December 22, 2014
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Keeping it Local
Rhode Island tries to buy what it grows

The “locavore” movement has been getting a lot more attention these days, so much so that an explanation is in order. So, simply put, a locavore is someone who only eats food that has been grown within 100 or so miles of the place where it is consumed.

John Walsh, the owner-chef of the Edgewood Café in Cranston, supports the idea.

“I try to buy as much locally produced food as I can,” said Walsh. “Obviously, it’s fresher coming right from the farm and obviously it tastes better. Produce from other places just can’t be that fresh. It probably has been sitting around or been on the road and was probably harvested before it was ripe. When I find something fresh and in season, I’ll do a special on the menu. If I can get good stuff, I can build around it while it’s available.”

Looking for the right stuff to cook hasn’t hurt Walsh’s reputation as a chef. He started as a dishwasher on Block Island at the age of 15 and worked his way through Johnson & Wales and a few restaurants before he opened the Bookstore Cafe on Wayland Square in 1993. The Edgewood Café was the focus of an episode of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” on the Food Channel and has the signature stencil of its star, Guy Fieri, on the wall. But it’s the word of mouth that has established Walsh’s restaurant’s reputation and it is all about fresh.

“I will pay more for something I can tell is better,” said Walsh. “You can tell by touching it, feeling it, the color, the size, the shape, the smell … If you start with poor ingredients you end with a poor product.”

On the very funny television show “Portlandia,” two people intensively grill the waitress about where their chicken entrée grew up, what kind of family it came from and generally mocked the extreme to which locavores can go. But Walsh’s success with locally grown produce proves that, while you can’t get everything on the menu locally, you can get enough to encourage more people to want and eventually buy local.

The Rhode Island DEM has been encouraging people for years to support their local farmers and each year, more local farmers are approaching something resembling solvency. The DEM actively supports Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a non-profit founded in 2004 that is devoted to promoting the welfare of farmers and the people they feed. There have been many successes but even its most ardent advocates still get nervous about the future of local farms.

“Being a farmer is not cheap,” said Christina Dedora, a Smithfield resident who runs a one-acre flower farm in Cranston and a more ambitious CSA with several friends in the same area. “Very few people could afford to buy land for a farm in Rhode Island but you can be a farmer if you really work at it.”

The land Dedora and her friends work was willed to the state by a farmer named Arthur Ringrose. In his will, he donated it to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to be protected from real estate development. The DEM leases the land to the Providence-based Southside Community Land Trust, a 30-year-old group dedicated to teaching city folk how to raise their own food but has since evolved into an import part of a network of people and state agencies that offer opportunity and support for local food producers like Dedora.

“To buy the land we work would cost at least $600,000,” said Dedora, who quit her 9 to 5 job last year to farm full-time. “There are very few people who can afford that, which is why CSAs are so important.”

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. They provide consumers with a direct connection to a farm that produces their food. CSA members typically make an upfront financial contribution to the farm in return for weekly shares of the fresh vegetables the farm has to offer. They also come with the risks inherent in all farming. Drought or monsoon, natural and unnatural disasters, insect pests and just plain luck determine how a farmer will do in a given year and the CSA member shares in that. You also have to live with whatever crop succeeds on your farm. You will still have to go to a grocery store for some foods but the intangible benefit is the feeling that you have earned the food.

“Farm Fresh Rhode Island has been doing wonderful work since it started,” said Dedora. “I don’t know what I would do without them. I certainly couldn’t afford to buy land for farming but they allow people like me to do farming. I’m not getting a lot of money. I still have to work during the winter. I worked at UPS during the holidays to make some extra money.”

A USDA Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food grant to build provided Dedora with an unheated greenhouse that allowed her to grow some vegetables through the winter and, of course, the mild weather helped. But nothing can be done about the time it takes to make farming work for you. Dedora has her CSA members and sells her produce and flowers at farmers markets and local restaurants.

“We grow spinach, lettuce, Asian greens, tomatoes, kale, chard and a lot of the usual farm produce,” said Dedora, things that sell even in the deepest recession. “People have to give some things up but they always have to have food.”

As for the Edgewood Café, even someone as supportive as Walsh has to go somewhere else for produce.

“In the winter, it’s tough for us to be local, said Walsh, “but I still do my best to buy local products year-round, like Gaspar’s linguica and local sausage. If I can get it local, I’ll take it. But there are times that we really can’t afford the luxury. I can’t serve strictly grass-fed local beef. I can’t pay for it.”

While it may not be practical for you to eat completely local, shopping at farmers markets or joining a CSA is a good start. CSA membership usually lasts from June through October. This provides the farmer with a guaranteed market for crops. Members then receive a weekly or bi-weekly share of the harvest throughout the season. Some CSA farms either allow or require their members to work on the farm. You can learn more about CSAs and stores and restaurants who buy local at www.farmfresh.org.

“I really wish I could buy all local, all year-round, but it really is worth the trouble to try,” said Walsh.


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