I have 62 different recipes for eggs in my battered Joy of Cooking. On the third day of a month-long challenge to eat food grown within a 100-mile radius from my home, I count them. Then I turn to the vegetable section and count the entries under asparagus: four. It’s April in Corvallis, Oregon, the beginning of spring, the beginning of the Willamette Valley’s growing season, the hungriest time of the year.
There are many reasons to eat a locally based diet. From issues of taste and food quality, to food safety and regional economic stimulus, diets that are based close to home can offer a more sustainable option to the daily necessity of feeding ourselves. However, the cost of local food is often higher, seeking it out can be inconvenient and time consuming, and there are often not as many choices available. Local eggs are available almost anytime, anywhere, so on April 1 when I started my challenge eggs were where I started. The asparagus was pure luck.
Food is a commodity. Its purchase and sale are driven by the market, which in turn is driven by supply and demand. If consumers were to demand products at a level that made it viable for farmers to produce them, there would be more local products on the shelves of the neighborhood grocery stores, said Russ Karow, head of Oregon State University’s Crop and Soil Sciences Department.
“The question is about customer pull,” says Karow. “Is the product that is being produced the product that people want to buy? We have the crops we do because people figured out what worked well here in terms of markets and crop suitability.”
I called Karow after spending more than a week trying to find local bread for toast to accompany my eggs and asparagus.
Wheat grows on more than 100,000 acres around the Willamette Valley, and 85 percent of all that wheat is exported to Asia. The wheat grown here is a soft white wheat, great for ramen-type noodles, crackers, and pancakes, but it has limited use for the commercial production of loaves of breads.
“The very best bread wheat is 14 percent protein; the wheat we have here is in the 8 to 10 percent range. It’s perfect for pastries and flat bread, but for traditional loaves of bread, it has limited use,” says Karow. The protein content in wheat is directly related to the elastic-like gluten that helps breads to rise. Lower protein content translates to a flatter, denser bread.
Karow sends me out to a grain warehouse east of town, where he has stored the remains of an experimental crop of hard red wheat—the kind with high gluten, the kind no one grows commercially in the Valley because it can’t take the climate, the kind that makes great bread. I’m ecstatic, but have no idea what to do with it. The wheat is in kernel form, and there’s not a mill within my radius willing to grind only 25 pounds. I visit Karow again, and leave with a hand grinder and a quart of canola oil made from another university test plot. Four hours later I have three cups of the wholest wheat flour I’ve ever seen. Three hours after that I have bread; and five minutes later I have toast.
Now, it’s time for butter. Like eggs, dairy products are relatively easy to come by in the Willamette Valley. Mike Gamroth, a professor in OSU’s Department of Animal Sciences, says this has a lot to do with the Valley’s climate, which encourages high-quality grass and forages. “If it eats grass, it’s going to do well here,” says Gamroth. “Higher quality feed results in higher quality products, whether that’s milk, butter, or cheese.”
I’d forgotten about cheese. Gamroth gently chides me for thinking a product is good only because it’s local. Sometimes, he says, it’s simply good; local is an added bonus.
“Here you’re starting with some of the best quality milk in the country,” he says. “A lot of the dairy products here, especially the locally made artisan cheeses, really are special.” Oregon has about 350 operational commercial dairies. However, many of the smaller dairy operations are suffering in the current economic downturn. “First, there is the job of making the product,” Gamroth says. “Then there’s the even bigger job of selling it.”
At the store, I find a variety of cheeses made with locally produced milk, also butter, yogurt, and milk itself. My pantry is slowly filling, but I’m more than halfway through the month, and I still have a pretty minor selection of vegetables, mostly carrots and potatoes. I haven’t had a piece of fruit in almost three weeks. I call Anita Azarenko, head of OSU’s Department of Horticulture, and I’m relieved to hear it’s not my poor foraging skills that are leaving me deprived of
“We’re in a kind of food desert from January through early April,” says Azarenko. “Most of the local produce available in these months are things that can be stored over the winter. A fresh strawberry isn’t going to make it that long.”
Azarenko encourages me to explore the more obscure vegetables available in the market and to be patient. The 100-mile diet is about more than sourcing your food locally and feeding yourself, she says. It’s about restoring a sense of place and truly experiencing the smells, tastes, and textures of where you live throughout the year.
“The consumer needs to quit looking for the supermarket varieties they’re used to and diversify their palates, communicate with farmers about what they want and need,” says Azarenko. “It’s not just about eating local foods, it’s about supporting your community—the place you call home.”
On the last Saturday in April, I bike down to the farmers’ market. There on the table, blushing beautifully in the spring sun, are strawberries. I buy a flat full of berries, and they’re half gone before dinner. My fingers are stained pink and I have seeds in my teeth. They taste like home.