Traveling food

A couple of days ago, I watched a YouTube video in which a 24-year-old farmer from Iowa attempted to explain the economy and how farmers can get caught between rising production costs and static or downturning commodity prices. I watch his videos because he is a creative videographer and because I enjoy watching farm machinery working in the field, not because I consider him to be an expert in the economy. His somewhat whiny complaints about the economy didn’t have much impact on me. After all, his videos portray a very large, multi-generational family farm corporation with millions of dollars of equipment that is capable of providing a very luxurious lifestyle for a 24-year-old. I realize that he could be living off of YouTube income and not farm income. Farmers have supplemented their passion for agriculture for generations through the use of off-farm jobs. I’m no economist, but I don’t have much patience for those who have access to a lot of wealth complaining that they aren’t getting enough.

I confess, however, that although his explanation of the farm economy didn’t give me new understanding, I have been around farms and farmers for all of my life and I don’t understand the farm economy.

Yesterday, I was grocery shopping. I often look through the displays in the meat department without looking for a specific cut, just to see what they offer, what seems to me to have a good price, and what might be good for the style of cooking I know. If I see a roast at a good price, I’ll pick it up. If there are some chops or steaks that would be good on the grill, I might consider them. Yesterday, I was drawn to a display of lamb. There were ribs and shoulders and legs of lamb that had been de-boned. I thought to myself, a leg of lamb, roast with mint jelly on the barbecue would make a great meal. I could serve it with tiny potatoes and fresh greens. The price, however, seemed pretty high and so I had decided to take a pass when I noticed the labeling on the lamb. All of the lamb in the local supermarket closest to our home was imported from New Zealand.

I’m sure New Zealand is a good place to raise sheep, but those legs of lamb had certainly traveled a long ways to make it to our store. I have good friends in Montana who raise excellent lamb and who have trouble finding a year-round market for their meat. They time the selling fo their lambs to the spring market and Easter. Then I thought about it some more. It is spring in New Zealand. Being on the other side of the equator means their seasons are opposite ours.

I certainly hope that the store sells lamb from North America in the spring. I might pay a premium price for fresh lamb from Sweet Grass County, Montana. I’ve even considered making a trip there just to bring home a cooler of lamb.

There is a lot of food that does a lot of traveling to make it to our supermarkets.

A year ago, before the chickens on our son’s farm were outpacing their family’s consumption, I bought a carton of eggs. On the top of the carton it said, “Happy Hens - Ethical Eggs. Tended by hand on small family farms.” On the end of the carton there were instructions for entering a code on a website to see pictures of the specific farm on which the eggs were produced. I looked up the code from the eggs we bought. They came from Arkansas.

There are over 200 properties in our county where chickens are raised. You can easily find a farm stand selling eggs at around $4 per dozen by driving down almost any country road around here. At the same time, the grocery store is presumably able to make money selling eggs that have been trucked in from Arkansas.

I guess I shouldn’t complain that my food gets to travel. I have been granted the luxury of a lot of travel in my life. When I travel, however, I make a big effort to eat local foods. It is part of the joy of traveling. Frankly, I’d prefer to do the traveling and eat local foods in whatever location I find myself. That, of course, is easier to do here on the west coast of Washington than it was in South Dakota in the middle of the winter. To eat local in South Dakota, you need to be an expert in food preservation. You also have to enjoy beef, buffalo, soybeans, corn and wheat. There is quite a bit of pork and chicken processed in eastern South Dakota, but much of it comes from Iowa and Nebraska.

In previous generations, people ate what was available locally. The Shoshone were called “sheep eaters” by some other tribes because they hunted and ate bighorn sheep. The Nez Pierce couldn’t understand how Pacific tribes with whom they occasionally traded could eat fish. They preferred buffalo, deer and elk. People who lived in the mountains dug camas root as a staple. Plains tribes made wozapi from chokecherries and prairie turnips. When indigenous people were forced onto reservations and guaranteed food by the treaty-makers, their diets shifted. Given the large supplies of lard, sugar and flour from government commodities, they started to make fry bread which now has become identified as a quintessential American Indian food. That lard, sugar, and flour traveled a lot of miles before reaching the reservations on the great plains, too.

I took a pass on the New Zealand Lamb. After all, I have access to eggs and chicken, fruit and berries, and vegetables from our son’s farm. Rather than consume far more than my fair share of fossil fuel by purchasing food from far-away places, I’ll see what is available locally. I know where I can buy fish right off the boat.

I read somewhere that you can save more fuel by the choice of what to eat than you can by the choice of what to drive. Then, again, I really don’t understand the economy.

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