Monday, February 25, 2013

New Agtivists Exploring the World of 21st Century Farming

 Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Farmers Market Panel Series about the new farmers at the Santa Monica Market.  Enjoy!!!


New Agtivists


New Agtivists Exploring the World of 21st Century Farming with the Santa Monica Farmers Market Quarterly Library Panels Series

By Kat Thomas

21st century farmers are both farmers of evolution. They broach the world of what we put in our mouths with the double-edged sword of technology and craft.   They’re farmers of the duality of change and tradition.

This agriculture dichotomy was celebrated last Thursday night at the Santa Monica Library’s quarterly Farmer’s Market Panel Series.  This event, entitled New Agtivists, focused on young visionaries in agriculture and artisanal food production as they discussed their business philosophy, approach to sustainability and hopes for the future of local food.  The event was moderated by Rose Lawrence of Red Bread, a company that sells baked goods at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market and delivers groceries on electric bikes.  The New Agtivists panel included a variety of Santa Monica Farmers Market food vendors: Urban Mushroom Farmer Matt Parker of Shiitake Happens, Spinach and Green Farmer Nate Peitso of Maggie’s Farm, Almond Farmer Nate Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms and Paul Osher of Sandwich and Catering company Bean and Thyme.

The panel opened up with a question of what is craft and sustainability to each of the panelists, a buzzword that it tossed around so much these days.  “It’s fairly simple,” noted Matt Parker of Shiitake Happens, “I wouldn’t put out a product that I wouldn’t want to take home to my family.”  This opinion was seconded by other panelists.  “I have my own land, it’s a legacy,” stated Nate Peitso whose Agora Hills located Maggie’s Farm was started by his mom and dad, “and I want to be in the best possible shape for my children.  Nothing I use is something that I don’t want to put in my own mouth.  To insure this half our crop is certified organic.  The other half is “conventionally grown,” but we only use organic materials.  It’s only due to costs and paperwork it isn’t officially certified organic.” 

“Sustainability is about creating as low a footprint as possible,” noted Paul Osher who founded Bean and Thyme in 2010 after leaving graduate school at UCLA, where he had been studying political philosophy, “because to be human is to consume.  Bean and Thyme can be found at the Sunday Santa Monica Farmers Market serving everything from Chorizo and Egg sandwich to Spicy Pastrami sandwich.  Their detailed website notes which farmer every ingredient of their dishes comes from. “It’s about being responsible, about being as smart as possible. We are very conscious to use mostly ingredients from the farmers market.  Everything comes from good sources: our pork from Jimenz farms, our beef from Central California, etc.”

For Nate Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms Sustainability is about the duality of where he came from and where he is now.  “The Central Valley, where I grew up, just surpassed the Appalachians in having the lowest Socioeconomic levels in the country; along with the highest rate of Diabetes in the United States,” he noted.  “I see high school friend in wheelchairs, something that is directly due to their eating habits.  It definitely brings up questions of how do I operate in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica where people’s lives are 100% different from my hometown?”

It’s this need for change that motivated most of the panel to do something about our food system.  As Rose Lawrence of Red Bread noted one of the most influential piece’s of advice that she and her husband David received when they decided to form their company in January of 2012 was, “someone told me: ‘the only thing you need is the guts to do it.’” She continued that this same friend also noted that as a farmer, ‘at least you’ll never go hungry in this business.’”

There was a lot of advice on the economic end when it came to entering the world of 21st century farming. “You’re going to need four to five more times the dough than you think it will take you,” noted Peitso of Maggie’s Farm.  “It’s awesome, but expensive.”  This was seconded by Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms, “Cultivate rich friends!”

Osher of Bean and Thyme noted how a big question of what is right and what is economical are always bouncing up against each other in the world of 21st century farming.  I spent a few days in Baltimore with friend who urban farms.  He constantly referred to himself and his urban farming friends as ‘really scrappy.’”  Osher noted how all of them started by looking at an empty lot and saying ‘let’s start a garden.’  “But,” he continued, “the interesting thing is that none of them are economically sustainable. They couldn’t pay their own bills.  They all get by on grants.” 

The specificity of details when it comes to farming was also noted again and again.  “So much of my life is logistics, of figuring out how to do things,” noted Osher.  “It’s harder to make 100 sandwiches than just one.  A significant amount of my life is shelping things around from here to there.  Luckily I have a great wife who understands the craziness…” 

Parker of Shiitake Happens noted his perfect formula to modern farming was “to keep your overhead low and keep having a passion for what you do.  Continue to cultivate your skills,” he stated, “and learn to be more efficient.  Always keep learning and never give up.” 

The technology of the 21st century has allowed farmers to have a relationship with their customers like never before.  “Technology has really making marketing super easy,” noted Parker of Shiitake Happens.  “It’s super helpful and relatively inexpensive.”  Noted Peitso of Maggie’s Farm, “Alex Weiser of Weiser Farms will tweet, ‘we have a new purple potato,’ and it’s gone halfway through the market.” 

For most all of the panelists their profession is more of a calling than a just a job.  When asked if there was any other profession they could see themselves in Peitso noted, “I never gave it much thought, I was born into this life.”  And then with a sly grin he continued, “I always thought I would cool to be James Bond!”  Parker noted how if he weren’t growing mushrooms he’d be in the circus, “with three rings, top hats and whips…” 

All the farmers and chefs on the panel noted that 21st century farming necessitated the need to take responsibility from both the side of the farmer and the customer.  Peitso from Maggie’s Farm noted the Big Picture on the future of food in the country, “The price of food really needs to be looked at.”  Pointing to Parker of Shiitake Happens sitting next to him he noted that, “mushrooms are really a better way to get our protein; it takes acres and acres of land to make a pound of meat.” 

Peitso also noted that responsibility needed to be taken by the consumers at market, “know your seasons!  If there’s a certain abundance of a certain product at a certain time of year that doesn’t normally grow in that season then you should think about that.  Chances are it’s not being grown locally.  Corn in November doesn’t happen in California!”  Parker of Shiitake Happens noted how labels don’t always tell the full story, “for me my biggest competition is China.  I can do a block of mushrooms for $5.50, while they can do it for 50 cents.  They put it in a container, ship it over, and open it up to grow it when it get’s to LA.  That way it has the “grown in California label.”  But Peitso noted that knowing the facts had positive aspects also, “for anyone on food stamps, Maggie’s offers $2 for every $1 spent at our farmers market booth.”

 “California food is evolving into something bigger and better,” noted Peitso of Maggie’s Farm, “in the future, I believe people will come to California to eat like they did to Italy.  We’re developing a local food culture with our own identity to craft.”

The night concluded with a tasty after panel food offerings made through each panelist’s craft (such as Red Bread’s Sweetheart Bread topped with their Cardamom Quince Jam and Fat Uncle Farm’s Roasted Almond Butter).  “There’s a real pleasure in food,” concluded Osher of Bean and Thyme.  It’s why we’re all up here.  It’s one of the central pleasures of life.”

“California food is evolving into something bigger and better,” noted Peitso of Maggie’s Farm, “in the future, I believe people will come to California to eat like they did to Italy.  We’re developing a local food culture with our own identity to craft.”

Kat Thomas is a food writer in Santa Monica who would be an international art thief if she weren’t a food writer.  You can check out more of her writings on her food blog

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