Monday, June 18, 2012

Which came first - the restaurant or the farm?

It's been so long since I blogged; it would be easy to assume I'd spent time in the pen because my pig didn't stay in his. Thankfully, that is not the case. After a terrifying appeal, all the charges were dropped. That is a story for another time, but it bears remarkable similarities to the recent Hatfields and McCoys movie. "Is the pig in the courtroom, today?" asked the judge. "No, sir." "Why not?" "He's done been et." My story is not quite that colorful, but it's damn close.

One of the coolest things I've done recently (and in the running for one of the coolest things ever) was to interview Dr. Steven Hopp for Lancaster Farming [LF A03 6/16/12.] Dr. Hopp owns the Harvest Table Farm and Restaurant in Meadowview, Virginia. He is also married to Barbara Kingsolver who happens to be one of my favorite authors. Her characters in the Poisonwood Bible are so clearly drawn; you can turn to any page in the book and tell who is speaking - without gimmicks. Prodigal Summer, The Bean Trees and most recently The Lacuna are all fantastic. I could go on and on. If you haven't read her, you need to.

I rarely go to concerts and have never been a groupie for anyone. When I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, the book Kingsolver wrote with Hopp and their daughter Camille, however, and found out that she too lives in Virginia, I was tempted to start stalking farmers' markets, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Instead and because, pigs notwithstanding, I am a law abiding citizen, I did the next best thing and asked my editor if I could cover the Harvest Table Farm for the paper.

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (AVM,) Kingsolver and Hopp documented a year of their family's attempt to source their food locally. It's a treat for anyone, but particularly for anyone living in the mid-Atlantic region where your seasons will mirror the family's. I revisit the book again and again and have read sections to my husband and squirming kids. The kids are pretty familiar with where their food comes from. We've done plenty of agritourism farm visits, we grow a decent sized garden, and they've eaten Daddy's venison, Mommy's Fat Boy and rooster enchiladas.

The parts of AVM I was most interested in reading to them were Hopp's essays on petroleum use in agriculture, GMO foods and artificially low food prices. Hopp makes very clear arguments about the amount of fossil fuel it takes to raise our food (about 400 gallons of oil per year per citizen) and the artificially low price of food ($725 per household per year to subsidize the use of fuel, etc. in agriculture.) Even better than his writings, he's put his time, money and energy where his intention is.

After the Kingsolver Hopp household figured out how to eat locally, Hopp pushed the idea to include a restaurant where the food, with very few exceptions, is sourced locally. The farm was a natural extension, allowing them to raise what the restaurant needs and extend the growing season on either end. Matt Sanders and a collection of the nicest, fresh-faced interns in the world run the farm. Sanders and chef Philip Newton talk every day, taking time in December to plan for what the restaurant will need throughout the year. It is a beautiful symbiotic relationship, and the food is fantastic.

I don't agree with Dr. Hopp about everything. I know my Dad's generation of agriculture believed their increased efficiencies would feed the world, and I've watched the pride in the small grain farmers' eyes when they accept trophies, worthy of any bowling league, for their yeilds per acre. Hopp would argue that the increase in yield is solely because of an increase in fiber in the plant and not an increase in nutritional value. I don't know if he's right, and we've certainly made interesting choices when it comes to how we raise corn that often don't relate to food for human consumption, at least not the way we were intended to consume it.

I do know, however, how important it is for dairy farmers to raise wholesome food for their families and their neighbors. I've sat through enough milk toasts to know there is no artifice involved, just lots of hard work and a surprising amount of attention. In 1944, there were about 25.5 million cows. By 2007, that number had dropped to 9.2 million. Milk production, however, increased over 258 percent. It takes 65 percent less water, 90 percent less land and generates 76 percent less manure to produce a gallon of milk than it did in 1944. It's not because of rBGH; dairy farmers have gotten much better at their jobs.

The world's population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050. With organizations like the World Wildlife Federation stating we need to "freeze the footprint of food" to maintain the planet, those kind of efficiencies are going to become crucial.
I also know that without government safety nets, years like 2009 could turn herds of dairy cows built on generations of genetics into hamburger. That doesn't serve anyone. Subsidies aren't always evil and the Farm Bill doesn't only protect the big guys.
I have an enormous amount of respect for Dr. Hopp. I'm impressed with his commitment to put his muscle behind his mouth. It's obvious he believes in community, and he's worked hard to foster his. I'm grateful for the time that he spent talking with me. I'm also grateful to have made it through the actual interview without gushing about Barbara Kingsolver. Although when Hopp said Barbara told him to change clothes before he met with me, my heart did flutter a bit.
Thanks also to Matt Sanders for taking time to talk to me on market day. If I was 20 or 25 years younger, I'd intern at Harvest Table Farm. What a wonderful life enhancing / affirming way to spend a summer.
If you want to know more, check out the Harvest Table and Meadowview Farmers' Guild.