Understanding Where Our Food Comes From

Reader Contribution by Jonathan Olivier
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I’m sure I grew up like many folks my age did. While my mother cooked most of our meals for my two brothers, father and I, we didn’t eat local or from a backyard garden. Really, the only local thing about our food was that it came from the grocery store nearby—with ingredients sourced from around the country produced using the industrial, chemical-laden model.

Organic? That wasn’t part of our vocabulary.

Despite living in a small town and having Cajun grandparents who, just a generation before, grew all of their own food, questioning where our meals came from was the last thing on our mind. Food was just, well, food—so we thought.

Eventually, though, like the prevailing winds of our food culture, my mom started to buy organic—likely due to my persistence, but, nonetheless, our family made a change. We started a small garden in our backyard that provided us with fresh tomatoes, okra and green beans. Then, when we could, we made it to the Red Stick Farmers Market in nearby Baton Rouge, which, today, is thriving more than I ever remember. Suddenly, when I harvested deer or small game from the wilderness near our home, I thought of the meat as free-range, local and as organic as you can get. It started to all make sense.

Why Local Matters

It wasn’t until Brittney and I started in January traveling to farms that I grasped the importance of the world we were entering. While I knew of farmers, I never really got to know one. Along the way this year, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few that, not only have made an impact on my life, but are people I can now call friends. I’ve seen the painstaking effort these folks are taking to produce the best food they possibly can on a limited budget and on a small scale when our system is one that rewards the mega-producers. And to me, that’s paramount. 

The contrasts between these two groups—industrial and small-scale—are striking. The food grown on large scales has been literally poisoning us, making us sick. Smaller farms are far less likely to use chemicals and thus their plants are hardier, even tastier. Often, local famers ship food across the street rather than across the continent. Less fossil fuels are used in the process. This locally produced food is fresher and contains more nutrients than something that’s been sitting for weeks on trucks or on shelves.

More and more, I’m understanding that our decisions at the register affect the future of our food culture. Buy processed foods and you’re supporting pesticide use or the degradation of our environment, while neglecting local farms and the massive potential of these smaller operations in our communities. Support your neighbors and you’re potentiating a more sustainable model of food production that benefits us all.

There couldn’t be any more important aspect to food than knowing where it comes from and how those animals—or plants, for that matter—spent their time on earth. And the only way to understand that is to know a farmer.

The Farmers

In January in Black Mountain, North Carolina, Brittney and I stayed with Becki who owns a small urban farm called Becki’s Bounty. She’s about a decade into growing food for her surrounding community at a small market. While tomato blight has taken hold a time or two, you couldn’t tell by glancing at her garden. Even in the dead of winter, her no-till beds were lush with a cover crop.

You won’t find any pesticides in Becki’s shed. Instead, she takes the care to pull off any pests by hand and grows tomatoes that are resistant to blight. Education has taken a priority lately as she attempts to teach others how to grow food themselves—empowering her community. What mega farm has the time to do that?

Eric’s farm in Gila, New Mexico, was abuzz with life in March. His greenhouses were packed with lettuce, mixed greens and spinach—we planted even more according to a biodynamic calendar. Almost all of the nutrients come from his land, like homebrewed compost tea and nitrogen from his chickens and goats. He sells his produce to the local food co-op, as well as the farmers market in nearby Silver City. Since the food doesn’t spend time traveling the country, his customers are consuming produce at the height of its nutritional value.

Sol Mountain Farm near South Fork, Colorado, is a permaculture-based operation, growing pesticide-free food near the San Luis Valley, which is full of conventionally produced crops. It’s ironic, really, how crops span the valley, yet likely none of it is consumed by the people living nearby. There are few local options as most of the grocery stores in the area only offer conventional produce. So, the folks at Sol Mountain took matters into their own hands, and not long ago were pivotal in starting a famers market. Finally, residents of the area have some local options.

These small-scale farmers serving communities local food offer an opportunity we haven’t had for decades—to get to know the people growing our food. Visit a farmers market and meet some of these folks. Ask them how they grow. Pay a visit to their farm. Show them the support needed to continue the trend toward a sustainable food culture.

Photos by Jonathan Olivier

Jonathan Olivier is traveling throughout 2018 with his partner, Brittney, with the goal of learning everything they can about farming. He is a freelance journalist, having covered the environment and outdoors for OutsideBackpackerREILouisiana Sportsman, and a host of other publications. In 2016, he published his debut novel, Between the Levees. Follow Jonathan on his website and Instagram.

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