We look at a few of the small, local farmers who are the new heroes of the growing movement that's turning away from "industrial food" and factory farming to embrace food raised locally, humanely and with environmentally sound principles. And that tastes good, too.
Here’s a brief history of civilization:
First 5,000 years, almost everybody is a farmer.
Last 50 years, almost nobody is a farmer. The 2 percent of Americans who farm are exotic, largely invisible pixies who magically turn petrochemicals into grocery-chain products encased in plastic wrap.
Last couple of years: Everyone wants to be a farmer. Or hug a farmer. Or at least buy and eat local food that isn’t sprayed, injected, modified, adulterated and transfatted into inedibility.
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People are revolting against tomatoes with the resilience of tennis balls, strawberries that ship like Styrofoam, farmed salmon injected with dye, chickens that have never seen the sun, pet food from China stretched with melamine and fast food that speeds the way to a heart attack.
Our food system has become the poster child for all that seems awry in American life — the frenzy and mediocrity, the cheap, the homogenized, the excessive and the bland. Instead of food being the highlight of the day, as it is for most animals, it has become a gobbled distraction in front of the TV, on the way to work or after soccer practice.
So now comes a shifting toward “slow food,” the opposite of fast food, in which ingredients are selected meticulously, cooked with care and savored with good company.
A shift to savoring
There is the “locavore” movement in which shoppers seek food grown with a minimum amount of chemicals and within a hundred miles of home, sometimes to the point of subscribing to weekly boxes of produce or meat from specific farmers.
There is the attempt by many producers to adopt (or co-opt) the “organic” label, meaning food grown without pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a system to certify organic food, but public confusion remains over shadings such as “100 percent organic,” then “organic” (95 percent), then “made with organic ingredients” (70 percent) and finally the attempt to avoid the certification process entirely with words like “natural” or “authentic.” Another term used is “sustainable agriculture,” which usually refers to modifications in plowing, crop rotation and the like.
There is a growing demand for meat that isn’t confined to a filthy feedlot and force fed corn, grain, ground protein from waste and bone, antibiotics and female hormones.
And there is recognition that the kind of small Western Washington farms that supply a Pike Place Market are as precious to urbanites as the Market itself.
Not all this comes easily. Grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, line-caught salmon and organic, heirloom produce (meaning the vegetables and fruits are older variants that advocates say have more flavor) can sometimes cost up to twice as much, require driving to a special market, are only available seasonally and must be washed and chopped.
To which a harried working mom might say, “Get real.”
Is this just another Yuppie fad for double-income, no-kid couples?
A food industry that’s whack
Hey, I’m the kind of guy who thinks ketchup is a vegetable, that beer and pizza belong on any food pyramid and that the drive-by window is the linchpin of American productivity.
I may dream of sipping my cappuccino in an Italian piazza, but back home at Starbucks I want it ASAP. And can I get fries with that?
But the food revolution isn’t just about taste and pace. It’s a reaction to fear that our entire big-business food industry is seriously out of whack, that it’s feeding us too much of the wrong things and wrecking the environment while it does so.
Globally, 800 million people are underfed, a billion are overweight, some food-commodity prices doubled this spring, and hunger riots and demonstrations broke out in Haiti, Egypt and Pakistan.
Our quantity-over-quality food system has sucked the flavor out of life. The Green Revolution that fed the world after World War II is in need of a makeover.
Which is why the Seattle City Council passed an initiative in April to promote local food, ordering up a Food Policy Action Plan to improve ties between farmers, farmers markets and food banks and promote city P-patch plots and use of local food in emergencies and disasters.
Heart of Washington and Tilth Producers of Washington have Web sites to connect farmers to consumers, farmers markets are thriving, high-class restaurants trumpet local ingredients, and reform books like “Fast Food Nation,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” dot the best-seller list.
Good food is good for your health and good for the environment. By sustaining the small family farm, we make selling out to sprawl less tempting. Food grown the old way can often be more nutritious, less artery-clogging, less wasteful of fuel and chemicals, and better for the soil, farmers point out.
Back to their futures
An example is Dave Hedlin, whose family has been farming at the outskirts of La Conner for a century at the mouth of bucolic Dodge Valley. Skagit County has become a center of the slow-local-organic movement, and Hedlin is one of its converts. He recalls fondly a recent meal with friends — the beer, bread, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil and pickles all produced within four miles of his home.
“My grandpa would say this is common sense,” he notes.
Historically the Hedlin farm, like most, has focused on large fields of cash crops like oats, peas, wheat and cabbage seed. The seed is still a mainstay.
But about a decade ago, the family started intensively diversifying its crops, selling directly to consumers and restaurants and phasing out heavy reliance on chemicals. At present, half the 400-acre farm is organic.
“We’re trying to figure out how to make a living without losing control of who we are,” Hedlin says. “How do we position the family for the next hundred years? If you have 300 customers, you own a business. If you have one customer (like a wholesale buyer) they own you.”
Hedlin is not rich. His house is modest. His farmland that might go for $6,000 an acre could fetch up to $435,600 if subdivided for La Conner. Buying his stuff direct helps keep the farm viable. “Not only do you get local produce,” he says, “you’re investing in your view.”
“We’re in the bull’s-eye of 5 million people,” he says of the pressure from the Seattle-Vancouver population to urbanize the Skagit Valley. “The flip side is that there are 5 million people who will come buy a head of lettuce from you.”
Kids like it fresh
La Conner’s school district started a program in 2004 to buy local produce for school lunches and has seen a 15 percent rise in student purchase of school lunches, says Georgia Johnson, director of the program. Even something simple like serving carrots with their green tops left on “Bugs Bunny style” can delight grade-schoolers.
“The food is fresher, it looks better, and it tastes better,” she says. “We get a great response from kids. They’re really having salads now.” Similar experiments are being tried on Lopez Island and in Olympia, Mount Vernon and Bellingham.
Hedlin also sells subscription boxes of vegetables directly to families. “The thought that 160 families are sitting down to fresh vegetables from your farm is fun,” he says. “I think there’s a real opportunity to reinvent food.”
A couple of miles away, former county commissioner Bob Hart has devoted a growing slice of his potato and pea acreage to hand-tilled vegetable rows that since 2006 have been weeded and harvested in part by students from the Seattle Culinary Academy at Seattle Central Community College. In turn, they put their produce into their meals.
“Chefs are the gatekeepers of the food system,” says associate dean Linda Chauncey. “We’re trying to be the pull for the farmers’ push.”
The partnership makes her students understand that food can vary in taste and presentation depending on how it’s grown, she says.
“For years, Safeway or Kroger would just buy the cheapest and not care where it came from,” Hart says. Now consumers are asking questions about proximity, method and taste. And farmers are asking themselves whether their methods are the best that can be done for the environment and food quality, or if more care needs to be taken.
“At some point people in the resource industries gain their self-worth from what they do, not in how much money they make.”
Singing to the cows
Another example of the new movement is Skagit River Ranch east of Sedro-Woolley, which has converted its cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys to grass-fed or free-range.
Normal meat production has become bizarre. Cows that used to take five years to raise for slaughter are now ready in as little as 18 months in the modern feedlot system, but only after being confined on the lot, fed an unnatural diet and injected with antibiotics and estrogen that produce quick meat with more saturated fat and fewer beneficial omega 3 fatty acids.
The corn that feedlot cows get consumes 1.2 gallons of oil per bushel in fertilizer and transport, and there are suspicions the female hormones used to add fat and weight to the cow could be a reason for earlier first menstruation in girls and lowering sperm counts in boys.
So George Vojkovich, a former commercial fisherman, and his wife, Eiko, an MBA accountant, decided to do things the old-fashioned way. Their cattle mature on pasture, not feedlots. Their chickens run outdoors. Any additives go to improving the quality of the grass, not into the cows.
Vojkovich says the taste of grass-fed beef changes depending on the quality of the pasturage, and in a side-by-side test my wife and I found a noticeable and superior taste improvement over normal grocery-store meat.
“The whole goal of Skagit River Ranch is to give nutrient-rich food,” Vojkovich says.
No cattle prods: He calls and sings to his cows. No slaughterhouse: He uses a mobile-slaughter unit in which the animals don’t have time for the anxiety that can flood their system with chemicals.
No antibiotics. No hormones. And he contends his beef has up to 10 times the vitamin A and E and six times the desirable omega 3 fatty acids as the grocery-chain norm.
The drawbacks are that his prices can be 50 percent higher than the feedlot competition and that America doesn’t have the pasture to sustain its 100 million cows.
But Skagit River Ranch suggests an alternate future of fewer, happier cows and meat that, if less plentiful, is healthier and eaten in more measured quantities.
Down-valley at Breadfarm Bakery in Edison, Scott Mangold and his wife, Renee Bourgault, made a painful decision recently to temporarily drop the use of organic flour after the price doubled in a year as commodities shot up.
Instead they are trying to use Washington state crops, including potato flour from the fields of Shannon Dignum and Nate O’Neil’s nearby Frog Song Farm on Skagit County’s Fir Island.
The result is local bread made from local crops bought by local people.
Dignum and O’Neil are the opposite of corporate farming, making their living by intensively farming just 15 acres for a variety of crops. They stretch the local potato season by leaving part of their crop in the ground into the following spring, harvesting slowly so customers like Breadfarm can have a steady supply.
“The farmers markets have really increased in sales,” marvels Dignum, who has been working the small-farm model for 12 years and seeing it increasingly viable. “It’s almost as if it’s in style.”
Local farmers are also getting support from hospitals, senior centers, jails and food banks, which sometimes take the slightly blemished but pesticide-free produce that a normal grocery would refuse.
Thriving farms, in turn, sustain rural beauty.
“There’s a pretty strong trend of knowing your local farmer and knowing where your food comes from,” says Allen Rozema, director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland.
Farm advocates scored a political victory last spring when the Mount Vernon City Council rejected a proposal to annex farmland for development by a surprisingly strong 6-to-1 vote after scores turned up to protest.
Vote with your stomach
Farmers are even experimenting with rotating acreage for wildlife. Near the mouth of the Skagit River, the Nature Conservancy has leased 210 acres over three years, with a budget of $350,000, and divided it between mowed hay, grass pasture and flooded fields.
“The wildlife response has been incredible,” says Kevin Morse, director of the program. “Birds have just funneled in there.” Hawks, coyotes and frogs have followed.
What works, Morse says, is working with farmers instead of regulating them to get more diversified fields.
And the key to food reform is you. You can ask groceries to stock local produce, patronize farmers markets and roadside stalls, encourage schools to buy from nearby farms, ask questions about the origin and nutritional value of your food. Vote with your pocketbook and stomach.
“There is a generation of young farmers coming in who are idealistic and willing to work hard,” Hedlin says. His daughter Lauren is interested in diversifying the business still more with a horse farm, while his nephew Kai Ottesen went from an environmental-literature degree to work as basic as hand hoeing on the family farm.
While the course readings for his degree focused on the importance of wilderness, Kai found he was more interested in the relationship between people and the land. “I figured I’d just go farm.”
“Farmers like us,” says Hedlin, “are redefining ourselves.”
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer; email@example.com. Harley Soltes is a freelance photographer living in the Skagit Valley.