April 2010 Archives

Little Tofu on the Prairie

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Photo credit: Anon

This afternoon the Schwan's Man drove down our 1/2 mile long driveway against 40 mph wind gusts. This is an important source of food- mostly healthy- for our family. They carry a lot of very good frozen vegetables and fish. We buy our share of salmon filets.

Local food this ain't.

The "Wild Caught Alaskan Salmon" is a product of China. When I asked how that could be I was told that the fish are caught and shipped to China for cleaning and freezing then distributed by Schwan's. Can you imagine that trip? Alaska-China- to smack dab in the middle of the North America continent. Now that is a global food system and I'm a grateful beneficiary at the end of that line.

I don't know if you can appreciate the pleasure of having the Schwan's man show up at your door. We buy lots of their vanilla ice cream-- it is the only kind my husband will eat. Period. So we buy three gallons every other week.

This afternoon I bought Tamales wrapped in corn husks. They are really quite good and made from very few raw ingredients- corn meal, meat and spices. I also bought the shrimp and tofu Pad Thai. Seriously folks- I'm in the middle of the Tallgrass prairie in an extremely sparsely populated area. And today I had tofu delivered to the door of my farm. With chop sticks.

The Pad Thai was spicy enough that the boys jumped up from the table and ran around with tongues lolling out of their mouths begging for liquids. Add a few crushed peanuts and squeeze a lemon on top and I can imagine that I'm at Ruam Mit on St. Peter Street in St. Paul.

Oh yeah- And that Pad Thai- It's a product of Thailand. Like I said- local food it ain't. But what the hell. Moderation in all things.

Together on our Knees

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Communion bread for Trinity Lutheran Church in Clinton, Minnesota

Grown in Big Stone County
Ground in Big Stone County
Baked in Big Stone County
Broke in Big Stone County

A short step from local to holy.

Elegant, Local, Commodity Agriculture- Lessons to be Learned

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Farmers' Cooperative Grain Elevator- Clinton, Minnesota


I was at a meeting with 70 of the best and the brightest the other day- working through how we build robust, economically successful local food systems. For example, how do we get apples from the local apple orchard into our grocery stores and schools- in place of apples imported from New Zealand?

One of the brilliant, well intention people at the Symposium led us through a thought exercise about how we could put a mental string around the grain elevators and pull them down. This was to be, I think, emblematic of replacing commodity agriculture with a local and regional food system.

So I went to visit the people who run the local grain elevator. Meet Sandy, Greg and Ron. Located in our small town (of 450 souls) the grain elevator is an independent, farmer owned cooperative. It is free to market and sell the locally grown grain to whomever they please. Every week of the year farmers bring in grain that to sell through the elevator. Grain is sold in 5,000 bushel increments - for corn that would be about 30 acres of yield.

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Business office of the Cooperative Elevator

When I walked into Sandy's office she had two computers going at the same time- one was the real time commodity prices flashing on a screen the other was a live webinar on the USDA "Acreage and Planting Intentions Estimate." Farmers confer with Sandy about what they should plant.

In the 21 years that Sandy has been marketing the grain grown by our local farmers she has seen a few shifts:

1) a 50% decrease in farmers. In particular, she talks about the loss of young farmers with sadness- "it would be wonderful to see land [up for sale] going to young farmers" and,

2) that in 21 years her grain marketing has gone from global to local. In the early days, Sandy was selling grain that was shipped to the "coasts" and Canada. Now Big Stone County grain (corn, wheat, and soybeans) are bought, used, and processed locally- for ethanol in Big Stone City, SD and for bean meal in Dawson, MN. This shift to local outlets has made Big Stone County more profitable for producers- less transportation costs.


I talked to Sandy about whether the elevator could handle local food grains- like barley, edible dry beans, flax, quinoa. That's not so likely or easy with the commodity system they have set up. But I bet that Sandy could do anything she put her mind to.

When kids raise goats for 4-H - where do they go to find out how and where to sell them and how the goat "market" works? They go to Sandy at the grain elevator. What's more, if you need goat feed- you just ask Ron and he'll help load it into your truck, or in my case a minivan.

So maybe instead of trying to mentally pull down that grain elevator, we should be finding the lessons learned in this elegant, locally owned and operated system. Maybe, even we should be working with them.

Local Grocery Stores Make March Meals Festive, Healthy, Affordable

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Grooter Family at their Beardsley Country Market

The kids and I decided to check out all the grocery stores in the Big Stone County a couple weeks ago. We were able to make a truly delicious, nutritious and affordable meal with the groceries we bought from the Beardsley Country Market and the Graceville Country Market.

The Graceville grocery stores has a great selection of produce, including some hard to find fruit and veggies like blackberries, turnips, and portabella mushrooms. For our special Saturday night dinner we purchased fresh blackberries, strawberries and one orange pepper. The blackberries ($2.50 per half pint) were the best such berries I've ever tasted. I was pleased that Larry carried strawberries that were grown in the United States. I try to buy US grown food when I can't buy locally grown.

At the Beardsley County Market the kids greatly enjoyed playing with Alma's classmate Jada and the Grooter family was very welcoming and friendly. We purchased sirloin steak cubes ($6.51), fresh, authentic corn and lime tortillas ($.99 and made in Minnesota), and a large container of sour cream ($3.60) for our meal. The highlight of the Beardsley Market is their fresh meat, cut to order.

At home we made Steak Fajita's--here's the recipe I used

Marinate for at least 1 hour
1.5 pounds of steak cubes or strips in:
¼ Cup lime (or lemon juice in a pinch)
3 gloves minced garlic (grown on our farm)
1 T vegetable oil
½ t salt
½ t Cumin (I used about 1-2 Tablespoons because I love this mild spice)

In a large skillet cook over medium high heat:

Cool spiced/marinated meat until done to your liking

Then add:
2 medium onions sliced in strips
2-3 green, red, orange or yellow peppers sliced into ½ inch strips (from Graceville and some frozen peppers that we grew in our garden and roasted on the grill last fall)
Salt
Pepper

Stir and cook the peppers with the meat, onions, and spices until the peppers are hot, but still a little crisp.

Warm the tortillas in the microwave for a few seconds, place the meat, onion, and pepper mixture on the tortillas. Top with salsa and sour cream.

We fed this festive and very healthy meal to three hungry adults and three kids. In addition to the steak fajitas I served the fresh blackberries and strawberries on the side and made a batch of brown rice ($.50) that I had purchase bulk at The Granary in Ortonville.

The cost of all the healthy, fresh food purchased from our local grocery stores was around $21 (including the $4.50 splurge on organic cilantro salsa from The Granary in Ortonville). Without the pricey salsa, this meal cost us less than $2.50 per person. At a restaurant in the Twin Cities this meal would have cost at least $60. Even at the less expensive, but excellent, Mexican restaurant in Benson this meal would have cost us over $40 (if we didn't order Margaritas!).

I'm pleased at the effort that our local grocers put into providing us with fresh ingredients to cook healthy and fun meals for our families. Thank you to the owners of the Graceville and Beardsley Country Markets.

Turning a problem into... habitat

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Wetland Reserve Conservation signage- installed on our farm- March 29, 2010

For many years this spot on the farm has been wet. Some dry years it probably produced the most hay and grain as any place on the farm. But most years, hear tell, it was too wet to get a decent crop. With all the recent drainage tile going in around our township, this spot has been increasingly under water and hasn't had a good harvest in a few years. You see, we're at the bottom of the basin.

In the spring, when I looked at that land under water (now owning it and depending on it for part of our livelihood) I saw productive farmland underwater. It causes a sense of anxiety. Will a crop get in? If it gets in, will it grow? If it grows, will it be harvestable?

After much discussion, we've committed to putting 30 acres of our farm into the Wetland Reserve Conservation program. In perpetuity. That means this will be a wetland as long as the United States and State of Minnesota stand. Could be a very long time- but one never says "forever."

I remember being a young married women visiting my in-laws on this same farm. Early one spring morning- just before dawn- I left the house alone for a walk. This wetland had been full a couple years and reeds were growing along it. It was full of so many waterfowl I was awestruck. Ducks, geese, swans, pelicans, seagulls. I crept across the field on my stomach to get as close up to it as I could. It was magical. Beautiful. Soul filling, productive wild lands.

When a few weeks later the construction crews came in to drain it, my heart burned. But it wasn't my land. It wasn't my livlihood. It wasn't my future.

But now... Now It is my present. And now it will be a wetland and pond. In the spring the water will look lovely. It will be our own wildlife refuge- soon to be surrounded completely with pastureland and next to the larger USFWS Waterfowl Production area. In the winter we will sled down the soon to be build embankment, ice skate on the pond. There will be rafts to build and float around on. Frogs to catch, turtles to watch. Green pastures to lie down in. There will be wildlife to crawl out on our stomachs to watch with wonder.

The gift of good land turned to good use.

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