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19 June, 2017

LITTLE FARM ON THE BIG PLAINS

Posted in : Culinary School on by : Grace Rice

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I’m a romantic when it comes to local farmers. Rugged, hearty Midwesterners in weathered jeans, a shovel of labor in one hand and seeds of fortune in another. I envision pristine rows of organic, ripe corn stretching across the horizon as dairy cows and hogs happily graze near a red barn. And completing the vista, of course, are the yellow tractors and wagonloads of Russet potatoes. But if there’s one thing that Abra Berens has taught me, it is that farming is exactly not that.

Abra currently manages the savory menu at Floriole, a French-inspired café and bakery near De Paul University. Her culinary repertoire also includes Petersham Nurseries in England, Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, and Vie Restaurant in Chicago. But the Abra I’m eating dinner with is part-owner of Bare Knuckle Farm in Northport, Michigan, where she has spent many summers working the land with fellow co-owner, Jess Piskor.

She invites me over to her home, a small cozy apartment near Cermak. We briefly chat while she pan-fries some mushrooms, and feeling rather spoiled, I offer my rudimentary culinary skills. I chop parsley and brussel sprouts, which she tosses with carrots, sour cream, the mushrooms, and tuna for a superbly savory salad. We also share a lightly dressed kale salad adorned with grapefruit, clementines, and avocado. And of course, baked potatoes from her farm—plain and simple, no butter.

For Abra, small-scale farming is more than just growing crops on some plots of dirt: it is being a steward of the land, respecting Mother Nature, and taking care of the food and the people that are consuming it. “We don’t spray non-organic pesticides, and so when we have potato beetle problems, which every potato farmer has, we go through and handpick potato beetles off from the plants.” It doesn’t take long for me to realize the profound passion and dedication Abra has for sustainable, local agriculture. Her favorite food is simply “the stuff that we grow,” and she firmly believes that respecting food involves consuming as much of the plant or animal as possible. For her, this includes turning offal into pâtés and utilizing both the leaves and roots of vegetables. This also means buying local or organic whenever possible and supporting true farm-to-table restaurants.

I ask for Abra’s opinion on these buzzwords: organic, new American, sustainable, organic, farm to table, local. It turns out we’re both somewhat skeptical. “A lot of these terms try to make it easier for people [to make food choices], but then it generally becomes marketing. It’s a way to identify a product, but then that identification becomes what [companies] are selling.” Furthermore, Abra says there’s a difference of quality between local “organic” and large-scale “organic” from a foreign country where wage issues and price-fixing remain serious, often overlooked concerns. Clearly, the healthy and happy utopia painted by the organic movement is psychologically disarming and socially compelling. “People think Green City Market is all organic farms, but it’s not,” she says, adding that that is probably a good thing. In fact, big name farms (including Slagel and Gunthorp) and Bare Knuckle Farm don’t abide by organic standards but still demonstrate high levels of agricultural integrity. That’s because non-organic doesn’t necessarily imply lesser quality—the true key to good produce and animal products is knowing its source.

But Abra has enormous respect for organic farmers, who often face greater challenges including smaller yields and greater pest concerns. “If the all the farms in the Plain states were to become organic field crop growers, the Mississippi Delta would be much healthier,” she remarks.

“If we were overrun with squash beetles, would we spray a pesticide? Maybe. We’re not ideological about any of it. But would we look for the most organic way possible? Yes.”

Abra says that most of the local farmers are upfront and honest about their practices and that the best thing she can do is to provide information for her consumers. Regardless, I’m not a cynic during my visits to the farmer’s market. Organic and non-organic, there’s something magical about strolling through the tented aisles, picking out fresh kohlrabi, heirloom tomatoes, and brussel sprouts. I adore the aroma of freshly picked garlic, the scent of cilantro and basil gently wafting over sweet blueberries and peaches. (It’s nostalgia, really. I grew my first chili pepper plant when I was 8, which I diligently watered with green swimming pool water.) Despite my love for healthy and local produce, it’s admittedly a lifestyle that weighs on the wallet. $5 for a pint of measly (but oh-so-scrumptious) strawberries?! Abra acknowledges that the system isn’t perfect, but that ultimately, she still needs to run a viable business. “All I can tell you is that we know these potatoes—we planted them, we dug them up, and we have never sprayed herbicides or pesticides on them. And that’s why they cost what they do.” Abra says that she pays a living wage and that her own income is less than what she would make working in a Chicago restaurant. Doing things by hand is costly, and small-scale agricultural farms don’t benefit from economies of scale.

Abra says local farmers are often accused of growing “luxury” vegetables or “knock-off Louie Vuitton” produce. “I think it’s just as close-minded to assume that somebody selling at a farmer’s market if they’re not organic is not worth your money in the same way that I think that it’s close-minded for people who think that organic is only for yuppies.” I stop chewing my kale for a second, slightly surprised. I have a torturous, Dimmesdale-like relationship when it comes to farmer’s markets. I hate watching yuppies describing strawberries as “delightful rubies,” sniffing $20 flower bouquets, and tasting gourmet balsamic vinegars in delicate splendor. I hate the affluent reputation attached to something I dearly cherish but can hardly relate to. But Abra tells me her farm is simply fulfilling a market demand. But this doesn’t mean farmers markets cater exclusively to yuppies—in fact, Michigan utilizes a double-up buck system to promote healthier eating in disadvantaged populations.  Individuals on food stamps essentially have double the value for their money at farmer’s markets (i.e., $200 value for $100 in food stamps).

Furthermore, Abra points out that the trendiness of farmers markets isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like canning, knitting, and bread-making, Abra says that “if it’s a trend where people learn something, then that is a positive thing.” When people know more about their food products and how it’s grown, it’s knowledge-sharing at its finest. On a similar tangent, I ask her what she thinks of the gluten free, paleo, carb-cutting and juice-cleansing craze. Abra’s response is succinct: “All I ever want people to do is do what makes them happy. What makes them feel good. There’s not enough time to do otherwise. If the cleanses and paleo diets can identify what makes you feel good in the end, great. Do it.”

I’m struck by Abra’s candor—her lack of judgment and respect for contrarian views is…well, inspiring. Despite having fiercely passionate life philosophies, she doesn’t impose them on anyone else. Yet here I was—admonishing gluten-free dieters and yuppies like my opinions were worth a million pieces of shit. In a way, Abra confirmed my views of the quintessential local farmer: simple, rugged, and non-pretentious.

And frankly, I learned a lot more than I expected. For instance, I discovered that weeds play a crucial role on farms by distracting pests from the real crops. I also learned that because the beef industry is heavily subsidized, simply boycotting cow products and thereby improving environmental efficiency, will drastically hurt farmers in the industry. I learned that most farmers are actually staunch Republicans who dislike regulation, not the land-loving, hippie Democrats I’d imagined. I also learned the difference between hybrids and GMOs—the latter being far more questionable. In regards to suicide genes, Abra says, “Seeds want to grow; they try so hard to grow. It’s all they want to do. And so when you implant something in them that prevents them from doing the one thing that they want to do, it doesn’t seem right to me.”

I ask her about the general culture among local farmers, as well as future plans for Bare Knuckle Farm. Abra says that she finds enormous fulfillment in the farmers’ strong culture of community and camaraderie, something few people nowadays experience given technology and globalization. She finds a similar sense of community in Chicago’s restaurant scene: people aren’t cutthroat and don’t “slyly poach” each others’ cooks. Positive competition within a big city pushes every chef to be better in his or her own right.

“Restaurants are actually socially really important—it’s not home, it’s that third space where people can go to have fellowship with each other and have that community building that doesn’t happen in the home.”

As for future plans, Abra plans to start a farm and dinner business by “providing our customers with a unique way to interact with our farm and connect them to the food that is grown there.” Visitors can come see the farm and “then eat a meal that is composed of almost exclusively things from that piece of land, highlighting what’s best in the garden and the “farmer’s treats” that are so small or hard to transport that they never make it to market.” And because Bare Knuckle Farm is more lean and agile, Abra can divert capital in ways that enable her to pursue these kinds of projects without “changing the footprint of our farm.”

As I polish off my plate and sink into a philosophical stupor, I realize nothing beats a simple, home-cooked meal. As Abra puts it, the “conviviality” of food puts people at ease: the conversations, the people, the laughter—that’s why more and more chefs are recreating that community feel in their restaurants. It is because at the end of the day, no matter who or where you are, food is where the home and heart is.