Every other year farmers, artisans, chefs, educators, and good food advocates from 150 countries gather in Turin, Italy, to attend Slow Food International’s biennial gathering, Terra Madre. The goal, according to the Slow Food USA website, is to “share innovative solutions and time-honored traditions for keeping small-scale agriculture and sustainable food production alive and well.” For the last several years, CUESA has partnered with Slow Food San Francisco to offer travel scholarships for farmers and artisans from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to attend. Below, three of this year’s scholarship recipients share their stories.
Dan Lehrer, Flatland Flower Farm
I didn’t really know what to expect. It was my wife Joanne’s idea to go, now that our son is old enough to be home alone. We spent about as much time at the Salone del Gusto [the neighboring food exhibit and trade show] as we did at the actual Terra Madre conference and our only tangible goal was to bring back seeds. The whole idea of growing these unusual food varieties is to keep them alive, and the best way to do that is by sharing them. We get a seed catalog that reads “preservation through dissemination” on the cover, and I think that says it best.
And we did end up discovering seeds for vegetables that the Italians are growing that we can’t get here in the States. For instance, I found a type of cherry tomato with a pointy end that’s long like a nipple (pictured below); it grows in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius. I bought a kilo of fresh tomatoes, squeezed out the seeds and brought them home.
I found seeds for a wild pea that is an ancestor of the modern shelling pea. There are only four farmers left in Italy who are growing it commercially. It was first documented in 1554 and has been grown since Roman times, but now it’s on the verge of extinction. I also met the a farmer who grows a rare fava bean called the Fava Di Carpino, a variety I’d gotten from some farmers in Portland who brought it back from Italy and grew it out. I was able to go up to him and tell him I grew his fava, and he was really excited and surprised.
In the spring we’ll have a lot of these varieties available in the farmers market. Please try them!”
Joel Schirmer, Dirty Girl Produce
You could go to Terra Madre and have 100 different experiences. My wife and I were staying right in Torino, which was a great experience. Aside from all the interesting people we met in places like the line for coffee, I’d say I got the most from the US Delegation meeting. [Slow Food founder] Carlo Petrini talked about their mascot, the snail, and how it symbolizes the movement. He talked about some of the younger people getting into the Slow Food movement who want to make a lot of change quickly, and he said that one thing we have to accept is patience. I saw a parallel with the city, which was built in the 1500s and earlier. Torino is full of amazing palaces and stonework; we saw churches that had been started by one generation and finished two generations later. I think we tend to place so much importance on ourselves and our lifetimes, and it’s such a lot of work to change a civilization, which is what I feel Slow Food is trying to do. So I was reminded that this movement is like a snail. We’re going to work hard and move slowly toward a vision.
Benoît de Korsak, St. Benoit Yogurt
I think what was most interesting to me was the fact that — whether I was speaking to Africans, Italians, or French people — everyone has the same issues. They’re small producers fighting against the larger corporations on one hand (Indian and Chinese companies in Africa, and large European corporations in the EU). At the same time they’re also fighting against the political world.
When it comes to yogurt, nearly every producer is national, so it’s really difficult to be a regional player. And all the rules are designed for automation; I have an all-manual process and the FDA won’t let me ship out of state. They’re making the case that it’s a safety issue, but the recalls don’t come from small producers — they come from the really big companies.
In France, Italy and Africa you have the exact same issues. They’re also fighting against big corporations and governments that are being lobbied by corporations. So it raised big questions for me about how to promote a local business and stay small, while also raising [the issue of sustainable food] to a higher level. How do we convince senators that local food systems are making a difference, when they only see these small examples, and they usually like to see big changes very quickly?
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »