Historic drought. Historic opportunity?

On April 1, California Governor Jerry Brown stood in a meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Normally, the meadow would have been covered with five feet of snow. Normally, the governor would have needed cross-country skis to even get there. But this year, there was nothing but brown grass. The measured snowpack was the lowest in more than 60 years.

The scene was a dramatic illustration of just how bad the drought has gotten in California. (And, make no mistake, Gov. Brown capitalized on that, ordering cities and towns to slash their water use by 25 percent.) But the crisis does not affect only California residents. California produces 99 percent of almonds, 95 percent of celery, 94 percent of broccoli, 88 percent of avocados, 86 percent of cauliflower and 81 percent of carrots produced in the United States. The state’s Central Valley, just one percent of the land mass in the United States, produces 25 percent of the food we eat. As the writer Steven Johnson concludes: “California doesn’t have a water problem. We all do.”

The good news? Thanks to the drought, people have finally started talking seriously about what real change might look like. Does it make sense for Americans to depend on concentrated food production in only a couple of regions that are so vulnerable to water shortages? Should we be growing water-thirsty crops like lettuce in places like New York, where the population is dense and where we get about 40 inches of rain a year? How do we decide which crops to grow where?

In my latest column for the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, I look at how and if California’s drought could be a catalyst for regional agriculture. As Mike Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University told me: “The key hallmark of climate change is that weather will be more uncertain and extreme weather will be more frequent,” Hamm says. “Under those circumstances, doesn’t it make sense to hedge our bets?”

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Is grass-fed beef really better?

New York Magazine asked me to dig into whether grass-fed burgers are really guilt free. The answer: Sort of.

They have more omega-3s but you get 65 times more if you eat a plate of salmon. And grass-fed cows emit at least as much methane–a poisonous greenhouse gas–as grain-fed ones, more according to some studies. At the end of the day, what the cow eats is vastly less important than whether we eat the cow. Pork burger anyone?

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Is garbage the new kale?

Chefs are going out of their way to make use of everything that comes into their kitchens—and bragging about it. And now vegetable trimmings are getting their star turn too. In my latest story in the Wall Street Journal, I chart how the hanger steak at Park Avenue Spring comes with “nose-to-tail beets”—the root, roasted and lightly pickled, served with sautéed greens and stems. At Miller Union in Atlanta, a ruby chard-stem chutney accompanies the cheese plate. Chef Andrew Wisehart, the vegetable wizard at Gardner in Austin, sautés broccoli florets and serves them with a salad of broccoli leaves and flowers and sprinkles it all with dehydrated, powdered broccoli stalks to further boost the broccoli flavor. Foxy Organic, a national produce company, just started selling broccoli leaves at grocery stores across the country.

But the point chefs want to make is this: Too much food that’s thrown away doesn’t belong in the trash. Squash skins are edible. So are kale ribs, beet greens, fennel tops, even carrot skins, which most of the time just need a good scrub. “Given the scale of hunger in this country, we need to convert what can be eaten into actual meals,” said Jonathan Bloom, author of “American Wasteland: How America Wastes Nearly Half of Its Food (And What We Can Do About It).”

What do you think? Are you going out of your way to use this stuff? I personally am a big fan of broccoli leaves! Let me know.

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Digging Deep: Gary Nabhan

It’s hard to put Gary Nabhan in a box. Officially, he’s the W.K. Kellogg chair of Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona. But Nabhan is more than just a professor. He’s an agroecologist, an ethnobotanist, a writer and a farmer. Over the last 30 years, his multidisciplinary approach has helped him to anticipate the big crises and solutions in food and agriculture: seed saving, heritage foods, disappearing pollinators such as monarch butterflies and honeybees, and farming in a hotter, drier climate.

For my latest column for the Stone Barns Center for Sustainable Agriculture, I talked with Nabhan about his work to save monarch butterflies, the newest buzzword in sustainable agriculture, “eating ecologically” and how to nudge Americans down that path.

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Pastured eggs on a roll

Vital Farms chickens are each allotted 108 square feet of outdoor space. (Courtesy of Dan Brooks/Vital Farms)

In 2006, Michael Cox, a chicken farmer in northwest Arkansas, faced a choice that many farmers do: Grow or die. His family had been raising chickens for three generations, first for agriculture behemoth Cargill and then for themselves. Even with 800,000 laying hens, Cox was not big enough to compete: “If you’re growing or dying,” he said, “we were planning our funeral.”

Cox, who was then 25, switched some of the family’s production to organic, which brought premium prices. Then, in 2009, he heard about a Texas startup called Vital Farms that wanted to produce pasture-raised eggs and sell them across the country. “Here were guys doing something completely different,” Cox remembers. “It was just crazy enough to work.” He signed on to raise 5,000 chickens.

I write about Vital Farms’ success in this week’s Washington Post. Since 2009, the company has nearly doubled in size each year. What started as a farm outside Austin with just a few thousand birds now works with about 60 farms and produces 1.5 million eggs every week. The eggs, which cost from $4.99 to $8.99 a dozen, are sold across the country in Whole Foods Markets and other natural-foods grocers, as well as in some mainstream stores, including Safeway and Kroger.

Vital Farms’ national distribution lets consumers who live in cold climates like the Northeast have access to pasture-raised eggs year-round. (Chickens can’t graze on pasture if there’s no grass.) Moreover, it is proof that companies don’t have to compromise on animal welfare, or on how much they pay farmers, to compete in the marketplace. “We set out to build a big business without compromise,” said Jason Jones, Vital Farms’ president. Added founder and chief executive Matt O’Hayer, “Our job is to show people that an egg is not just an egg.”

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Sustainable agriculture’s missing link

Food hubs aren’t as sexy as news that McDonald’s will stop using chicken raised with some antibiotics or that foodservice behemoths Sodexo, Aramark and Compass will soon buy cage-free eggs. Such moves are important. But they are tweaks. (McDonald’s is only banning antibiotics used in human medicine, not all antibiotics. The foodservice companies’ policies apply only to liquid eggs.) These are tweaks that affect a lot of people, but tweaks just the same. Food hubs, which aggregate and distribute food for local and regional farmers, in contrast, have the potential to revolutionize America’s food system, helping to create one that promotes regional agriculture and values farmers and the soil. They deserve as much attention.

In my latest story for Stone Barns Center, I look at the promise of food hubs. A national survey conducted in 2013 by the nonprofit Wallace Center counted 221 food hubs in the United States; 62 percent of them were less than five years old, and 31 percent had more than $1 million in revenue. While many hubs—La Montanita in New Mexico, Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, Mich., and the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, Va.—have seen success, there also have been failures. Grasshoppers, an ambitious food hub in Louisville, Ky., closed its doors in December 2013. “The first flush of emotional excitement has evolved into asking the real questions,” says John Fisk, the Wallace Center’s executive director. “What are our margins? Where do we get access to credit? You can’t do good if you aren’t doing well.”

Can food hubs fill the gap? Let me know what you think.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.

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