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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Grow local, eat local

By Margaret Plevak/Contributor

At a time when "fresh" has become the buzz word for everything from coffee beans to sub sandwiches, Katie Bjorkman has the real goods. Bjorkman, who runs Earth Harvest Farm near Lake Geneva, sells her produce at two Walworth County farmers' markets, to a few area restaurants and to 28 subscribers of a community-supported agricultural program (CSA) she started this year.

Terry Mayer/The Week
Sandy Fisher-McKee, left, and Margaret Kowaleski, co-owners of the Wildflower Café in Elkhorn use produce from area growers.
When subscribers--who pay an up-front fee for 20 weeks of organically grown produce--pick up their weekly share of assorted vegetables from her farm, they know their lettuce, radishes and broccoli were picked only a matter of hours earlier and grown in fields that are mere yards away.

By their participation in a CSA program, subscribers are supporting local, sustainable and small-scale farmers, says Bjorkman, who holds a bachelor's degree in ecological agriculture. That subscriber shares in Earth Harvest Farm's own CSA have already sold out for 2008 is testament to a growing interest in eating locally.

Peg Reedy, agribusiness agent with Walworth County's UW Cooperative Extension, finds buying local makes sense for many reasons, including fresher food. Because most supermarket produce travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches store shelves, fruits and vegetables generally get to consumers days or weeks after being picked, losing flavor and nutrition along the way.

"Since the produce has to withstand the long trip, it is often harvested before it's ripe, and a lot of varieties grown for truck shipment have been developed specifically to stand up to shipping and long shelf life," Reedy said. "When you buy locally, you can often purchase heirloom varieties and those bred for great ripe taste."

The high cost of fueling trucks packed with long-distance produce is also taking more cash out of shoppers' wallets, Reedy believes.

"As food prices continue to climb, I think the argument that locally grown food costs more will be a less persuasive one and our local farmers will be more competitive with the mega farms from California who have the mega transportation costs," she said.

For Reedy and others, buying locally makes good financial sense overall, because money is circulated within the community and helps keep neighborhood farmers afloat.

"People really do feel good about supporting their local businesses, especially a family farm," said Colleen Henningfeld, who sells naturally raised beef, chicken and free- range eggs at Romari Farms in East Troy, now in its third generation of family ownership. "We also feel our customers understand they are supporting a way of farming, too, that's more sustainable and less factory-like."

Local producers have long contributed to the menu at Wildflower Café in downtown Elkhorn. Buffalo meat is purchased from Sorg's Meats in Darien and produce comes from area growers.

"We'll even make a run for beets to Michael Fields (Agricultural Institute in East Troy) in the middle of winter," said Wildfower co-owner Margaret Kowaleski.

During the summer, some of the herbs and vegetables featured in restaurant entrees come from co-owner Sandy Fisher-McKee's own half-acre garden. She even sells her organically grown produce to customers under the "Double Hoe Gardens" name.

Jack Kaestner, executive chef at the Oconomowoc Lake Club, uses area producers--including Delavan's Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm, which sells lamb, for about 35 percent of his restaurant's meals on a daily basis. Because he knows many chefs hesitate to take on the work of finding local producers, rather than simply contact a national food supplier like Sysco, he's also co-chairman for the Farmer Chef Connection, an organization which helps restaurant chefs find area farmers with produce or meats to sell.

"The one thing I tell people is that local food means local farms. I think people forget that. We lose that connection," Kaestner said. "But we're building those relationships again, and once chefs make that step, they don't go back."

The Farmer Chef Connection holds educational events for members that highlight local foods, such as a 2004 meal created by Walworth County chefs. At meetings, often held on farms, chefs may learn the differences between cage-free and free-range chickens, or grass-fed and grass-finished beef.

Education is a good idea for consumers, too, said Bob Van De Boom, who raises and sells lamb, chicken and eggs at VDB Organic Farms in Delavan.

Consumers should know how their food is raised, and buying locally lets them question producers directly on hormone or chemical use and livestock confinement.

"These are questions we are asked and can answer," he said. "Try doing that with meat bought at a supermarket."

Van De Boom worries some producers may be jumping on the "buy local" bandwagon for the sake of profit and will end up giving all local producers a bad reputation.

"I wouldn't buy local knowing that producers use genetically modified organisms, spray for weeks, abuse the land and mistreat their animals," he said.

"We started our farm to educate consumers. We arm them with what questions to ask other producers as to how they produce their products."

Reedy said consumers benefit by talking to growers at farmers' markets or even arranging to visit a farm where they buy meat or vegetables.

"With all of the food-borne illnesses, like the salmonella scare in fresh tomatoes, I like knowing my local farmer and how he raises my food," she said.

For more information, call 308-0335 or visit www.earthharvestfarm.com.

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