The New Food Revolution

Drop that tasteless corporate-grown tomato! These Seattle foodies are creating a safer, healthier, more savory food chain.

By 1987, the year Bob and Bonnie Gregson bought a two-acre farm on Vashon Island, it was transparently clear to any thinking person that the American family farm was a rapidly fading vestige of the country’s past. Like it or not, mechanized, fertilizer- and pesticide-based mass production, the kind of agriculture pioneered by land grant colleges like Washington State University, was the wave of agriculture’s future—not just in the United States but worldwide—and anybody who thought differently was a sentimental romantic or a fool.

Fifteen years later, mass food production for mass consumption markets has only grown more dominant, but the future course of agriculture doesn’t look quite so certain. People like the Gregsons are the reason: hundreds and thousands of people who have chosen to challenge the ever-expanding dominion of corporate agribusiness, one potato and piglet and apricot at a time.

People have been drawn to challenge the corporate agriculture model on myriad grounds—environmental, nutritional, economic, and sociological—but the bottom line of all challenges is the same: The ruling paradigm doesn’t work. For the sake of efficiency, it generates waste; in the name of abundance, it magnifies want.

This week, Seattle plays host to representatives of more than 250 public and private agencies dedicated to changing the status quo. The groups composing the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) share a dedication to a single goal: bringing people who eat and people who produce back into a more healthy, immediate connection.

A remarkable number of individuals and groups in the Pacific Northwest are part of this movement, but until recently they’ve operated pretty much in isolation, often duplicating efforts and sometimes at cross-purposes. For many, the CFSC’s sixth annual get-together will represent a first opportunity to meet face-to-face, share stories, and develop strategies for concerted action.

Unlike many areas of the country, the Puget Sound basin has a skeletal but well-established governmental infrastructure devoted to keeping local agriculture viable. In King County, a 30-year-old campaign to preserve open space led in 1979 to the Farmland Preservation Program, under which the county has acquired development rights on nearly 13,000 acres—more than 20 square miles—of arable land.

Preserving farmland is an empty gesture if there’s no one to farm it. In 1995, two local dairymen, Eric Nelson and Dave Owens, convinced the County Council and executive to revive a moribund commission on agriculture policy. In remarkably short order (and with a remarkably tiny budget), the commission managed to develop a three-pronged program to energize the grassroots producer, providing grants for on-farm research to learn what crops and methods worked in the real-world economy; a marketing program to promote local products (now expanded to embrace other counties’ produce under the rubric Puget Sound Fresh); and finally, FarmLink, to match people interested in trying their hand at farming with available acreage and to facilitate transfer of working farmland between owners and generations.

By far, the most visible fruit of the commission’s effort are Seattle’s flourishing Neighborhood Farmers Markets. The commission didn’t create the market for markets, but Chris Curtis, the woman who did, is lavish in her praise of the county support that allowed her to build a city-spanning mini-empire from a fragile base on a former elementary-school playground (see “Space Invader”).

Curtis admits that with all their growth, the markets she’s worked so hard to foster account for a disappointingly small percentage of Seattle’s food budget. But that small percentage has a disproportionate impact on farmers’ earnings because of the elimination of all intermediaries between grower and customer. The Gregsons of Vashon Island are testimony to that. After a few rough years, they were making a living farming just two acres, primarily by selling at farmers markets and to individual subscribers.

“If King County is typical of the national average, about 1 percent of the food we consume is grown locally,” says Bob Gregson. “But that’s 1 percent of $16 billion a year. There’s no practical reason that couldn’t be ramped up to 5 percent. At that rate, this area could support 3,000 family farms. Instead of having five or six big weekly markets the way it is now, I can see us having 50, 60, 100—in every neighborhood where you can put out a tent on the sidewalk or in a public park.”

Feasible or not, Gregson’s dream begs the question: What about the other 95 percent of our food? Do we continue to buy winter tomatoes hothouse grown in Canada or Holland, asparagus from Chile in September, cut flowers from Colombia in January? Some people say no; they’re committing themselves to buy only foods appropriate to the season, to live on squash and potatoes, apples and oranges, and winter greens through the dark days so that the first strawberries and rhubarb arrive like the culinary embodiment of spring.

That’s a commitment as all-embracing and life-changing as becoming a vegetarian or total abstainer, and few people are willing to make it. But there’s an easier alternative; one already a little tarnished by the embrace of industry, but still a powerful touchstone for consciousness-raising: Buy organic. The Department of Agriculture’s new guidelines give the word legal weight for the U.S. as a whole for the first time, and though many advocates for change find the guidelines inadequate or too tilted toward industry, they represent a start, an official recognition that there is an approved alternative to agriculture that is totally dependent on chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides.

The new interest in healthy and organic eating has begun to have an impact on traditional farmers like the Kent Valley’s Mike Verdi, whose Whistling Train Farm near Kent grosses upward of $80,000 a year (see “Ergo Orgo”).

But farmers markets alone can’t fuel the kind of economic breakthrough the food activists of the CFSC want to see. The next phase in their campaign, so far little more than a wisp of smoke on the horizon, is to move from individual consumers to institutions, above all schools. And, in fact, the whole first day of the upcoming Food Security conference is devoted to exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of institutional markets.

While the conferees are talking, some local food activists are acting—from the inside, too. Jennifer Hall is in charge of rustling up the daily bread for 4,000 students and 750 staff and faculty of Evergreen State College in Olympia. Modestly sized catering operations like Evergreen’s are better positioned to deal with local growers than, say, the University of Washington. UW Food Service Department executive chef Jean-Michel Boulot has to provide an average of 70,000 meals daily, 100,000 on extreme occasions. But even Boulot is working on ways to help local growers combine their outputs and deal with the UW’s labyrinthine purchasing rules.

An even more promising market in the long run is Seattle’s public schools—once they’re broken of dependence on fast-food burger patties and greasy French fries in their cafeteria and on the revenue from the John Stanford-mandated sugar-water and junk-food machines that line their hallways. (It can be done; in January of this year, the Oakland School District tossed the empty-calorie merchants out on their ears.)

In the last few years, culinary professionals in many cities, including Seattle, have begun to devote serious efforts to finding local suppliers. Grand Central Bakery’s Gwen Bassetti is committing her 30-year-old company to purchasing grain from local farmers (See “Making Waves With Grain”). Former Canlis chef Greg Atkinson is creating a program to teach kids that healthy meals can also be tasty meals (See “Kid’s Platter”).

But the most hopeful aspect of the new food activism is that a lot of the energy driving it comes from the bottom up— from small entrepreneurs like Bruce Dunlop (see “Meatier Market”), whose determination to stay on the farm has led them to find imaginative solutions to the small farmer’s fight to compete with the deep pockets and ruthless efficiencies of agribusiness as usual.

Whether people like these can turn the tide is, at best, dubious. In the U.S., corporate consolidation at the processing and wholesale level is still reducing small farmers, orchardists, and ranchers to the status of sharecroppers on their own land, while the largest “primary producers”—most of them holding companies, cartels, and tax shelters—devour billions in subsidies supposedly earmarked “to save the American family farm.”

But Lilliputians can tie down a Gulliver, if enough of them get together on the job. And people like Dunlop, Verdi, and the Gregsons have proved that the family farmer is still as viable as ever. “People used to to make a go of it back when,” Gregson says. “We suspected that if you could get away from the wholesale aspect, dealing with middlemen, and form direct relationships with real customers, good things could happen.”

Good things did. When the Gregsons retired from farming in February 2001, their property was bought not by a real-estate developer but by the man the Gregsons had trained in the agricultural arts, and it was just one of a number of self- sustaining farms on Vashon. Most agreeable of all for Gregson, who in 1996 authored an influential little book called The Rebirth of the Small Family Farm: He was recently asked to serve as an adviser to Washington State University as it takes its first baby steps toward creating something inconceivable when he got into farming—a degree program in organic and sustainable agriculture.