Real Good Food
By Christy Colasurdo
It’s hard to find fault with the intoxicating, earthy aroma of a fragrant, locally grown heirloom tomato plucked off the vine. the flavor literally explodes in your mouth. it’s almost unfair to compare that with a tasteless, hothouse tomato that was shipped across 1,500 miles to your supermarket, blasted an artificial, day-glow red via ethylene gas and then packaged in plastic. yet shoppers make that choice every time they head out to pick up a few things from the market.
To get back in touch with real food, one need not travel far. Just minutes away from the hustle-bustle of our modern lives, there is a spectrum of fifty heirloom specialty greens growing in neat, multicolored garden rows at Wilton’s Millstone Farm, a working organic farm, educational center and home to the Wilton Pony Club. Here, Swiss chard, peppers, carrots, herbs and all manner of fruits and vegetables are planted, nurtured and harvested by hand and then sold to local venues (five Barcelona restaurants, The Dressing Room restaurant and the Village Market in Wilton). The soil is rich and pesticide-free, providing aromatic scents from the gardens and the earthy smells of roosting Heirloom chickens and turkeys and grazing Tamworth pigs, Devon Cattle and Shetland sheep. In this setting, one can’t help but think of a simpler time when food traveled from farm to market without ever seeing the inside of an eighteen-wheeler or a commercial plane.
One of the region’s 4,000 family farms, this bucolic beauty sits atop a twisting country road and recalls the days when people ate fruits and vegetables in season and knew precisely where their meat, eggs and poultry were raised. In actuality, Millstone became a working farm only three years ago, after Betsy and Jesse Fink purchased the picturesque, seventy-five-acre property and embarked on a quest, along with sustainable agricultural expert Annie Farrell and farm manager Frank McEneaney to create an eco-friendly farm that cultivates fresh, organic foods, as well as livestock, honeybees, education and a network for people seeking to start their own farm-based endeavors.
The Finks are among a new breed of local agricultural entrepreneurs pioneering the “real foods” movement, which has been picking up steam with grassroots groups and individuals rallying Congress to increase the availability of healthy and affordable food grown locally and in ways that protect the environment.
farmers’ markets on the rise
The good news is that the number of farmers’ markets in the US has quadrupled since 1994. In Connecticut, there are currently eighty-seven, up from twenty-two in 1986. Not only are the farmers’ markets fun social gatherings where you can chat with farmers and get to know the people who are growing your foods, they offer a refuge for people who are fed up with produce grown in countries as far-flung as Israel, Ecuador and China. If you are concerned not only for the safety of our foreign food supply but for the costs — to the environment and to your wallet — you may be surprised to learn that it may now actually be cheaper to purchase some regionally produced, organic food, as higher grain prices, packaging and fuel costs have prompted the worst bout of food inflation since 1990, according to the Associated Press.
All of this adds up to a cultural phenomenon dubbed the “locavore” movement, which encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets or even to grow or pick their own food — arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious, taste better and are more eco-friendly. The term locavore (eating foods grown within a 100-mile radius of where it was produced) is now so prevalent that the New Oxford American Dictionary pronounced it the “word of the year” in 2007.
The craze for eating locally grown organic foods has attracted a high-profile following, from Hollywood starlets to celebrity chefs. Close to home, Paul Newman is the most famous face of the movement.
In 2006 Newman joined forces with organic chef and cookbook author Michel Nischan to open The Dressing Room: A Homegrown Restaurant at the Westport Country Playhouse, serving only regionally grown and organic ingredients. (For more on Nischan, see inGoodTaste on page 147.) No sooner had the restaurant hit its stride than the duo was at it again, leading the charge for Westport’s popular outdoor farmers’ market that brings Connecticut’s finest farmers, fishermen, ranchers, and makers of honey, cheeses, breads and artisanal delicacies to our backyard.
Recalls Nischan of the fortuitous pairing: “When Paul and I initially spoke about the restaurant, he wanted it to contribute to the sense of community Joanne had begun to achieve with the revitalization of the Playhouse. I suggested the property would be perfect for farmers’ markets, fairs and other events and activities that could promote the importance of supporting local growers and producers, engaging the interest of residents, seniors and children through the type of genuine hospitality that was once a signature of American culture. He loved it, I lived it, we moved forward.”
Though Newman had raised more than $200 million for charitable causes selling popcorn, lemonade and salad dressings, it was his daughter, Nell, who prompted him to rethink his eating habits and recognize the value of wholesome, organic foods. In 1993, Nell launched Newman’s Own Organics as a division of Newman’s Own, and in 2001, spun it off as a separate company selling “Organics That Just Happen to Taste Good,” which, boasted proud papa Paul, is “growing faster than the original dressing and popcorn business.”
supporting the local farmer
Ironically, the demand for farm-raised fare is mounting at the same time the supply is dwindling. The pickle is figuring out how to encourage more locally farmed foods when there are so few local farms left — and how to make the foods less costly to produce. With some of the highest real estate prices in the country, Connecticut’s farmers have got a tough row to hoe. That’s why so many lobbied for the 2007 Farm Bill to support a new generation of entrepreneurial farmers with tax breaks, farmland conservation and incentives to help them meet consumer demand.
“I believe that once a significant number of residents subscribes to buying locally and getting more involved in their communities, enough demand will be created to help our sometimes shortsighted state government understand that they need to help farmers stay viable,” says Nischan, who is also the founder of Wholesome Wave, an organization that is developing a network of community gardens, is piloting school mentorships and has spearheaded both the Westport Farmers’ Market and the Fairfield Winter Farmers’ Market.
With the right subsidies and support, the “real food” fans believe they can reinvigorate regional agricultural economies. Even politicians, who avoid the farm issue like a hot potato, recognize the need to nourish the Nutmeg State’s agricultural roots. Last December, for instance, Governor Jodi Rell announced an Internet matchmaking service (farmlink.uconn.edu) to pair farm seekers and farm owners via free listings. Says Rell, “Farmland is irreplaceable and we want to do all we can to preserve this precious resource and foster a new generation of young farmers who want to pursue a career in agriculture but have no land to work.” Rell is also working to preserve 130,000 acres of farmland before they are lost forever to development.
In February, the Working Lands Alliance, a coalition of organizations leading farmland preservation efforts, announced that at least $10 million in funding should be available this year for landowners to sell their development rights to the state. “Many farmers and farmland owners have wanted to protect their land but been stymied by lack of state funding,” said Terry Jones, a farmer from Shelton and chair of the Working Lands Alliance.
“For them, this funding can finally make that vision a reality. The hope is to at least triple the number of farms and the number of acres preserved on an annual basis,” says Joseph Dippel, director of the state’s Farmland Preservation Program. “We will be able to go from preserving five or six farms per year, to between fifteen and twenty farms per year.”
In the meantime, the proponents of the “real food” movement are a passionate bunch, espousing the pros of fresh, locally grown seasonal fruits and vegetables and grass-fed, hormone-free livestock, and promoting the area’s increasingly popular farm stands and farmers’ markets as vital community hubs. “Of course, the farmers’ markets help out local economies and promote agriculture,” says Mark Zotti, spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. “It’s great to see how the markets are evolving; they are like community events with music and entertainment and people getting to talk to the people who grow their food.”
Nischan feels this movement is the most effective, commonsense way to restore the neighborly behavior that once defined America. “We were once a great nation with great recipes,” he recalls. “Much of this had to do with how we were connected to and reliant upon each other. There was the dairy family, the chicken farm, the hardware store and so on. Each had a respected value in the community and everyone interacted. The food was good, fresh and local. More important, the money spent at the local farms and butcheries was then spent at the hardware store, who then spent it at the local restaurant, who then spent it at the movie theater, and so on.”
Things, he says, are different now — and we’re paying a high cost for our decisions. “Delocalizing our food supply and turning to artificially cheap convenience foods has stripped us of our ability to identify good food and has stripped our local economies of the self-multiplying dollars that used to circulate within them. True neighborhood is not just about knowing who your next door neighbor is. It’s about knowing and actively engaging in your whole community.”
Norwalk-based author and real-food advocate Sherri Brooks Vinton has carved a career out of her zeal for real foods. “Eaters everywhere are reclaiming their food chain, enjoying food that’s full of flavor, isn’t loaded with chemicals and is raised with great sensitivity to the environment and any animals in its care,” she explains. “I call this empowering movement ‘The Real Food Revival’ [which is also the name of her book]. It is taking our food supply out of corporate hands and returning it to the growers, chefs, market owners and, most important, to the eaters who want a more sustainable, delicious future.”
After an eye-opening cross-country motorcycle tour of America in which she and her husband had expected to enjoy regional cuisines, mom-and-pop diners and farm-fresh bounty, this mother of two got a first-hand look at what industrial agriculture is doing to our farmers and our fields. Vinton was shocked at what she found. “Many of the farmers had moved out. A lot of the houses were boarded up and the farming communities were ghost towns,” she says. “The fields weren’t growing anything we could eat. It was all corn and soy, the building blocks of processed foods. And there was no local food to speak of. It was all fast-food chains.
“When I returned home, I discovered that these are the side effects of industrial agriculture — a heavily consolidated system that relies on chemical applications, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers in the fields and antibiotics and artificial hormones in the animals, so that they grow as quickly and cheaply is possible. Industrial agriculture is great for the companies that produce these toxic inputs but it has devastating effects on the growers, the land and eaters. Agricultural inputs contaminate our water, air and our bodies. Because it operates on an economy of scale, industrial agriculture has driven a lot of family farmers out of business. We lose about 330 family operations per week in this country.”
In response, she launched a website, sherribrooksvinton.com, and a monthly newsletter, “Sustainable Solutions,” full of tips for finding and enjoying food that’s produced, as she says, “the way it should and used to be.
“Often people are under the impression that eating locally is time-consuming, expensive and difficult,” she says, “but real food is for everyone, wherever they live, whatever their lifestyle.”