27th Annual Sustainable Agriculture Conference: The Local Foods Feast
by Jacqueline Venner Senske, conference blogger
The task was to create a meal for 500 people from local food, something that many chefs may not believe feasible. But it happened, and it was a feast indeed.
Kale and Winter Squash Stew
Collards with Fatback
Sea Island Red Pea Risotto
So let’s start with the stats.
1858 pounds of produce
1829 pounds of meat and cheese
325 pounds of flour
120 pounds of grain
100 pounds of cornmeal
100 pounds of butter
25 gallons of milk
20 gallons of ice cream
8 gallons of cream
All of this came from 38 farmers and purveyors in the Carolinas by way of 3 local distributors and 1 really good, if freezing cold, friend (more on that later).
Well, okay, let’s be totally clear: these figures represent the total amount of local food acquired for all 2300 meals during the 3-day conference. But Friday evening’s Local Foods Feast was the highlight, to be sure. It’s the most formal and biggest single meal, and expectations are high as it takes place the first night of the conference and sets the tone for the weekend.
Luckily, the woman leading the effort is a pro. Literally. Not only is Chef Kris Reid leading this effort for the third year in a row, but she is also the Executive Chef at Charlotte’s Southminster Retirement Community, where her work in bringing local food into her institution – and amazing the residents there with incredible food – is exemplary.
Because Chef Reid has done this before, she has a good sense of how it needs to work. At least 6 months ahead, she froze local produce, like peaches, and combined them with things in season now. Because she brings local to her kitchen at Southminster every day, she knows how and where to source food and how to get the most from it.
But, because of all the moving parts, sometimes things don’t go as planned. For instance, a couple of days out, the arugula still hadn’t arrived. Chef Reid arranged an emergency, by-any-means-necessary delivery. A friend was en route to Greenville from Charlotte and met a produce truck at an abandoned gas station off I-85 to pick up several pounds of arugula. To keep the greens in good shape, Pam cranked the AC to chill the car. It worked – the arugula arrived in fine shape – but Pam was freezing. (Thanks for taking one for the team, Pam!)
The other part that made this work was a great collaboration between Chef Reid and Chef Brandon Lemiux of Greenville’s Hyatt Regency. It takes months, with multiple menu drafts, some education, and creative planning for where to store all that extra food. And it would have been impossible without the hard work of Chef Lemiux’s crew at the Hyatt, including 12 sous chefs, kitchen staff, and over 30 servers.
In the end, this meal was outstanding. Eaters raved, and there was just enough, which was a relief. With such work in not just growing the food but planning, sourcing, and preparing it, margins for this meal are tight. The goal is to have nothing left, so it’s a huge success that the amounts were almost spot-on for each service. Plus, the expenses were under budget. It cost $9 per plate, but would hit around $50 per plate in a restaurant.
Talking with Chef Reid at the end of the night, she was exhausted, but proud. She said she kept thinking of the prayer they say at every family meal in her house: “Thank you, farmers, for this food.”
Opening Night at the 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Conference
An eclectic crowd of five hundred sat down to eat in a community of bounty: local food, local growers, local farmers and stockmen, local purveyors, and local chefs brought a veritable feast to the attendees seated in the ballroom at the Regency Hyatt in downtown Greenville. This was the opening night and Local Foods Feast at the 27th annual conference organized by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. It was an incredible sight! Students, new farmers, old time farmers, non-profit representatives, folks from differing cultures, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds all united under one agenda – to bring back real and fair food to the tables of America (pertinently for this conference, the Carolinas). The total number of attendees surpassed eight hundred, which is an inspiring coming together of like-minded individuals in a downtown area that, according to Senator Daniel Verdin’s opening words, was a “deserted and dangerous town” a mere thirty years ago.
The ethos of the conference is supporting local, sustainable agriculture and the speakers at the Welcome Event spoke about the economic social, political, and even emotional issues facing farmers today. Often farming seems an isolated toil, the only friend and sometimes foe being Mother Nature itself. But, as twos and threes of people gather together, farming is no longer an isolated event. Co-operatives of farmers are being formed within non-profit associations and other structures. Sometimes we have to get involved in political forums, like in California’s vote on Proposition 37, but ultimately food should not be a political decision. It should be a grassroots decision because we all have to eat. Every day, consumers get a chance to vote three times a day as to how they want their food to be produced.
There is a huge movement in the Carolinas, forged by the Carolina Stewardship Farmer’s Association, which provides help to farmers and growers. We can see positive changes all around the Carolinas. Farmer’s markets are springing up in towns all over the state. To get to the conference on Saturday, the weekly market day in Greenville, I had to walk straight through the stalls of local producers and growers lining Main Street. I have been a visitor to Greenville for many years and this was a sight to behold. It made me very glad as did the incredible hope, progress, and support which emanated from the organizers and attendees of the 27th Sustainable Agricultural Conference – from a “desolate” town to eight hundred strong, united to bring real and fair food and farming practices to America.
Sustainable Ag. Conference 2012 – Local Foods Feast and Keynote
by Keia Mastrianni, conference blogger
Following the sold out Local Foods Feast, 500 well-fed attendees launched into a weekend of learning, collaboration, networking and fellowship with keynote speaker, Deb Eschmeyer, young farmer, policy maker, activist and “rockstar” of the local foods movement.
Eschmeyer is co-founder of Food Corps, a national service organization that addresses the issues of food insecurity and childhood obesity in underserved communities. She is also the recipient of the James Beard Foundation Leadership Award, an honor held by the likes of Wendell Berry, for her efforts in school food reform efforts. Speaking to a room of burgeoning farmers, agricultural veterans, and local foods advocates, Eschmeyer set the collaborative tone of the conference by sharing her personal experience with the crowd. “To know where someone stands, you must know where they once stood,” said Eschmeyer. One of seven children, Eschmeyer grew up on a conventional dairy farm in west central Ohio where she witnessed firsthand the realities of farm life. Out of high school, Deb moved to Washington D.C. where she worked on policy related to family farm issues and food issues.
In 2007, Eschmeyer moved back home with her husband and high school sweetheart to begin Harvest Sun Farms, a 22-acre certified organic produce farm. After leaving the political battleground of Capitol Hill, Eschmeyer met with new opposition. This time, right in her hometown. There, Eschmeyer struggles to be seen as a viable farmer. She is even criticized by community members for not using pesticides. A fighter at heart, Eschmeyer is not rattled. Though Harvest Sun Farms could sell their produce miles away in Columbus, she is intent on “feeding the mouths of her neighbors,” a concept that sits at the core of all her efforts.
She asks the crowd, “What will it take for sustainable agriculture to be seen as a viable career? How do we remove limiting factors to get to real profitability?” As a farmer herself, Eschmeyer is wading through the challenges to find the solutions. She expressed the collaboration that must happen at all levels to support the growth of sustainable agriculture including policies to support young farmers, the development of more “growers only” markets and the need for extensions services and universities to “move the ball forward.”
“I do believe local and regional food systems can be part of the solution, “ says Eschmeyer.