By Alli Greenberg
The distance from the gardens where we grow our food to the lodge kitchen where most of our cooking happens is .42 miles (according to Google Maps). This has become the standard definition of local food here on the AMI Highland Farm, with the goal to transition as many of our calories to local production as is possible. This year, we are growing about 30 different annual vegetable and grain crops as well as about 10 different perennial fruit and vegetable crops. This count does not include flowers and herbs which we cultivate for medicinal and ecological purposes, nor the crops we plant for ground cover such as rye and vetch, nor the bounty we receive from our bees, chickens, mushroom logs, and maple trees. Even with all the diversity we get from the land, there are still many staple foods that must be bought from the outside.
Looking at and eating the foods on these lists have made me dig even deeper into questions around what it means to eat local(er). If the ideal is complete self-sufficiency then what would have to be given up? There would be no coffee, lemons, or olive oil to name a few. We would also have to put a lot more land into grains and labor into processing. If the goal was sustainability in terms of food miles, then where does the imported food come from? If we could only buy from Highland County processors then the list would remain limited. Even if we stuck to Virginia there would still be many foods we could not get. Does it really matter how far it comes from or is how it was grown the most important? We might be able to get a bit more from Highland County if we decided not to buy organic, but do we really want to support growing practices that we are trying to improve upon? The questions go on and on and many decisions must be made both here and for individuals across the world trying to navigate grocery stores and restaurants. For the purposes of AMI, it can be both easier to figure out since we require bulk staple ingredients and make much of our own food, but it is also harder since there are many different individual tastes and ethics to cater towards.
Loading up plates in the lodge dining room.
Generally, we buy food from a bulk, food buying club run through The Highland Center. Mountain Foods aims to “to serve to Alleghany Highlands with access to affordable, bulk, all natural or organic foods.” They order from two major distributors: Frontier Natural Herbs and UNFI (United Natural Foods, Inc.), which means we buy organic rather than local. What we do not want in bulk or cannot get from Mountain Foods is usually just supplemented from Costco or the grocery store and the AMI Program Manager delivers from Staunton and Harrisonburg. Milk and butter do come from local creameries, but cheese is from Costco. Highland County is known for raising livestock, so when meat got added to our menu halfway through the summer, it was an easy decision to source straight from the farmers market at the Riven Rock Farm table. Additionally we have chicken that was raised on the farm last year and all of the canned goods that were left for us.
A small snapshot of our kitchen shelves from left to right on the Top shelf: Pearled Barley, Chickpeas, Black beans, Lentils, Popping Corn, Granola, Walnuts, Sunflower Seeds; Bottom Shelf: Olive Oil, Apple Cider Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Honey, Pinto Beans, Raisins, White Rice. Most of these items come from Mountain Foods (Honey and Granola are made on the farm).
Much of the last month or so has been spent processing our harvest for next year’s fellows. The growing season here in Highland County is short, so for the first two months up here, much of our food came from the pantry and freezer. In addition to vacuum packed frozen vegetables and fruit, we spend a lot of time canning and processing. Food we make and preserve includes (but is not limited to): apple cider, apple sauce, pickles, kraut, hot sauce, ketchup, salsas, tomato sauce, tomato paste, corn flour (milled for each use), chicken and vegetable stock, honey, maple syrup, preserves and jams, pumpkin butter, pesto, pickled beets, and more. We also make granola, bread and yogurt for ourselves as weekly staples. By making many of these items for ourselves there are less packaged foods we need to buy.
2015 Fellow, Sarah Merfeld preparing tomatoes (right) to be processed into sauce, paste, ketchup and more (left).
Moving forward the goal is still to transition the kitchen to as many local calories as is possible. This year we have been eating corn flour from the farm, which is an item that used to be a purchased, and next year we have grown enough beans to replace purchased dry beans (black and pinto). We have extracted enough honey and maple to replace our day to day sugar needs. We have also started to buy coffee from a local roaster, stopped buying almonds and quinoa (substituting them for locally produced nuts and grains), and are experimenting with different grain production in an effort to transition those foods to local. We have it relatively easy with local being defined as .42 miles away or from Highland County, but we are still striving to ‘eat more local-er’ with every farm season and meal. Once we are off the AMI Highland farm it will be a little harder to figure out, but the ethos I will try to stick to is to know where my food is coming from and setting a realistic definition for what sustainable eating means to me.
*No, localer is not proper grammar, but it has become a motto of the 2015 Cohort