Food, food everywhere, but how to get it onto my plate?

By Jayson Jacoby May 11, 2012 09:48 am

I’m all for eating local food, but the trouble is nobody around here makes Milk Duds or licorice whips.

Not that I know of, anyway.

I do on occasion consume things that contain actual nutrition. And certain of these foods — unlike sugar, cacao beans and high-fructose corn syrup, all of which I relish — are grown in abundance hereabouts.

Beef, of course.

But also potatoes and wheat and peaches and apples and much else besides.

Getting my hands on some of these edibles isn’t necessarily easy, though.

Or my mouth, come to that.

I recently had an interesting conversation about this topic (the availability of locally grown food, not my mouth) with Mike Thornton.

He was hired in February as the Baker County organizer for Oregon Rural Action. That nonprofit group, based in La Grande, wants to help Northeastern Oregon residents fill their larders with food that comes, in some cases literally, from right next door.

Probably the most visible way Oregon Rural Action tries to accomplish that goal is by helping farmers markets get started around the region.

There are several, including one at Geiser-Pollman Park in Baker City. Our farmers market is scheduled for each Wednesday, 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., from June 6 through Oct. 24.

If I’ve done the math right — unlikely, but at least conceivable — that comes out to 63 hours of sales over 4 months. Which isn’t much if you’re schlepping kids to the pool and summer camp between stints at work and updating your Facebook wall.

The great question that has plagued me since I talked with Thornton is whether the link between Baker County’s fields and pastures and its dinner tables might be strengthened, as it were.

To put it another way, whether there might exist among our 16,000 residents an unfilled demand to know where our food came from not in a theoretical sense — “U.S. grassfed beef,” after all, is a phrase which covers a fair patch of ground, much of it planted in grass — but in a real one. How many of us yearn to drive past a fallow field and know, “that’s where last night’s fries came from.”

The answer, I came to understand after talking with Beverly Calder, who sells Baker Valley beef, lamb and other local foods at Bella, her store on Main Street, is rather more complicated than I had hoped.

(Simple answers are much better suited to my intellectual capacity.)

To be clear, the question for me is not whether we could create some agrarian utopia, where all of our needs — at least the caloric ones — are satisfied from the sweat of our brows and the fecundity of our soils.

This is silly, not to mention selfish.

The efficiency of Baker County’s farmers and ranchers is such that they raise more food than our modest population could consume.

(Although that population’s appetite for wholesome protein, fruits and vegetables would perhaps be more prodigious if dolts like me would cut out all the sweets.)

The bigger operations — and likely most of the smaller ones — could hardly survive were their clientiele confined to the county’s borders.

There is too the not insignificant matter of processing raw material into foodstuffs.

A Baker Valley wheat farmer can’t very well go round door to door peddling bushels of kernels if he hopes to make the payments on his combines.

His is the very definition of a global market.

But even when there’s a local producer with a ready-to-eat product, and local residents are eager to buy it, the transaction isn’t necessarily a simple one, Calder said.

She had to negotiate a thorny bureaucratic labyrinth just to legally sell Baker Valley beef and lamb.

That regulatory thicket has been hacked away to some effect over the past decade, Calder said, but the path is still far from clear, or painless.

For instance it’s easier, in theory, for a rancher to hawk hamburger out of a cooler in front of her store than for her to stock beef in a thermostatically controlled freezer inside, Calder said.

This seems nonsensical to me.

Not to mention most ranchers I know are too busy to sit on a sidewalk all day.

As for poultry, a chicken that could legally be sold in Calder’s store would have to put on more miles than many frequent fliers (and, presumably, friers) — Oregon has but one licensed poultry processing plant, and it’s in Scio, a village near Salem.

(The nearest such plant is at Nampa, Idaho.)

Notwithstanding regulatory annoyances, the situation isn’t quite so dire for devoted local eaters as I’ve perhaps implied.

During the summer, in particular, when locally raised fruits and vegetables abound, it’s possible to put together a complete meal that’s never strayed outside Baker County.

And of course hundreds of residents grow considerable amounts of their own food each year. Nothing’s more local than the garden right outside your door. Even if you don’t own a plot of ground you can rent one for the summer in Baker’s Community Garden. It’s pretty easy, too, to hone your horticultural skills by way of gardening classes offered by the Oregon State University Extension Service and other agencies.

(Oregon Rural Action: www.oregonrural.org; OSU Extension: www.extension.oregonstate.edu.)

Still and all, I expect the supply of local food falls short of the demand.

I’d be lined up, wallet in hand and saliva oozing, if someone could figure out how to raise cacao beans in our climate, which even in its most beneficent moments can’t fairly be described as tropical.

 

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.