Thursday, October 31, 2013

SEJ conference

Chattanooga is taking food seriously. Our Sustainable Food tour at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference visited two enterprises: Sequatchie Cove Farm & Creamery is a private enterprise searching for ways to market its new products.  Crabtree Farms is a local nonprofit operating on city property to provide both produce and education to teach residents how to grow their own.
This lone Dominique hen wanders around Sequatchie Farms. Others remain in a pen, but not her.

Sequatchie owner Bill Keener is one of the new breed of farmer, someone who didn’t grow up on a farm but figured he could learn how to get food from dirt. Under Allan Savory’s principles of holistic management, the farm’s sheep and cattle graze together, moving frequently from pasture to pasture. The plants the cattle eat are different from the plants the sheep eat, so the two species balance each other. Moving them prevents them from denuding the pasture, allowing it to grow more food, enriched by the manure the livestock leave behind. It’s a system that was the focus of SEJ member Judith Schwartz’s book, Cows Save the Planet,who also attended the conference. Her book was reviewed in the conference issue of SEJournal.

Keener relies on the people involved in the farm and their talents. One wanted to be a cheesemaker, so he studied cheesemaking and is now garnering prizes for its Dancing Fern cheese. Products are available in local outlets.

The farm produces beef, pork and lamb, with the help of a local meat processing plant. Certified processing plants are a problem for small local producers. Large plants handle only huge herds of livestock, leaving farms such as Sequatchie unable to get their meat processed in certified plants that produce cuts of meat that can legally be sold to the public. Operations like Sequatchie Farms are part of the new local food production networks that are making local food, with its better flavor and nutrition and lower energy use, possible.

At Crabtree Farms, executive director Joel Houser has created a lush farm that provides Community Supported Agriculture shares. A CSA is a way for individuals to support the farm by paying in advance so the farm has some cash flow, in return for a box of vegetables every week. Those who don’t have the cash to pay can work for a share – and learn how to grow their own gardens at the same time. It’s a great way to spend five hours a week.

Program coordinator Andrea Jaeger dreams up other programs for the community, such as Dig In Kids and the Community Garden. Chattanooga’s history of industrial pollution requires some special handling – testing for lead in the soil and creating raised beds if it’s contaminated.

As a poultry person, I was excited to hear the honking of geese on the farm. Geese need plenty of room and fewer farmers are keeping heritage breeds. Geese have a long history and can be a productive addition to a farm. They are vegetarians with discriminating tastes in plants. They were traditionally used to ‘grass’ cotton and tobacco fields, because they eat the weeds but not the crop plants. Houser has plans for his eight China geese to do their part on the farm, but they are youngsters and he hasn’t quite gotten that in place yet.

The geese haven’t won him over yet, but Jaeger loves them and they are now permanent Crabtree Farms residents.

Bee Whisperer David Reed, owner of Erma’s Bees, retired from the military and a government job to pursue his real work: raising bees. They provide the volunteer pollination for Crabtree Farms’ crops. His hives haven’t been affected by Colony Collapse Disorder, and he’s breeding his bees into a vibrant local variety that will continue to contribute to their part in an integrated agricultural community.

Their publication, Tastebuds, is available free all around Chattanooga. It lists local food producers, what they sell and where, including Sequatchie Cove’s cheeses. One of Crabtree Farms’ chickens graces the cover. Chickens, the mascot of the local food movement, remain controversial in Chattanooga. They are not yet legal in residential backyards. It’s an idea whose time has come, though. It’s only a matter of time before Chattanoogans will be collecting fresh eggs from their backyard Wyandottes and Rhode Island Reds.

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