Local, Sustainable, Farm-to-Table… What Does it All Mean?

Farm-to-table, sustainable, organic, non-GMO, free-range, natural, local, non-homogenized… the list goes on, but what does it all mean? How do I choose? These were questions the plagued me not that long ago. Where I found the answer was in my own backyard. 

To understand where I am coming from you need to know a little bit about me. I grew up in northern California. Famers markets were bountiful nearly year round but they were always considered a lot more expensive than the grocery store so we never went.

Once I was married we lived in the South Bay (south of San Francisco). In the town we lived they had a pretty decent farmers market. We were trying to eat healthier and all these terms and fads were being thrown around so we started doing some of our shopping at the local farmers market. Most of the time our stroll, early saturday mornings, were something we enjoyed but we struggled with how to take advantage of the bounty. I was struggling with “seasonal cooking” in an area that barely had two seasons. What does that mean? Some of the farms had information about where the farm was and they were anywhere up to about an hour or two away. So what did “local” mean?

About a year later my husband and I decided to pull up stakes and move to the midwest. (That’s a whole ‘nother story.) After living in a rural location in northern Iowa, we decided we wanted to start a garden. Now, let me put this in perspective for you. When you have ten acres of land your sense of scale is way off. When you can look as far as you can see and it’s fields of crops a little four-foot by eight-foot bed of a crop looks small and cute. So we did sixteen of them. That was our “little” garden. Each bed was one ingredient, and four of them were tomatoes alone! Did I mention it’s just my husband and I living here and we planted 256 square feet of tomatoes! It was only by divine intervention of the tomato gods that not all of the plants bore fruit. That being said we still had over 200 pounds of tomatoes.

What was equally astonishing was the speed in which they grew. The start fairly small and the bushes just get bigger and bigger. Then in about August the fruit starts coming on and doesn’t stop until the temperatures drop. August is most certainly tomato season. Getting a tomato fresh off the vine at its peek ripeness is a truly eye opening experience. The flavor is like nothing I had ever had before. That’s when I knew I had to make the most of this flavor.

Now, farm-to-table purists tend to want the harvest to be as pure and unaltered as possible. This is great. You get to taste the authentic tomato flavor and when you are working with multiple heirloom varieties you want to be able to taste the nuances of each tomato, and that’s all well and good for the first 10 or maybe even 20 pounds of tomatoes, but when you end up with over 200 pounds of tomatoes you want to discover what else you can do with a tomato. Can you make it into something else? This is where both food preservation and molecular gastronomy come into play.

When we grew our tomatoes, onions, peppers, dill, parsley, lettuces, kohlrabi, leeks, carrots, and spinach we didn’t use any pesticides and herbicides. I guess you could sort of say we were “organic”. We also didn’t use any GMO seeds. We shopped for our seeds from reputable seed savor companies. In the end though what I learned mattered most to me was the quality, flavor, and the ingredient being grown and harvested in the most simplest, purest of ways, putting the integrity of the ingredient first.

Using these thoughts and revelations as my guide I set out to think about how I shop, where I shop, and the philosophy companies use when I pick my ingredients. I don’t use one term as my definitive decision maker. Not everything can be local. Not everything can be organic. So instead I trying to fuse all these ideas together and make the best choice I can by what I can afford, one ingredient at a time.

 

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