The Resounding Impact of Going Local, According to a Chef
Don't give up just yet.
April 16, 2018 ● 3 min read
We're pregaming Earth Day this year, mostly because damn, it's getting pretty bleak out there and it's more important than ever to stick to your soil guns and fight for our planet. We asked a handful of industry pros what sustainability meant to them: we'll be publishing their answers throughout the week.
As told by Ronny Miranda | Image beastfromeast via iStock
I come from two generations of farmers here in California, so I have a deep connection to nature and agriculture.
I spent most summers as a kid on the farm with my grandfather “learning the business,” because he thought it was important to share his knowledge—and I was also free labor, which is always nice for a farmer. The first 13 years of my life I had a very narrow view of the food industry in the U.S., and it came as a big shock to me when I found out that most people I met in high school had never truly been to a farm or even a farmer’s market. At this point, I began to understand the lack of basic understanding the average American had about food.
Fast forward to the age of 17, I’m a poor college kid washing dishes at a late-night diner on PCH in Long Beach, California. Weeks fly by, and I begin reading the labels on the produce boxes. Mexico. China. Thailand. Vietnam. So I ask the kitchen manager one night, “Chef, why do we get all this stuff from other countries when we are in California?”
He doesn’t truly have a response other than, “Well, that’s where it comes from." I’m shocked. Even the guy cooking the food doesn’t understand the impact of not buying local produce.
Two more years go by, and I’m working as a prep cook in the Bay Area. The chef was born and raised in the Central Valley, so he had a true understanding of local sustainable food. If it wasn’t in season, it wasn’t on the menu. He was the first chef to walk me through what sustainability meant, and from that point on I couldn’t get enough information. I read every book I could. I realized how much of an impact giant commercial farms were having on our land.
I made a vow to always use local from that point on. I began to see small farms disappearing, replaced by huge industrial farms. No longer were we eating food, we were eating food-like products void of nutrients.
At some point in U.S. history, we lost our connection to Mother Earth. Soil is our literal lifeblood, and we look at it as nothing more than another commodity to trade. We can blame the idea of mass-produced meals, the microwave, or supermarkets, but in the end, it was big companies selling Americans on the idea that they should be able to have a tomato every day of the year instead of only in summer.
Sustainability is the only way to move forward and leave a better world than we have today.
As a consumer, the best thing you can do is to buy local and eat what’s in season. That’s step one. Step two is where the chef comes in, cultivating a menu that utilizes local meat, fish, and produce.
Which brings us to step three. We’ve now put a demand on local farmers to use old practices of crop rotation and the natural symbiotic relationships to grow the produce that which is in season. Why is this all important? Because industrial farming is quickly destroying our earth to the point where we have dead zones in the middle of the country, hundreds of square miles that are incapable of producing crops because we have withdrawn all the nutrients from the ground.
Sustainability is the process of building and maintaining healthy soil, water management, promoting biodiversity and crop rotation. Crop rotation is exactly what it sounds like: instead of planting one continuous crop season after season, you change the crop after each harvest, which leads to biodiversity. Without rotating your crops you are continuously removing nutrients from the ground and giving nothing back. Chef Dan Barber refers to it making withdrawals but never a deposit.
Next, and just as important as crop rotation and biodiversity, is cover crops. You can’t grow year-round in conventional commercial farming, so fields wind up bare in-between crops. Instead, we should plant cover crops: typically something not for consumption like clover or hairy vetch, both of which pull nitrogen out of the air and put it back into the soil, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers, along with helping with stabilization.
Which brings us to fertilizers. Most industrial farms keep livestock away from crops, but it has been found that allowing animals to move through some fields will give you a steady supply of vitamin and mineral-rich manure, and weeds get ripped up and consumed by the animals. "Keep it simple" is good advice in many situations, but when it comes to sustainability, diverse and complex fields are far more productive—much like nature itself.
So, don’t panic! We can fix this. It all begins with you. You have no idea how much power you have as a consumer to control the market. Sustainability doesn’t mean you have to grow all your own food and go vegan, but growing your own herbs couldn’t hurt. With a few small steps, we can make our farming 100% sustainable and feed the entire world.
There is absolutely no reason we cant have our cake and eat it too.