Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Local Vegetable of the Couple of Days: A Concept

On Tuesday, November 16th, I had the chance to attend my first City Club of Cleveland event to hear Michael Shuman give a presentation of the Northeast Ohio Local Food Assessment and Plan. After having been to a fair amount of these kinds of events, they tend to blur a bit. The message is similar, "we can feed ourselves with local food and earn a buck while doing it." And the concrete examples of what else we can be doing right now are always fuzzy.

I'm not sure how much money this Assessment cost Northeast Ohio, but I personally believe that if all these Foundations and Governments actually spent money on building infrastructure for urban farmers (like a city tractor) or seed money (not long term subsidies) for urban farmers, instead of these wine and cheese Assessments, then we'd already have a lot more local food (and subsequent money in our Northeast Ohio economy). The exact same can be said for the much talked about wind mills in Lake Erie. I would much prefer to put a couple of windmills of various styles and platforms in the Lake, and then figure out what went right and wrong, versus all of these years of studies, cash drains, and missed learning curves. But alas! I am not a politician. I am a farmer.

That being said, there were a couple of take home points from Mr. Shuman. The first being that on average 73 cents of every dollar spent in the USA on food is for shipping. That's totally crazy! We all need to help end these unnaturally created oil subsidies and start buying local food. The second major take home point was that of creating a regional stock-like exchange for local food companies and farmers. For example, if 50,000 Ohioans bought one $100 share, that would be $5,000,000 to get some businesses incubated and off the ground. It's just then, who plays Dictator and decides which businesses get seed money? In my opinion, the grant process is heavily slanted towards white liberal arts majors, and therefore by design excludes many inner city, lower-income folks.

Given all of that prefacing, I am definitely a hypocrite, if at this time I don't provide some kind of a relatively concrete example of what else can be done right now. I came up with this idea on my drive from home to farm in Subee-1 with the Melvins blaring a couple weeks ago. I tend to do my best thinking that way.

What I am suggesting is a simple expansion of the vegetable of the day concept that somewhat already exists within American restaurant culture. My lofty expansion of the concept is the "Local Vegetable of the Couple of Days." Now let me explain how this concept would/could work.

The two main parties involved would be independent restaurants and urban farmers. And the restaurant-going public would hopefully be willing/gracious participants in this grand plan. Basically, the plan works like this. Urban farmers sell produce to restaurants on some kind of regular/irregular basis. Then the restaurants make a special dish as the "local vegetable of the couple of days" until that vegetable gets eighty-sixed. I know this sounds like what some farmers and restaurants are doing already. So I will further explain how the "local vegetable of the couple of days" concept is different from a farmer just selling to a restaurant.

First, I'll present the farmer point of view, followed by my perceived restaurant point of view.

Most of us understand that the urban farmer is dealing with an unique set of circumstances, the most limiting being the size of our plots; and in Cleveland, we have real seasonality that will sometimes make your lettuce go to seed in May. If you add to these facts that we're all relatively new to this, blight/pests, and a random x factor, then it's easy to understand how us, urban farmers, may have a hard time fulfilling a standing restaurant order, like delivering five pounds of Bibb lettuce per week to whatever restaurant from March through November. An urban farmer specializing in Bibb lettuce could pull this task off, but most of us like to be general garden plant growers and not mono-crop specialists like the Ag Industry that we're trying not to emulate.

Now furthering the urban farmer point of view, a lot of us are freaks and general plant enthusiasts that like to grow non-traditional wild-style crops even beyond the general garden varieties. I'm talking veggies like, scorzonera, jerusalem artichokes, baby bok choys, mizuna, mexican sour gherkins, etc. These kinds of veggies are hard sales in food desserts, where we're trying to get the residents to even engage in American staples like tomatoes and carrots.

So presently these amazing wild-style crops basically don't have a readily available people-based market place in the Midwest. Don't get me wrong, there are people, like John McGovern who buys two pounds of baby bok choy to make his own kim chee (pictured), but Mr. McGovern is more the exception to the rule. Even something fairly standard like arugula can be a hard sale to the public. This is where the restaurant becomes of particular value and use to the urban farmer.

At this point, the stage has been set from the urban farmer's point of view. I will now switch gears to my perceived restaurant point of view. In Cleveland, it appears that there are at least 50 restaurants willing/wanting to purchase local produce. In general, many of these restaurants could be classified as foo-foo. They have their game established. They know how many salads are ordered on a weekend evening and so forth. Regularity of work flow right down to the weekly vegetable ordering is how these restaurants function.

This is where the local vegetable of the couple of days concept provides a perfect segue between the irregular, wild-style urban farmer and the regular, foo-foo restaurant. It creates a somewhat regular forum for the restaurant/chef to showcase local varieties of produce as well as their own talents with a changing cast of a main local ingredient. It would be like they're iron cheffing it every couple of days, when the random farmer comes with a random 10 pounds of quality produce for sale. Then the Master Chef has to do something special with it, as the "Local Vegetable of the Couple of Days."

At the restaurant level this could be featured as a write-in portion on the menu, a permanent portion of the menu that says something like, "just ask about the Local Vegetable of the Couple of Days," a chalkboard/dry-erase board, or on the uber hip Ipad menu. If and when there are times without a local vegetable, simply remove it from the menu, and then call us, Cleveland farmers, out in some kind of public forum, and I'm pretty sure we'll be able to get you something good by night fall. As word of mouth goes, if you're a restaurant participating in the local vegetable of the couple of days concept, I'm also pretty sure us, farmers, will be able to find you and keep you fairly stocked.

I want to re-emphasize that the local vegetable of the couple of days concept is not to replace how current restaurants are currently buying from local producers, much like Julie of Root Cafe and Mike of Bar Cento. The concept is to supplement this already regular buying by the local food restaurant pioneers and to fully embrace it as a concept such that it creates a whole 'nother level of Cleveland food identity, where the buying public comes to recognize it and wonders if at their next restaurant visit there will be a local vegetable of the couple of days and how disappointing if that restaurant does not.

My personal favorite about all of this is that it takes no money or additional infrastructure changes. The farmers are there. The restaurants are there. There are already restaurants buying from us farmers. It's literally just a few more words to what a lot of restaurants are already doing. This concept is to further our food cultural identity by formally creating and featuring the "local vegetable of the couple of days." That's it.

Now a funny couple of things have happened to me since first starting to pen this essay. The grand result has been a lightning bolt to the head of re-realization of how important getting the local food scene out to the general public is.

One of those things actually occurred at the Shuman presentation when Dr. Ryan Terry pledged right then and there $25K out of his own pocket to get the regional food stock exchange started. At that moment, I realized that there are always various ways of communicating. Different crowds need different inputs. And if the City Club forum has the ability to have pulled off the beginnings of a local regional food based stock exchange, then that's pretty cool.

The second happened on the public forum of Facebook, at like-site for Project Orange Thumb, which is a grant opportunity from Fiskar's, the international hand tool company with the orange handles. When I asked about why the grant was not available for the for-profit urban farmer (based on the fact that I met every "community" criteria other than trying to be for-profit)? The Fiskar's rep responded on FB "I wasn't aware that there were for-profit urban farmers." SHEEESH! This is a huge international company that sells in Home Depot that isn't even aware that there is a for-profit urban farm movement. The need for education feels as great as ever. Good job Mr. Shuman and the Northeast Ohio Food Assessment. We're obviously all still getting there.

To check out the Fiskar's dialogue on FB and to see what I've done for the community in the last nine months (really is a good summary), go to:!/ProjectOrangeThumb