Today, we want to talk to you about sourcing. At Mission: Heirloom, we believe that ingredient sourcing is one of the most important steps you can take to improving the health of your food. We’ve already talked at length about how we source our spices, and today we want to dive deeper into produce and protein sourcing.
At a minimum, we source 100% organic, but our goal is to include as many biodynamic products as possible. What’s the difference? Biodynamic farms take farming practices a few steps further than organic: they take into account the entire farm system, emphasizing natural growing cycles and the self-sufficiency of the farm as a whole. We recently took a tour of one of our biodynamic producers, Marian Farms, that supplies us with wonderful raisins and grapes.
We are also sticklers for sustainable and humane animal husbandry. All of meat comes from animals raised on pasture, and our chickens are fed an omnivorous diet filled with their favorite bugs, seeds, and larvae. We source our seafood through Water2Table, a wholesale supplier that focuses on local, small fisheries that catch via sustainable hook and line methods.
Above all, however, the most important thing to consider is a supplier’s transparency. We only purchase from farms, ranches, and fishermen who are willing to tell us every last detail about their operation. That way, we can feel confident that they meet our standards.
TOP 4 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR SOURCING
You don’t have to run a food business to source high-quality food. Here are a few steps you can take to improve the quality of food in your kitchen.
1. Shop at a farmer’s market. The best way to learn about your food is to meet the farmer who grew and/or raised it. Farm tours are wonderful, but it is far more practical to venture to a farmers’ market. There you can find far more interesting produce than at typical grocery stores. Plus, there are many farmers who follow organic or biodynamic practices without being certified—the only way to know that they grow sustainably is to talk to them!
Here’s what to ask your farmer:
- How do you keep your soil healthy? (They should use natural compost and shouldn’t plant the same crop in the same spot for more than one growing cycle.)
- Do you rotate your crops? (The answer should be YES!)
- Do you spray? If so, with what? (If they do spray, make sure that it is 100% organic and isn’t sprayed on the fully grown fruit or vegetable. The preference is for plants that haven’t been sprayed at all.)
- What steps do you take for weed and pest management? (They should be taking suppression measures instead of eradication measures.)
- Do you keep animals on your farm? How are they raised? (Listen for the words pasture, grass-fed, humane, and warm, dry shelter.)
2. Join a meat CSA. Meat CSAs are a great way to save money on high-quality pastured meat. If you have the freezer space, buying a share of an animal cuts down on waste and will introduce you to many new cuts of meat. Marin Sun Farms, Pastoral Plate, and The Bay Area Meat CSA are all great resources in Northern California. If you live outside the Bay Area, Local Harvest is a great resource for finding a good meat CSA.
3. Take a foraging class. Get connected with the native foods in your area by going on a foraging trip or by taking a class. It is the best way to learn how to safely hunt for wild food. ForageSF, Sea Forager, and Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook offer foraging classes in the Bay Area.
4. Plant a garden Like foraging, growing your own food keeps you intimately in touch with your food. Gardening guarantees complete control over growing practices and allows you to experiment and play outdoors.
NERD OUT ON SOURCING
What is organic?
At its best, organic farming blends traditional agricultural methods with modern technology and current ideas in the science of ecology, and places an emphasis on sustainability, openness, independence, health and safetys. Organic farms rely on a number of farming principles to improve soil fertility and crop vitality:
- Soil management: Farms rely heavily on the natural breakdown of organic matter to fertilize and replenish the soil. Compost made from livestock manure and organic matter is put into heavy use. Often, farmers will plant legumes, which fix nitrogen from the air back into the soil. Reducing the practice of tilling also helps to maintain soil health.
- Cover cropping: Farmers do not plant the same annual crop in the same place for more than one growing cycle. Instead, they plant weed-suppressive cover crops (like legumes) or other crops with dissimilar life cycles to confuse pests and discourage weed growth.
- Crop diversity: Farmers plant a variety of crops in order to support a wider range of beneficial insects, soil microorganisms, and overall farm health
- Weed management: Farms promote weed suppression rather than weed elimination through cover cropping and crop diversity. They may also utilize tricks like high-density planting or tight row spacing to minimize the space in which weeds can grow.
- Pest management: Instead of overusing insecticides, farms make use of natural pest suppression by encouraging beneficial insect predators and microorganisms. Reducing tilling and maintaining a high level of sanitation also helps to suppress pets. Sometimes farms make use of insect traps and physical barriers to discourage pests. Organic farms are allowed to use natural pesticides and herbicides, but this use is not ideal.
- Livestock: Animal husbandry is encouraged, as animals can be complements to fruit, vegetable, and grain farming. (For example, they provide a great source of natural compost.) Organic farms must attempt to provide animals with natural living conditions, but these standards are not required unless the farm intends to process the animals for meat, milk, and/or eggs.
In addition to following these principles, organic farms are not allowed to use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, plant growth hormones, antibiotics in livestock, GMOs, or sewage sludge. They can, however, employ natural fertilizers and pesticides when needed.
We found an amazing video that lays out the basics of organics. It’s great for kids and for anyone who wants to brush up on the good, simple facts:
Organic farming was officially codified in the late 1930s and early 1940 by farmers in Britain, India, and the United States and was a response to the rise in artificial pesticide in the newly industrialized world. Albert Howard is considered to be the father of modern organic agriculture, as he was the first to apply scientific principles to traditional farming practices, but other botanists and farmers like Gabrielle Howard, J.I. Rodale, and Eve Balfour all played key roles in the codification of organic standards.
Organic farming has grown rapidly since the United States officially began regulating such farms in 1990. Since then, organic farms have been certified at a growth rate close to 10% per year. As of 2011, approximately 91,000,000 acres of land worldwide are officially farmed organically. There are likely even more farms practicing organic methods that have yet to be certified.
In the United States, organic farming is regulated by the USDA as well as smaller bodies in specific states. Here in California, farms who wish to call themselves organic must be certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). The CCOF was founded in 1973 by over fifty grower members for the purpose of defining standards for organic farming. It took another 17 years for the USDA to establish its own certifying body, called the National Organic Program (NOP). The certification process today is long and expensive, and there are many small farmers who opt out of full certification. The only way to know if an uncertified farm follows organic principles is to meet the farmers and learn their process.
There are many different styles of organic farming. The following are just a few examples:
- Biodynamic: Biodynamic farms go above and beyond organic standards, and they have their own governing body. Read more below.
- French Intensive and/or Biointensive: This method focuses on achieving maximum yields from a small area of land, while also improving soil fertility. The goal is long-term sustainability in a fully closed system. Biointensive is an ideal method for backyard and small-scale commercial farms.
- Permaculture: This method encompasses ecological design and architecture as well as farming. It emphasizes regenerative and self-maintained agricultural systems modeled on natural ecosystems. Permaculture methods aim to work with rather than against nature, relying on thoughtful observation of plants and animals in all of their functions.
- No-Till: This system of growing crops and/or pasture never disturbs the soil through tillage. It increases the amount of water that can infiltrate soil, organic matter retention, and cycling of nutrients in the soil.
What is biodynamic?
Biodynamic is considered by many to be a step-up from organic farming. These farms follow all of the above principles and more, viewing the farm as a single, interconnected organism. The goal for each biodynamic farm is to be entirely self-sufficient, producing everything needed for effective and sustainable farming from within the farm. Biodynamic farms place emphasis on the cycles of the sun and moon, and rely upon tangible and intangible forces of nature to dictate farming cycles and rhythms. As a biodynamic trade association explains, “The root of the Biodynamic system is the relationship of the farmer and his or her practices to the local ecosystem, which in Biodynamics reaches the extent of including the influence of the cosmos and subtle life forces on local habitats.”
The biodynamic farming system was founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1924. As the story goes, he was teaching a course of agriculture when he was approached by farmers who had noticed a rapid decline in seed fertility, crop vitality, and animal health after adopting modern agricultural methods. Steiner responded by questioning the long-term benefits of the industrial view of farms as factories, presenting instead a vision for farms as self-contained and self-sustaining organisms. A few years later, in 1928, a biodynamic governing body was formed in Europe. Called Demeter, this organization codified Steiner’s principles into a series of standards that could be used to certify farms. Today, Demeter has branches across the globe, and is one of only a few biodynamic governing bodies.
In order for a farm to become certified biodynamic, it must first meet organic standards. The most successful biodynamic farms are highly diverse and organized so that the waste of one part of the farm can be used to fertilize and promote other parts of the farm. (For example, raising pastured chickens can help to revitalize the soil because their constant digging and pecking incorporates their waste back into the soil.) This constant recycling of resources gives back to the earth instead of taking from it. In addition, the following standards are required:
- Crop rotation: No annual crop can be planted in the same field more than two years in a row.
- No bare tillage allowed; land must retain a green cover.
- Biological diversity: At least 10 percent of the total acreage of the farm must be set aside for a “biodiversity preserve.” This preserve can be things like natural forests or wetlands, or it can be an area like an intentionally planted insectary.
- Pest, disease, and weed control: Any strategies should originate from the farm itself, and should be addressed through species diversity and crop nutrition, deemphasizing predator habitats, and paying close attention to light penetration and airflow. Weed control should be based on prevention, identification, and avoiding the spread of invasive species
- Livestock: Farms should integrate livestock when possible. Any animals on the farm must be raised in the most humane manner possible. Their housing must allow the animals to move freely and protect them from the elements. They must have clean, dry, and insulated areas to sleep and access to the outdoors and free range. Farms may not dehorn, debeak, clip wings, cut tails, or dock lambs; they are also not allowed to use antibiotics. Homeopathic remedies are encouraged. When animals are raised for meat, eggs, or milk, a minimum of one half of their feed must come from the farm. Of the outside feed, at least 80% of it must come from a Demeter-certified program.
- Preparations: Farms are required to use nine different substances called preparations as homeopathic care for the soil and compost. According to Demeter, these preparations “revitalize the soil and stimulate root growth, enhance the development of microorganisms and humus formation, and aid in photosynthetic activity.” Farms can make them on site or can buy them through other farmers or farming institutes. The preparations are made from manure, minerals, and/or herbs in combination with animal organs and bones.
Why hunt for wild edibles?
In addition to organic and biodynamic food, we like to source as many wild and foraged edibles as we can. Eating wild foods is a great way to remain engaged with the local foodways and the nature that surrounds us. They are the original organic produce, and when picked conscientiously, wild foods are great for the environment. Wild foods also often contain higher levels of nutrients than cultivated plants, as they are built to survive without any outside help.
Besides these properties, many wild foods also have healing, medicinal properties. For example, elderberry can be used to treat colds, willow bark can be used to treat joint inflammation, and yarrow can be used to treat stomach ailments. Alicia Funk, of The Living Wild Project, is a great resource for medicinal edibles.
Before foraging for edibles on your own, it is crucial that you learn what is and isn’t edible in your region. Taking a class or going on a foraging field trip is a great way to learn. In the Bay Area, ForageSF, Sea Forager, and Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook offer foraging classes.
Why buy pastured meat?
All of the meat we serve at Mission: Heirloom has been raised on pasture, and our beef is all 100% grass-fed. Any animals that are primarily fed pasture grasses can be labeled “pastured,” even if they are fed supplemental food like grain and silage during the winter or before slaughter. Only animals that are fed 100% pasture for their entire lives can be labeled “grass-fed.”
We’ve made a commitment to pastured meat for several reasons. First, pastured animals grow at a natural pace, are healthier, and lead low-stress lives. They are raised as nature intended, instead of being raised as a production company has deemed efficient. Second, pastured animals are better for the environment. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are often full of manure and waste, which pile up and emit high levels of methane into the atmosphere. Pastured animal ranches rotate the animals across large parcels of grassland, which prevents overgrazing and makes it possible for manure to be reincorporated into the soil as compost. Third, pastured meat is much healthier than meat that comes from grain-fed, confined animals. Grass-fed beef, bison, lamb, and goats all have less total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than grain-fed. At the same time, this meat has more protein, omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), amino acids, vitamins (A, B6, B12, E and D), minerals (riboflavin, phosphorus, niacin, zinc, and heme iron). Why? These animals are what they eat! Well-raised grasses are all high in these nutrients, and they get distributed throughout the muscle and fat of the animals that eat them. In fact, the health of the grass is so important that many ranchers call themselves “grass-farmers.”
Because of the drought in California, local 100% grass-fed meat is becoming harder to find. Pastured meat can be a good choice if you cannot find grass-fed, but make sure that the farmer raising the animals is doing so in a humane and reputable manner. Be sure to ask what the farmer is feeding his or her animals. You’ll want to avoid GMO soy- and corn-based feeds.
Chicken are a special case. Many shoppers believe that the best chickens are vegetarian fed. However, you only need to witness poultry in the wild to know how wrong this idea is. Chicken (and turkeys, ducks and other poultry) are omnivores, just like us. When they are raised properly on pasture, chickens get a chance to forage for bugs, insects, and larvae in addition to seeds, grass, and other plants.
Seafood is also an important protein in our kitchen, but it can be very tricky to source. In order for seafood to be considered sustainable, it needs to have been caught in ways that consider the long-term vitality of the species as well as the health and sustainability of its ocean habitat. Most marine ecosystems are under a great deal of pressure today, and this pressure is caused by both overfishing and climate change. Responsible fisheries can help restore these ecosystems simply by paying attention.
We purchase our seafood from Water2Table, a distributor that focuses on local hook and line fish and delivers to many reputable restaurants in the Bay Area. But even if you don’t have access to a great wholesaler like we do, there are services that will help you make a good choice. Ecolabeling programs evaluate fishing processes with set environmental standards, paying close attention to the fish’s abundance, how it responds to fishing pressure, how the fishery’s gear impacts the ecosystem, if there are any bycatch, and the fishery’s management. The Marine Stewardship Council issues the most common ecolabels, which are colored like stoplights. Red-labeled fish are considered a poor choice, yellow a good alternative, and green the best choice. Grocery stores like Whole Foods display these labels for many of their seafood products. Other organizations like the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch focus on education and awareness, and they are a great resource for research.