FOOD

The Garden Variety

By Sara Shaw

Oregonians have earned a reputation for living sustainable lifestyles, but what exactly does it mean to be sustainable? If you drink fair trade coffee, recycle, bike to work and buy organic, does that mean you are living a “sustainable” lifestyle? Well, in many ways, yes. We, in Oregon, are provided with a lot of options that allow for us to be environmentally sound if we choose to be. We can shop at a number of grocery stores that focus on locally grown organic produce, and if we want to go straight to the source for our meats, veggies, fruits and cheeses, we can frequent one of over 100 farmers markets in the state.

Of course, this hasn’t always been the case. In the past two decades, a growing movement to question the role of the agricultural establishment has emerged. It has gradually replaced farming systems that focused on maximizing production to methods that promote environmental health, stewardship of the land and, in turn, better tasting produce. Who better to appropriate these ecologically healthy trends than our local restaurant scene?

Many chefs are sourcing from local farmers and have been for years. They head to the markets for the freshest kohlrabi and endive, pick through chanterelles and matsutakes foraged that very morning, and create a complex menu based on the ingredients that are seasonally available to them. They do this for a number of reasons, but the priority is preserving flavor through freshness and quality. 

What better way to get the freshest flavors possible then to start your own farm as near to your restaurant as possible? I asked Owner Nancy Groth of Summer Jo’s Restaurant & Farm in Grants Pass to give me some insight on the benefits of having your own farm to supply your restaurant with fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The minute after you harvest any fruit or vegetable, it starts to decay,” Groth said. “We’re talking mere minutes from the farm, zero food miles (with no accompanying oil energy outlay), and a freshness factor and mouthfeel that you can literally taste. Lettuces are softer in the mouth. Fruit is crisper. The flavors are more potent.”

She does not lie. I went up to Skyline Farm with the very passionate Chef Earl Hook of Meriwether’s Restaurant in Portland. He showed me the multitude of vegetables they are growing on their three planted acres and offered me several taste tests along the way.

Though the Green Arrow peas were pleasurably plump and sweet, the real stand-out was a single leaf of arugula. Never before have I tasted such a complex green with bright acidity, soft, supple texture, and a kick of spice and pepper on the finish that pleasantly lingered on my tongue until it was washed away by a fresh strawberry.

The taste of freshness and farm-inspired menus are one of the greatest benefits, but having your own farm also allows for flexibility, variety and little-to-no waste. These restaurants combined are each growing over 100 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and ornamental flowers. Both Meriwether’s Skyline Farm and Summer Jo’s Farm are growing beans, squashes, greens, corn, eggplant, potatoes, parsley, leeks and onions to use in a variety of ways in their restaurants—from fresh to pickled to pesto. 

Skyline Farm is in its third year of production with room to grow, and many of the plantings are still being established. In a couple of years, the asparagus will be mature, the fig tree will bear fruit and a larger greenhouse for starter plants will be installed. The farm is not yet certified, but they have standard organic practices in place.

They don’t use herbicides or pesticides, but instead use preventative measures to avoid soil-born pests and disease, rotating their limited irrigation yearly so that one area is not bogged down with moisture and therefore a breeding ground for undesirable infections. Other organic methods include crop rotation, green manures (buckwheat and winter rye), composting and soil amending with only natural organic fertilizers of fish emulsions, limestone, bone meal, rock phosphate and kelp meal.

Hook, who is characterized by his myriad tattoos and infectious laughter, notes with distinguishing fervor that the greatest benefits of sourcing from your own farm, after freshness, are control of the types of crops and lack of waste. Hook and the farming staff plan out the year the previous fall so that they plant exactly what is to be consumed at the restaurant. This means that the kitchen can always anticipate what is coming in, and those items that are not used in the restaurant immediately are preserved by pickling or in sauces and marinades. As a result, there is no additional food waste.

Summer Jo’s, which was established several years prior to the younger Skyline Farm, also boasts apples, plums, pears, raspberries and blackberries. The restaurant launched in 1999 with the intent to “utilize organic produce to create memorable meals,” now has 9.5 acres of certified organic farmland, and what they grow makes up about 50 percent of their menu. They also grow their own wheat, which they turn into artisan breads, and this year they’ve started raising chickens and will be using the eggs for breakfast and baked goods. Whatever they lack they buy from local purveyors, and they supplement the menu with produce from other farmers when they have crop failures or increased demand, sourcing organically whenever possible.

Groth says that they operate organically because they “believe organic products are healthier, climate stabilizing, environmentally sustainable, humane for animals and more equitable for family farmers.

“As a company, we strive for a smaller carbon footprint any way we can: composting veggies from the restaurant to use on the fields, utilizing restaurant oil for biodiesel, recycling everything we possibly can from printer cartridges to paper and wine bottles, laundering our own linens, programming our thermostats, purchasing Energy Star equipment any time we need to replace or add equipment, purchasing secondhand furnishings, using biodegradable to-go containers, unbleached hand towels, fluorescent energy efficient bulbs, etc.” And this year they plan to convert to solar energy.

So, what does it mean to be sustainable? Is it a political movement, is it a philosophy, is it a way of life? Over a plate of glistening Candy Striped and Bull’s Blood beets, Hook responded to these questions with humorous eyes and a jovial grin. “Sustainability has all of those factors.

“The sustainability that I believe in is the sustainability of livelihood. Say, if I buy from Mountain Shadow Beef, the livelihood that he can sustain by me merely ordering 30 pounds of ground beef, [the way] that trickles down into other people’s lives, is enormous.”

The relationship from farm to table, as facilitated by these people, is one that is becoming increasingly more common locally.

“We are very fortunate to be in this state and in this region,” said Hook. “The food culture is developing and evolving into something very unique. I look at it as a lifestyle instead of just as work.”

The commonality of this lifestyle is becoming a stronger thread among Oregonians as the term sustainable extends not just from farm to table, but also to the relationships around it. 

Sara Shaw is a writer and wine professional originally hailing from Alaska who has chosen the Pacific Northwest as her home. She works for Daedalus Cellars in Dundee.

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