In Part I of this series, I noted that our local farmers, farmers markets, and restaurants in Orange County constitute a vibrant local food web that provides us with a number of important benefits including nutritious foods and a reduced environmental footprint. Nevertheless, we should always be looking for further improvements. My recommendations for an improved local food web draw heavily from the book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. Last week, I recommend that we develop the necessary network to allow for making bread from freshly-ground local wheat and that we ferment for vegetables from our local farms for both the nutritional benefits and the energy efficiency that fermentation enjoys over refrigeration/freezing for long-term storage. I have two more recommendations this week and will conclude with my thoughts on how I would like to contribute to making these recommendations become reality.
We have an increasing number of local craft brewers, which is a positive development, but nearly all of their ingredients need to be shipped here from far away. Beer is made from barely, hops, water, and yeast. Most of the barely and hops used for beer production in the United States are grown in the northwest. The species of hops grown there are not well suited to our climate and soil and when grown in North Carolina tend to suffer from downy mildew that kills the vine just before the hop flowers mature. I have first hand experience on this front. I have been trying to grow hops at my farm for the last 6 years and downy mildew gets them every time.
There are several initiatives to try to breed a cultivar of hops that can prosper here in the Tar Heel State, mostly likely in the mountains where temperatures are cooler. Selective breeding approaches such as this can take many years to succeed. So it will be a while yet until we know if this will work on a large scale. Let’s hope so, because hop farming is quite profitable on per acre basis. Although hop farming in not likely to come to Orange County, it would be nice for our local brewers to be able to get their hops from North Carolina and for farmers in the mountains to earn additional money.
We can grow barley in Orange County. Doing so for our local breweries could provide another market for our local farmers to access. Plus, the use of local ingredients can provide unique regional styles of beer, a possible marketing advantage.
Raw Milk and Cheese
The scientific and political issues surrounding the consumption of raw (unpasteurized) milk and cheese made from raw milk could have easily formed the basis for a stand-alone column if not a series of columns. I’ll provide just the outlines of the debate here along with the suggestion that we should give due consideration to the potential benefits of introducing raw milk and cheese into our local food web.
Until the mid to late 1800s, all milk and cheese were raw. Raw milk itself is not harmful. The health risks associated with raw milk stem from the fact that it is a great environment for bacteria. Therefore, if a dairy worker happened to have tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid or the like, he or she could contaminate a large batch of milk and thereby infect a large number of consumers. This phenomenon occurred often in the crowded and unhygienic cities of the mid 1800s. The invention of pasteurization, heat treatment to kill bacteria, eliminated this problem. To this day in the United States, raw milk and products made from it are essentially banned.
The downside of pasteurization is that it kills beneficial bacteria along with potentially pathogenic ones. As with my discussion of fermented vegetables last week, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that the removal of live-culture foods – those having living, beneficial bacteria within – from our diets has contributed to rise in allergies and asthma in the United States and, possible, other ill health effects as well. The reintroduction of raw milk and cheese into our food supply may help to mitigate these problems.
The political issues surrounding raw milk are quite similar to those in most of the small farmer versus large agricultural company disputes. Pasteurization equipment is expensive to purchase, to operate, and to license. Therefore, it is usually not economic for a small dairy farmer to pasteurize his/her own milk. Thus farmers must sell their raw milk to large companies who carry out the pasteurization step. The insertion of the pasteurizing middleman reduces the profit that a small farmer could achieve by selling directly to consumers. Many individual farmers and small farm advocacy groups are lobbying to be allow sales of raw milk. Advocates in the United States often point to Europe where raw milk and cheese are readily available with no apparent ill effects.
For Orange County to add raw milk and cheese products to our food web, we would need the state government in Raleigh to change the laws. Debating this issue would help to shine a light on what it means to “support” farmers. Allowing raw milk and cheese sales help small farmers to increase profits while maintaining the restrictions would support larger agricultural companies who tend to make larger political donations.
My Little Dream
Like most of you I suppose, I wish I were independently wealthy. It’s not that I have a particular affinity for fancy cars or expensive things. If I had the money, what I would really like to do is to implement some of the ideas I write about here in Common Science®. In its most developed form, my favorite daydream has me running the Common Science Foundation testing my ideas in on the small scale, implementing the successful ones both locally and far afield, and providing advice and analysis to governments on scientifice-based policy for the 21st Century. But I digress.
With regard to this two-part series, here is my implementation plan. I want to open both a production facility and a restaurant. In the production facility, I would grind wheat, ferment vegetables, and make cheese from raw milk. The restaurant location, in addition to the kitchen, would house the bakery and brewery. I’d also include a small store so that produces such as cheese, bread, and pickles could be purchased to take home.
My idea for the menu would likely be my downfall. Each day I would prepare only one stew/braise/soup. These dishes allow for the inclusion of many ingredients and the cooking process transforms them in a manner such that the body to absorb a greater percentage of the nutrients contained within. The main dish would come with a side of bread, a hunk of cheese, and a portion of fermented vegetables. The only choice you have to make is your beverage, for which I would offer beer, OWASA water, coffee, tea, or local cider. (Full Discloser, I currently serve on the OWASA Board of Directors.)
The lack of variety in the menu would be a turn off for many people but, as I can attest, be a relief for some. My approach on the menu supplies hearty and nutritious meals and helps to minimize the cost of running the restaurant. In my mental picture of the dining room, there is a little stage over in the corner for acoustic music.
So where can I locate my facilities? I drive out route 54 west of Carrboro a couple of times a week. This area has some commercial activity and seems well placed for a facility to accept farm products for further processing. If you are familiar with the area, you may have noticed that on the south side of the road about a mile west of town is a white building that looks like it may have been a gas station or repair shop in the past. It’s been for sale for at least the last 5 years. Five years ago it was in a reasonable state of repair. Now it is falling apart and covered in graffiti. Since I am always thinking of business ventures, I checked the list price of this property a couple of years ago. It’s $500,000! Certainly the owner has the right to sell it for what he/she thinks it is worth, but the pricing does help to explain the lack of new businesses in this part of the county.
Much as I love Chapel Hill, I feel like my business model is a bit more Carrboroesque. Therefore, I would look for space to lease there. I haven’t checked the lease rates but suspect they are steep, at least from my perspective. I think the venture would work well at the location similar to Looking Glass Café, a bit on the edge of the business district but walkable from the center of town. A joint venture with a coffee shop would partner well with the bakery aspect.
Leaving aside the particulars of my own vision for this project, investments of the type I have recommended over the last two weeks could bring interesting foods, economic growth, and new jobs to our local area. Unfortunately, at least for now, the investments will need to be made by someone other than me.
Jeff Danner spoke about this column with Aaron Keck on WCHL Thursday.
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