From Farm To Table

Some Consumers Work Hard To Buy From Farmers, Not Markets

August 03, 2009|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

Twice a year, Liz Reitzig drives 2 1/2 hours to a Pennsylvania farm, then heads back home to Bowie with half a cow in the minivan. Closer to home, she regularly meets a farmer in a parking lot to buy whole chickens. Fish comes straight from a Baltimore County guy who casts nets in Alaska and brings the catch back frozen. She picks up eggs at somebody's driveway and produce at the farmers' market.

She hasn't been to a conventional supermarket for years.

"I would say about 80 to 90 percent of our food is coming direct from farmers," said Reitzig, 29, a stay-at-home mother of four. "Pretty much anything we can think of."

Reitzig is among a small but growing number of consumers who prize straight-from-the-small-farm food - and go to great lengths to get it. For them, the farmers' market is but one stop in a complicated, ever-evolving food-distribution system they've sometimes rigged up themselves. Concerned about food safety, worried about the environmental impact of factory farming or simply swept up in locavore chic, they are seeking local and non-industrial foods that they cannot find in supermarkets or afford at specialty retailers like Whole Foods.

Some take turns with neighbors picking up meats at farms hundreds of miles away. Others, finding one another on Web sites like eatwild.com, have banded together in co-ops and "buying clubs" so big that farmers are willing to deliver to them. Martha Holdridge, owner of West Wind Farm in Grassy Meadows, W.Va., drops off her grass-fed beef to customers in the parking lot of an Owings Mills natural foods store, outside an Annapolis wellness center and on the edge of a Columbia cul-de-sac.

Liz Smith of Hamilton has plans to buy a whole steer from an area farmer and split the meat with four friends. Her name for it: "cowpooling."

"You have this strange patchwork of relationships that are happening," said Leo Horrigan, program officer for the Farming for the Future program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. "It's sort of cloak and dagger. I have a friend who said he was meeting a farmer halfway in a parking lot and it sounded like a drug deal. 'OK, here's the money. Here's the meat.' "

With local food all the rage but local food-distribution systems lacking, even people who procure food for a living find themselves using some of these offbeat channels.

John Shields, chef-owner of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, can get his hands on "gorgeous" lettuce grown hydroponically in Waynesboro, Pa., only because David Smith, a northern Baltimore County farmer who takes his own natural beef and free-range eggs to the restaurant, delivers the lettuce for a small cut.

"You have to start to develop your own unique distribution system and delivery system," said Shields. Back when he was a chef in Berkeley, Calif., Shields used to drive 60 miles round trip to get quail from a Petaluma farmer. For Gertrude's, he buys directly from 30 to 40 farmers, keeping track of the orders himself.

"You have to be much more adventurous and committed to do these local products," he said. "You gotta want it."

Buying local food never used to be such a challenge. Shields, who grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s and '60s, recalls a bounty of Eastern Shore produce at the city's municipal markets and on barges in the harbor.

"There was a local food economy and there was a local food-distribution system," he said. All that was dismantled with the advent of Big Agriculture, he said. "It dried up."

In an era when restaurant menus brag about the provenance of nearly every ingredient, Shields has good reason to seek out local food. Private consumers have their own motives.

They mostly want local foods they can't find in traditional supermarkets or can't afford at specialty retailers, but not always. That Alaskan fish appeals to Reitzig and others because fisherman Gaylord Clark - who also sells free-range eggs he raises at Carriage House Farms in Stevenson - catches it in an environmentally sustainable way. A Catonsville co-op orders foreign produce through a Jessup wholesaler, but the members, concerned about pesticides, want it because it's organic.

Even the local farmers who benefit from these intrepid good-food seekers think they're going to an awful lot of trouble.

"We're talking about a customer who's willing to travel, who's willing to try and find a farm, and willing to check out the product, and then they have to be willing to send in a deposit to hold the product," said Nick Maravell of Nick's Organic Farm, which raises grass-fed beef and free-range chickens and turkeys in Potomac and Adamstown.

And it's not cheap. Nick's customers pay about $300 for one-eighth of a cow, his smallest bulk quantity, which amounts to about 40 pounds of steaks, roasts and ground beef. That works out to about $7.50 a pound - substantially pricier than conventional supermarket beef, but cheaper than what customers might pay at specialty stores.

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