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The woman who took on Koch Industries to save her farm

The Diffleys in the early days of Gardens of Eagan. (Photo by Helen De Michiel.)

Books written by farmers are rare -- and for good reason. Growing food takes a lot out of you, and most farmers have little or no time to reflect on their lives or package them up for an audience.

But the fact that it’s written by a veteran organic farmer is only part of what makes Atina Diffley’s book Turn Here Sweet Corn unique. Part memoir, part chronicle of the evolution of the upper Midwest organic movement and the corporate forces exerting pressure against it, the book also allows new farmers to hear from someone who has spent time in the trenches. Diffley, who co-founded the Gardens of Eagan, a successful Minnesota organic farm which has served the Twin Cities region for nearly three decades, comes across first and foremost as a survivor. She writes passionately about the years she and her husband Martin spent farming and raising a family, in the face of a seeming avalanche of challenges. Diffley takes readers along as they faced devastating droughts and hailstorms (with hailstones “as big as size-B potatoes”), razor-thin margins and near bankruptcy, and an unexpected eminent domain eviction from their first farm.

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New film looks at eating and growing local food in Alabama

It seems like every month someone launches a new eating experiment. Whether it’s eating only food grown within 100 miles for a year, growing an entire family’s food supply on an acre in Appalachia, or raising corn in the Midwest, the modern food movement has been shaped around many such specific, time-bound efforts.

The new film Eating Alabama starts out along similar lines, as filmmaker Andrew Beck Grace and his wife Rashmi return to their home state of Alabama to film a yearlong attempt to eat locally and seasonally. In the process, Andrew sifts through family photos of farms long buried under suburbia, and travels the state interviewing the farmers scraping by in present day Alabama. The result is a film that artfully combines one family's story with an in-depth look at a group of small farmers committed to rebuilding the local food system in the South.

In addition to “plantation crops” like cotton and peanuts, Alabama is a major meat producer. The state has the third-largest broiler (chicken) industry in the nation, with over 1 billion birds and 2 billion eggs sold annually and livestock and poultry combined accounting for four-fifths of the commodities sold in the state. Many of the small farmers shown in the film are diversifying, and moving away from this model -- raising livestock with alternative methods, but also growing greens and cultivating orchards.

We caught up with Grace to discuss the film, the story it sheds light on, and the way Alabama fits into the larger picture of today’s agriculture.

Read more: Locavore

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Pig ears and donkey butts: 5 foods that could save the world

Photo by Laura Billings.

Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods, eats some pretty strange dishes. Now, he wants you to do the same in the name of saving the world:

You can change the world one plate at a time. If we can take better advantage of the global pantry and eat from a wider variety of choices we would do more to combat food poverty, our damaged food production system, obesity and other systemic health and wellness issues than any one single act I can imagine. Here are some suggestions, but be creative. It works.

Here are the five foods he suggests we all start stuffing our faces with:

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Food hubs: How small farmers get to market

Local Food Hub in Virginia takes care of distribution for the small farms it works with. (Photo by USDA.)

Ask most small and mid-sized farmers who sell food to a local audience what they like least about their job and they will probably say marketing and distribution. Driving long hours to sit at farmers markets (or managing someone else who does) is always a risk that can result in unsold leftovers. And even when you have a guaranteed market -- like in the case of community-supported agriculture (CSA) and restaurant sales -- the effort involved diverts time and energy from the actual work of farming.

Enter food hubs. A key component of the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, food hubs operate on the simple principle that farmers, like everyone else, are stronger when they work together. Food hubs are networks that allow regional growers to collaborate on marketing and distribution. The term applies to a broad range of operations, from multi-farm CSAs to Craigslist-like virtual markets where buyers and producers can connect. But each model is motivated by the belief that individual farms can’t survive in a vacuum.

Read more: Locavore

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Hard to stomach: How a fresh clam feast got the best of me

Before the overdose: Ted can hardly wait to nosh a razor clam. (Photo by Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan.)

If you've never enjoyed a fresh bivalve harvest, here's a tip: 15 razor clams is a significant gustatory investment. Hey, I love clams. I love them swimming in chowder, peeking out of my linguine, breaded and fried. But trust me, after spending an hour knuckle-deep in clam innards, I know now that even the most ardent enthusiast would do well to pace herself.

Soon after a wildly successful first clam dig on Washington's Roosevelt Beach, I found myself back in my kitchen, staring into a bucketful of razor clams. Fifteen meaty clams needed killing, de-shelling, dressing, and cooking before we could enjoy the sautéed clam recipe we'd been talking about for the past 100 miles. It was already past 8 p.m.; perhaps we’d been a bit ambitious.

There was the matter of killing them, for one. None of the pieces of clam literature I’d studied mentioned exactly what you’re supposed to do between shoreline and skillet. On the advice of a veteran clammer, we’d kept our catch alive in seawater on the three-hour journey home for maximum freshness.

"Everything I’ve read just starts with 'Pour boiling water over them for a few seconds until the shell pops open,'" I told my boyfriend and co-chef, Ted. "Can that be right?" With the clams still squirming around in the bucket, I suddenly felt a little seasick.

Ted gave me a look. "You're going to make me do this, aren't you?"

Read more: Food, Locavore

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Know your bites: Does the USDA’s local-farms program have a chance?

Today, most of us see "local" as shorthand for fresh, delicious food that comes with a story attached -- and that serves an alternative to consolidated, anonymous, commodity-based farming. But that hasn't always been how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sees it.

USDA is known for creating, subsidizing, and promoting industrial agriculture. So the agency's effort to dip its toes into the local food movement in 2009 with its Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program (KYF2) raised eyebrows and questions. Could USDA really help create a thriving bottom-up food system? Or would it spread the term local, and the ethos behind it, so thin as to make it meaningless?

Read more: Food, Locavore

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Surviving winter eating local: Grist readers’ advice

February and March are the hardest months to keep your commitment to eating local foods, so we asked Grist readers to share their tips, recipes, and inspiring anecdotes. We're thrilled by what we got. And, like you, we're getting ready for spring to arrive!

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Mexico City’s urbanization threatens ancient ‘floating gardens’

A man works his plot in the chinampas of Mexico City. (Photo by Eneas De Troya.)

Chinampas, or floating gardens -- small artificial islands full of crops, built up on shallow lake beds -- once sustained the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, producing multiple harvests every year. They still exist in Mexico City, feeding its rural citizens -- for now.

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Soup & Bread: Inspiring a community of giving [Recipes]

Soup & Bread is a way to bring community together in the dead of winter, and raise money for those who don't have access to healthy food.

Who doesn’t love soup? It’s nutritious, inexpensive, and there are so many kinds! Soup can be an earthy meal in a chipped pottery bowl or an elegant palate cleanser frothed into a porcelain cup. It can showcase the explosive flavor of fresh spring peas or provide refuge for tired celery and stale bread. Soup soothes the sick, it nourishes the poor -- and it tricks children into eating their veggies. And perhaps more than any other food, soup can be a powerful tool for building community.

I learned all this and more when I launched Soup & Bread, a free weekly gathering in Chicago, during the bleak winter of 2009. Back then I was broke, bored, and bartending at a music club called the Hideout. The recession was hitting hard; my friends and neighbors were losing their jobs. At times, when I looked around, it seemed the whole city could use a nice bowl of soup. So I thrifted a bunch of Crock-Pots and invited a handful of people to come by the bar to eat.

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Photo project takes commuters to a California they’ve forgotten

Photo by Lisa Hamilton. Click to see the Real Rural site.

You know that feeling you get when the door to someone else’s world opens just long enough that you forget you’re in your own? That slight expansion we experience when we hear someone’s true story is what motivated documentary photographer and writer Lisa Hamilton’s latest project, Real Rural (and all of her other work too, from what I can tell).