Features and Occasionals

Supporting Small Endeavors

By Adele Flail

Thanks to Slow Food Utah’s micro-grant program, locally focused projects that increase biodiversity, provide access to more healthful food, or contribute to our community’s knowledge base are springing up on farms and community gardens (and backyards) all across Utah.

If you’ve checked out CATALYST’s website in the last month, you may already be engrossed in Fowl Play (catalystmagazine.net/fowlplay.html), the blog chronicling the ongoing endeavors of CATALYST’s own intrepid urban homesteaders, Katherine Pioli and Ben Bombard, as they attempt to establish a flock of ducks and geese right in their own 9th-and-9th backyard. Starting with paired hatchlings, Ben and Katherine are raising the birds for eggs—and eventually, for meat—and to be the parents of the next generation of their growing flock. Attentive readers may have noticed Katherine’s note that their (ad)venture has been funded by a grant from Slow Food Utah, allowing the couple to purchase, feed and house the fowl whose descendents will someday fill the incubator the couple provided.

As any farmer knows, starting a new project can be a gamble. The layout for equipment or supplies happens at least a whole season before those costs can be recouped with a harvest, and even hobbyist farmers and urban homesteaders aren’t insulated from the setbacks that will most certainly occur when your business is the blossoming, bleating, and honking living world —a sudden cold snap, a ravenous raccoon, or even the error part of the trial-and-error of developing a new knowledge set.

This uncertainty goes a long way towards explaining the exodus of small family farmers and the rise of big agribusiness, whose regimented tactics maximize yield and profits, if not necessarily human health, environmental stability, or even flavor. But thanks to Slow Food Utah’s micro-grant program, locally focused projects that increase biodiversity, provide access to more healthful food, or contribute to our community’s knowledge base are springing up on farms and community gardens (and backyards) all across Utah.

Slow Food Utah is a chapter of the national Slow Food USA organization, itself part of a global grassroots movement that caught on in Italy in 1986 with the efforts of activist Carlo Petrini. Now an international movement with 100,000 members from 150 countries, the original organization, as you might guess from the name, was intended to counterbalance the rise of fast food and industrial agriculture. Slow Food aims at providing food that is, in all ways, better—for the people eating it, for the people growing it, and for the land-base it comes from. Indeed, for a worldwide movement and organization, the focus is always close to home, with each convivia or chapter focusing on the needs of its own community and environment.

“In Salt Lake, we want to support local farmers, to keep people on the land, and create a food system that we can all live with,” says Slow Food Utah Chair Gwen Crist. SFU also wants to educate the community, and get people back in touch with the source of their food, supporting their mission to “link the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment.”

Founded in 2001, the all-volunteer organization is doing what it can to make that vision a reality, including offering financial support. The micro-grant program started in 2009 as a way to boost small, local food-related projects that might not be profitable in the traditional sense, and wouldn’t qualify for a traditional bank loan.

Many of those first projects were focused on the school garden concept, providing an educational resource to children from local communities, but the chapter quickly realized they wanted to show more support for the community at large. Recipients over the past four years range from traditional small farmers, to urban homesteaders, to individuals with other initiatives and organizations that are also working to improve the quality, sustainability and security of local food.

One major focus of Slow Food chapters across the world is in preserving the biodiversity of our food “ecosystem,” ensuring that our food sources are less vulnerable to new pathogens or the assorted global warming weather-weirdness that can disrupt the growing season. Slow Food USA Ark of Taste is a catalog of over 200 foods in danger of extinction in today’s heavily homogenized landscape of agriculture. (For those of you playing along at home, the Cayuga ducks and American Buff geese selected by Ben and Katherine are also on this list.) As you browse the list, www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/ark_of_taste/ ) you’ll notice that these aren’t your typical grocery store fare—check out any of the peaches on the list, or the Sudduth Strain Brandywine tomato—these types will bruise, crackle, and burst, making them unsuitable for long-distance transportation (and lacking in the factory-uniform presentation that consumers have come to expect).

But while factory-farm breeds must focus on transportability and appearance, sometimes at the cost of taste and nutrition, the first and foremost quality that endangered foods must embody to make the list is outstanding taste. So whether you find these breeds at the local farmer’s market, or in your own backyard, this is one instance where doing the right thing by sustainability unequivocally requires accepting gains rather than making sacrifices. And the focus on biodiversity when translated to the local level also reinforces many of Slow Food’s other focus areas, such as preserving the traditional food knowledge of regions or ethnicities (including growing techniques, to the preparation of dishes, to saving the seeds of unique foodstuffs) or supporting smalls-scale local farming (the broadened catalogue of edible plant and animal varieties means that food crops and herds can be tailored to suite each region’s unique climate rather than forcing the climate to conform to the crop, decreasing the environmental load of agricultural production).

Thanks to Slow Food Utah’s micro-grant program, the landscape for slow food-focused agriculture is looking greener than ever. This last year Slow Food Utah awarded $11,000 in grants—up from $4,000 the first year. But the increase in funding is only keeping pace with the growing demand. This year saw over 40 applications, which Gwen Crist estimates is quadruple the number received the first year. Relationships with Cisco and Harmons have helped to support the fledging micro-grant program, ensuring that Slow Food Utah will be able to help small projects that will enrich the foodscape here in Salt Lake and beyond.

Each month, CATALYST will profile a different grant recipient, to highlight some of the projects happening on our local food front. For those readers who might be considering a project of their own, guidelines and the form can be found on Slow Food Utah’s site: tinyurl.com/ slowfoodgrantrecipients. The grant is open to individual applicants, small business, or non-profits whose projects will increase the local knowledge base as well as the availability of locally grown foods, preserve regional and cultural food traditions, or contribute to taste education among children or adults. “One thing we give preference to is the concept of biodiversity,” says Crist. It is also important to have a pay-it-forward mentality, providing taste education or sharing skills.

Even those not ready to venture into their own projects can help increase the community’s knowledge-base by becoming a member tinyurl.com/slowfoodmembership, and attending cooking classes, farm tours, and tasting events scheduled by Slow Good Utah—appreciation for the flavors of slow food forms the basis for activism in this case, so stay tuned, and bring your tastebuds. 

Delectation of Tomatoes:
Meet Dale Thurber, a Slow Food Utah 2012 micro-grant recepient

For Dale Thurber, a recipient of a 2012 Slow Food Utah micro-grant, the added funds gave him the opportunity to expand his operation.

He calls his business Delectation of Tomatoes—a micro-farming endeavor located in West Valley City. On his colorful website he states some noble objectives: “To enhance physical and psychological health; facilitate appreciation for and enjoyment of the best (healthiest, tastiest) food the earth has to offer with an emphasis on the amazing, versatile, nutritious, domesticated Tomato, Solanum lycopersicum (or Lyco­persicon esculentum, depending upon which authority one chooses to follow); promote ecologically responsible and sustainable food growing practices; and encourage self-reliance and independence from the ‘System’ for nutritional needs.” He offers seeds, starts and produce as well as garden planting and tending, consulting and training.

An avid gardener and research scientist for over 20 years, Thurber became interested in tomatoes—especially big, beefy tomatoes—after taking over his parents’ garden: “All of these volunteer tomatoes came up, but they were cherry tomatoes—I got sick of picking them!”

In fact Dale’s search for large, tasty tomatoes has been quite successful—he currently has the seeds for 280 varieties of tomato (200 of which are heirloom varieties). In 2011, he was able to grow 2,000 seedlings of nearly 300 varieties.

Many of the varieties that Thurber grows, such as the colorfully named Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter tomato, are on Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, although this is happenstance from Thurber’s own dedication to finding the biggest, juiciest varieties.

With the help of the micro-grant, Thurber put in a 42-ft. x 14 ft.-high tunnel to get 8,000 melon and pepper—and of course tomato— seedlings off to an early start. Some of these plants will supply other urban farm operations around the city, some will go directly to the gardens of hobbyist gardeners, and some will be grown by Thurber himself to sell as produce, and to provide next year’s seeds.

While he has been able to increase the quantity of tomatoes, his focus is still on quality. With only .15 of an acre to work with, Thurber plants intensively, but he is careful to add nutrients back to his soil. Thurber says most big farmers just add nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, while some of the more enlightened producers will add up to eight minerals, but there are scores of trace minerals needed to keep the human body healthy, and with applications of fish emulsion, sea salt, and mycorrhizal fungi (to name a few), Thurber aims to ensure that his plants pass on their good health to the consumers: “When people ask what I do, I tell them I’m in medicine—preventive medicine.”

Thurber isn’t getting much sleep these days, he admits. On top of caring for thousands of young plants, he plans to provide more information about gardening on his website. In the meantime, he often pauses to chat with his customers, giving advice and sharing his knowledge about the varieties he offers, as well as general info about growing in Utah’s climate.

While it means a longer day for Thurber, it will be these small interactions between consumer and grower, where knowledge is passed on and taste-horizons expanded, that could change the way we eat in Utah for the better. 

Visit Dale Thurber at his website: delectationoftomatoes.com

This article was originally published on May 25, 2012.