The Herens Bells

This summer was full of incredible experience, and most of those came from the two weeks I spent accompanying a study abroad trip to France and Switzerland with Dr. Tim Woods. One experience, in particular, pulled together a number of thoughts and sentiments I’ve been grappling with over the past few months, and I’ve done my best to put it into words in this post.

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With typical francophone somberness, Mr. Berguerand greeted us outside the tiny town of Verbier, Switzerland, and bid our bus follow him up to the summer pastures. Climbing to nearly 14,000 feet, we arrived at the fields that for generations have been home to Herens cattle and the farmers that tend them. Our students ambled among the gentle cows as they nuzzled our hands for a scratch. Each animal had a large, handcrafted bell around her neck which rang constantly and in varied tones as they grazed on verdant grass and tiny wildflowers. My words cannot do that music justice (please see this video, and turn your sound on).

The herdsmen stood watch, alternately leaning on their staffs or leaping into action to corral an errant heifer. Shirts tucked into blue jeans and faces shaded by well-worn caps, they could have been any one of my neighbors from back home. An old border collie looked on benevolently. Their work was timeless and endless. We were floating off the edge of the world, carried by the song of bells and bellows of cows.

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Savior Faire and the Bon Vivant

They still milk the Herens, though it was unclear how robust milk sales are. Our translator explained that the trend in Swiss dairy, as everywhere, is for fewer, larger operations concentrated in the low lands that emphasize export and homogenized product. The Herens cattle are now kept mostly for sport and spring festivals. They’re known as ‘fighting’ cows, but its better described as mildly strenuous wrestling. Heifers vie for dominance in the spring when they’re set out to fresh pasture, and a queen is crowned. They drape her with flowers and parade her through town with children riding on her back.

Lunch was a simple picnic arrayed on a few flat stones above the milking barn: cured meats, rye bread, Raclette cheese, tiny cornichons and pickled onions. Sharing a bottle of red wine we spoke together of things both idle and profound. With my very broken French, hand gestures, and the occasional help of our translator we learned there is no Swiss equivalent for “Bless her heart,” nor English equivalent of  ‘Bon Vivant’ (someone who is a joyful mess; good at living, bad at life). We also learned that Mr. Berguerand has four children, but they work in banking and have no plans to return to the mountains or the heard. Looking down on the valley, our young translator observed that in his lifetime the village has expanded by at least a third, primarily for vacation homes for the global elite. James Blunt has a place there. “It’s getting harder for the local people to stay,” he stated simply.

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Mr. Berguerand and his dog

Willingness to pay

As our bus descended back to town, one of the students speculated that you could accurately asses a customers willingness to pay to preserve the Herens breed and thus determine both the price of cheese and the future of the breed. While I appreciated their enthusiasm for the tools of their discipline, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that in our cynical era we know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In a food system that can change with a trending hashtag, should we trust the abstract ‘consumer’ with determining our agricultural and cultural legacy? The Mayans built monuments to corn; will future generations will uncover digital archives of Unicorn Frappuccinos?

I won’t get into the heartbreak of the dairy crisis currently facing farm families in Kentucky and across the United States. The local and national media have done a better job telling their story than I could. It’s enough to say that during our visit to the mountain I couldn’t stop thinking about the shared life and challenges faced by dairy families around the world.  While the Swiss nostalgia for their agrarian past keeps our Herens herdsman friends afloat, who can say how long that will last. There are currently fewer than 12,000 Herens cattle alive on this earth, and those numbers continue to drop. Left to the unbridled market forces, it may come to pass that the mountains stand silent, the song of bells having passed out of memory.

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And yet they ring

Our visits during the trip alternated between massive multi-national operations striving for large scale production to meet globally homogenous standards, and petit artisanal enterprises highly attended to the distinct characteristics of each plot of soil and the traditions of their community.  The question at hand is whether these two systems can co-exist. In bleaker moments I heard our French hosts talk of downsizing their operations or decreased sales in artisan bread. In short, I worry that the full realization of global food system leaves no room for the small, the slow, the gentle.

Thankfully, those moments pass. Through the stories from our new French and Swiss friends I am reassured that they can and will continue to thrive through collaboration and the continued support (both through both patronage and policy) from their communities. Back home I’m heartened by the new salad bar and whole animal program our dining program is rolling out this fall (watch for big news announcement soon!). However, a brighter tomorrow is never promised today, and we must all continue to advocate for and tell the stories of the small farmers whose timeless work sustains us all.

September 1, 2018

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Time for Food

If you catch Chef Tanya deep in thought, she’ll likely confess she was thinking through her next menu. If you ask her her plans, she’ll say that her favorite radishes should be coming or, if you confess an affinity for lamb, her face will light up because she knows just the farmer to contact. Occasionally she’ll page through well-worn cookbooks to garner extra inspiration. I love these conversations because it gives me insight into her deep knowledge of both food and farmers.

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Let it shine

I’m continually impressed by Chef Tanya’s ability to make local food and seasonal cooking accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. The dishes we make in our learning kitchen are deceptively simple, emphasizing quality of the ingredients over fancy technique. Under her patient tutelage, they coax together frittatas golden with pastured eggs and caramelized onions, crisp coleslaw of crunchy Nappa cabbage from the South Farm, or a simple bruschetta from vine-ripened tomatoes. These meals let the produce and the budding chefs with their newly acquired knife skills shine.

As much as I value Tanya’s way with novices, I also look forward to the few times a year that she really gets to show up and show out in the kitchen. One of those showcase times of year is our annual board of directors meeting in June. Even after two years of working side by side with Tanya and watching the gorgeous dishes she elicits from beginner cooks, I’m still awed by the meals she gifts us: a trio of salads that turn your least favorite vegetables (beets, kohlrabi, cabbage) into delicate gems, perfectly cooked lamb chops with a miraculous addition of a local lavender in the crust, and a simple berry cobbler so good I had to stop mid-agenda item to collect myself.

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Kentucky lamb, green tomato pickle, pommes anna, ratatouille, and other magic. A work of art by Chef Tanya Whitehouse

Find the time, make excuses, and get to the good work of living

I share this story in part to brag on Chef Tanya because she’ll never brag on herself, and I’m awfully proud of the work we do together. The larger point, however, is to celebrate the joy and beauty that come from knowing your craft and knowing a place. The meal we enjoyed was as much a product of Tanya’s years of studying in the kitchen as her years of walking our farmers markets and working directly with farmers. I should also add a sprinkle of the deep Kentucky roots that speak through her grandma’s tomato catchup and jars of jewel-like watermelon pickle that is better described as candy.

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As we enter the height of summer, I hope you find the time and make excuses to develop your own art of local eating, whether that’s a sit-down meal with loved ones or sprinkling salt over a perfect tomato that drips into the sink while you devour it. Dig through your family’s cookbook collection to resurrect the recipes on the most battered pages, or ask a farmer their favorite way to eat something they’ve grown. The more we explore our local food systems, the more excuses we have to come together as a community and cultivate a more profound knowledge of the place we call home. Now go get busy exploring at the market, in the kitchen, or at your neighbor’s table, and I’ll expect a full report from you all at the end of summer!

Loma my second homa

Thanks to my far-flung friends, summer means a string of weddings that provide the perfect excuse to high-tail it out of town for a long weekend, and an opportunity to step out of my day-to-day perspective. Which is how I ended up in Nebraska for the first time this Memorial Day weekend and was reminded of how food plays a vital role in the enigmatic nature of what makes a place home.

The day after the wedding a group of us ventured an hour outside of Omaha, down a gravel road, past a church and two abandoned buildings to the Loma Tavern. We had to park well down the road lined with two-tone farm trucks, and a small crowd of people gathered outside the tavern. As our feet we crunched along the gravel I overhead a woman walking back to her car comment to her well-dressed friend “we should have skipped the winery and come straight here.” She clearly wasn’t from Loma, and I was excited to see what awaited us.

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Squeezing inside we found the full tavern cheek to elbow with people from all age brackets sharing tables and cold drinks. Clustered at the back wall were a tuba player, a tattooed man behind a small drum kit, and a teenage girl cranking away on the accordion. Despite the close quarters, a middle-aged couple bounced back and forth to the polka music, and other folks clapped along. We managed to belly-up to the counter and caught the eye of a white-haired woman in a white dress with a white apron. She asked how many suppers we wanted (not what kind) and waved us to find a seat wherever we could.

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Our plates arrived minutes later: duck thighs roasted golden with caraway seeds, a pile of potato dumplings hidden under an even bigger pile of slightly sweetened sauerkraut, a helping of sweet corn and a fluffy dinner roll perched on top. Our local guide, Anthony, announced that this was exactly the Sunday supper his Czech grandmother used to make. My belly full of sauerkraut and ears full of “The Saddle Horse Polka” I simultaneously felt at completely home, and that I’d never been anywhere quite like Loma. It was then I noticed the hand-made sign behind the tuba player: “LOMA MY SECOND HOMA.”

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Back in Lexington, I’ve been thinking about how the work of fostering local food systems can feel overwhelming; the global food system is so vast, the trends towards convenience and homogenized food cultures so strong. Similarly, it can be challenging to communicate the importance of local food systems when we’re so used to talking about food’s value primarily in terms of cheapness.  Unlike clear accounting indicators of ‘gross margin’ or ‘net profit,’ the values of local food are intertwined with each other in particular histories, cultures, and landscapes.

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I can’t express my experience at the Loma Taproom to you all with a number, but I hope the experience resonates with your own memories of home. For me, it was my favorite diner in the small town I grew up in that served simple meals made from scratch like chicken and dumplings and apple pie with a crust so flaky I’d sometimes skip class on Wednesdays just to be sure I got a slice. (To any of my current students, that is not an excused absence!) They closed when the grandmother running the kitchen finally retired. There’s a national fast-food chain where it used to stand, and that town feels a little less like home every time I pass through.

The Loma Taprooms of the world are kept afloat not by tourists like me, but by the grace of the farmers and other rural folks down the road who stop in for lunch or a cold drink as often as they can. Those same farmers probably get their pick-ups worked on at the garage in town, which may, in turn, keep the drummer of the polka band employed. Making the extra efforts to track down their potatoes for Sunday supper not only keeps those farmers on the land but also our traditions vital and that sense of ‘home’ alive.

Dr. Lilian Brislen

June, 2018

You can keep your heroes: on stewardship and food systems

This month over at The Food Connection we’re inaugurating an award in honor of one of my favorite farmers of all time (which is really saying something), Bill Best. This post (posted first at my ‘From the Director’ blog) sums up my thinking on the value of folks like Bill to our community.

You can keep your heroes: on stewardship and food systems

You might miss Bill in a crowd. He has a soft voice with a gentle Appalachian drawl. He asks thoughtful questions and humbly offers advice or knowledge when invited. If you’re not paying attention, you may also miss the invaluable role he’s played in preserving the genetic heritage and agricultural history of Central Appalachia. The stories he tells about seed-saving are as much about the gardeners and families who have entrusted him with their heirlooms as they are about his work preserving them. Back home we would describe him as a “good neighbor.” Some people in the sustainable agriculture community would likely call him a hero.bill_best

All heroes need an origin story. Bill Best refused to accept that he would never again enjoy the tender-skinned greasy beans that he grew up alongside in his grandmother’s garden. And so, he got to work; he turned the soil, tended his fields, and his farmstead became a sanctuary for the agricultural heritage of mountain communities and the plants they have loved. A precious as gold and twice as rare, families have entrusted Bill with their history, held closely inside those smooth and speckled seed casings.

We don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds

That said, I would never call Bill Best a hero. To me, Bill is a steward, which I would argue is a more noble title for those of us who strive to care for our food system. Our Jack saved the beanstalk from the giant not for financial gain or glory, but to ensure the cultural survival and self-reliance of his community.  Unlike the bravado of heroism, stewardship is the slow work of the seasons; found in the practical labors of caring for each other and the land that sustains us.

The mark a steward leaves is not an indelible carving of the earth (or the blasting of one’s visage into the mountainside). Unfortunately, our nation’s farming systems have also gone this way: bulldozed into uniformity by captains of industry. Absent stewardship, our food systems become unmoored, changing with the winds of fashion or price swings at the board of trade.

Even in the so-called ‘good food’ community, we fall prey to the cult of celebrity. We can all name the half dozen “super-star” farmers, chefs or authors with the silver bullet model for solving sustainable agriculture or urban food insecurity. You can pay big bucks to hear them speak, tour their farms and facilities, and buy their latest book to learn all the answers. But can they describe the poetic twining of a runner bean around its trellis? Do they carry the story of that bean close to their heart? I would offer that to heal our food systems we don’t need silver bullets, we need seeds.

The gentle legacy of stewardship

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Hand to Hand. Photo from Friends Drift Inn

The legacy of a steward is found in a gentler path, fit for the mountains Bill calls home; carried in song and verse, passed hand to hand, mended and endlessly re-woven. Grounded in an intimate knowledge of land and place, our food and farm stewards build our self-reliance while simultaneously showing us our deep interconnection. They give generously of their knowledge and skill, safe in the understanding that our true wealth and joy can only multiply as they are shared.

As Bill once told me: “You grow tomatoes for money, and beans for love.” I love this quote because it doesn’t diminish the tomato or the bean, or the farmer that grows them, and embraces the simple truths of a what it takes to build a livelihood. In Bill’s words, I hear echoes of the old protest songs calling for Bread and Roses; our labors should bring us not only prosperity but also dignity and joy.

We don’t come to sustainable food systems for a quick buck, but for the long work of learning how to abide together and live from the earth as well as possible. Many of us owe Bill a debt of gratitude. He shared his seeds and wisdom with me in my early days of bean enthusiasm, and I am not alone in my tender affection and deep admiration for this farmer with his coveralls and leather britches. But how do you honor someone whose humility and generosity defines their legacy? I offer that we treat his gifts to us with the same stewardship he has practiced. We tend to the heirlooms of our past by preparing them for brighter futures. We get to work.

Chief Overthinking Officer Report On Local-Washing

This is the post excerpt.

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Flat emoji for my flat friends

Food systems people know that even though winter is off-season on the farm it’s conference season in the meeting room. I arrived in Savannah for the Southeastern Regional Fruit and Vegetable Growers  (SERFVG… best/worst acronym ever) conference last week hoping for a brief break from my normal focus on local food ‘stuff’ with a vacation into the ever-so-riveting world of on-farm food safety education. Little did I know what awaited me.

Settling into my hotel room I was greeted by this seemingly innocuous room service menu. Seeing as I hadn’t eaten since Kentucky, I indulged with an order of quinoa-arugula-something-or-other salad AND a side of crinkle cut fries because YOLO. Only after closing the menu did I see their claim to ‘local ingredients,’ which sparked a litany of questions on my part. With no indication on the menu as to the provenance of anything, I was skeptical at best. Perhaps the good farmers of Georgia have miraculously started to grow Quinoa for foodie travelers like me… but I seriously doubt it. What’s more, as someone who spends a significant chunk of her professional life and mental bandwidth thinking about local food systems, this sort of ‘local-washing’ is especially vexing.

Like it’s cousin green-washing, local-washing emerged as a buzz-word around 2009 and applies to when a business makes claims about the ‘localness’ of their products when in fact they are part of the same global corporations and/or supply chains that most of our food comes from. Food purveyors (grocers, restaurants, food manufacturers) claim to offer local food with no clear communication about what food on the menu is local, or how local is defined, or what farms or sources that food comes from. The word ‘local’ serves as an empty placeholder for you, the customer, to insert all your positive assumptions about the food on offer’s freshness, healthfulness, or support of family farmers without any proof. Which is how I ended up with out-of-season tomatoes in my quinoa salad while at the same time a local farmer is left out in the rain.

Sharing my low-key local food outrage with some Georgia farmers the following evening one of them joked that I should add the title “Chief Overthinking Officer” to my business card. He wasn’t wrong, but I’m going to take it as a badge of honor. What we think and say about our world matters, and I’m lucky to be able to spend a lot of time thinking about these things. Now seems like a good time to be sharing more of those thoughts.

The ‘good food’ movement has been critiqued for its style over substance approach. It’s easy to be co-opted or local-washed in the absence of clear communication about how and why the meaning of ‘local food’ should matter to the average American; from what they put on their plates to what advocate for at work or in the voting booth.

My hope with this blog is to provide a substance AND style approach to food systems scholarship. As this blog evolves I hope to provide thoughtful reflection on both emerging issues and long-standing debates within the contemporary food movement. While I tend to approach things from a farm-first perspective, I’m also a social scientist through-and-through so culture, power, and all the other fun dimensions of our socio-political world will also play a part.

This is definitely an experiment in public-scholarship. I value your feedback, questions, or complaints. What questions need asking or answering? Whose perspectives aren’t being considered? How do we better understand each other as we work to build food systems that respect and nourish the people, land, and history of a place? As my hero once said… Let’s go exploring.

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