An earlier version of this article appeared in Nougat Magazine in June, 2007.
'Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure.' 'Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007)
When I think about my farmer friends, I wonder if I am paying enough for the food they grow.
We in the USA spend 9.9 percent of our income on food, the lowest percentage in the world. In contrast, people in Bangladesh spend 56 percent of their income feeding themselves and their families.
On the surface, cheap food seems a wonderful part of the American dream. At one time, the Utah Agricultural Education 'Just the Facts' web page stated, 'Because Americans spend a smaller portion of their income on food, they have more money left over to spend on housing, transportation, clothing, entertainment, travel, etc.'
I personally am willing to have a little less of the 'etc.' if it means a bit more for my friends who grow great food while taking good care to sustain our land and water for the future. I want the exhausted, smiling, incredible organic farmers I see at the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturdays to be able to save a little for old age, paint the house, buy health insurance, get away for a weekend, pay the vet, and help their children go to college. Recently I sense the farmers' cash boxes may not be full enough.
I decided to consult directly with Ann Bell Stone, a sixth generation farmer who co-owns Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, and chef Ouita Michel, who co-owns Holly Hill Inn in Midway. These two successful friends have made it their lifework to grow and cook great local food, and have done business with each other for 14 years.
Our conversation on the deep porch at Holly Hill Inn tasted of concern, dressed lightly with worry. I learned that food shoppers and diners are not joining eagerly in the work of developing a sustainable local food economy. Ouita said, 'Chicken is the toughest thing to crack.'
Ann nodded as Ouita explained that people view dinner at the Holly Hill Inn as a special occasion, a time for steak or something out of the ordinary. They may have eaten cheap chicken for lunch as part of a Caesar salad or Chinese carryout. That means Ouita has a hard time selling dinner entrées centered on Elmwood's sustainably raised organic chickens, no matter how delicious. Holly Hill diners reject fabulous chicken because they are sated from eating the tasteless factory version. As a result, Elmwood's cash box fills more slowly.
Although the sky may not exactly be falling, the prognosis from both the plate and pitchfork perspective is, at best, partly cloudy.
I checked with non-farming friends about their chicken-buying habits. They spoke almost as if Ouita and Ann had handed them a script. No one in my unscientific sample orders chicken often when eating in a moderately expensive restaurant. One said, 'For fine restaurants, it's likely to be filet mignon, seafood or some killer pasta dish, but not chicken.'
Each person reported buying only organic or 'natural' chicken to cook at home; only one person reported seeking out local birds. All said they eat less chicken at home than they used to, partly because of cost.
In The 100 Mile Diet (online), Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon describe their year of eating only foods grown within 100 miles of their home in British Columbia. When the year began, they ate toward the vegan end of vegetarian. About three months into their year of eating locally, in a web post titled 'Wanted: A Perfectly Local Chicken,' J. B. reported, 'When it comes to eating locally, we've had to abandon strict vegetarianism. The strange fact is that vegetarianism as commonly practiced is, like the rest of the industrial food system, propped up by the globalization of food and everything that it entails, including a total disconnection between food consumers and producers, and the cataclysmic ecological costs of shipping food around the world.'
Through listening to Ouita and Ann, I realized how well organic, pastured chicken fits with sustainable central Kentucky agriculture, our food system, and our local food culture. Even though I have never been 100 percent easy about eating chicken, my time on the porch helped me see it differently.
Ouita had impressed me early in the conversation by stating her rededication this year to buying even more local foods for the wonderful Holly Hill Inn. That will help with a few farms' cash boxes.
I am inspired to take a similar pledge: More chicken, please. And make mine local.