Farmers Forging Partnerships
One of the subjects I am most passionate about is the notion of creating urban-suburban-rural partnerships to drive economic prosperity. Much of this interest lays in my own experience of traveling frequently between my job in the city, to my home in the exurbs of Louisville and on to the farms in adjacent counties where I hunt and explore. I am living those partnerships at a social level every day. I learn much from the people I meet in those places and hopefully they learn a little from me. There is much more to say about the flow of capital, ideas and social interaction in both directions but these days I am somewhat obsessed with the partnerships being created around food.
While diversity remains an important goal it is only natural that rural exports would be heavily tilted towards food. A popular bumper sticker in Kentucky and elsewhere reads, “No Farms, No Food”. It is an inescapable fact that rural areas will always be linked most closely with food, no matter how many other industries settle there and no matter how many community gardens are started in abandoned city lots. Farmers have always been proud of this and embraced it but I have always had a suspicion that certain urban dwellers wanted to change this dynamic. With missionary zeal it seemed that the primary goal of some was to bring civilization to the farms and to incorporate food production. Local farmers I have talked to say the high-point of their persecution was during the Bush years when their political leanings compounded their sins in the eyes of those same urban missionaries. A less polarized vote in 2008 probably helped ease some of the mistrust between both sides but food has really been the bridge that has healed the urban-rural divide.
Not too long ago chambers of commerce were the primary force in creating economic partnerships. While they still play an important role, today these relationships are also being formed in a much more organic way following a model similar to what we see with social media. Partnerships are being formed in farmer’s markets, at CSA pickups, on u-pick farms and in the kitchens and dining rooms of the nation’s best restaurants. As Americans have become more and more passionate about quality food farmers have listened and adjusted their offerings accordingly. Now a decade into this trend there is a signal that a shift in the roles played by both sides is happening.
A long-recognized strength of Japanese auto manufacturers has been their ability to drive market demand rather than react to it. Likewise the late Steve Jobs was hailed for his ability to make consumers want his products rather than simply respond to their requests a la Microsoft. This business strategy is seen by economists as a positive development that ensures longterm success. Southern farmers now seem to be heading in the same direction. Writing for the NY Times Julia Moskin explores how Southern producers are no longer merely supplying the food demanded by chefs but driving a revival of Southern cuisine, long considered by many to be the most boring of American food traditions.
And he [Emile DeFelice] is part of a thriving movement of idealistic Southern food producers who have a grander plan than just farm-to-table cuisine. They want to reclaim the agrarian roots of Southern cooking, restore its lost traditions and dignity, and if all goes according to plan, completely redefine American cuisine for a global audience.
Their work is being encouraged, and sponsored, by a new generation of chefs who have pushed Southern cooking into the vanguard of world cuisine — and who depend on these small producers to literally flesh out their ambitions. “In the next five years we should be dominating the world in charcuterie, because we have the best pigs and the most skills,” said Craig Diehl, the chef at Cypress, in Charleston, who makes an extraordinary headcheese and about 25 other remarkable cured meats from Mr. DeFelice’s pork.
Pork is still the definitive ingredient of Southern cooking, past and present. But the “lardcore” trend has now become a bigger movement embracing the entire Southern pantry.
“As an obsessive person, you realize that there is a better version of everything out there,” said Sean Brock, the Charleston chef whose restaurant Husk serves only food produced south of the Mason-Dixon line, from Georgia olive oil to Tennessee chocolate to capers made from locally foraged elderberries. Many Southern chefs are working along similar lines — Frank Stitt, Mike Lata, Andrea Reusing and Linton Hopkins are just a few — but Mr. Brock’s rigor has redefined what it means to cook like a Southerner today. Young chefs are joining in, learning butchery and fermentation, putting up chowchow and piccalilli, experimenting with wood ash to make their own hominy.
Today, purists believe, Southern cooking is too often represented by its worst elements: feedlot hams, cheap fried chicken and chains like Cracker Barrel.
The most important part of this trend, especially in my area of the country where small farms rule, is the economic benefit to small operations and ‘hobby farmers’. Success in these new ventures encourages diversification which most experts recognize as the key to survival for small farms.
Perhaps most important, they are paying (and charging) big-city prices for down-home ingredients: money that is keeping food traditions, and small producers, alive.