April 24, 2004


Set That Apricot Free


Shoppers at farmers markets in cities around the country might feel virtuous because they're filling their baskets with eggs and chard and apples offered by farmers within driving distance. Same goes for the city subscribers in community supported agriculture programs, who buy shares in the production of a nearby farm. And they're justified: they are helping change American agriculture by supporting local farmers instead of agribusiness. Small family farms are essential to guaranteeing the diversity and safety of our food supply.

But markets and community supported agriculture programs, wonderful as they are, can't by themselves save American agriculture. To do that, we have to look beyond the "eat local" slogans at the farmers markets in New York, San Francisco and Chicago and think of how to give American consumers across the country access to regional products that might disappear unless they are raised in much larger numbers. In some cases the answer is to think locally but to ship nationally.

This idea is anathema to local-food purists, but the situation is dire. Many heirloom varieties of American cattle, goats, pigs, sheep and poultry are on the brink of extinction because there are no longer buyers for them in an agribusiness-dominated market that's interested only in the pig breed that grows the fastest or the chicken variety with the most white meat. What's more, the last few representatives of many of these breeds are on farms that are far from urban areas and markets, in Kansas, Missouri and Iowa.

These animals, known as heritage breeds, are part of the cultural identity of this country; many are the same breeds that sustained our ancestors. They reflect a taste and variety that we are at risk of losing, never to be replaced. And they are an important part of our survival. As the Irish potato famine demonstrated and as future outbreaks of avian flu or mystery viruses may demonstrate again depending on one variety of livestock or produce can be disastrous.

Until the destiny of the nation's varieties becomes more secure, the distinctions the local food movement makes among regional and national should be meaningless. We should not flinch at mail order and the long-distance transport of meat from Red Wattle pigs and Cotswold sheep. After all, this is not a substitute for buying locally, but a means to bringing these increasingly rare animals back into the marketplace. Once they're back, and demand increases, they can be raised and distributed locally. Increased availability of these products would also combat the elitist reputation of heirloom foods. These foods should not exist just for fine restaurants and rich urbanites.

There are limits to this. We should not be shipping lettuce, which can be grown practically everywhere, cross-country. While rare heritage breeds can and should be distributed more widely, many greenmarket fruits and vegetables are best kept (and sold) close to home and in their season.

Still, there is some produce that thrives in only one place; these vegetables should be allowed to travel. After all, the United States boasts a rich variety of climates and soils that combine to bring us unique foods. The French have a word, terroir, to describe an agricultural area that produces food with a distinct taste, and the United States has the potential to remake itself into a land of terroirs.

For that to happen, however, terroir-dependent produce needs to get national recognition and national distribution. With widespread availability, we could develop internationally recognized food appellations to rival the French (who have Brie and Puy lentils, for example) and the Italians (with their prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano).

Of course, there are already some American products that are synonymous with a region, like the cherries of Michigan and the grapes of Napa Valley. But think how much more could be done to make regional products well known and available. The French have Roquefort; why can't we have Smoky Mountain Blue? Blenheim apricots and Gravenstein apples from California, peppers from the Sonoran Desert, and sorghum syrup and persimmons from northern Kentucky deserve to have catchy, place-specific names and a broad market. In a land where mass production dominates and the celebration of regional differences takes a back seat to standardization, policy makers and farmers need to create appellations that would differentiate their products and create a market for them.

Global trade and mass communication tend to erase cultural and biological diversity, but as the writer Michael Pollan argues, we can turn them into powerful tools for rescuing this diversity.

We can support companies that are working with farmers to preserve endangered foods, whether they are restaurants, Internet mail-order businesses or markets. If community supported agriculture supports local food production, then national community supported agriculture could support breeds that are near extinction and terroir- and climate-dependent produce. Farmers markets, too, should be more open to meat and produce raised by small farmers who live far from cities: if the closest breeders of Saddleback pigs are in Kansas, they should get a chance to sell in New York City. After all, if the demand is there, pretty soon they'll be raised in the neighborhood.

Patrick Martins is the director of Slow Food U.S.A