Keeping Our Food Local, or Keeping Our Local Food by Alex Herbert

Alex Herbert was the chef and owner at the wonderful Bird Cow Fish in Sydney, and now sells ‘breakfast and stuff’ at the Eveleigh Market. I first discovered her offering little morsels of food ethics in 140 characters or less over on twitter, and had the pleasure to enjoy a meal from her delicious local, sustainable, ethical menu before she closed Bird Cow Fish. This is a talk Alex posted on Facebook yesterday that struck me as a beautiful reflection on the meaning and value of local food, and a great contribution to the discussion here on Food Ethics. You can follow Alex on twitter where she’s @birdcowfish

I was asked to give a little talk at the Sustain Northern Rivers Forum the other day. It went something like this….

“To bee or not to bee? That is the question”

There was a young woman called Sarah, say in her early thirties who had taken up the practice of ceramics many years before. She had been taught by a master and had acquired rapidly diminishing skills. Her work was unique.

She had held down several jobs at once to try to make ends meet but she had now decided that she wanted to concentrate on her ceramics full time and pass on her skills and knowledge. She was faced with the new challenge of trying to make a living solely from her craft which she had studied and practiced for many years.

She created a series of beautiful plates but when it came to deciding what price to sell them for she was at a complete loss so she asked the advice of a friend. This friend knew nothing about the value of ceramics but she responded with a series of questions.

“Tell me, how much money do you want or need to make a year? $65,000

“Now tell me how many weeks a year do you wish to work? “I’d like to have four weeks off a year.

“How many days per week do you wish to work?” Well I would like to try to only work 4 days per week.

So you need to make $340 dollars per day after costs.
How many plates can you make per day?

I could probably make 10 plates per day by the time I do all my other stuff and each plate costs me about $10 in materials.

Right so you need to sell $440 of plates per day. So that’s 10 plates, so each plate needs to cost at least $44

The young woman was shocked. She thought no one will pay that for my plates?

The Food Industry like the Arts is one that is built upon a whole heap of passion.

All the way along the Food Chain we can hear the wonderful stories of how people came to be involved in it. And when I speak of the food chain I am referring to all the elements that link the food from the farm to the table.

Many are born into the family business whilst others like myself seemingly fall haplessly into it then only later realize that the love as in my case for cooking was in fact always there bubbling away below the surface.

Of course there are two parts to the Food Chain. There is the Boutique and the Mainstream. Each however faces the challenges of “sustainability” which I will take as meaning being able to survive economically, socially, environmentally and politically.

One of the problems facing many “ Boutique” producers is just how much do many subsidise their product through their passion. How many days a week do most small business owners work?

One of the questions that hang over more mainstream, commercialized operations is just how much are other factors such as the health of the land and its people subsidizing the product? The horror stories of Indian farmers taking their lives because of being locked into seed contracts with Monsanto despite failed crops and escalating debt is an extreme but real example of what can go terribly wrong when profits are put before everything else.

So despite these two extremely different scenarios one question is still appropriate to both.

What is the True cost of food?
What are the long term risks that we face?

Well we know that farmland is getting scarcer. The lure of property dollar value can be an overwhelming temptation especially when viewed alongside declining margins and the fact that many of our children would rather work 9 -5 on a good weekly wage than become their hardworking parents.

So we are losing land and skills that are going to be almost impossible to get back.
What can we do about it?

Well we can try and take responsibility for it.

We are all part of the Food chain some as producers and distributors but we are all consumers. I am sure there is some old saying that goes something like “good housekeeping starts at home”.

The title on today’s invitation read “Keeping our food local”. I would like to propose that it is even more important to “Keep our Local Food”.

I had dinner last night with two friends, Pete and John. They were amongst my original Eveleigh Market customers from over four years ago when the market first started and now they live in Byron.

They moved into their new house in March of this year.
Within a few weeks of moving in they noticed that they had a lot of bees at the back of the house. As the bees swarmed their suspicions were aroused. Finally they found that the wall of the upstairs bedroom was very warm. Very, very warm. So they searched down a bee keeper.

Yari was found and confirmed that there was a hive between the outside brick and inner plaster wall.

The bees had to go.

A fumigator could have done the job but fumigation would have also left behind a trail of dead bees and honey locked away forever.

Yari however offered to remove them and so he was engaged to perform the daylong task of rescuing the bees and their honey.

Bees are precious. We know that they play a crucial part in the pollination process. Yari knows this but he also just loves bees. The bees now live in Nimbin. Over 10kgs of honey comb was gathered and shared from a hive that had been growing for years. Peter has wonderful pics of everyone from the day sitting around diving out the honey comb. The wall has been plastered up.

Yari returned for two more visits following the initial rescue to collect the straggler bees. Small swarms of bees collected over the subsequent days. Peter has pictures of them attaching themselves to the wall where the hive used to be. Hiveless, Queen less bees. It was so sad. Yari managed to collect many of these but the remaining died.

So this is a pretty good example of local food right?

It’s a really good example of preciousness that had no money value attached to it. ….Priceless in other words.

How do you put a $ value on saving some bees and sharing some honey?
How do you put a value on cooking a meal? (I will come back to this later)

When I had my restaurant Bird Cow Fish I held many Regional Food and Wine Dinners. They were wonderful dinners where we were able to showcase producers and products that weren’t ordinarily available to us. These dinners along with having been a Delicious Produce Awards judge for the last three years has exposed me to many wonderful local foods.

So here is my take on local food. On a micro level it is imperative that we support out local producers but I do not believe that it should be at the exclusion of other “local foods”. I’m not an exponent of the 100mile ONLY rule.

Sourcing, selling and eating local foods means we are more likely to have a direct relationship with those who have grown it. We are more likely to know their story. We are more likely to place greater value on that product simply because we are connected to it.
Supporting local food provides these producers a base from which to build from. It can create an acknowledged Food Bowl, community of collaboration and support.

Supporting local food also means that the elements in the food chain are reduced. The less hands involved in the process generally means the smaller the gap between what the primary producers earns and the final cost of the sale product.

That being said I also believe in supporting all local foods and not just those that are local to me (easier said for me as I live in a city). But the reason for my thinking is not just because of my circumstance but because diversity is important as is promoting regions who specialize in certain foods. The sustainability of many producers’ business means that they cannot limit themselves to only supplying a local market. Finding a like minded distributor can be the key. Feather and Bone in Sydney are an excellent example of a distributor who works with his producers to educate and distribute the product.

But transportation and logistics are a huge challenge. I remember on of my dinners The Hilltops Region in NSW with Brian Freeman’s wines I wanted to use this magnificent Texel lamb. I did eventually get it but not until bob had dropped it at his mates place Len who then took it to Max at the pub and then Joan his wife who was driving to Sydney delivered it to me. The most gorgeous lamb that was being sold at the local supermarket with no hint of its origins or quality.

Wendell Berry, a highly regarded writer and farmer who lives in Kentucky in the US said “Eating is an agricultural Act”.

I think that one of the main keys to local food is not just supporting what is local to you but also wanting to know the story. Where has my food come from regardless if it is from over the fence or across the river? What makes it taste so good? Why does it perhaps cost more than other like products? What makes it valuable?

These are questions as a chef that I am used to asking my suppliers.

I now cook breakfast and stuff at the weekly Eveleigh market in Carriage works at Redfern in Sydney. I am surrounded by producers. The products that I use in the food that I produce are all sourced from the market. My customers ask me all the time whose eggs do you use? Whose bread? Whose milk? Just as much as they ask me HOW I made something.

They are interested in the stories like the wonderful collaboration between John Fairleigh from Country Valley Milk and Pierre from Pepe Saya butter who uses his cream. These two me are a wonderful example of how local producers are working together to value add to their products, educate the end consumers and have a lot of fun along the way.

I firmly believe that education is the key.
Educate people about the product and how to use it.

Michael Pollan in his book “Cooking” argues that “To cook is to vote” To cook at a time when one doesn’t have to is to make a conscious decision to be a producer and not just a consumer”

So back to “To be or not to be”

“To cook or not to cook” perhaps that is the question?

For me as a chef I agree with Pollan. I believe cooking is empowering. It means that I am in control. I can feed myself and my family. But this food security is dependent upon being able to source food locally, regardless of where I am.

As Wendell Berry said in his Jefferson speech, it turns on affection, 2012 “There is no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused the other suffers.”

The value of being able to shop for locally produced food, the value of being able to cook, the value in sharing a meal are all part of belonging to a community. Its hard to put a dollar value on these attributes but one that we need to if we are going to preserve them.

So back to our lady friend Sarah who wanted to make plates.
She realized that if she wanted to make her plates for a living that it had to be sustainable. She had to be able to support herself. She couldn’t just do it because she was passionate about it.

She had to understand what the true cost of her time was in the making of the plates. She had to appreciate and value the time and energy that she had put into learning her craft over many years.

She had to accept that the market for her plates was probably going to be quite small as she was only a very small artisan producer and could not compete with the larger, industrialised producers of similar but not the same plates.

New markets could be found but only through communicating her story to a wider audience. She needed to educate them as to why her plates were so special and worthy of their price tag.

And when she did all this suddenly her plates didn’t seem so expensive any more because she had taken into account their TRUE value.

Coles & Animals Australia: unlikely bedfellows?

I’ll start with something most of us can agree on – Coles are hypocrites. A partnership to sell bags for the Animals Australia ‘Make it Possible’ campaign to ‘end factory farming’ is a fairly brazen case of corporate whitewashing (or greenwashing, or whatever colour makes them look like ethical corporate citizens). If Coles supported the Make it Possible campaign by, say, refusing to sell pork and poultry from intensive production systems, that would constitute a meaningful ethical contribution. Selling bags aimed at ending ‘factory farming’ while intensively grown pork and poultry are on the shelves is, by definition, hypocritical.

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Surely any promotion of more ethical animal husbandry is a step in the right direction, even if it comes from one of the biggest sellers of what many deem unethical production systems? Meh, who knows. But what we do know is that most Coles supermarkets still don’t even offer free-range pork on their shelves, and their free-range poultry options, when they exist at all, are of dubious standards. So do these bags actually advocate that we don’t shop at Coles for pork and poultry? Ironically, it would seem so.

If you want to see an example of ethical meat retailers making a real difference, check out the wonderful folks at Feather and Bone, who endured some backlash for their support for the Voiceless Eyelevel project aimed at reducing Australians’ meat consumption. They have explained their intentions eloquently, while re-iterating their strong support and advocacy for free-range producers.

While we’re all in furious agreement over the gobsmacking hypocrisy of Coles, I’ll move on to a more vexed question – why are farmers so outraged at Coles’ support for a campaign to end intensive animal farming?

It seems that the root of their concerns is that Animals Australia is ‘anti-animal-farming’. I have had some reservations about the group, but most are probably groundless, and may actually just be an unfortunate association with the vegan abolitionist organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Even most vegans I know don’t agree with PETA’s tactics, such as these awful ads.

I’ve seen Animals Australia referred to as a ‘vegan front group’, with a ‘vegan agenda’ that wants us all to stop eating meat, wearing leather, or using any part of an animal or its labour for our own purposes. This agenda, which is more accurately referred to as a vegan abolitionist agenda such as that promoted by PETA, is quite obviously at serious odds with the agenda of a livestock farmer. It is also at odds with the agenda of Coles and any other purveyor or consumer of animal products. It is also a very very small minority of the population who support this agenda. (Note that not all vegans are abolitionists, and some actively fight alongside ethical omnivores to promote more ethical animal husbandry.) So why the outrage? What real threat is there to farmers?

Some (including Animals Australia) have said that farmers don’t want to move away from intensive production systems, and are afraid to let consumers see the realities of their systems for fear of backlash, and that’s why they don’t like the Make it Possible campaign. And for some intensive producers, I’m sure that must be true.

But for the many many more extensive growers – sheep and cattle farmers for example (the vast majority of which are pasture-based systems in Australia) I think you can take their word at face value – they’re sick of being attacked by vegan abolitionists, and rightly or wrongly believe Animals Australia shares that agenda ultimately. Having been on the receiving end of the abuse that comes from those quarters, I can fully empathise with their sensitivity.

Tactically, though, I think the National Farmers Federation (NFF) made a mistake in so vehemently opposing the Coles/Animals Australia cross-promotion. Everyone can see that Coles are hypocrites, and no friend to farmers and rural communities. So who cares if they sell bags for a campaign that wants to ‘end factory farming’ – some of these bags will even carry ‘factory farmed’ meat, I imagine?!

Opposing the partnership may have served merely to make the NFF and its supporters look ‘pro factory farming’. But as I’ve already posited, I suspect most who opposed it are in fact just fed up with attacks from vegan abolitionists and attempts to destroy their livelihood (about which, of course, intensive producers are also concerned – these are real people paying real bills too. One may have less sympathy for their position, but surely we cannot ignore the social costs of food systems in transition as part of our ethical considerations. More on this in a future post.).

The only farmers under direct threat from the campaign are the intensive producers, and they’ve been under pressure for years as consumers gained greater awareness of the conditions and started voting with their dollars, first for free-range eggs, then chicken, and now pork. There’s a long way to go before we see all animals raised in conditions that are truly acceptable to the majority of the population, and most people’s budget will still dictate their purchasing habits ahead of their ethics. Financial reality is a difficult stakeholder to overrule, and shopping ethically takes a certain level of knowledge, will and culinary competence, not to mention transparency in the supply chain.

But as I wrote recently, the real losers in this stoush are animals in intensive production systems. The myopic vitriol of the vegan abolitionists, the defensiveness of the NFF, and the stunning hypocrisy of Coles won’t improve animal welfare on Australian farms – growers and eaters will with our choices and through respectful dialogue.

I take my hat off to the many growers and eaters across the country who are working to be the changes they wish to see in the world. I reckon Coles and proselytising vegan abolitionists, on the other hand, need to learn some lessons from Gandhi.

If you want transparency, you’ll have to put up with reality

This was originally posted on our farm blog, The Hedonist Life, but is part of the broader discussion I try to host here on food ethics.
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In response to last week’s spot on Radio National Bush Telegraph, we had a lot of negative reaction online from people who don’t agree with eating meat. So a friend of mine and I wrote a response, which was posted on the RN site just before I went on air again to discuss the reaction and our decision to castrate in spite of a very close poll that voted against it. Unfortunately, RN edited out Nathan‘s part, which really is a shame because he’s wickedly smart and reflexive, and also happens to be a vegan.
Here’s the full text, unedited (you can see the RN version here):

Tammi:

Showing a vegan a photo of an adorable piglet and then asking them to help decide whether to castrate is undoubtedly a red flag to a bull. But it wasn’t vegans we were asking, it was omnivores. What some will call ill-considered (I did briefly), I will here defend as a serious exercise in transparency by farmers who want to educate the public about the realities of food production, and especially the raising of animals for meat. And my vegan friend Nathan and I will argue that vitriolic attacks on those of us committed to transparency create a perverse incentive to retreat to secrecy and obfuscation of regular food production management practices.

We’ve been farming free-range rare breed Large Black pigs for a year and a half now. We came from Melbourne with a clear vision to contribute to what we consider ethical farming – raising pigs on the paddocks who are free to root and wallow at will, and basically express what Joel Salatin calls ‘the pigness of the pig’ until they have ‘one bad day’, which they don’t even know is coming. We believe it’s morally right to eat meat, but not from animals who have suffered or been raised in close confinement their entire lives up until slaughter. Our views and farming practices are not especially controversial, and generally our efforts to raise animals for food humanely and with care and kindness are met with appreciation – both for our practices and for our openness.

So it seemed a great idea when Cameron Wilson of Radio National Bush Telegraph asked whether we were willing for them to do a series tracking one of our animals from piglet to Christmas ham. Too many people don’t know where their food comes from or how it’s raised, though the tide is hopefully turning as information is now more readily accessible and people are realising there’s a lot that happens from paddock to plate.

The idea is a monthly radio interview where we update listeners on what’s been happening with the pig, who we’ve called Wilbur 101 (we call all the boys Wilbur and all the girls Charlotte unless they’re our breeding stock, in which case they have individual names, such as Borg, Big Mama, Keen, Pink and Prudence…). Many people believe you shouldn’t name your food, but we take the view that we’d rather know the animal on our plate well than not at all.

Supplementary to each month’s interview, we agreed to allow a poll to be held to seek the public’s view on management decisions. It gives an opportunity to inform people of the multitude of issues and decisions farmers face daily, and we hoped that using a poll in addition to the podcast and information on the website would lead to more buy in from the public, and in turn more care about the type of system animals are raised in. The first question we posited (as it’s the first management decision we face with newborn boars) was whether or not to castrate.

Unfortunately, while the omnivorous public might have wanted to discuss the practicalities and ethics of castrating boars, a significant number of those opposed to eating meat joined the discussion and turned it into a rant against us, the ABC, farmers generally, and meat eaters specifically. We were called ‘sick freaks’, ‘Neanderthals’, and ‘animal abusers’, to name some of the milder insults.

Nathan:

There are a number of things worth considering here: namely, the ad hominem attacks, the issue of transparency, and the illusion that either veganism or vegetarianism are without their own set of complications, also linked to transparency.

The issue of ad hominem attacks, whether against Tammi and Stuart, the ABC, or meat eaters more generally, brings into question the motives of those willing to utter such comments as to what they are trying to achieve. Considered, respectful discussion is never going to be the effect, nor is any type of conversion from eating meat tenable if the basis of an antithetical argument is vitriolic abuse. Moreover, it lacks all credibility and illustrates a lack of knowledge and understanding not only of farming processes and practices, which is seemingly what this project is attempting to bring to light, but also appears to lack an understanding and knowledge of why people become vegans or vegetarians in the first place, or why people may ‘de-convert’ — a phenomenon equally present to the phenomenon of people becoming vegan or vegetarian.

All these considerations are not only deeply philosophical, but are also sociological, religious and political. If the conversion to veganism or vegtarianism is well considered, it would be charitable enough to expect that an argument against eating meat is equally considered; calling someone a ‘sick freak’ or ‘Neanderthal’ does not range in the category of a rationally considered argument.

Of course, the idea behind this project is transparency. While I as a vegan may disagree with the killing and exploitation of animals for various reasons, the kind of practices brought to light through this program are refreshing to see. In the wake of footage and articles that surround the practice of live export and animal abuse in abattoirs, the program undertaken here ought to be a welcome relief to vegans and vegetarians as we have farmers not only willing to transparently show how animals are treated, but also have public involvement. The outcome of transparency and public involvement is the basis of a descriptive set of guidelines and practices that can be adopted by all farmers. In effect, this program has the potential to become a national standard whereby consumers have the confidence to purchase animal products that have been treated in an ethical manner; whereby the ethical treatment of animals has been considered.

The issue of transparency and the ethical treatment of animals is also a problem for vegan and vegetarian foodways. The ethical treatment of animals is not just to be considered for the animals we can see, but also for the ones we don’t.  What consideration is there of the countless rodents and small marsupials that are killed through the processes of producing a loaf of bread? Are the numerous animals killed in the process of pest control of wheat crops, the storage of wheat and flour worthy of our moral consideration? What about the fish whose parts are used in the mass production of beer? Or what of the environmental cost of the global shipping of processed vegan and vegetarian food items? Is the environment also worthy of moral consideration to vegans and vegetarians?

Often the mistreatment and exploitation of animals and the environment is a symptom of a much larger problem. With the spread of global capitalism, the need to feed the starving, unemployed, underemployed and low waged is met with with cheap meat, dairy and eggs at the expense of animal well being. How does veganism approach the problem of starvation, unemployment, underemployment and low wage employment with highly priced soy products? While veganism can betray the maltreatment of animals through analytic critique, the sense in which veganism is able to confront issues of starvation, low wage, under and unemployment betrays itself as being unable to satisfactorily confront environmental and everyday living conditions; veganism requires a level of wealth and prosperity that isn’t afforded to the underprivileged. While it is important to analyse and critique the way animals are treated within the global economic market in which we live, it is equally important to engage with farmers and producers willing to be transparent about foodways and the way in which animals are treated in a respectful and considerate manner, as well as being aware of the issues of transparency within our own vegan and vegetarian foodways.

Tammi:

All issues and concerns around the ethics of food production and consumption are worthy of discussion and open scrutiny, but when one group restricts itself to shouting the loudest abuse, or refuses to engage even marginally with the topic at hand (and makes it very unpleasant for any who do engage), there can be no winners – especially not farm animals.

Surely we can all agree that a farming community unwilling to share its practices with the public due to sustained, personal attacks by so-called ‘animal rights activists’ is a very bad outcome. We here at Jonai Farms won’t be frightened away from the challenge of transparency – we understand why people choose veganism or vegetarianism (I was a vegetarian for seven years, and write frequently on my blog about these very questions), and we quite simply disagree with that decision while respecting one’s right to make it. Vegans have every right to disagree with our position, of course, but should think long and hard about what can happen to our food system when they so zealously shout farmers off the stage.

BIOS: Tammi Jonas is a free-range pig farmer with her husband Stuart and three children near Daylesford, Victoria. She is also a cultural theorist nearing completion of a PhD on the role of engagements with multicultural foodways on the development of a cosmopolitan, sustainable society. Tammi blogs atTammi Jonas: Food Ethics and on the farm blog, The Hedonist Life.

Nathan Everson is currently undertaking a Masters of Research degree through Macquarie University, Sydney, focusing on the structural intersections between humans and animals and how these intersections form the basis of our conceptions of politics, ethics, and law. He is a vegan working with his wife and two children on self-sustainable practices within a suburban environment.

 

An ethical approach to food

Our food system is in crisis. Private labels are ruining Australian farmers. Choose free-range pork and poultry. Eat less meat. Stop eating meat. Are any fish still sustainable to eat? Ban GMOs. Labelling is the problem. We need CCTV in abattoirs. Misleading certification schemes make it impossible to trust free range. Eat slow, whole foods. Shop at farmers’ markets. Only eat organic. Ban live export! Save live export! Don’t eat sugar. ColeWorths is the real problem…

PEOPLE, THERE’S A PROBLEM. THERE ARE PROBLEMS.

But how do we solve them?

Let’s step back for a moment from immediate and pressing concerns around seasonal, local, organic, safe, fair, humane food, and consider the confusing array within an ethical framework, such as one that the fabulous Cristy Clark has called ‘ecotarian‘. All of our concerns about the industrial food system can be better understood (and so addressed) if we are led by a coherent ethical approach, rather than atomised ‘problems’.

According to Socrates, people will do what is good if they know what is right, and therefore be happy. But how can we know if we can’t see the means of production of our food (and myriad other items we consume, even if not corporally)?

If we ask ourselves ‘is this organic?’ we are wondering whether there are synthetic, artificial inputs in the form of harmful pesticides or fertilisers, but we haven’t asked ‘how far did it travel?’ or ‘how much were the workers paid?’ We may in fact also be worried about food miles, workers’ conditions, and the treatment of animals, but ‘is this organic?’ didn’t open up the space for those other concerns. The same is true of ‘is this free range?’ or ‘is this GMO?’ and many other such questions about the history of our food before it gets to our plate.

But when we ask ‘was this produced ethically?’ we are required to think about ‘is this right?’ and ‘is it good to eat this?’, which requires consideration of the environmental, social, cultural, political, economic, and physical impacts of our choices. We must consider the entire ecology of the choice – and I include human welfare in my definition of ecology here.

If we take an ethical approach, and in particular the hedonist ethic I have spent some years trying to understand and follow, then a narrow focus on food miles, organics, or heritage breeds is too limiting. These are the cornerstones, the seeds if you will, that make for a fecund garden of ideas to nourish a healthy world. But on their own, each one is but a luscious zucchini, a wayward tomatillo, a cheeky piglet.

An overarching, well-articulated ethic is to local potatoes like permaculture is to veganism. We need systems thinking – what are all the constituent parts? Who are the key players in the system – the seeds, the nurturers of the seeds, the carers of the seedlings, the micro-organic activity of the soil in which the seeds grow, the people who want to eat the zucchinis and all of the potential players in the web of those who will see that the produce makes it from paddock to plate.

Choosing to eat organic, local, seasonal, free-range, fair-trade or vegan diets are all legitimate and important parts of changing our food system, but on their own, they don’t address systemic problems.

But the problem with following an ethic in today’s world is that the supply chain – that long set of links that goes from the production and harvesting of food through to the processing, transport and sales – has grown so long and obscured that you can find yourself eating horsemeat when you ordered beef.

Join me over the next few months as I explore how to demystify the supply chain and participate in transforming our food systems, from production right through to consumption.

And welcome my new title as I re-launch this long-running blog as Tammi Jonas: Food Ethics today – it’s not just me tasting terroir, it’s all of us.

Locavore bacon & eggs, biscuits & gravy

 
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A decadent staple brekky in our global repertoire of extravagance is bacon & eggs, biscuits & gravy. My Dad is from Alabama, and taught my Mama (from Oregon) to make this when they were first together, then pretty much never cooked anything ever again, except a mean barbecue.

In Australia, when I say ‘biscuits & gravy’, people say ‘what in the world are you talking about?’ And having had two requests for my biscuit recipe this week alone, I figured it’s time to share, especially since we’ve recently been enjoying ours with the first Jonai Farms ethical bacon, which ups the nom factor considerably. We much prefer ethical diets over calorie-counting ones around here…

American-style biscuits are roughly what Australians would call scones – usually more like drop scones. Today I made our biscuits with the divine buttermilk from the Butter Factory in Myrtleford. I resisted buttering the biscuits with some of Naomi’s truffle butter as well, figuring the gravy was enough. Normally, though, I use the yoghurt we make weekly with milk from the dairy on the other side of our volcano. And as we now buy our flour from Powlett Hill about 30km from us, this is serious locavore food. 😀

For those looking for your nearest free-range pig farmer, I compiled an Australia-wide list a few years ago. Flavour Crusader also has a list that may be more up to date than mine!


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Biscuits

All measurements are approximate, depending on the weather, your mood, and your desired moistness and yoghurty goodness…

2C flour

1tspn baking soda

2T butter

1C  yoghurt (or buttermilk, in which case you’ll reduce the milk quantity)

1/2C milk

Pinch salt

Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Either oil a baking tray or line it with baking paper.

Mix the baking soda and salt into the flour. Cut butter into the flour. Add yoghurt (or buttermilk) and mix with a rubber spatula, then add milk to the right consistency. Think ‘drop scone’ dough…

Spoon out the amount of dough for the size biscuit you prefer – in our house, that’s usually about the size of my palm or a little smaller. Make sure they’re relatively equal in size so they cook evenly.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, depending on your oven. I usually turn them around mid-way through cooking as my oven is hotter at the back than the front.

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Gravy

The best gravy is made from bacon grease (otherwise it’s really just bechamel!). In the American South, there’s a huge variety of gravies, from a straight millk gravy through to one introduced to me by the gorgeous Gabriel in Oxford, Mississippi – red gravy –  which is made with tomatoes. The core ingredient seems to pretty much always be bacon grease. The simplest though, and the one we make the most often, is the one Dad taught Mama to make when they were first married.

Bacon grease – however much you end up with after making bacon for brekky (or about 1T if you’ve saved it in a jar, which is also Doing It Right)

2T flour

2C milk (pre-warmed in the microwave)

Salt & pepper to taste

While the bacon grease is still hot in the pan from makin’ bacon, add flour and stir until it browns lightly. Add warmed milk and stir continuously with a whisk until it thickens. Season to taste. Serve in a jug or bowl with ladle – your choice.

In our house, some of us like to break up our biscuits and pour the gravy over the top. Others pour the gravy on whole biscuits, and some of us even break up our bacon and sprinkle it through the biscuits and gravy. Personal preference rules! We almost never have biscuits and gravy if we aren’t having bacon and eggs – these things are made to be eaten together!

2013: Our Meat is Real

In 2010 it was sourdough. This year it’s meat.

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My journey into the world of breadmaking resulted in a life of no bought bread, and I anticipate this year’s meat venture will do the same. In short, if we haven’t raised or caught the meat ourselves, we won’t be eating it at home.

As those who’ve been here before already know, I was a vegetarian for seven years and now I am a free-range rare breed pig farmer along with my hypercompetent husband Stuart and three orsmkids. I was not a vegetarian because I thought humans shouldn’t eat non-human animals. It was because I couldn’t bear to be complicit in the realities of industrial meat farming – ‘Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations’ or CAFOs, where animals are never given the opportunity to dig, scratch, munch on grass and otherwise express what Joel Salatin calls ‘the pigness of the pig’. I don’t want to make animals suffer throughout their lives so that they can end up on our plates, and nor do I want to participate in the environmental degradation caused by intensive systems. So when I came back to meat, I stuck with ethically raised, until ultimately we decided to take our ethics and our advocacy to the next level by becoming producers ourselves.

So as smallholders, we are in the luxurious position of being able to raise our own animals as part of a healthy agroecological system, whereby some of them are for sale for the economic viability that allows us to live here, and some are for our own consumption. The pigs are our tractors, efficiently turning the soil in preparation for the next season’s fodder crop (and for our expansive vegie garden), the sheep and cattle manage the grass growth and keep our paddocks healthy and safer from fires, and the chooks convert our kitchen scraps into a plentiful supply of eggs (and we eat the excess roosters).

On our 69 acres, we’ll ultimately have about 10 rare breed Large Black sows, two boars and an ever-fluctuating number of weaners and growers, and then we also currently have a dozen Lowline Angus cattle and seven Lincoln sheep. The very awesome Ellie also just brought us about 100 rainbow trout fingerlings that we’ve put in the Home Dam and are hoping won’t be eaten by cormorants… and then there’s the ever-expanding flock of heritage and common chooks.

We will, of course, be slaughtering pigs regularly as that’s our primary farming business, so I think there will be a ready supply of pork, both fresh and cured. However, we tend to serve lovely pork roasts only for gatherings here on the farm, and we eat mostly cured pork in small doses as a flavouring for otherwise vegetable-based meals, plus the occasional sausage. In short, just because we’re pig farmers doesn’t mean we’ll be binging all year on pork.

Our aim is to slaughter about one cow per month and sell the meat locally, which will also mean we’ll have access to beef when we want it, but I’m going to record our consumption and we’re aiming to basically eat one cow this year.

With the sheep, we have one ram and four ewes, all of whom had their first lambs last winter. One had twins who died of exposure the first night and another was killed by either a fox or more likely, our dog Maya, who sadly had to be put down as she was a menace to small animals. 🙁 That left us with just two lambs, a ewe and a ram (which Stuart castrated so is now a wether). As our original ram is not the father of the ewe lamb, we’re keeping her so we’ll have one more breeder, leaving us with just the wether to eat. And so what might have been as many as five lambs to eat this year was reduced to one, and that is what we’ll eat.

It’s these vagaries of supply that we lose touch with when our only connection to the meat we eat is through the butcher or the supermarket. Have you ever thought about how many lambs it took for your annual consumption of cutlets? Chicken thighs? Pork belly? And who eats all the parts you don’t like or know how to cook? I’ll be in a much more knowledgeable position as the year progresses to tell you what a smallholder can produce for home consumption in a year, and also which cuts become the real treasures when they’re only enjoyed once or twice in the entire year.

Roast chicken used to be an annual event, not a weekly one. And there’s a good reason for it – it’s bad maths (in both global and domestic economies) to eat too many chickens, and good maths to eat lots of eggs instead. We won’t be killing the goose, we’ll be collecting the golden eggs. Only surplus roosters that grow from eggs hatched by the broody bantams will be eaten here on the farm, which means very little chicken in our diet. And when you think about how many lives we take for consumption, one cow goes a hell of a lot further than a chook.

An exciting aspect of this adventure is that I’ll be butchering whole carcasses myself with Stuart’s help. I figure I need to so that I understand the cuts better before sending subsequent carcasses to the butcher with my cut sheet so we can have confidence in what we sell. I butchered our first pig last month and it was fascinating and extremely useful to understand more deeply how many pigs it takes to sustain a household of omnivores. Next up is a cow, which I’ve been sternly warned to have quartered at the abattoir to make it possible to handle!

In short, I’m hoping that through our year of what we propose will be a sustainable amount of meat eating in an ethical, smallholder system, we’ll be able to demonstrate how much meat (and the diversity of cuts and animals) is sustainable for the planet and its many inhabitants. We expect to continue our habit of roughly 50% vegetarian dinners, and of course small portions of meat at omnivorous mealtimes. In fact we’re starting the year with nothing but a slab of our bacon in the fridge as we wait for the next slaughter, so are looking at a purely vegetarian couple of weeks, which is fine with us, and a great season for divine salads full of nuts and berries!

But you don’t have to live on the land to eat like you do. Hopefully this will be a model for city dwellers and country folk alike, because we’re all living on the same planet. Here’s to a tasty 2013!

The Food Revolution is Not a Big Fat Lie

The following is the speech I gave as the final speaker for the negative at a debate last week at the Lake House, ‘The Food Revolution is a Big Fat Lie’. On my team were Necia Wilden and Michael Harden – on the affirmative there were Dani Valent, Janne Appelgren and Richard Cornish. It was a rousing debate followed by a predictably delicious country-style meal put on by our host, the wonderful doyenne of the Daylesford Macedon region Alla Wolf-Tasker.

Of course we won, because of course the current food revolution is no lie, though there is a lot of work ahead…

***

Comrades and colleagues, I’d like to continue the excellent work of my fellow revolutionaries here on the opposition, and tell you a bit more about this revolution that is everywhere, and that we must win lest we abandon our children’s hope for a future.

Let’s start with the children. 20 years ago, chef Alice Waters in California said: “What we are calling for is a revolution in public education – a Delicious Revolution. When the hearts and minds of our children are captured by a school lunch curriculum, enriched with experience in the garden, sustainability will become the lens through which they see the world.”

As Necia has already mentioned, here we have Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation – and Waters’ and Alexanders’ efforts are certainly not restricted to the middle class – Waters’ program started in the disadvantaged schools of Oakland, California, and Alexanders’ took root in inner-city Collingwood, and has now spread as far as the remote communities of Bourke and Coober Pedy.

The international Via Campesina peasant movement has been around for 20 years and is still gaining momentum. Currently they’re uniting to fight against land grabbing by the World Bank and Wall Street in countries as diverse as Honduras, Mali, Italy and Indonesia.

In India, Vandana Shiva’s work over the past two decades is legion.  “I don’t want to live in a world where five giant companies control our health and our food,” said Shiva, and so she started a food revolution in India in 1993. Shiva’s foundation, Navdanya, trains farmers in seed saving and sustainable agriculture.

She cites the peasant prayer:

“Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year.”

Continue reading The Food Revolution is Not a Big Fat Lie

The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

The New York Times recently ran a competition to write a 600-word essay on why it’s ethical to eat meat. Six runners up have been selected by a panel of judges (Peter Singer, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer and Andrew Light), and now the public gets to vote for a winner. There are some good ones over there, and I recommend voting! I submitted the essay below, which didn’t make it into the short list…

I look forward to a rigorous debate in the comments, which I promise I’ll join in on this time (work commitments have limited my capacity to engage lately, my apologies).

The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

You ask why eating meat is ethical, and I retort, ‘the real question is how can we feed 9 billion people by 2050 sustainably and ethically?’ The answer: ‘we must grow our food in an ecosystem.’ Ecosystems are complex, and animals are merely one part of the equation – there are also flora, microbiological organisms, and abiotic components – minerals, energy, water… Restricting ethical arguments to people and farm animals merely contributes to the anthropocentric problem-solving that got us into our current unsustainable, unethical mess.

It’s a bit of privileged righteousness to read Peter Singer, become vegetarian, and debate the finer moral questions of whose interests are served by the killing and consumption of animals, when humans can live without relying on meat. It’s also a damned sight easier than grappling with the complexity of ecosystems.

We’re part of a food chain, not a constellation of highly evolved autonomous links engaged in synchronised swimming. Each link consumes others in an endlessly complex cycle – remove a link, and others must disproportionately bear the weight of the world.

Industrial agriculture has dropped such a burden on us – it is being born heavily across many ecosystems and species, including our own, but the answer is not ‘stop eating meat’, because the more important question is ‘how can we participate in ecosystems without creating massive imbalances?’ The answer is to dismantle industrial agriculture, and to do so the global north must stop eating so much meat (and dairy), stop growing so much grain for too many farm animals to eat, stop growing soy and corn to insert into every industrial, processed food in existence, and eat foods farmed in biodiverse agro-ecological systems. Equally the global south must be assisted to restore their own agro-ecologies.

It’s only by exiting the anthropocentric mindset that we can understand the ethics of ecosystems – while not every component may be determined to be of equal value, each must be considered. The soil must be nourished just as human and non-human animal bodies must, water must be protected from systems of excess, and biodiversity – including crop and animal diversity- must be protected and maintained to provide natural crop protections and increase our food system’s resilience.

The ethics of ecosystems demand we eat so that we are growing our food in concert with the local environment. We would grow what fruit and vegetables are viable locally, and trade to supplement our diets with what can’t be grown locally.

Continue reading The Omnivorous Ethics of Ecosystems

Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

Last week I went along to one of the Wheeler Centre’s IQ2 debates, ‘Should Animals Be off the Menu?’ with my usual high hopes of learning something new, and in a way, I suppose I both learned something new and confirmed something old.

New: vegans can stack the Town Hall.

Old: most people don’t actually want to learn, they just want to be right.

So allow me to take you through the ‘debate’, such that it was…

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of Animal Liberation (1975), was the first speaker for the affirmative. Singer is what I usually refer to (perhaps sloppily) as an ethical pragmatist, but I gather he is more rightly classified a secular, preference utilitarian ethicist… (Although I have some training in philosophy, it’s not actually my field, so please correct me insofar as it is useful to the discussion we will have here, but not for the pure pleasure of pedantry, if you please.)

Singer opened with the arguments I would expect from him, and ones I agree with:

  • ‘we can live a healthy life without eating animals’, and
  • ‘misuse of grain to feed animals is wasteful’.

On the first point, I agree with Singer that the majority of the global north could lead a healthy vegetarian life. I certainly did for seven years of my life. I’m not sure it would solve our environmental woes given the state of industrial monocropping, industrial-scale dairy and intensive poultry raising for the majority of the world’s eggs, but he’s right, most of us could be healthy as vegetarians. As for how healthy even we in the global north could be as vegans, there are healthy vegans around (and some less healthy), but I’d be interested in research around how many are taking supplements (especially B12…), and what sustainability would really look like if we all ate fridgeloads of processed soy products.

In many parts of the global south, strict vegetarianism or veganism is clearly less healthy given lack of availability of nutrient-dense foods, but I’ll return to that point later.

Continue reading Should Animals Be Off the Menu?

Vegans and Ethical Omnivores, Unite!

Full disclosure: like the rancher, hunter and butcher in a recent story in The Atlantic, I am what some would call a ‘reformed vegetarian’, or a ‘born-again carnivore’, as this less charitable vegan would describe me. I consider myself an ethical omnivore.

My story is not unlike many who spent years as a vegetarian only to resume eating meat – I chose a vegetarian diet for ethical and environmental reasons, and returned to meat for health reasons. I had two very healthy pregnancies while vegetarian and breastfed my first two children with no issues, only to become severely anaemic early in the third pregnancy. I tried Floradix Herbal Iron Supplement, which had seen me through the final trimesters before without dropping into the anaemic range, to no avail.

As I sat in wan exhaustion at work one day in the third month, it came to me: a burger will fix this. Considering I hadn’t eaten nor craved meat for over six years (and no pork or poultry for even longer because of my particular concerns about the horrific conditions these animals face in intensive systems), this was a pretty weird thought. But moments later, I walked into a little burger joint in Smith Street, Fitzroy and ordered a burger and asked them to slather it with hot English mustard. I’ll be honest, I felt absolutely nothing except exhilaration and a sense of well being. No guilt – I think my body was thanking me, again, weird, I know, ‘cos it was a burger after all, not a scotch filet, but, hey, that iron slid into my blood cells and brought colour to my cheeks for the first time in months.

Continue reading Vegans and Ethical Omnivores, Unite!