What led you to write this book – to tell the stories of these three farmers?
I've always been struck by how absent farmers' voices are from the conversation about food and how we eat. For me the farmers' perspective is critical. I came to thinking about food through farmers. It was farmers who introduced me to the ideas of eating locally and buying directly. I wanted to start a conversation that included them.
One of the farmers you profile is really a family - the Podolls in North Dakota. They take "eating locally" and "local foods" to a whole new level. Can you tell us about what they eat?
It was funny going to their farm and eating with them, having learned about food and cuisine in California. Out here we're so elaborate with everything. And then going to the Podolls' - they just basically eat what looks good in the garden that day.
So they're the ultimate locavores?
Definitely! Locavores often talk about a 100-mile diet. The Podolls are pretty much on a 1-mile diet - and that's only because their farm is so big. They are picking things and putting them on a plate so they don't need to do much to them because they're so fresh. A typical meal will be a plate of vegetables straight out of the garden – cooked if they need to be – and some meat from one of their animals.
In the spring, for example, one of the earliest things they grow are onions that happen really early in the spring that are from generations back in their family, so in the early spring they eat a lot of small fresh green onions and the way they prepare them is pretty straight up.
It sounds like there is very little cooking going on. Is that true?
Something that's really striking about the Podolls – there are two families [two brothers and their wives with separate houses on the farm] and all of them cook. Some better than others, but they are all involved with the growing of the food and they are all involved with the cooking.
Theresa is the one who might cook the most. She is a very capable cook but even she is not an elaborate cook, she's a busy person. The way I see it, the garden allows her to be a busy person because she doesn't need to spend a lot of time cooking because the food is so good as it is.
How about in winter when the garden is empty? How do they eat then?
In winter they draw on the canning and preserving that they've all done. They have all kinds of pickled beets and relishes and pickled onions and things too. They use potatoes and carrots from the root cellar. They eat more meat – from animals they've raised – in the winter. They also eat more non-local things, but always with food they've grown. So they might buy pasta from the store, but they'll serve it with tomato sauce they've canned from tomatoes they grew in the garden.
Winter is also when there is more time for cooking, like baking bread.
What can we learn about how the Podoll's eat? What if we don't have the room or the time or the inclination to keep a large garden?
The larger story about how they eat is that agriculture in this country has been so homogenized and compartmentalized. Fruit and vegetables are mostly grown in California, with some in Arizona and Texas and Florida. Corn and soy are grown through the Midwest. Wheat is grown through the plains and so on. That has robbed us of any sense of what could grow locally in a lot of places.
The Podolls live in North Dakota on the border between where people grow corn and soybeans and where they grow wheat. If they were like their neighbors they would be growing those crops and buying their food from the supermarket. Instead, they grow as much of their food as possible - probably 95% of what they eat comes from their farm. They are a model for saying, hey, look at all these things that are growing in our garden and all the different things that are growing on our farm – we can grow our own food right here in North Dakota.
A lot more of our food – no matter where we live – could be coming from local sources, but we'd need more people growing it on less homogenized farms.
How about the other two farmers you profile? Do they eat local foods too?
The other two farmers – Harry Lewis and Virgil Trujillo - are both in industries, dairy farming and ranching, respectively - where the finished product is removed from the farm, so they're less given to feeding themselves from their farms or ranches.
Harry and Virgil, the way that they eat is more a reflection of where they live. They're influenced by the cultural cuisine of their area.
Harry loves Texas barbecue. I was with him at a co-op meeting up in Wisconsin once and he barely ate. He was just waiting to get home and eat his barbecue. He has a classic southern approach to food – what matters to him is not so much buying locally grown food as it is the traditions around food and how it's prepared.
And Virgil, too. I didn't get into it in the book, but he really deeply believes in not wasting anything. So he raised pigs off the cafeteria scraps at the ranch where he worked, and then turned them into carne adovada and green chile stew and other classic New Mexican dishes. That's what was important to him about food – the traditions.