Ann Arbor area residents will celebrate the local food movement tomorrow evening at the Seventh Annual Homegrown Festival. A lot goes into taking produce from area farms to a finished dish to eat.
The story of local food has to start on the farm, or in this case a pair of farms just north of Ann Arbor. A couple of long hoop houses, a variety of farm machinery, plenty of different plants and some farm animals fill the 64 acres of Green Things Farm. While the sun's up, owner Jill Lada says you're also likely to find several people hard at work. "Several pots of coffee, a big farm breakfast and then we usually are harvesting for markets, csa, or wholesale. And that usually takes up until lunch at least. And then in the afternoon we're weeding, or seeding, or working on infrastructure projects," Lada says.
Just a short drive onto Warren Road brings you to Seeley Farm, with about 12 acres of tillable land tucked behind an old farmhouse and a variety of trees. You'll find some farm machinery here as well, but owner Mark Nowak says a lot of manual labor is required if you want to grow a wide variety of crops. "If you're growing corn, or one or two crops, you could invest in all that machinery, but it's just not feasible when you're growing everything," Nowak says.
Back at Green Things Farms workers are hosing off carrots. Lada says more work is needed to get the fresh food ready for market early the next morning. "It takes, you know six people, five or six hours to put an order or market together usually," she says.
Some of the fresh produce from the two farms end up in a small apartment on Ann Arbor's old west side. Here Abby Olitzsky and Steven Hall are making frittatas for breakfast, and plan to blanche some unique heirloom Roma tomatoes to be used in sauces in the coming months. While these items will just be for personal use, the pair behind Central Provisions also host a variety of pop-up and farm dinners. They hope to one day open a restaurant.
For now, in their cramped kitchen, Hall explains the need to plan ahead if you want to rely primarily on local food. "The first summer when we got back from California and we were here and hadn't done any preserving, and then you realize that it's been two months since you've eaten fruit, and it's the worst. It's a terrible realization, and you're just missing those tomatoes," Hall says.
Counting on seasonally available local food poses the challenge of bad weather wiping out crops. Hall says for a full scale restaurant there can also be difficulties if expected items aren't at the farmer's market or ready that day. "We're so small that we can always make little adjustments, you know when we were doing the pop-up it's not, you know there's other restaurants that we see there, we see the folks from Grange and Eat who are there all the time. They do a lot of stuff with local produce, but they're serving three times the food so if they run out of an ingredient, yeah they're screwed," he says.
Annette "Bad Fairy" Weathers and the self-proclaimed Wonder Woman run Ypsilanti's Bona Sera Cafe. When I visited they had scones in the oven and were getting the kitchen ready for lunch. Wonder Woman says working with whatever ingredients are available isn't the challenge with using local food sources. "That's the fun part, that's where we get to be creative and do whatever we want to do with the food. I think the challenge is often the cost, because you know, we could if we chose, but we do not use large companies like Sysco," she says.
For Central Provisions Abby Olitzsky using local ingredients makes the most important difference in food. "As a cook you always think taste is the first thing I think about. It just tastes so much better to have something that's been vine ripened or that's been cared for in such a way. It just tastes better," Olitzsky says.
The frittata and peach jam I had from Central Provisions and the blueberry scone from Bona Sera Cafe all included local ingredients and tasted great. Local foods from these and other farms and restaurants will be available from six to 10 pm Saturday at the Homegrown Festival at Ann Arbor's Farmers Market.