Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field is an offering of the ATTRA Web site featuring interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
Molly Beverly, Local Foods Champion in the Radically Changing West
Molly Beverly is the Food Services Director at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona and a local foods advocate. She is considered a pioneer in her region for procuring, using, and advocating local and sustainable foods. From the onset of her position with Prescott College, she has made it a goal to procure local and sustainable foods for the college's Crossroads Café and their catering needs. The Café also serves as a forum for multi-level learning, from cooking to student/faculty displays that enhance course content. Tammy Hinman, NCAT Agricultural Specialist, sat down to talk with Molly about her perspectives on local and sustainable foods in an area that is undergoing radical demographic changes and development.
Q. What shaped your interest in food and local foods in particular?
A. The main thing that shaped my interest in local foods was being a farmer for several years. I went from being an avid gardener to a market gardener. In the late 1970's and early 1980's there weren't very many markets; it was before farmers markets so we had to market our vegetables at swap meets. I also grew organic garlic for 5 years.
Q. Was there a pivotal moment that made you decide to make a career?
A. When we moved to the Prescott, Arizona area in 1974, it was a small ranch town. I got together with a girlfriend and we decided to teach "natural foods" because we came from California and knew about these things. It became a popular course at the local community college and I started adding courses. I taught food topics for 28 years and created a bulk of information, recipes, and was generally involved with healthy and local foods. Within 10-15 years, people started asking me to cook for them. That is when I started catering for Prescott College and other venues. At that time there were not very many cooking schools. Chefs were trained in restaurants. Most of my students wanted to learn how to eat healthier, but I taught anyone who wanted to learn—from the college student that didn't know how to boil water, to mothers who wanted themselves and their family to eat better. Most of my students wanted to be more involved with their food.
Q. Did the local aspects evolve or flow into your teaching because you were a farmer or did you make a conscious decision to incorporate this theme?
A. When I moved here in 1974, several areas around Prescott were a farm area. The area had a long history of ranching so there was beef, a hog ranch, a turkey farm; there were 10 dairies, corn, pintos, pumpkins and row crops. There was such a wide range of food right here and it is just about all gone now. I just started buying from local farmers. I loved interacting with the farmers, the food was better, and it was cheaper (I was on a tight budget). It was really an outgrowth of the back to the land movement—which we were a part of. You call it a movement because people give you a name, but our goal was to get back into the natural cycles, out of the city, and get our hands in the dirt. Part of this was buying from your neighbors and processing your own food. These experiences were truly the origin of it for me.
Q. After being involved with organic and local foods for 30 years, and producing your own food, what do local and sustainable food systems mean to you now?
A. Sustainable agriculture, to me, means that a farm is integrated—it feeds upon itself. If you have leftover milk, you feed it to the hogs and put the hog manure on the fields that grows the grass that the cows eat. You create a cycle. You can also have a local farm that is not sustainable. I saw such a farm the other day, that purchased all of their inputs, and their animals did not have access to pasture.
A sustainable food system means getting involved with growers and seeing their farm. I may strike up a conversation with a small confined feeding operation about pasturage and they might be willing to change their practices a bit. If you do not talk to the farmers you are not going to create change. I will not have a chance to talk the agribusiness farmer into changing their farming practices. With local smaller farms you at least have a voice to create change in their farming practices.
A sustainable and local food system also means the food has character. The world's great cuisines are built on the character of the food products that they have locally. That is what makes Chinese food different from Mexican. But if the foods are uniform, for example what you would get at the grocery store, you are not going to get great cuisine.
Q. What does the loss of Young's Farm, which was an icon in your region, mean to you as a local and organic foods advocate?
A. The Youngs' products are going to be very difficult to replace. Of course they were local, but they also had a product of fabulous quality. The farm is an icon—people come from all over the state to their festivals. They weren't just Disneyland either—they were great farmers, but they also had this open heart in direct marketing, which was very smart of them, to share their farm with the public. It is a great loss for this entire region. I fought very hard to keep them here. It was not only a loss of inspiration to the community, but also a loss of insight at the state level.
The Youngs had a big fund raiser to purchase the development rights. These funds went to the Arizona Lands Trust and will now be diverted to help with farm preservation efforts throughout the state. For the Youngs to have kept the farm, the state of Arizona had to kick in some funds, and they did not. There were state representatives who did not see the farm as an enhancement of this area. I cannot think of a better enhancement, it was both educational and entertaining—all those people from the city picking out pumpkins, walking over clods of dirt, and seeing that their pumpkins were actually coming from a farm.
These iconic farms have moved to an area where people value their farmers—where they get tax breaks and water breaks, and people buy local foods.
(Young's Farm was a diversified family farm that produced turkeys, chicken, sweet corn, and numerous other crops. They also created a model agritourism destination with many seasonal festivals and an on-farm restaurant. Due to development pressures in their region, 2006 was the last year for Young's Farm in its current location. They will be selling their property and moving their farm to Oregon this winter. Find more about Young's Farm and their struggles with development.)
Q. That is where my question was going—this area used to be a farming area and after 30 years, you have seen radically less farming. Finally these iconic farms have packed it up and left for "greener pastures." What does this say about the region's policies toward local foods and farms?
A. I would say this about Arizona in general—they do not value local farms. A farmer in Phoenix that I buy from (for the Crossroads Café), is always getting marginalized. They are nipping at his heels about using too much water. Instead of embracing him and saying "we love you here and we need you," they consider him a remnant of the past.
I have to keep focused on what we have here now and what I hope we can have here in the future. This has gone from being a farm-rich area to one with very few farms. When they started the Chino Valley Farmers Market, it made me chuckle because I thought, "What farmers?" There were more farmers at that time than there are now! If you start buying from local farms, you start stimulating them. At the Crossroads Café, we still take two steps forward and one step back (when trying to procure local food). For example, I tried to purchase Emu meat recently, but they gave me significantly less than I ordered because they did not realize the yield of their product. It is important to be flexible when working with local producers.
Q. How do you see local and sustainable food playing out in your region? What are some local examples?
A. I am hopeful and try to be optimistic. I see more farmers coming on all the time. I am also optimistic that there are things happening that I do not even know about yet. For example—one of my past students at the community college is now working with a local ranch to integrate organic practices. He came to me to see what the Café would buy, and how to market this stuff in general. He has enough water and land to provide food for this area—my job is to encourage him to sell it all locally—not to go all the way down to Phoenix.
Q. What are some obstacles that you see?
A. Development is a huge obstacle. Chino Valley, which used to be a big farm area, is now going down to development. The other thing is that people do not value local agriculture. People are beginning to value organics more, though. You see this in grocery stores. But still, the developers own the state—they have people in legislature. Even in Chino the developers sit on the town council and allow people to develop their land to its fullest capability. There is no protection for farmers and no support for farms.
The Collier's Farm, another iconic farm within Chino Valley, should have been given some support and tax breaks from the community, but instead the state cut their water rights by 5 percent every year—they could keep their land and use the water for farming, but they could not sell their water rights to the next person who may want to farm—the value of their land was slowly depleted (for agriculture) and they could only sell their land for development. The policies slowly nip at the heels of farmers. The farm I work with in Phoenix is required to use 10 percent less water every year. However golf courses are encouraged! That is considered a GOOD use of land. That is what I consider wrong.
Q. As the Food Services director of Prescott College, you have been an example of how to start a farm-to-cafeteria program at a small college. How did this role come about for you?
|Crossroads Cafe, Prescott College|
A. Prescott College was ready for the change. They were building new buildings, including the Crossroads Café. They did not even really know what they wanted yet. I happened to be there catering for them and I decided that they needed me and I needed them. So I wrote up a vision for the café, which you can view at the Prescott College Web site—this has now turned into the mission statement. I lobbied the college to try to sell this vision to them. Before this they had a café, which was only partially serving the needs of the college. It did not fulfill the internal catering needs of the college—that is where I began my relationship with them. Even though I was their professional caterer, a lot of time they would just call Dominos, or get sandwiches at Subway. Here you have a college with a strong environmental ethic, but they were feeding their students unhealthy foods without an ethic. It was my goal to bring the environmental mission of the college full circle into the food service—to have them walk their talk. That is the mission of the Crossroads Café.
Q. Once you proposed this, were there barriers to fulfilling your mission (internally within the college)?
A. The barriers were jumping through hoops to prove that I was serious about this. I think Prescott College was thrilled by the idea that this could happen. It was not like I was trying to impose this on a bunch of people who did not think it was a good idea. That is what you get in larger college cafeterias. Not that it was an easy sell—it was not easy. I had to go up against the corporate layer of college food service, Sodexho-Mariott, who had a competing bid. I was also competing for the food services director position with high powered chefs. But it was easier than going up against the public food system with a food services manager who does not understand the value of whole grains and fresh vegetables, let alone local foods.
Q. In terms of logistics, buying and coordinating with local growers can be a challenge for people in food service. Can you describe how you set up these relationships and how you maintain enough consistency to provide meals for the Crossroads Café?
|One of the vendors for the Crossroads Café, Cory Rade of Whipstone Farm.|
A. When I first started up I thought it would be much more difficult than it actually is. Plus it is really fun to make these contacts and to stimulate this kind of growth. A lot of the time the growers are so excited that they will bend over backwards to give you what you want. They also fall on their face. This was the case with the Emu farm that was not able to meet our supply demands. It is very difficult to get consistent supply. We have to see this as being a goal—our goal is to get as much local and organic food as we can. I have to supplement with food wholesalers and I depend on them. For example if I do not get greenhouse tomatoes from the local community college greenhouse, I can decide not to serve tomatoes, or just get them from a wholesaler. It is important to have an audience that understands that our mission is a goal. Often times the supply is just not here, so I cannot make our goal happen all the time.
I supplement products from outside sources that I cannot obtain locally, but that I consider sustainable. For example I buy from a local salmon fisherman who does his own fishing in Bristol Bay, Alaska and resides in Prescott, or raw milk cheese from a closed herd in Missouri. I do use goat milk cheese from an Arizona cheese maker at the Crossroads Café and for catering, but he is probably the only commercial cheese maker in the entire state.
Q. Do you have to purchase from USDA inspected processing plants?
A. As the health department says, you have to buy from approved sources. What does that mean? I do buy USDA approved meats. Luckily we have a small meat processing plant in the area.
Sometimes the local health department creates barriers. Farm produce is considered a "safe product," by health department standards. We are not so sure about this now with the most recent E. coli outbreaks, but that did not have anything to do with small farms. As far as finding sources, I ask around and go to the farmers market and at one point I had a student researching it. Now that they know, many farmers come to me. Local farmers see me as being beneficial (in terms of marketing.)
Q. Do you have some words of wisdom for people working within college cafeterias who are interested in procuring local foods?
|Crossroads Café Staff—learning and having fun.|
A. Sometimes people within food service have the values, but they do not have internal support. It is important to have a food services director who has the values. This person also needs to believe that it is not just about local and organic, it's about eating healthy.
Students and parents need to demand, and value the importance of eating good food.
Don't expect to be too perfect and just see these things as a goal. In many places throughout the country, it is not realistic to procure all organic and local foods—in most places it would be very difficult. We also have to get off the idea that you can have everything all the time. That is part of the creativity of cooking—you need to be flexible. You cannot expect to have strawberries all the time and have them taste good. Strawberries are a spring crop. We should cook with them and appreciate how great they taste when they are in season.
Also, it is important to stay optimistic, no matter what level you are at in the food system—farmer, consumer, chef. We are at such a low point with agriculture in this state, but I have to be optimistic about what can happen here. The industry as a whole is growing. Take grass-fed beef—this is a beef area, it has been for over a 100 years, but the ranchers have not figured out how to direct market. I do not think it would take too much to create a direct market for these producers because the infrastructure is there.
Food Service personnel need to keep making local connections. Even if the schools just had one week of local foods, or featured one local product. A lot of the struggle is just setting it up, but once it is set up, then it becomes easier.
Q. Are you the only person purchasing local at the wholesale level in your region?
A. Some will purchase local if it comes to them. People are open to it, but are not actively pursuing it. I am kind of a spokesperson for local foods in this region.
I picked up a lot of my background and professional experience from the American Culinary Federation. My goal with this organization was to turn them on to local food. Once, I posed the question of how they would use an entire cow in their restaurant, and they did not have an answer for me. I gave them the challenge (because this is a challenge of purchasing direct from a farmer), and no one ever took me up on that challenge. Since I have been involved with food service, I have been able to solve this challenge. I am proud of the fact that I figured out how to buy directly from the beef farmer. I work with a grower who turns the meat into chunks for stew meat, kabobs and ground for burgers, and she takes the steaks and sells them. I get better prices (the farmer sells the expensive cuts) because I am buying cheaper cuts. Most restaurants are portion-controlled and they order only specific cuts—they have no clue how to buy, or use, a whole cow. I am proud of the fact that I have figured this out.
Q. It seems that you are great at getting the students involved with projects at the Crossroads Cafe.
A. Well I want to do more. That is why goals are important. When you expect things to be perfect and they are not, then you give up. I needed to have a conversation recently with a student that was questioning the extent of our local and organic purchases, and I asked him to help me instead of fight me about it. After that conversation, instead of being critical, he became a supporter of the café and its mission.
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014