The Revolutionaries

Space Invader Who: CHRIS CURTIS What she does: Runs the wildly popular, nearly profitable farmers market program in four Seattle neighborhoods. In 1993, Chris Curtis and her husband were proprietors of the H䡧en-Dazs franchise on University Way when the Skagit Valley native's nostalgia for wide-open sprawling farmland got the best of her. Inspired by a visit to a bountiful farmers market in Santa Barbara, Calif., she proposed a similar idea to the University District Chamber of Commerce as a way of building retail traffic for the neighborhood. With that, she embarked on a busy, unpaid career as market organizer (she's paid now). "I thought a farmers market would be a good community project, but I had no idea how much work it would be," she says. Finding small farmers to participate proved challenging at first—a lot of farmers weren't used to the in-city, direct-sales concept (the model Curtis had seen in California). The market opened that year with 17 farmers and five additional vendors. It was, and is, an all-food market—that means no crafts or wholesaling allowed. Farmers and shoppers were hooked. Now the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance runs four markets (Curtis has set up operations in West Seattle, Columbia City, and this year, Lake City) with plans for a new one in Magnolia next summer. The 17 farmers have grown to more than 140, bringing in over $2,600 a day among the four locations. (The alliance collects 6 percent of daily vendor sales or $25, whichever is greater.) Once run out of Curtis' basement, the alliance—now with three full-time employees—has moved to a proper, if still spatially challenged, office on University Way, thanks to a hefty annual grant from the city of Seattle Office of Economic Development. The city also helped the alliance draft a business plan that includes launching three additional markets by 2007 and that, if projections are met, should make the alliance economically self-sufficient by the same year. What the plan doesn't solve is Curtis' latest dilemma-she doesn't have enough space to support farmer demand (all four sites have lengthy waiting lists), and the space she does have-while generously donated by parking-lot owners— isn't permanent. "There's very little open space in Seattle," she says, "and parking lots are certainly prime for development." Katie Millbauer Ergo Orgo Who: MIKE VERDI and SHELLEY PASCO What they do: Keep a suburban farm thriving by going organic. Mike Verdi used to feel sorry for the organic growers who stacked their puny piles of produce next to his in the Pike Place Market in the late '80s. A veteran local farmer whose family has sold at the Market for nearly 50 years, Verdi says he was selling conventionally grown vegetables for twice what the organic guys were charging for their bug-bitten, runty squash and onions. But Verdi, 52, got an education a decade later from his second wife, Shelley Pasco, a computer graphics designer who had developed a passion for gardening. Those pioneering farmers had learned a lot, Verdi discovered. Fish fertilizer and botanical pesticides helped them produce plump, bountiful crops. And the boom in farmers' markets around Puget Sound had created lucrative opportunities. Now Verdi and Pasco farm organically on 18 acres tucked among railroad tracks and auto salvage lots in the Green River valley just south of Kent. There are no labyrinthine fields of corn at Whistling Train Farm—every few feet a different crop rises from the ground: artichokes, kohlrabi, radicchio, Swiss chard, basil. Verdi grows fewer vegetables, but he hauls in much better prices. To take one seasonal example, Verdi used to let conventional pumpkins go for 4-6 cents per pound; now he sells them for around 60 cents per pound. Organic produce earned Whistling Train entr饠into the University District Farmers Market, one of the most heavily trafficked in the state, where growers average sales of $900 per day. Organic farming is hardly a life of leisure. It means spending hours pulling weeds instead of a few minutes with a spray bottle of herbicide. But sometimes the organic approach is simply smarter, not harder, say Verdi and Pasco. Instead of driving flea beetles off the arugula with pesticide, for example, they don't plant until fall, when the voracious leaf-grazers have gone dormant. Whistling Train now grosses about $80,000 annually, enough that Pasco has been able to leave her day job behind, and Verdi and Pasco don't bother with Pike Place Market any longer (except for the Market's "Organic Wednesdays"). Says Verdi: "I'd be broke if not for taking the organic approach." Kevin Fullerton Meatier Market Who: BRUCE DUNLOP What he does: A livestock farmer in the San Juan Islands whose mobile slaughterhouse is opening doors for local meat. Farms out on the San Juan Islands tend to be modest in scale and more diverse than your industrial ag operation. Bruce Dunlop on Lopez, for instance, has a few grass-fed lambs, some hogs, and a small apple orchard. Trouble is, he and his fellow islanders are hours away from the nearest USDA-approved meat processing facility—in Chehalis, south of Olympia—so there's not much they can do with their livestock. "You could sell four or five [cattle] a year," says Dunlop, "on a custom basis"—where the customer has to buy the whole animal in advance—but most people "don't want to order a lamb for three months from now; they want to buy a leg of lamb today, so they can have it tomorrow night for dinner." So most of the small-farm herd are auctioned off to giant feedlots, he says, with the farmer taking "the going rate, which is pretty pathetic." Six years ago, Dunlop and fellow farmers started looking to establish a processing business closer to home, so they could sell cut meat—which offers better profits—and not just full-size animals. The market seemed to be there: In consumer surveys, San Juan Islanders professed eagerness to support local farmers and purchase locally produced food. However, when the time came to find a site for the slaughterhouse, it became apparent that no one wanted their food to be quite that local. "It was pretty amazing how quickly the neighbors found out we were looking at a piece of property near them and organized to stop it," says Dunlop. "There's not a neighbor in the county that would not object to it being situated next to them." So Dunlop decided to go mobile. With help from the Lopez Community Land Trust, WSU, and some volunteers, he developed a 26-foot trailer that's a self-contained, USDA-approved slaughterhouse on wheels. Instead of a giant processing plant handling industrial volumes of carcasses, the mobile unit pulls up to individual farms, where a handful of animals are stunned, then skinned and eviscerated inside its climate-controlled interior. "The activity is happening on farms throughout the county," says Dunlop, "and not very often at any one farm. The impact is spread out." The meat is sent to a new Skagit Valley facility for aging and cutting, then returns to the farmers "all packaged and ready to sell," says Dunlop. "We've had farmers this summer selling locally produced meat at the San Juan County Farmers Markets." Eventually the two-dozen farmers who've formed a co-op with Dunlop hope to develop their own brand identity and get their meat carried in stores. The goal: More farms can stay in business, more land remains pastoral, and carnivores (at least the human variety) benefit from animals not being trucked halfway across the state. "There's a growing body of evidence that the quality of the meat is better if the animal is not under any kind of stress when it's killed," says Dunlop. "When an animal is stressed, it has adrenaline pumping through its system. We did some cows the other day. They came walking out into this field that they knew, and bang, they were stunned and down. One minute they were nosing around to see if there's anything good to eat, and the next minute they're dead. That is the ultimate in low-stress slaughter." Mark D. Fefer Changing Minds, Cafeteria-Style Who: JENNIFER HALL What she does: Oversees a mostly-organic food-service operation at Evergreen State College. Jennifer Hall has taken the old adage "You are what you eat" to its extreme. She's turned a longtime passion for locally based, community-sensitive living (she was buying organic before it was trendy) into a career, overseeing the largely organic student cafeteria at Evergreen State College and playing a leading role with a couple of local, progressive, socially responsible food organizations. She's like the high-energy, hands-in-everything class president of the local/organic food movement in Seattle. The pixielike Queen Anne resident isn't easy to pin down. Last month, she could be found on a northeastern Washington farm with a goat's udder in her hand and a bucket of fresh milk between her legs. She spent her vacation laboring at a one-week farm camp full of culinary students, where she helped turn that milk into cheese as well as slaughter, butcher, and cook a lamb. Connecting with her food and where it comes from is a process Hall finds essential. "Once people have that [connection], it's amazing," she says. "You milk a goat right there and taste the still-warm milk. It's a very different thing." She thinks the key part of getting people to care about locally grown organic food is to let them taste the difference. "People I know, if they've ever grown their own tomatoes, they know what a good tomato tastes like, and it's probably not from a grocery store." Not yet, anyway. But it might be from a cafeteria, like the one Hall has run at Evergreen for the past year. Under a contract with Hall's employer, food-service provider Bon Appetit, Evergreen requires the company to serve mostly organic, mostly local food. This year, a lot of that food will come from Evergreen's own 38,000-square-foot organic farm. The same farm composts all the kitchen's waste, so it's a full working model of sustainable agriculture. The job's made somewhat easier for Hall since she's catering to a student body known for being Earth-friendly; at least a quarter of the students pay the extra buck for an organic hamburger, she says. But there are some compromises—while all milk comes from a local hormone-free farm, her budget dictates that the rest of the dairy products are conventional. Off campus, Hall is treasurer of the Seattle chapter of the Chef's Collaborative, a Boston-based group dedicated to linking farmers and growers with local restaurants. The group will cater this weekend's Community Food Security Coalition conference, at which Hall will be a guest lecturer. And given her busy schedule, it's ironic that another of her major roles is on the board of the Slow Food chapter in Seattle. "Not that I don't go a million miles a minute so I don't have to go a million miles a minute," she adds. Katie Millbauer Slow Food Dude Who: GERALD WARREN What he does: Leads the Seattle chapter of Slow Food, an international organization that tries to combat the destructive influence of fast, cut-rate eating. Gerald Warren has a problem. He's a co-founder of Seattle's Slow Food "convivium," or chapter, which is now five years old. It has 100 members and, by all accounts, when everyone gets together for wine tastings or to sample, say, goat cheese made in Eastern Washington, it can be quite the party—and that's the trouble. Slow Food ain't supposed to be just a party. A small, international movement of serious foodies that is at once a protest against the calories-in/ calories-out aspect of postmodern dining and an embrace of the traditional pace of dining, Slow Food began in Italy in 1988. Over there, the movement cleaves to its philosophical underpinnings like Trotskyites at a party congress and helps create markets for disappearing food items such as rare Piedmontese chickens and cheeses made by lonely men on mountaintops. But in Seattle, Warren says he has run into foodies who see the movement as little more than "a sexy concept," as he puts it, and an excuse for a culinary good time. The UW rehabilitation and medical bioengineering professor portrays himself as a purist lost among the poseurs. To hear Warren tell it, Slow Food purity shouldn't be that hard. At its core, it is simply revolution wrapped in the pleasures of eating good food. With that pleasure comes a certain amount of devotion to saving endangered indigenous food products. This Thanksgiving season, for example, the local chapter will buy 225 American bronze turkeys from a rancher in Oregon. That's the other piece of Slow Food—besides slowing down, eating good food, and saving unique products, you have to create consumer demand so the rancher in Oregon will raise the birds in the first place. Warren ticks off other examples, such as raw milk cheese, of how the Seattle group has done just that. He plans to announce soon a push to save a certain rare and indigenous bivalve that he declines to name. Slow Food Seattle will never siphon off business from McDonald's. But what keeps Warren going in the face of a local falling away from grace is the love of the thing itself, the ideal Platonic form of it all: He's obsessed with artisan producers and can talk of them the way record store geeks do Guided by Voices split singles. And, in his own habits, he eats the purist talk; much of his food comes from his family's vegetable garden. So what does he intend to do about those who come to the church of the convivium for the choir but sleep through the sermon? Warren is cagey on this point, refusing to answer direct questions but hinting around that, if he has his way, reformation will be on the menu. Philip Dawdy Making Waves With Grain Who: GWEN BASSETTI What she does: Switching to a local, Earth-friendly wheat source for all Grand Central baking. The seeds of change have been planted. Gwen Bassetti and I are standing in a 10,000-square-foot industrial baking facility in South Seattle that houses, among other things, a huge electric mixer and bowl (capable of stirring 425 pounds of dough at once); a cylindrical metallic flour silo that extends up through the roof (it holds 16 tons of flour and is refilled every four or five days); and two Bongard hearth ovens, each the size of a small bedroom (where 480 loaves of bread bake simultaneously). There is flour on the floor (don't slip) and flour in the air ("There are all kinds of spores around us as we talk"), and increasingly it becomes clear that all this white stuff is the essential element of business here. "When we first started, I have to admit, I thought flour was flour," says Bassetti, who founded Grand Central Baking Company in 1972. "White flour, whole wheat flour, flour from another grain— we knew all that. We didn't know that, over the years, commercial flouring mills have made blends overwhelmingly for factory bread making, not for hand-done, stone-baked artisan bread. In a factory, literally, flour is going in one place and loaves are coming out the other end." While Bassetti and company pride themselves on a handmade product—there are six floury men and women rolling, kneading, and shaping dough in the other room; no less than five bakers touch every loaf they produce—they're less excited about the flour they've been using. Known, ironically, as Artisan Blend No. 3, it comes from a large corporate agricultural supplier in Pendleton, Ore. But in January, Grand Central will move its $35,000 to $40,000 monthly flour contract to a more local source. The two Eastern Washington farmers who will be Grand Central's new suppliers are certified by the Food Alliance (a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable food) and use "direct-seeding" procedures—the soil is not turned over by plow, thereby preserving the root structure, holding the soil together against erosion, and using less labor and fuel. "It's one small step at a time," Bassetti says. "If we can prove with this alliance that we get a better product; that it's competitive, so we're not being priced out of the market; and that it's good for the farmer," other bread manufacturers may begin to catch on. Grand Central Baking Company's operation is smaller than that of Essential Baking Company, their major local competitor, but significantly larger than Macrina and La Francaise. "We will be paying a little more," she adds, "but we're confident we're going to be improving the flavor and the product. Hopefully, our customers will notice." Christopher Frizzelle Kid's Platter Who: GREG ATKINSON What he does: Introduces schoolchildren to homegrown, whole food. Greg Atkinson is a changed man. In the last few weeks, he has left his job as executive chef at Canlis—where men are strongly encouraged to wear jackets and spend money—to become the full-time chef at a nonprofit outdoor learning facility on Bainbridge Island—where fourth and fifth graders from the Central District and Bellevue gorge themselves on organic trail mix. "This week was particularly gratifying," he says. "It's amazing to feed 140 people three meals a day and have no complaints. It doesn't happen in fine dining." Public-school students spend four days at IslandWood to satisfy Washington state's outdoor learning requirement. Most of the students' time is spent in the field (which, at IslandWood, is actually a forest). There is a stream running to a harbor, a pond with a floating classroom on it, and a ravine with a suspension bridge. Students do a variety of activities during the day, "but mostly they seem to eat," Atkinson says. "That's what it seems like to me, anyway." Last week he sent students home with a bag lunch of peanut butter and homemade jelly on homemade bread, organic oranges, and oatmeal cookies. While there is no curriculum for food per se, "I think there are opportunities to learn about it anyway," Atkinson said. "Kids visit the garden where we grow food. Eventually, they'll be able to gather the food for our meals." A dinner of local free-range chicken often leads to a conversation about what "free-range" means. "We explain the difference between organic romaine and regular romaine lettuce. A lot of them haven't ever had a salad. A lot of kids tell me: 'This is the first time I've had real food,' or, 'I've never sat at a table that was set.'" There were many reasons Atkinson gave up his former job for this one—the first being that IslandWood sprung up, literally, in his backyard (he lives on Bainbridge with his wife and two sons). He began wondering who was going to feed the kids, and then felt "called and compelled" to do it himself. Now, he says, "I can walk through the woods to work, instead of speeding up 99. Even though we're going to have to live on less money, it feels better. My life feels better. And for the first time in my life, I can have dinner at home with my own kids." Christopher Frizzelle FOODIE FIELD TRIPS On Saturday, Oct. 5, the Community Food Security Coalition conference organizers will lead tours of area farms and markets. All field trips cost $55 and include entrance to Saturday night's Celebration of St. Francis, "an evening of nature, spirituality, and the arts." To register, call 310-822-5410 or visit www.foodsecurity.org. Meet at the Holiday Inn, 211 Dexter. MORNING TRIPS KING COUNTY: GRACE UNDER PRESSURE Tour attendees will learn about King County's diverse farming programs and the challenges they face in the midst of rapid urbanization. They will tour a successful Seattle farmers market and area farms. Includes an afternoon class. Tour: 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Class: 2-6 p.m. SEATTLE: FOOD BETWEEN THE CRACKS Small-scale farming, fishing, and market operations that are surviving in an urban setting. The tour will stop at Fisherman's Terminal, the High Point Market Garden, and the Pike Place Market, to name a few. Includes an afternoon class. Tour: 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Class: 2-6 p.m. ALL-DAY TRIPS SOUTH PUGET SOUND Visit Mother Earth Farm, which provides fresh produce to food programs areawide, an intergenerational community gardens, where more than 60 families grow their own food, and a unique Tacoma agricultural community. Includes lunch. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. SKAGIT COUNTY: AGRICULTURE IN A CHANGING WORLD Skagit Valley is Western Washington's largest remaining agricultural area. Visit a range of small and large farms that are battling the effects of globalization, potential salmon preservation regulations, labor costs, and other issues. Includes lunch. 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

 
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