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Blame it all on my roots: Local food sees a resurgence in the South

A still from the documentary Eating Alabama.

People in Alabama love to gather and, when they do, it’s usually around football or religion and it is always fortified with plenty of food and drink. What would happen, the organizers of a recent event called the Alabama All-Star Food Festival wondered, if you gathered people just for the eating and drinking -- and elevated the discussion of local food in the region while you were at it?

Yes, there was pulled pork and white bread drowning in sauce, but the convention center where the recent All-Star Food Festival was held on account of rain was also full of Gulf shrimp and grits, local gumbo, crab cakes, and of course cold cans from Good People and Back Forty, two of the state’s three microbreweries. The building filled up with farmers, chefs, and food pioneers celebrating a new wave of Alabama food, and wafting over the sterile convention center air was the smell of a place regaining its culinary roots.

As agriculturally rich as Alabama is -- both in soil and tradition -- the state produces less than 5 percent of the food consumed there.

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New documentary is like ‘The Real World’ for farming

Photo by Ben Williams.

Filmmaker Hailey Wist's documentary The Garden Summer is the true story of five strangers picked to live on a farm, work together, and have their lives taped. Wist recruited four other good-looking 20-something suburbanites to spend the summer on an Arkansas farm, getting all their food (except booze, coffee, and cooking oil) either from their own garden or from within a 100-mile radius.

So what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real on a farm? Well, like the original MTV reprobates, they drink, get in arguments, and have romantic entanglements, sometimes with the same people. But they also learn about where their food comes from, and about wasting less and living simpler.

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Cut above: Cooking with grass-fed beef

Lynne Curry has always considered herself a locavore, but her food choices changed drastically when she moved from the Washington coast to a grassland ranching community called Wallowa in Eastern Oregon. Near the coast, she had eaten mostly vegetarian, with some fresh fish now and then. But in Wallowa she found that eating responsibly and supporting her local community meant buying and eating grassland beef (in large “shares”). Drawing on prior culinary experience from stints working in several high-end Pacific Northwest restaurants such as The Herb Farm and Willows Inn, Curry created recipes for every cut of meat on the cow.

With her first cookbook, Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut, Curry shares those recipes. She also suggests reaching into the freezer and grabbing whatever cut comes to hand, then paging through her book for a recipe. We caught up with Curry recently to hear about her decision to write the book and the lessons she's learned along the way.

Q. When did you realize you wanted to write this particular cookbook?

A. I always knew I wanted to do a book, but when I saw an article in TIME magazine about cow-pooling, I knew it was this one. It was the first thing I had seen outside of my community that reflected the relevance of this topic back to me.

But many articles about grass-fed beef only go so far, and then leave you hanging. To make this a viable choice, people need to know how to apply cooking methods.

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Put it in your pipe and grow it: Former tobacco farms evolve

A sweet potato from Saura Pride Purple Sweet Potato, a fledgling business that was once a tobacco farm. (All photos by RAFI.)

Alan Flippin comes from a long line of North Carolina tobacco growers. But, a few years back, the crop just stopped making sense. His family’s operation stopped making much of a profit as the cost of fertilizer and other inputs rose. And, Flippin says, “I don’t really enjoy growing tobacco; I don’t use it. I was looking to get into something else.”

He wanted to transition to growing produce instead -- something he could feel good about cultivating, eating, and selling. But shifting to a completely different crop is a hugely risky proposition. “With tobacco, you pretty much know how to grow it; you’ve got a market, and you get insurance for your crops,” Flippin says. “Whereas for produce, it’s very scary because there’s so much you don’t know.”

Flippin’s fledgling produce operation got off the ground with the help of a grant from something called the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund. The grant enabled him to build a greenhouse and experiment with several varieties of organic vegetables to sell to wholesalers, farmers markets, and at a local co-op.

The fund was created in the wake of the Tobacco Master Settlement to help North Carolina’s agricultural communities transition to new sources of income. According to the terms of the settlement, announced in 1997, the country’s four largest tobacco companies would make perpetual payments to 46 states to compensate them for smoking-related health-care costs and, in tobacco-growing states, economic losses (four other states already had individual agreements with tobacco companies).

A percentage of North Carolina’s settlement money goes to the Tobacco Communities Reinvestment Fund, which is a program of the nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).

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What’s the real difference between cage-free and pastured eggs? [VIDEO]

Editor's note: If you liked the series of photos we featured from the Lexicon of Sustainability this winter, you might enjoy this video -- which is one of three currently running on PBS.org.

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Monsanto WISHES it could make corn this cool

"Glass Gem" corn looks almost CGI, but it actually comes out of the ground that way. It's the product of a small farm and a retro, handcrafted approach to agriculture -- "genetic modification" from back when genetic modification meant painstaking generations of selective breeding.

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University strikes back against Occupy the Farm

Photo by Steve Rhodes.

“Maybe you’ll be my one phone call from jail,” urban farmer and activist Ashoka Finley says, just before our phone conversation ends.

He’s joking, but I imagine he can probably see a group of police officers out of the corner of his eyes as he says it. Finley is one of a group of Occupiers who have been living and farming on a 10-acre piece of land on the outskirts of Berkeley, Calif., called the Gill Tract.

Finley has also just told me that he’s prepared to get arrested if things at the Gill Tract escalate. “We’re not going anywhere, we’re going to keep planting and farming,” he says, as if it’s the most defiant thing he can imagine.

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Born to bee wild: How feral pollinators may help prevent colony collapse disorder

A rare cross-sectional glimpse of natural honeycomb construction. (Photo by Max Westby.)

In 2009, lifelong beekeeper Dan Harvey faced an existential crisis when he lost 
much of his honeybee stock to colony collapse disorder (CCD). So the former Vietnam-era Special Forces veteran did what came naturally: He took to the deep dark woods of the Pacific Northwest, searching for answers to his predicament.

Harvey began by hunting for wild and feral bees living near his home in Port Angeles, Wash. (These bees have escaped from commercial colonies and find refuge in the tall timber and glens enveloping the Olympic Peninsula). For years, he crossbred the feral bees he captured with honeybees in order to produce hybridized hives that would be well-suited to the dank climes of the temperate rainforest region.

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Will this Farm Bill do enough for young farmers?

Photo by Tracy Potter-Fins, taken at County Rail Farm.

By the time the next Farm Bill expires in five years, 125,000 American farmers will have retired. This fact may well be the biggest threat to national food security, but you wouldn’t know it if you’ve been following this year’s Farm Bill hearings.

Instead, the conversation is about “managing risk” for the Big Five commodity crops (i.e. crop insurance, subsidies, and margins for large agricultural interests) and not about the challenges to our food system as a whole. The recent House Committee on Agriculture’s Farm Bill “Field Hearings” were dominated by established farmers, with little if any time for new farmers to talk about their needs. Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, a group of beginning farmers considered a trip to the Saranac Lake to participate in one of these hearings, but decided against it when we learned that there would be no time to add our experiences to the chosen panelists. Beginning farmers like us didn’t fare much better in similar Senate hearings.

That’s why it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the needs of the next generation have yet to be met in the current draft of the Farm Bill, recently approved by the Senate Committee on Agriculture.

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‘Food, Inc.’ chicken farmer has a new, humane farm

A version of this post originally appeared on Eat with Care.

Carole Morison in the now-famous Food, Inc. scene.

Twelve minutes into the 2009 documentary Food, Inc., Carole Morison appears on the screen -- haggard, tired, quietly seething. Squinting into the sun, she tells the camera, “I’ve just made up my mind; I’m gonna say what I have to say,” and she proceeds to show and tell.

Wearing a face mask, she steps inside one of her chicken houses, where she is raising broilers for Perdue. Inside she reveals a crowded sea of birds bumping into each other and squawking in agitation. Chickens are shown taking a few steps and falling down -- due to the weight they’ve been bred to put on rapidly. Others are on their backs, gasping for breath inside a chicken house they cannot leave. Carole picks up a few dead birds and throws them in a pile.

She walks back outside, removes her face mask, wipes the dust off her face, and says with disgust, “That’s normal.”

But it’s far from normal today. Carole Morison is still stepping into her chicken houses in Pocomoke, Md., but now the chickens follow her. Rather than flee, they try to roost on her shoulder. Now she doesn’t have to wear a face mask, and she’s hopeful that she may be able to take antibiotics again after years of developing allergies while using Perdue’s antibiotic-laden feed. And in a widely circulated photograph taken for Flavor magazine, she looks 10 years younger than she did in the movie.

Carole today, managing the new farm's pasture.

“Everybody tells me that!” she said in a recent phone interview. "I just look at the new photo and say, man, I need to get my hair cut.”

Last year, in an inspiring turnaround, Carole and her husband, Frank, launched a pastured egg operation on their Bird’s Eye View Farm. When Perdue terminated their contract just before Food, Inc. was released (the reason given was Carole’s refusal to use dark, tunnel-ventilated chicken houses), it seemed unlikely they’d ever get back into farming. On the Delmarva Peninsula, nestled between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic, the vast majority of chicken farmers work for big agribusiness, entering into contracts in which they don’t own the birds or have much say in their raising, but are expected to invest in the expensive infrastructure to house and feed them. Carole wasn’t about to do that again.