is your local food secure?

kretschmann farm

*sigh*

You’ve heard the slogans – Know your farmer! Buy local!

You know what to do – head to the farmers’ markets. Buy some u-pick berries. Visit a local farm for peaches and corn. Buy meat in bulk from a local farm or support a local business that buys local meats. Have a chicken in your backyard. Process, ferment, can, freeze.

You know where to grow – in pots, on windowsills, in the scrap of dirt at the bottom of the stoop, in your side yard, in the raised beds, in the yard if you’re lucky enough to have a spot big enough that gets decent sun.

But what else can the average city-dweller do to support and protect their food supply, especially if they want to minimize eating things produced through Big Ag? After all, it’s not like a city can sustainably raise all the food it needs to support its population overnight (even Cuba, when forced to start growing organic after it lost the USSR’s support, took years to figure it out). In Pittsburgh, we only have five acres of land zoned for farmland in the city limits. There is growing local support for green space, urban gardens, and community growing spaces (depending on the neighborhood), but not enough to feed everyone in each neighborhood. And I doubt very much your neighbors would appreciate a cow, goat, or pig wandering down the street. At the end of the day, people in the city need rural food production to feed themselves (especially since the estimated land needed to feed a family of four is 1-2 acres).

Which is why it felt like I got punched in the gut late last week when I read the Kretschmann Farm’s blog post about a Marcellus gas compressor station slated for installation on adjacent property. I’m as guilty as the next person for not paying enough attention to the reality of Marcellus shale issues in Pennsylvania, in not rallying to help other local farmers who are dealing with the changing rural landscape, in thinking just because we don’t see the frack water trucks lumbering down local roads, it doesn’t impact me directly. But rural Pennsylvania feeds Pennsylvanians. And the Kretschmanns have been feeding Pennsylvanians since 1971 and are one of the leading certified organic farms serving the greater Pittsburgh area. They’ve ran a CSA since 1993 – way before it was cool. They were my first CSA, and I’ve supported their operation whenever possible for almost a decade.

I won’t get into the details of how this can impact their land, their water, your food supply. You can google ‘frack water spills’ or ‘wellhead explosions’ or any number of other things that can scare you into action. But I want you to think about how this could happen under their nose – how they could be blindsided by a “surprise phone call last Wednesday from a neighbor about a meeting of the township board of supervisors at which they were to decide the issue.”

Rural Pennsylvania government doesn’t operate the same way a big city or inner ring suburbs do. The township where the Kretschmanns farm has an administrative staff of five for an area of almost 34 square miles. Although the township has a zoning code (parts of which I can’t find online quickly), zoning codes are allowed, but not required, by the state Municipalities Planning Code.  And you may have heard of parts of Act 13 being struck down earlier this year, which included the state pre-empting local zoning rules on drilling. That’s a good thing – it puts local land use decisions back in the hands of the locals. This township has a Zoning Hearing Board (presumably all volunteer), a Planning Commission (also presumably all volunteer), and a Board of Supervisors (who may or may not be volunteers – often if paid, it’s a part time job). These are the local levels of review that manage the process for land use. The township also has a solicitor for legal assistance. Unless I’m missing something or mis-remembering something, that’s it. That’s a totally typical setup for rural Pennsylvania township governance.

The initial hearing in question was to inform and obtain public comment for a conditional use application for the compressor station. While I can’t find the township’s public hearing requirements online, it’s reasonable to assume that the hearing notice posted on the website, maybe posted at the local government office, and in a newspaper of local record is sufficient public notice (as defined by local ordinances). It’s not surprising to hear that adjacent property owners were not personally notified.

What’s my point in this pedantic government discussion? There is no huge city hall or city-county building in rural Pennsylvania. The people making decisions about the use of rural land are doing this in their spare time, after their day job, or after they’re retired. If they’re getting compensated at all, it’s probably not a lot. Their budget is not huge. And they’re up against large gas drilling providers with a lot of money and a legal team who probably have read the local ordinances line by line and may know them better than the people charged with enforcing them. That is who is on the front lines of food security in Pennsylvania.

We can’t afford to not pay attention. We can’t afford to think that someone else will figure this out for us if we also want truly organic local food without potential contamination. Everyone’s life is busy, but everyone’s voice needs to be heard to ensure our food supply isn’t negatively impacted. So if you care, take the time to write to the New Sewickley Township manager (manager@newsewickley.com), cc: Don Kretschmann (don@kretschmannfarm.com), and do it now. The continued public hearing is tomorrow – July 23, 2014 at 6:30 pm.

And stay informed about both local food and local public policy so we don’t continue to be blindsided.

Here’s what I wrote:

Walter Beighey, Jr.

Manager, New Sewickley Township

Via email

Dear Mr. Beighey:

I write this email today in support of Don & Becky Kretschmann and their business, Kretschmann Family Organic Farm. It is my understanding that the proposed “Pike Compressor Station” to be constructed on Teets Road is on property adjacent to their farm. I strongly urge you to deny the conditional use application for this proposed station.

As much as the Marcellus Shale gas industry has been an economic boon to our state, many people are concerned about accidents, explosions, leaks, chronic exposure, and other negative side effects of this industry, myself included. While some concerns may be accurate and others overblown, it is clear that the impact of a compressor station on the Kretschmann farm would be almost totally negative. The Kretchmanns have operated their farm since 1971, are one of the first farms to be certified organic in the greater Pittsburgh area, and have built a successful business model on serving residents of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) since 1993. This collaborative community model ensures a steady supply of healthy, delicious produce for their customers and provides stability and flexibility to the Kretschmanns so that they can continue to be good stewards of their land. They have positively impacted the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of western Pennsylvania families and their farm is the pre-eminent CSA in the region. A compressor station would negatively impact their ability to attract new customers, potentially jeopardize their organic certification, and should an accident occur, possibly put them out of business.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture touts agriculture as “Pennsylvania’s Leading Economic Enterprise.” While the Marcellus development may give our region short-term gains, it is a finite resource. However, every Pennsylvanian must eat. It has been my pleasure to support the Kretschmanns over the years and I hope that the New Sewickley Township Board of Supervisors will consider long-term viability of a regional agricultural treasure over a compressor station with short-term gains and many potentially negative consequences.

Please feel free to contact me if you need more information.

photo courtesy http://www.kretschmannfarm.com/

It doesn’t happen often.

But when a garden pops up in my regular workday, it’s always a good thing. Yesterday I got to see a great community garden made primarily out of scavenged on-site materials. It serves as a therapeutic outlet, a location for community-wide learning, and supplements food for a local emergency shelter and transitional housing program. Plus, it’s beautiful.

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A typical Saturday

I live in a bubble. I freely admit it. I listen to NPR for my daily dose of news, eat goat cheese on purpose, and drive a Japanese car (a twelve year old, beat up, rusty Japanese car, but who’s splitting hairs?).  I’ve talked before about the choices we’ve made for our family in where and how we live, but they don’t seem strange to me. I know lots of other people who do the same things, similar things, even more extreme versions of things that my family does. I know other people don’t do those things, and that’s their choice. More power to them.

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Nick at Tazza even makes my chais to go beautiful. 

So I was quite surprised one day recently, when Heather, my favorite olive oil purveyor (who is also the only official olive oil purveyor I know, but again, who’s splitting hairs?) mentioned that I was one of her best customers. I haven’t bought that much oil and vinegar from her, so I kinda suspected that meant that her business was really slow that week. However, she clarified that while other people have bought more stuff from her than I have, I talk her up. A lot. Which, sure, I do. But I like food. A lot. And her stuff is good. I’ve never tasted olive oil that made me want to eat olives before (I don’t actually like olives). My kids drizzle it on everything. It’s fruity and delicious and that’s even before you get to the flavored oils. Why wouldn’t I talk about it? A silly question to me, but I guess that people don’t talk about their favorite shops or purchases or olive oils to their friends much.

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That bread cart in the window holds all sorts of goodies on Saturdays.

It made me wonder how many people know the people who sell them their food anymore. Just for fun, I actually paid attention to my Saturday food shopping errands last month (minus the grocery store for staples, everyone knows what they look like. Besides, that parking lot needs no more cars). And lookie here, I started at a locally owned coffee shop,  I bought locally bottled olive oil and locally made pains au chocolat from Olive & Marlowe (selling La Gourmandine products on Saturdays), stopped at DJ’s, the local butcher selling local meat cut to order in front of your very eyes, and  headed to a locally owned restaurant to eat lunch that’s sourced as locally as possible. How many people in my city do this? How many people even know that they can? We’re lucky to live near business districts that actually support small businesses.

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You get a show at DJ’s along with great local meats. My kids are fascinated by the giant butcher block. 

And frankly, that’s the way it should be. Maybe it’s quaint and dated, but a corporation doesn’t really need my cash. I’d rather see my money spent somewhere that the quality is good or better than what I can get in a big box store, that sends a little girl to dance classes, that helps people follow their dreams. And I have more fun shopping and enjoying my community in the process. If that’s the bubble I live in, I’m not popping it.

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That’s a delicious bubble, right there. 

summer school

I’ve officially decided that 2013 is a rebuilding year for my garden. Which is a nice way of saying there’s no way I could keep up with it with a new baby, two other kids at home, and a husband cramming his head full of math to prep for an economics PhD. But never fear! Some gardening did occur – enough to make me feel I wasn’t completely useless. It was at my kids’ school garden.

There are many school gardens popping up all over town – Grow Pittsburgh manages six in the city, while others are independently managed. Integral to the process is maintaining the space while students are out for the summer (the best growing season, of course), so families adopt the garden for a week at a time. Our week was in mid-July and was prime zucchini season (when is it not?). The kids loved horsing around at the playground, watering with the really cool extendable hose, and only being temporarily responsible for making sure things didn’t die.

20130723_133528The main reason I’m a slacker this year.

20130723_134922First, we weed…

20130723_135224…then we draw.

20130723_134012Zucchini plant. Large fifth grader provided for scale.

20130726_173742Watering is hard work.

20130723_140710Our first day’s haul – lots of trimmed-back herbs for drying, and the universal summer plant, zucchini.

20130728_183206In our house, we love my grandma’s zucchini cake.

20130728_185743What do you mean there’s no Nutella in the recipe?

20130803_161625Finished product – everything’s better with sprinkles. We loved tending the garden this summer!