Perspectives On Farm-To-Table Food Culture In Coastal Virginia
Photos by Jim Pile and Beth Hester
“Food cultures concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place and the complex ways of rendering them tasty. These are the mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous.”
—Barbara Kingsolver: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Peanuts, Pork and Blue Crabs
The locavore movement is alive and well across our commonwealth. Virginia is recognized as an emerging leader in the nation’s local food movement. Here in greater Coastal Virginia, we have an abundance of safe, fresh seafood gleaned from inland and coastal waters. The quality of local, micro-produced artisanal pork products rivals the famed hams and charcuterie of our European counterparts, and our legendary peanuts are shipped to snack aficionados around the globe. No matter the time of year, something always seems to be growing: from strawberries in the springtime to collards and kale after first frost. Farm markets and cooperatives are popping up everywhere, an indication of a healthy, growing food culture.
Yet local chefs, foodies and farmers agree that the basis for establishing a truly sustainable food culture goes well beyond the enjoyment and promotion of regional food specialties. It involves a certain mindfulness, a daily round of deliberate decisions designed to make food the basis for creating community. It requires that we look to local producers to supply at least some of our groceries. Eating local is good for our health, good for the environment and good for business.
But what constitutes a food culture? How can adopting a locavore attitude help protect our environment, encourage ethical animal husbandry methods and nourish both our bodies and our local economy?
To gain perspective on each of these categories of inquiry, we reached out to a sampling of local community experts who shared their views on food culture in Coastal Virginia.
-Jake and Amanda Browder: farmers and owners of Browder’s Fresh Pickins, Smithfield
-Stacia Childers and Luis Echevarria: small farmers and owners of La Caridad Farm, Parksley, Eastern Shore
-Sydney Meers: chef, artist, auteur, good food evangelist and owner of Stove, The Restaurant, Portsmouth
-Randy and Brian Pack: communications/marketing director and chef of family-owned Smithfield Station, Smithfield
Top Right: Luis Echevarria and Stacia Childers
Why Eat Locally?
It’s Good for Animals and the Environment
How far your food has to travel has serious consequences for the environment. On average, each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled approximately 1,500 miles and contains, on average, ingredients from at least five countries. Transportation on such a grand scale requires expending massive, polluting, fossil fuel energies. According to researchers at the Worldwatch Institute: “we are spending more energy to get the food to the table than we receive from actually eating the food.”
By contrast, independent, community-serving businesses are people-sized. Small, local producers are a part of their communities and feel invested in them. They generally use less wasteful packaging and are more inclined to practice sustainable and humane agricultural practices. Importantly, they’ll welcome visitors and school groups endeavoring to pass on farm culture knowledge to the next generation.
Stacia and Luis: “Living on the Shore, we are reminded why we started La Caridad Farm every time we pass a truck full of chickens bound for the processing plants. That’s why I was a vegetarian for 11 years. When I began eating meat again, I had to know that the animal died with care and respect. Ten years ago, the only way to achieve that was to raise the animals ourselves.”
Sydney: “I intentionally look for heirloom vegetables and meat from heritage breeds to promote breed diversity. I want my meats and sausages to come from the best breeds that meet my needs. I don’t want a factory-spec pig. It’s not good for the pig and not good for my customers. As far as ‘locavorism’ goes, I think we’ve moved beyond ‘farm-to-table’ as a trend. I hate trends. But if that’s what it took for a trend to become a serious, fully-fledged movement that has gotten us where we are today, then so be it. We’re finally catching on.”
It’s Good for Your Body
It’s not only fossil fuel expenditures that influence our health. Fruits and veggies that are shipped from afar are often picked before they have a chance to fully ripen and absorb valuable nutrients from the soil. Sometimes the food is ‘gassed’ and artificially ripened, which affects flavor. And in the case of seafood, especially shellfish, safety is a major concern. Knowing your local producers gives you some control over the way in which the food was grown and harvested.
Sydney: “I have a responsibility when I feed people. I want to serve people good, clean, fresh, flavorful, healthy foods. No GMOs. If I’m serving corn grits, I wants those grits to actually taste like corn. I try to buy as much as I can from local producers. In my own backyard I raise bees and grow a variety of herbs and vegetables including okra, peppers and squash. It all gets used at Stove and in my handcrafted sauces. Plus, the bees benefit other gardeners in my neighborhood. I save the seeds and share them with others. I love heirloom vegetables. I use a squash that is one of the world’s oldest varieties still in existence.”
Randy and Brian: “When you’re dealing with seafood, knowledge of local waters is key in terms of safety. Personal relationships forged over long periods of time with local seafood suppliers, like Johnson & Sons out of Eclipse, enable us to pick the ‘best of the best’ for our customers. Some of the smaller providers may sell to only three or four restaurants. Our goal is always quality over quantity. In the seafood game, especially with oysters, we look for suppliers who are insured, who know their product and who handle their seafood using best practices.”
Randy and Brian Pack
It’s Good for the Economy
According to the American Independent Business Alliance, each dollar you spend at a locally-owned, independent business returns three times more money to the local economy than a dollar spent at a chain. In Coastal Virginia, $384.2 million dollars would be injected into our local economy if each one of us spent just $10 a week on local food.
Randy and Brian: “We are always touched by how much people care about what they produce. They pour their hearts and souls into their products. Buying local isn’t a trend for us; it’s just always how our family has done business from day one. Restaurants are not functioning optimally when they’re run from some distant corporate headquarters. Some large restaurant suppliers with whom we deal often have some sort of ‘farm-to-table’ program, but it’s just not the same. We prefer whenever possible to build food relationships within our own community and support local producers.”
Sydney: “Farming and working seafood boats is hard damn work. I love going out on the boats or helping out at a local farm. It’s an exchange of knowledge and local foodways. Sometimes it’s near impossible to source absolutely everything I need from our specific area. However, on the occasions when I do have to go outside our region, I intentionally seek out quality products that have been sustainably raised or grown by small-scale, family farmers.”
It’s Good for the Spirit: Building Community and Finding Inspiration
Amanda Browder: “Many of our farm market customers are passionate home cooks. They’re strong believers in the local foods movement and its many benefits. Over the years, we’ve built great reciprocal relationships with them, and they often share their cooking tips with us in exchange for ‘how-to’ growing advice. Jake and I are incredibly thankful for them; their patronage provides our family with the opportunity to farm and lead a healthy lifestyle. Our children understand where their food comes from. They enjoy growing things and getting their hands dirty in the soil right along with us.”
Stacia and Luis: “Though our volume right now is small, we seem to have found a niche within the Hispanic community here on the Eastern Shore. There’s a desire for fresh, non-processed, non-industrial foods. ‘De rancho,’ or farm-raised meat, is familiar to them and is considered to be of better quality. They buy and use the whole pig, rendering the lard, making chicharrones, and using the intestines for sausage casings. There is very little waste. There is an intimate and direct connection with our food that we want to capture for ourselves and others.”