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Back to the (Nearby) Land

What if rising gas prices finally drove us to grow and eat more sensibly?

By B.A. Nilsson

 

Think of your supermarket not from the inside, with its bins of plenty, but from the outside rear, as a row of loading docks. The destination of trucks rumbling over the highway, whose drivers are beset by the same transportation problem we face: Gasoline is unprecedentedly expensive. And diesel fuel tops all.

We commute to work, run errands, schlep kids, and eat that increased price as a cost of living. Trucking companies don’t. Supermarkets don’t. We eat that price difference, too.

It’s rarely a single reason that pushes me to change a long-standing habit, and if you’re similarly wired, gas prices ought to break the camel’s back. But the more discerning diners among us already have been focusing on local food for several other reasons.

“There have been many problems with what’s in the supermarkets,” says Gwen Hyde, whose Windy Willow Farm shares produce with subscription members. “People are concerned with e. coli, among other things, which reflects the larger issue of who’s growing your food and what are that person’s values.”

In increasing order of exertion, the nonsupermarket alternatives include shopping at farmers’ markets, subscribing to a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm or growing your own.

No flavor is more exhilarating than that of a just-picked bean or broccoli crown, munched raw in your garden. Likewise, no tomato is sweeter. It doesn’t take much ground space to grow a season’s worth of veggies, but now’s the time to prepare it by working compost into the soil even as you give an indoor start to your seeds.

Online resources abound. I wouldn’t have assumed this, but the Better Homes and Gardens Web site (bhg.com) has a good getting-started page, and a simple search will yield many others.

If you have absolutely no land at hand, a windowbox will yield fresh herbs and more vegetables than you might expect. A more robust option is to share space with others in a community garden, and Capital District Community Gardens will help you find that space.

They’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and now are coordinating collective gardening at 46 locations in Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties—typically vacant lots or parkland that they’ve been allowed to commandeer. The nonprofit organization recently added an Internet presence to make it easier to find and work with them. A visit to cdcg.org gives you access to a wealth of resources, both online and as pointers to classes, forums and even recipes. You can look at the gardens themselves and apply online for signup information.

A more recent CDCG program is the Veggie Mobile, a “mobile produce market,” according to assistant director Audrey Leduc. “It’s a farmers’ market on wheels that we send every week into places like senior centers and lower-income neighborhoods, places that have limited access to fresh produce.” The Veggie Mobile’s 2008 schedule is available at the CDCG website.

If you don’t mind a more stationary farmers’ market, they’ll be returning to the area shortly—if they even left. The stalwart, of course, is Troy’s, which runs through the winter (and continues to run, through April) at the Uncle Sam Atrium from 10 AM to 2 PM on Saturdays. And it’s much, much more than merely produce, as those who dine there weekly will attest.

At the Warehouse, an Albany venue (not far from the Miss Albany Diner), offers a year-round market presence; most of the Capital Region’s others run from July through October. Check out nyfarmersmarket.com for addresses and schedules; a more skeletal listing is maintained at New York’s Agriculture and Markets Web site (agmkt.state.ny.us).

Don’t overlook the offerings at Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op, which stocks a year-round variety of sensibly grown items, with those sourced locally so designated.

Assuming you have the desire to farm but lack the land, most CSAs will let you put in some hours in exchange for your bounty—much the same way a food co-op works. You’re usually allowed to pay the annual fee and simply collect your goods, but it’s more soul-strengthening to grab a hoe and smack the soil.

According to Wendell Berry, a farmer who writes passionately about matters of society, a community traditionally has been defined as a group of neighbors who share an interest in an area of land, a pre-supermarket concept that has eroded in this era of mass distribution of food. Yet it remains a social unit that people crave, as evidenced by the subscribers to Windy Willow Farm’s CSA program.

“We want our neighbors to be members,” says Hyde, “because they’re the ones who drive past the farm every day and can see what’s happening here, and notice what’s changing.” And they have transformed the weekly produce collection into its own social event.

“Pickup runs from 4 to 6, but nobody shows up at 4:30 and leaves at quarter to five. They get here at 4 and stay the full two hours, talking with each other as their kids play nearby, trading recipes and just catching up on news. Enjoying the space.” Hyde reports on her farm’s activities at windywillow farm.blogspot.com.

And CSAs aren’t just about produce. If you’ve consumed enough horror stories about how supermarket-bound livestock is raised and slaughtered, turn to a CSA for meat from grass-fed, pastured animals.

To find those CSAs—and there are many in this area—consult the listings at localharvest.org, an excellent national database of all things sustainable. Locally, the Regional Farm and Food Project (farmandfood.org) is a 12-year-old consortium of conscientious farmers and other food fans promoting sustainable agriculture—which naturally gives rise to sensible eating. Although the Web site offers fewer listings than others mentioned above, you’ll find an active resource of programs, activities and like-minded organizations.

Nothing is more essential to our well-being than the food we eat, yet we’ve enjoyed extensive brainwashing as to the viability of what’s most easily available. If oil-company greed finally drives us to our local farms, that may prove to be an ironically salubrious phenomenon.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Several salubrious and timely events are scheduled this week at the Honest Weight Food Co-Op’s Community Room (484 Central Ave., Albany). “Living Gluten Free” is the subject of a workshop with Amy Pagano from 1 to 3 PM Saturday (March 8); the store’s plant buyer, Gayle Anderson, discusses “Starting Seeds” from noon to 2 PM Sunday (March 9); and “Eat Good Fats” will be the topic from 6 to 7 PM Wednesday (March 12). For more info, call the Co-Op at 482-2667. . . . Enjoy a Southern Italian dinner and wine tasting at Saratoga Rose Inn and Restaurant (4136 Rockwell St., Hadley) at 7 PM Saturday, March 15, an event featuring five courses paired with five wines and commentary by Janine Stowell of Opici Wine Co. Chef-owner Richard Ferrugio will be preparing leek and pancetta frittata, Sicilian pesto with mint and almonds, braised rabbit agrodolce and much more. Dinner is $70 per person, plus tax and tip, and seating is limited. Call 696-2861 for reservations. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food at banilsson.com).



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