My summer of local food

Ever since I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, I have had a strong urge to localize my food supply as much as possible. Fortunately, I live in Nebraska, where lots of things grow, so this has been relatively easy (at least during the summer). But I know not everyone has as much time on their hands as I do, so I decided to explain what I have done, in order to make it easier for anyone else who wants to try.

First off, I rented a plot in the City Sprouts Community Garden. This has really been an eye-opening experience. I have my own raised bed, about 3′ by 6′, that I could plant with whatever I chose. I decided on cherry tomatoes, eggplant, basil, zucchini and (much later) Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumbers and lettuce. All of the food that comes out of my plot is mine to keep or give away or shred into mulch. I also have the bonus of accessing the community portions of the garden.

There are about six to eight beds that are “community plots”. This means that the board decided what to plant there, lots of folks helped to plant it, and whoever helps out in the garden can harvest it. From these plots I have gotten new potatoes, swiss chard, beets, summer squash and lettuce.

Plus, the entire City Sprouts lot is lined with fruit trees and herbs. I picked a handful of tart cherries, a cup or so of raspberries and a few serviceberries from the bushes. From the ground, I’ve gathered a few quarts of apples and lots and lots of peaches. Mm.

The disadvantage of a community garden is that, well, it’s open to the community. Not everyone is terribly scrupulous about following the garden rules. I am fairly certain someone has been eating my tomatoes, and someone definitely pulled up half of my gherkin vines–just when the harvest began. As well, my zucchini came down with vine rot, and my lettuce never even came up.

Outside of City Sprouts, I have also done a bit of gardening in my yard. We don’t have a lot of usable ground–too much shade and lots of rocks–but I’ve made do. I planted four tomato sprouts, lemon balm, carrots, Egyptian Walking Onions, sorrel, lettuce, peas, spinach, potatoes and marigolds (to keep the pests away). I also have the advantage of a backyard much loved by someone before me–it boasts a mulberry tree, a black walnut tree, sage, oregano, chives, lavendar and lots of sweet little violets.

Again, the lettuce was disappointing. I wish I knew what I was doing wrong–it came up just fine, but then fizzled out. The peas followed suit, and the spinach didn’t get enough sun. I think the squirrels did away with my sorrel, but it might have been the guys who came and decimated the landscaping–they did trek back and forth across that patch several times. And we appear to have grown four carrots.

The potatoes got a late start, so I can’t report on that yet. But we have gotten quite a few cherry tomatoes, and the onions seem to doing just fine. The herbs are thriving, of course. They always do well. I gathered and cooked a few cups of mulberries (I wish I could have picked them from the tree instead of waiting for them to fall, but the lowest fruiting branch is a good four feet above my head). The black walnut tree is an amazing producer–I think I have gathered a few gallons of nuts, but I’m sure once I have them shelled (ha, ha) it won’t seem like such a lot.

Of course, one can’t possibly grow everything. So I visit the downtown Farmers’ Market most Saturdays. There you can buy a plethora of delicious fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese and bread. But not milk. Milk is not allowed. This summer, I have purchased: blackberries, raspberries, peaches, lemongrass, scallions, basil, tomatoes, lettuce, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, purple beans, zucchini, summer squash, onions, corn on the cob, eggplants, okra, a Long Island Cheese pumpkin, a Queensland Blue pumpkin, parsnips, carrots, peas, cucumbers, Natalie in Grey goat cheese, parsley, spinach, shallots, sausages, hot dogs, cantaloupe…and probably some other stuff.

The drawback of the Farmers’ Market is, well, that there IS so much available. I tend to get carried away, and then I can’t finish everything I buy. But it is delicious and much more fun than the usual produce section.

Of course, in this region, the Farmers’ Market ends in mid-October. But there is still a source for local food! The Nebraska Food Cooperative. A lot of the vendors at the Farmers’ Market also sell food through the coop, PLUS each coop vendor provides a ton of detailed information about how they raise their animals and vegetable/fruit crops. While few are certified organic, many follow similar practices and are perfectly praise-worthy for even the most ‘green’ consumer.

It’s amazing what you can find in the coop lists: pork, Berkshire pork, lamb, goat, grass-fed beef, grass-finished beef, corn-fed beef, chicken, turkey, heritage turkey, trout, organ meat (heart, liver, etc.), several types of goat cheese, several types of eggs, tomatillos, apples, brussels sprouts, several types of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, several types of summer squash, chicken feed, baking mixes, soap, honey, lotion, candles, chocolates, bread, asparagus, pickled vegetables, onions, sausages…you get the idea. More vendors are joining all the time, so you never can tell what’s going to pop up next.

The downsides? One order a month. Membership fee. All of the meat is frozen, and sometimes (rarely) there’s a mistake on an order: a dozen eggs goes missing, or you get goat cheese with dill instead of plain. Whatever; it’s still great.

Of course, milk is still an issue. As is flour, sugar…the staples. Where on earth can one buy local flour? Well, I read the labels. At Baker’s, you can purchase two brands of Kansas flour. I prefer Hudson Cream, which can be purchased in bread, unbleached AP, bleached AP, and whole-wheat varieties.

For milk, I go to HyVee or Whole Foods, both of which carry the Iowa-Amish/Mennonite-produced brand Farmers’ All Natural Creamery. It is organic, and you can purchase it in whole, 2%, 1% and skim varieties. Farmers’ All Natural Creamery does not homogenize its milk, so there tends to be a cream cap, and you have to shake it up EVERY time you use it. HyVee carries another local brand of milk, but it comes in glass containers that require a $2 deposit!

For everything else, I try to patronize Wohlner’s, which is pretty much the only mom-and-pop grocery store left in these parts. They bake their own bread (lots of yummy sourdough), smoke their own meats, stuff their own sausages, dry their own fruits, make their own soup…they are crafty and good at it! They usually have local eggs, and sometimes they have local lettuce, too.

Sugar, I am sorry to say, is a continuing problem. As are tea, chocolate, olive oil, cereal, chips, soda, spices, peanut butter, etc. We hurdled the jam and pickles quandaries by making our own, and these days we try to cook a hunk of meat to use for sandwiches instead of buying insanely expensive “lunch meat”. I have even begun to make my own cheese: just mozzarella and cheddar so far, but I have a recipe for parmesan, and we’ll see if it can supplant the imported stuff.

In short, we’ve cut a lot of miles off our food, and I feel good about that. It has taken a lot of time and effort (and reading), but we definitely eat healthier when we eat local, and the Bean has become pretty open to trying new foods. Plus, small-scale agriculture seems to be staging a comeback, and (as one small business owner to others) I am glad to play my part.

Our diet isn’t perfect. (If we ate entirely locally, could I eat chocolate?) But we’re doing something, and for that opportunity, I am thankful.


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