Loco for locavores

Does eating closer to home sound all that crazy?

Tom Stille’s hands are buried in soil and compost as he arranges asparagus starters in a planter off the sidewalk. A few other workers are planting as well, the river gurgling beside them. One incarnation of a locavore is a moderate lifestyle change with a focus on community. Stille of the River School/ Interpretive Gardens embodies that change in his own life, and in the community he builds on his grounds.

Stille walks me around the compound, pointing to a straw bale earth plaster wall, or stopping to show me the north-side planter, covered with old shower doors.

“These give me cool season crops all winter long,” Stille says.

I get the sense that this is so natural to him, it’s silly to explain. This is a lifestyle, not an experiment.

Stille sells produce to the Great Basin Community Food Co-op, but also to the 4th Street Bistro and Dish Café, and eggs are for sale on site. Though much of the focus is sustainability, Stille points out a crabapple tree, explaining the balance between sustainability and attracting wildlife to the River School.

“But you wanted to talk about locavores,” he says with a grin.

The Locavore

Locavores don’t eat locals, or crazy people, or even lazy people. A locavore is generally is someone who is experimenting with eating food found within a defined local area, or foodshed. Like most sustainable practices, there are varying degrees of participation. Where do you find a local banana in the Truckee Meadows? You don’t. This frightens away folks who think you have to go all the way to be a locavore. But you don’t. It’s a choice.

At the outset, locavores define just exactly how far they will go. Does this mean no more produce from the store, or just replacing what’s fresh at the Farmers’ Market? Is it a lifestyle change or an experiment? Is this a long-haul or a year? What will be given up? Is it just food, or is it the house and the yard and the car, too?

Not all or nothing

Think continuum. At one end, you have a family who decides to get the Community Supported Agriculture basket from the Great Basin Community Food Co-op for the summer, eating mainly the produce from that basket, but also supplementing with desired produce from the grocery store. At the other, you have a couple who have decided to eat only locally produced food, drink only local beer, tea and coffee, can their own produce, make their own cheese and raise their own chickens. In between these two fall the rest.

Shelly Brant, blogger for Local Food Northern Nevada (www.lfnn.blogspot.com), had been toying with becoming a locavore for a while, doing some research, meeting other locavores and building a network of support. After a year of preparation, she and her husband embarked on the experiment of eating locally, defining their foodshed as a 150-mile radius surrounding Reno.

How far will you go?

Locavores also define their foodshed. Will you eat only food from Reno, or maybe from Fallon and Winnemucca, or perhaps include all food within a certain radius of Reno? This decision requires a bit of research, making lists of available resources and narrowing your definition of foodshed.

“We had to make some choices before we started, of things we couldn’t or won’t give up,” says Brant. She kept the coffee; her husband wouldn’t yield on the refried beans. “It requires a change in lifestyle, and in shopping,” says Brant.

The Brants signed up for the year-round CSA basket (www.greatbasinbasket.com), which ensures that they’ll get a taste of whatever produce is available during the year. She gets her chicken from Sod Buster Farms, her beef from Smith Farms, her occasional lamb from Wolf Pack Meats. And year-round, Brant shops at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op for local honey for her coffee, among other things.

Ann Louhela from the Nevada Certified Farmers Market Association has a few insights into the locavore life, too, having been down that road now for about six years.

“When markets are in season, at least 50 percent of my food is locally grown,” says Louhela. The more people eat local food, and the more local food they purchase, the more the community of local farmers grows to meet that need.

“Whatever people are doing to eat locally, if it’s 5 percent, 2 percent or 50 percent, it starts to add up.”

Louhela says there are many ways to shop locally, including the Great Basin Community Co-op, more than 15 local farmers’ markets, including the five new to Reno this summer, and of course, growing a few things yourself or with a neighbor or two. And the Whole Foods soon to open in Reno will be working with local farmers to put their produce on the shelves, as well.

Why locavore?

Eating local foods builds community, as evidenced by the great interest in the Food Co-op, which now boasts more than 800 members. Membership is $15 per year, and gets you through the front door on Wonder Street. But the real community aspect of this local food endeavor is the member-worker program, where a member is invited to regularly volunteer in the store or be on one of several committees to receive an additional discount and become more connected to the growers and the shoppers, and, more often than not, connecting the two. With a community of need comes a community of common interest and sharing.

Seasonality is how our lives were dictated before produce was available year-round. Louhela admits that the food supply starts to run low in January through about March, but that the seasonality of the foods grown in Nevada help carry locavores through the winter, with squash and potatoes lasting for months in a cool garage or storage bin.

“When you start eating locally, when you eat in season, that’s really what your body wants,” says Louhela. “And things are cheaper in season.” You also get to know the farmers.

“As far as taste is concerned, it’s unsurpassed when it’s off the farm,” says Rick Lattin of Lattin Farms in Fallon. Lattin has been in the business for more than 20 years and sells his produce at a roadside stand in Fallon, area farmers’ markets, and now through the Great Basin Basket and the Food Co-op.

“Part of the strength of the local food system is building a community you can trust,” says Lattin.

A hundred years ago, rural and urban communities were connected, but as the shape of small farming in America has evolved, the connection has eroded. With the rising interest in eating local food, for reasons such as carbon footprints, costs of transportation, and importation from foreign countries, communities are reaching out to the small farmers in Nevada to ease concern over where food comes from, who grows it and how. Buying local helps communities become more connected, so much so that a consumer can visit the farm, meet the farmers and begin to build relationships.

Does this really strengthen us? Is it really better for the environment? There’s no definite answer to those questions. Cutting down on the fossil fuels used to ship produce from overseas or from across the country is a benefit on one hand, but are resources in an arid desert used wisely by growing crops?

These are costs and benefits to weigh when deciding where you stand. It will be convenient to buy local produce and beef at Whole Foods when it opens this summer, as easy as it would be to buy non-Nevada beef at, say, Raley’s. The actual cost of most local food is slightly higher because the consumer is paying the real price of the food, but when the seasonal foods are abundant, local food is actually cheaper in most cases than at the grocery store.

Again, this is a lifestyle choice, with many incarnations, and each consumer must weigh the environmental and social aspects of eating local versus eating cheap or convenient and look at the consequences of their choices in the long run.