Wednesday, October 27, 2010

USDA NRCS Chief Dave White Has “High Tunnel” Vision

L to R: Director Kate Collier, Farm Manager Steve Vargo, Farm Manager Adrianna Vargo, Director Marisa Vrooman,
USDA NRCS Chief Dave White, Communications Manager Emily Manley. Image credit: NRCS.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Dave White sprouted energy and enthusiasm when he stopped by our Maple Hill Farm for a look at the Local Food Hub’s seasonal high tunnel last week. He not only greeted our staff warmly but also planted the seeds of a high-energy discussion on future networking and partnering opportunities.

When Chief White parked his truck on the drive Friday afternoon, he quickly made it clear that he had done his homework about our operations here in Charlottesville. He joined Virginia NRCS State Conservationist Jack Bricker, local District Conservationist Kory Kirkland, and other NRCS field staff on site for a closer look at an operational high tunnel.

For the uninitiated, high tunnels are portable structures that can increase the availability of locally-grown produce in a conservation-friendly way. Made of ribs of plastic or metal pipe covered with a layer of plastic sheeting, high tunnels are assembled on site and can be easily maintained. Unlike greenhouses, they require no energy, relying on natural sunlight to modify the climate inside to create more favorable conditions for vegetable and other specialty crops.

Virginia NRCS provided about $200,000 in funding for 63 high tunnels through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and EQIP Organics programs. We received EQIP funding to install our high tunnel, completed in early September of this year, and are already using it to extend our growing season and offer crops that are in high demand for a much longer period of time.

The chief’s visit coincided with the one-year anniversary of the highly-popular pilot program and he was looking for some solid feedback on the conservation benefits of this pilot program. Standing amid the mesclun mix, Chief White quizzed farm managers Steve and Adrianna Vargo about their experience with the high tunnel and conservation benefits such as reducing pesticide use, keeping vital nutrients in the soil, conserving water, extending the growing season, and increasing yields.

He and other NRCS field staff were also energized about our use of the high tunnel as a teaching tool to engage participating producers in conservation and organic production. We held one class on season extension techniques and tools in mid-September and are planning other offerings in the near future.
Established as part of the USDA “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, the high tunnel pilot program is an example of innovative approaches to sustainable agriculture. Where high tunnels are used year-round, they provide steady income to farmers — a significant benefit to owners of small farms and to limited resource and organic producers.

NRCS District Conservationist Kory Kirkland was extremely helpful in walking us through the application process to secure the high tunnel this year. Virginia NRCS will offer the high tunnel practice again in 2011 and will be partnering with us to offer more information about this and other conservation practices available to Charlottesville-area producers.

Eat Here and Feel Good!

Have you been to Brookville yet?  Well, if reviews like this one from Mas to Millers, or this one from edible cville (see best new restaurant, runner-up) haven't convinced you yet, maybe this will!  A new announcement on the Brookville blog states that on every Tuesday and Wednesday of every month, they will be donating $1 per guest to designated charities. 

Of course, we're partial to the first Tuesday and Wednesday of every month, when the dollars will go to support Local Food Hub!

We have to commend Chef Harrison Keevil on his dedication to family farms and local food.  Not everyone walks the walk, but Brookville does (we know because he buys a ton of local food from us every week).  In fact, we knew Chef Keevil before he ever opened Brookville -- because he volunteered at our warehouse in Ivy.

So, starting this week, check out Brookville and get some tasty food that's good for your heart, your mind, and your belly.  And tell 'em Local Food Hub sent ya.

image credit: Mas to Millers

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Make This Now.

I spent much of this past Saturday putting in my winter garden at the farm.  A couple modest rows of spinach, kale, chard, beets and carrots should (*fingers crossed*) keep me happy for the next few months... though I'll have to wait until summer to reap the rewards of my garlic.  Thank goodness for scapes.

Before I left the farm, I loaded up the car with a box full of my most valuable farm harvest this year: butternut squash.  This was the first time I've ever tried growing these, and surprisingly, about eight or 10 plants yielded something like 50 butternuts -- apparently these hearty gourds like the miserable heat and drought-like conditions of our past summer season.  Bonus!

If you know me, then you know that butternuts are the key to my starchy, golden-orange heart, so this is a rich harvest indeed.  I'm the queen of butternut soup, I know my way around butternut pasta and risotto, and I've perfected my roasting technique, so this weekend I tried something different.  And it was so darn good, I just have to share it with you.

Sauteed Beluga Lentils & Butternut Squash:

The squash is seasoned, roasted, and then tossed with lentils, herbs, and a light dressing, and wow -- it's great.  The lentils provide a bit of texture, the Dijon mustard and the vinegar add a little zing, and the squash is, well, you know how I feel about squash.  Thank you, Sprouted Kitchen, for this lovely (and easy) addition to my repertoire.

I implore all of you who share the butternut obsession to make this recipe as soon as you can.  Our warehouse is packed with fresh, locally grown butternut squash, so I know you can find them now at many of our independent grocers and markets.  Then, after you've feasted, come back here and tell me how you liked it.

A few notes.  Beluga lentils do not exist within Charlottesville City limits -- or, at least, I couldn't find them (let me know if you do!).  I substituted French lentils and it was still delicious.  I also skipped the basil, doubled the parsley, and subbed white wine vinegar for the apple cider vinegar. 

image credit: Sprouted Kitchen

Saturday, October 23, 2010

24 Hours of Tom!

This just in: On Monday, October 25, Congressman Tom Perriello will be visiting our warehouse to do a bit of volunteer work and meet with interested community members.

He'll be staying for about 45 minutes, so if you're available, please join him. Bring your questions, your comments, your thoughts and your thinking caps, and get involved in our local democracy! No matter how you're leaning in this election, Congressman Perriello welcomes the opportunity to speak with you.

The Local Food Hub warehouse is located at 556 Dettor Road, Charlottesville VA 22903. Go left through the chain link fence, and we're around the back of the building.

Questions about the campaign? Please contact Perriello representative, Jessica Barba at (434) 882-4163.

Questions about the warehouse? Please contact us at info (at)

Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 15, 2010

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan Visits Local Food Hub!

(L to R: Dep. Sec. Kathleen Merrigan, Local Food Hub Director Marisa Vrooman, USDA Rural Development State Director Ellen Davis, and Local Food Hub Director Kate Collier pose with local pumpkins and one very pregnant belly!)

Back in early 2009, Kathleen Merrigan was appointed Deputy Secretary of the USDA, and sustainable agriculture advocates across the nation sighed. With relief. Championed as "ferocious," "battle-tested," and "a real reformer," Merrigan was even listed as one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People. Merrigan has already made great strides to support small producers and regional food systems, most notably with her brainchild, Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, a robust suite of programs, funds, and marketing campaigns designed to champion the local food movement.

With all that in mind, we were honored yesterday to welcome Deputy Secretary Merrigan, USDA Rural Development State Director Ellen Davis, and Senator Mark Warner’s Outreach Director, Drew Denmore to the Local Food Hub warehouse for a tour of our facilities and a lively conversation about local food and small family farms.

Over freshly-pressed apple cider from Morris Orchard, we told the story of Local Food Hub -- how we got started, how lucky we are to have a community of supporters right here in Charlottesville, and what we're doing to bring fresh local food from farm to table.  Farmers Carl Tinder and Tim Henley shared their experiences and told how partnership with Local Food Hub has helped them connect with buyers and advance their business. Even our apprentices and interns got in on the discussion, explaining how their experience at our Educational Farm has impacted their interest in farming.

Probably the most surprising part of the visit was when, after she'd heard our stories, Merrigan asked, “So what should the USDA be doing?” How often does that happen!? Not surprisingly, everyone had a lot of suggestions! Kate suggested that assisting in the duplication of successful aggregation models could be a start. And Marisa added that helping small farmers with working capital needs could help established growers expand production and aspiring farmers get off to a good start.

By the end of the visit, it was clear that Deputy Secretary Merrigan truly understands the challenges that face small farmers, rural communities and local food systems, and we we feel confident that she is invested in overcoming these problems.  Her fresh sensibility, hands-on approach, and creative outlook are incredible assets to the USDA, and we are lucky to have her on our side! 

Thank you Dr. Merrigan, for a fantastic visit, and thank YOU Charlottesville, for being believers, movers and shakers in the local food realm!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

So, What IS On Your Plate (for Thursday)?

If you're interested in the sustainable and local food movement, and craving a bit of intelligent discussion from the media — something we get far too little of these days — then sign out of Twitter, log out of Facebook, stop posting on your blog, and join the UVA Food Collaborative tomorrow (Thursday, Oct 7) for What’s On Your Plate: A Public Forum on Local Food and the Media.

An all-star panel will be in town to talk alternative agriculture, sustainable food, the local movement, and the media forces that are shaping our perceptions of the sustainable food movement.  Come for the discussion, hear some different viewpoints, and figure out your place in all of it.  Oh, and stay for a local food reception afterwards, too (including lots of Local Food Hub produce)!

Panelists include:

Tom Philpott, food editor for and full-time farmer at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.  Read more of his writing here (including this, one of my favorite pieces from Grist).

Marian Burros, food columnist at the New York Times since 1992, and award-winning cookbook author and journalist.  She is best known for her work in the fields of health and nutrition education, as well as consumer affairs issues and food safety reporting.  Find more of her writing here.

James McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, a fellow in the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University, and an associate professor of history at Texas State University.

The discussion will take place at the LEED-certified Jefferson Scholars Foundation building at 112 Clarke Court from 4 to 6pm.  Hope to see you there!

For more information about the panel and the UVA Food Collaborative, visit their website.