Friday, July 31, 2009

Innovative urban agrarians

This is an exciting time for local food. Over the last fifty years, our farmers have been convinced, via government encouragement, regulations, and corporate manipulation, to get big or get out. Most got out. The remaining got big, and the rest of the holdouts now can't even make a living farming, instead usually relying on government subsidies and off-farm income to make ends meet. Locally produced food became a very niche market in the form of CSA's, Farmer's Markets, and some cooperatives.
But local food (even though threatened by such insanity as HR 2749!!) is making a comeback. Many farmers, gardeners and ranchers have gotten creative, such as Joel Salatin and Will Allen, whose stories, and others, have been told in such books as Everything I Want to Do is Illegal, The Omnivore's Dilemma, A Nation of Farmers, and new movies like Fresh and Food, Inc. One of our local Oklahoma City innovators is named Matt Burch of the Urban Agrarian. He's not a farmer himself, but instead he's a facilitator, bringing together Oklahoma farmers and Oklahoma restaurants and cooks.

The Urban Agrarian brings local food to our OKC area markets in several different ways. Matt works with about 40 local restaurants, including Coach House, to supply some of their in-season vegetables. He also operates aVeggie Van on biodiesel made of waste oil - obtained from these same restaurants! The Veggie Van, which is kind of like a traveling farmer's market, can be found at the SE corner of NW 23rd and Hudson, across from Cheevers, on Sundays from 11 am to 3 pm.

Having missed the OSU Farmer's Market on Saturday, I got the chance to visit the Veggie Van on Sunday. It's nice to have options so that if you don't make one Farmer's Market, another is available on a different day. When I arrived at the Veggie Van, they were offering fresh zucchini and yellow squash, several different peppers, luscious tomatoes, garlic, cantaloupes, blueberries, a variety of freshly-baked goods and canned jams from Earth Elements, free-range eggs, and more. Matt reported he will also soon be carrying local cheese from Hardesty Farms.

Matt Burch and Jassen Smoot

Earth Elements display at the Veggie Van

If you don't catch the Urban Agrarian on Sundays, Matt is one of the few people offering local produce at the infamous Edmond "Farmer's" market, and also one of three vendors at the brand-new Department of Health farmer's market on Tuesdays from 3 - 6 pm. This variety in market channels is one thing that we may see more and more of as people seek to diversify away from only having one source of income (namely, a corporate or government job).

Another innovative agrarian in our area is Ron Ferrell, who builds raised bed gardens with a ready-to-plant combination of straw bales for the edges, composted horse manure for the soil, and cardboard to smother the grass/weeds. As he says, just add seeds and water! This is great for people who don't have the energy, time, resources, or physical strength to start a garden, but who are easily able to plant seeds and transplants once a garden is built. I also love the very deep rich soil this must create - great for any root or nitrogen-hungry veggie.

Instant garden

Americans love innovation... it's just that we've been innovating in all the wrong ways for the last fifty years. Moving further and further away from sustainability and resilience, we've managed to become completely dependent on just a tiny number of companies that control everything from our seeds, to our animals in gigantic confined operations, to our grains that are the feedstock for almost everything in our grocery stores. All run on massive inputs of chemicals, oil, and cruelty.

Now is the time to innovate our way out of this unhealthy dependency. It's not enough to "go back" to the way our ancestors did things - they lived in very different times and circumstances, and although we've made massive mistakes since then, we've also developed and discovered great information resources and technologies. We have to use the wisdom of our forefathers, along with the wisdom of the native people who knew this land so well before we invaded, but also the new innovations and ideas we've gained since then.
We are going to need more and more of these creative agrarian people to re-build a food system so lacking in nutrition and flavor that we douse everything with fat, fried and high-fructose funk just to get it down our throats. We need innovation at every level of the process. Along with farmers and ranchers, we need seed savers, transplant sellers, backyard chicken wranglers, cooks who can work with whole ingredients of in-season foods, and local food brokers.

You can contribute to that renaissance. As I was leaving the Veggie Van, I joked that I should have brought some of my Mom's banana peppers. She has so many she doesn't know what to do with them all. Matt said to bring it on - he buys from small gardeners, too. That's good to hear... maybe he'll take some of my lemon balm and chocolate mint?


Wendy said...

The Governor of Maine has declared the week of August 3-9 Maine Farmer's Market Week. It's an awesome thing to have the "government" in on the whole eat local/sustainability wagon ;).

rferrell1 said...

Matt Burch is a leader! he works his tail off, is a conduit for many foodies who are trying to do good and make a bit o' money for their efforts, knows and promotes everyone who is involved in this agrarian effort....and he's a great guy.

A guy at my coffee shop yesterday was bitching about paying $5.00 for 2 large, organic tomatoes. My question to him was, "have you ever tried to grow tomatoes? $5.00 is a deal, they should have been $10." His attitude speaks for most Americans....they have no idea how much work growing food is.

keep up the great blogging.


TheCrone said...


Just caught up with your blog again after a long break. Thought that I'd let you know that I get just 12 months of use from my straw bale beds (Perth Western Australia). While the bale beds are a great starter garden in my area, they decompose really quickly here; winter temps of around 4-18 degrees, summer temps of around 15-42 degrees. It's all good in that I use the decomposing straw to mulch my garden but long term I have switched to more permanent beds made from colourbond.