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Editorial: How to take the right path from farm to table

Never before have people thought so much about the food they put in their bodies.

Walk through any grocery store, and you will see people staring at labels in search of evil ingredients. Mention Red #40 or high fructose corn syrup to a mother with kids in tow, and she will shudder at the thought of poisoning her progeny with such garbage. Meanwhile, the debate over genetically modified foods has quickly joined the ranks of religion and politics as conversations to avoid at a dinner party if you hope to keep hurt feelings and shouting to a minimum.

This desire to wrest control of what we eat from Big Food has led to a surge in popularity for farmers markets and the farm-to-table movement, and that’s a good thing. The question is: “Is it good enough?”

In an article published in Sunday’s New York Times, chef and author Dan Barber sounded the alarm in a piece titled “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong.” It’s a jarring headline because, well, how do you find fault with a movement that at its foundation is about sustainability and supporting local growers. If there’s a war on Big Food, the farmers market is where the action is.

The problem is that many consumers are thinking only about Point A and Point B, with A being a local farm and B being kale that is to die for. The question eaters should ask themselves is: “Why does kale from this farm taste so good?”

Barber uses the example of an organic farmer who grows a rare variety of emmer wheat, which when milled and baked is transformed into a deliciously sweet, nutty bread. The way Barber saw it, by purchasing the emmer wheat he was doing a great service not only for the people who eat at his restaurants but also the local grower. But then Barber came to understand that the secret to delicious wheat isn’t the wheat, it’s the soil. And the trick to great soil? It’s about the grains, legumes and cover crops that enrich the soil but are not exactly flying off produce stands and into baskets. There’s simply not a lot of demand for the mustard, oats, rye, field peas and other unheralded crops that are valuable to the earth but less so to the farmer trying to make a living. Such crops are usually plowed into the soil after they’ve done their job or added to animal feed. Side dishes are buried in the fields.

So what can consumers do to strengthen the farm-to-table movement? Expand your culinary horizons. Yes, heirloom tomatoes are delicious. Yes, there’s no better summer snack than a freshly picked cucumber. But give some thought to the journey from seed to farmstand, and ask yourself whether you might be missing an opportunity to offer even more support to local growers. Find out what cover crops are helping the soil and add them to your rotation of fresh ingredients.

Barber put it this way: “Perhaps the problem with the farm-to-table movement is implicit in its name. Imagining the food chain as a field on one end and plate of food at the other is not only reductive, it also puts us in the position of end users. It’s a passive system – a grocery-aisle mentality – when really, as cooks and eaters, we need to engage in nuts and bolts of true agricultural sustainability.”

If consumers truly want to embrace local produce, the effort has to include more than shopping at the farmers market. The path from farm-to-table isn’t the nonstop, direct journey it is imagined to be. Sometimes you have to stop and smell the cover crop – and then add it to a salad.

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