and sold for food. And so we’re supposed to crowd them together in small spaces and get them fat enough to be killed.”

“But that’s wrong! The Bible says that God created every animal ‘after its own kind.’ Chickens aren’t people, but neither are they nothing but hunks of meat. Chickens are chickens, and they deserve to be treated like chickens! This means that we have to give each chicken the space to strut its stuff in front of other chickens.

I like the idea of a “strut your stuff” test for human and chicken dignity. If a person doesn’t have a chance to strut their human stuff in making, growing, and producing a product, then something is wrong. Of course chicken dignity is a different kind of dignity, but it deserves strutting nonetheless.

In my research I was talking to Dave Mcculough, from Susie David’s Cattle. Dave has a herd of 16 grass fed cattle that he shepherds north of Spokane near Mt. St. Michael. He also has a big chicken coup with some hearty hens that provide us with eggs. In the midst of learning the ins and outs of the beef industry over the phone, he told me about the way his huge bull cow was playing with the calves out in the field yesterday. He praised the steer for being so gentle, and said the scene would have made a great picture; a big bull, getting worked over by a little calf, strutting his stuff, and everyone enjoying it, including Dave. There’s a lot of dignity going on in that picture, both human and cow.

So stay tuned for more on the virtues of grass fed beef, but let it be known that the best part, as far as I’m concerned, is the strutting.

For more on chicken dignity go to the post on Happy Chickens.