Pepe was about to drool upon the menu—the roast pork loin, in particular. But before he really let the juices flow, there was something he needed to know.
He asked the waitress, “Do you know where the pork loin is from?”
This might seem like a stupid question. Pork loin is, after all, from a pig. But the waitress understood. It was a restaurant that often served local food. “I think it’s organic,” she said, “from Lifeline Farms in the Bitterroot. But lemme check.”
While she was checking, Pepe sat quietly. I asked, “What if the pork isn’t local? What if she has no idea where it’s from? Will you order it?”
Pepe was sullen and tense. It was too much to ponder. “I don’t know, dude,” he said.
The waitress returned, apologetic. “I was wrong,” she said. “Not from Lifeline.”
Now Pepe has a dilemma.
“Vote with your dollars,” says Jen Jones, repeating the phrase like a mantra every chance she gets. Jones wasn’t at the table with Pepe and me, but if she had been, she would have appreciated the conversation. She’s a volunteer with an organization called Farmhands, a group that is putting local agriculture on the map, literally. Based in Kalispell, Farmhands publishes a map entitled “Farms of the Flathead Valley” which pinpoints the location and offerings of over 50 Flathead Valley farms, with an in-depth blurb about each farm on the flipside. The map has a list of symbols that indicate the products and services available at each farm, including symbols for vegetables, eggs, herbs, fruits, flowers, grains, beef, pork, goats, compost, consulting and agri-tourism.
Agri-tourism, in which willing visitors pay to experience various aspects of farm life, is an emerging opportunity for Montana farmers. A hay ride through the pumpkin patch, for example, or a haunted scamper through an old corn field that’s been turned into a Halloween maze, or a rustic bed and breakfast featuring farm-fresh meals.
The opportunity isn’t lost on Flathead travel promoters, who donated money to Farmhands through the Glacier Country tourism commission. But even if agri-tourism never becomes a major revenue generator, the goals of Farmhands and Glacier Country are parallel in other, more significant ways. As of 1989, farmland in the Flathead was disappearing at a rate of 1.4 acres per hour, much of it lost to development. Perhaps some of this development will attract tourists, but tourism should support the local economy, not replace it.
By raising the profile of local farms to locals and tourists alike, Farmhands hopes to increase the integration of farms into the social and economic fabric of the valley. It’s beginning to work. Last year Spring Brook Ranch attributed the sales of at least four buffalo to the map. Meanwhile, a group in the Bitterroot has contacted Farmhands, interested in doing the same thing. “Our vision,” says Jones, “is that someday everyone will have a map of local agriculture.”
According to the map, some farms are organic, some not, while others are listed as “no-spray.” The various designations raise some potential issues for conscientious consumers. Many major corporate food companies, like Dole and General Mills, have lately jumped on the organic food bandwagon, essentially by replacing their agricultural chemicals with approved, organic substitutes in their large-scale industrial agriculture operations. Now it is possible to buy a tomato that was grown without chemicals on a 3,000-acre monoculture, thousands of miles away, by underpaid workers. Is this better than a tomato from a small farm in your home valley, a farm that didn’t jump through all of the hoops to get certified organic? Meanwhile, how much greenhouse gas gets spewed to bring an organic tomato all the way from Chile? And how does that tomato taste, compared to a tomato picked ripe next door?
On May 1, Farmhands will release a new map including nine more farms, as well as a “harvest chart” which lists when various crops will be harvested. The chart will help Flathead residents buy produce at its peak, produce they can then turn into tomato sauce, pickles, preserves and all kinds of storable food they can eat locally, in season, year-round.
The new map also contains an insert publicizing local restaurants that serve local food. Which brings us back to my dinner with Pepe and the burning question: What did he order?
He ordered the pork loin, of course.
Sure, it might have made a stronger statement if we had walked out. But why? After all, we were at that restaurant in part because we knew they often buy local. Our waitress was hip to the concept, honest about the reality of this particular pork loin, and communicated our preference to the kitchen. If everyone had guts like Pepe to state their preference for local food, restaurants would take notice, and the food would taste better. Farmers would be happier, our spaces would stay more open, and our local communities would be less dependent on large corporations deciding what we eat.
For more info on Farmhands, call (406) 862-0621.