Saving the bay by choosing food wisely

ON THE BAY

Diet: Supporting high-quality local farming can reduce pollutants in the Chesapeake.

April 29, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

OF ALL THE ways we relate to the Chesapeake Bay, most visceral and pleasurable may be the taste of the place.

I once frequented a waterfront farm off the Choptank River where the owners harvested sweet corn and tart tomatoes, succulent wild ducks and geese, plump oysters and tender soft crabs, as well as firm-fleshed rockfish; also deer, raccoon, muskrat, quail and rabbit.

Theirs seemed the very essence of the bay experience. I'm told the place is now a development.

The way we feed ourselves, usually called "agriculture," or "agribusiness," has profound implications for the bay's environment, its landscapes, local economy and sense of community.

Currently, the consequences of mainstream agriculture - our food choices more than anything farmers choose - are neither desirable nor sustainable.

Nationally, agriculture causes about 60 percent of the nation's water quality problems. Bay-wide, some 87,000 farms are the source of 40 percent to 60 percent of the Chesapeake's main pollutants.

Food routinely travels 1,500 miles or more to reach our plates, part of why agriculture consumes a fifth of the nation's energy and a typical American's diet contributes about as much carbon dioxide to global warming as a typical automobile.

And rampant development of the bay's watershed is linked in part to the inability of farmers to see a profitable future in working the land.

The good news is that increasingly, we can choose better; we can put our money where our mouth is by supporting a high-quality, less-polluting local agriculture.

A good place to start is subscribing to Edible Chesapeake, a fine new magazine just out (it's at Whole Foods and Graul's, or write P.O. Box 16344, Baltimore, 21210 - $28 for four quarterly issues).

Edible Chesapeake, published by Ben Larson and Courtney Malvik, doesn't hew to any vegetarian or organic agendas, though it explores both intelligently.

Its mission is to promote local, seasonal fresh meat, fish, dairy and produce, which generally (not always) benefits the bay region's air, water and landscapes, and boosts its farmers, watermen and food artisans.

Shad and strawberries, spring delicacies that can't be duplicated out of season, are featured in the first issue.

There's a piece on Maryland watermen's attempt to "eco-label" rockfish as a premium, sustainably managed wild catch; also a thoughtful piece on a dairy farmer who relies entirely on grass for feed, in contrast to the trends toward barn confinement and importing grain for milk herds.

"Biodynamically" grown wines from Garrett County, and unique white sweet potatoes from Virginia's Eastern Shore round out the issue.

Larson knows whereof he writes. A native of North Dakota's Red River Valley, he grew organic vegetables commercially for years there and in Minnesota before he was attracted to Charm City by a girlfriend.

As one who grew up in the Eastern Shore's poultry mega-industry, I was pleased with his piece on small-scale, free-range alternatives for chickens and other meat.

I was struck by one grower who eschewed the organic label on his chickens, because he felt it was environmentally more beneficial to use local feed rather than ship the nearest organic feed halfway across the country.

"Organic farming's going to be one of our most interesting challenges," Larson said. "Some fear that organic could become just `big ag' as usual, without the chemicals."

Horizon Dairy, a national organic milk producer with a big dairy in Maryland, is lobbying to change federal law that requires access to pasture for "organic milk" cows.

The magazine's focus on the environment won't necessarily be explicit, Larson said. "Ultimately, if we can help people think through their food choices in connection with their region, from that will come all sorts of environmental, economic and social benefits."

Edible Chesapeake is the third "edible," following two loosely affiliated publications, Edible Ojai (California) and Edible Cape Cod. All are locally owned and independent as to content. May it flourish here.

A correction

In last week's column on sprawl, I incorrectly characterized a state planning official as "apologizing" for a dip in Maryland's population growth. His point was that even though other regions are growing faster, our state's economy is performing well.

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