The best way to connect with your food source

June 28, 2011|By JEFF SEMLER |
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

As part of my job, I feel I have an obligation to help reconnect the general public with the food system they impact and shape by their choices.

Yet many have little knowledge of farming. I look at my own family as an example. My mother-in-law was raised on a farm in Oklahoma, yet her eldest daughter (my sister-in-law) lives in suburban Baltimore where she and her husband are raising two sons. Those boys are a mere two generations from the farm, but if it weren’t for their uncle (me), they would have absolutely no connection to the land that feeds them.

A century ago, even if they had lived in the very same area and had not chosen to farm, they would have been surrounded by farms instead of townhouses and would have grown at least half of the food that they would have eaten throughout a typical year. They would have probably bartered for another 25 percent, leaving just 25 percent to actually purchase.

These folks are not atypical, not even for Washington County. Even though many of our citizens live a whole lot closer to production agriculture, their agriculture literacy is not much better.

So where can you start to reconnect with your food supply? A farmers market or a farm stand is a great place to start. In these places “you can shake the hand that feeds you,” as Michael Pollan puts it in his book “In Defense of Food.”

When you get this close to the producer of the raw materials from which you will build your meal, you can ask questions about how and where the food was produced. I have been asked, how can I know if what I buy at these places was actually grown by the seller? The easiest method is asking them.

You should know that most farmers markets have standards that require the seller to have produced the product. While there is no such requirement of a farm stand since the owner is also the market master, asking is still the easiest way. I have found that if a producer has not grown a particular product they will typically identify it in that way. For instance, I know a vegetable grower who sells apples and peaches that he does not grow himself. When you look at the display in his farm stand, it is clearly marked that the apples are from X Orchard and the peaches were grown by Y Family Farms.

Your trust and confidence in your food supplier is as important to the producer as it is to you, and it serves both of you for the producer to be honest. Every business person knows the rules of referral; one satisfied customer will tell three friends but an unhappy customer will tell 10.

Now that you are beginning to connect to your food source, you will have the opportunity to connect with the other people you share your house with, your family. In addition to the erosion of diet and the disappearance of culinary skills, fast food and processed food have wreaked havoc on the family-shared meal.

There have been several studies that tout the benefits of eating meals and not just consuming food. The family dinner table was a place where people not only ate, but children were taught manners and observed and practiced the art of conversation. Again as Pollan relates, “shared meals were about much more than fueling bodies; they are uniquely human institutions where our species developed ... this thing we call culture.”

In many cultures, business transactions take place over a shared meal rather than a lawyer’s desk or a fairway. We often hear about the French or Mediterranean diet and how it is loaded with fat and starch yet they tend not to have the dietary-induced diseases of Americans. While I don’t have room to go into all the differences in the diets, one of the big differences is the length of the meal and the size of the portion. Their meals tend to be longer in duration and smaller in size.

So with high fuel prices, perhaps we will be forced to slow down. You not only can reconnect with your food, but you can reconnect with your family and friends around a shared meal.

Remember the words of Wendell Berry, “Eating is an agricultural act.”

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at


The Herald-Mail Articles