Back to the soil: Families look to local farms to provide healthy options

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 14 2012 6:24 p.m. MDT

La Nay Ferme in Provo hosts a farm-to-table dinner for visitors to experience the options of healthy growing and eating Friday, Aug. 3, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Marsha Bradbury blames the vegetables.

She's a 64-year-old pancreatic cancer survivor who has been gardening all her life. Her modus operandi in avoiding a potentially deadly cancer is to grow any food believed to have cancer-fighting attributes.

"I like heirloom varieties and things you can't buy in the grocery store," Bradbury said. "I try to grow a variety of bright colors and if it comes in purple, I grow it." 

She isn't a food purist or a vegetarian, but Bradbury said she likes knowing where her food comes from and what's been used to cultivate it.

Bradbury isn't the only one who appreciates healthy, home-grown fare; the farm-to-table movement and the rise of Food Network programing is credited for putting the focus on healthy eating. And the growth of farmers markets is providing an avenue for locally grown produce to reach consumers in more and more cities and towns.

Farmers markets registered with the USDA surged 17 percent from 2010 to 2011 and another 9.6 percent in 2012. More than 7,800 are currently operating on a weekly basis throughout the country, with even more small communities also hosting crop exchanges and neighbors sharing produce grown in their own gardens.

Utah opportunities

Clinton Felsted, 40, planted his first crops at La Nay Ferme, in east Provo, last fall with the sole purpose of sharing it with others.

"I always thought I was a healthy eater, but it is very difficult eating healthy food in America," Felsted said, adding that it has been "a process" to identify all the food myths circling the media. "The more I have learned about food, the more I am focused on farm-fresh food."

Lay Nay Ferme sells shares of its land in exchange for fresh produce and operates under a concept known as community supported agriculture. The price works out to be $25 a week for a full bag of whatever is in season, said farm manager Barbara Fuller.

The farm focuses on growing a variety of greens — lettuce, kale, chard, spinach — but boasts more than 40 different vegetables and dozens of varieties of each. It also supplies at least four local restaurants with fresh produce on a weekly basis.

In order to grow and become a year-round produce option, Felsted said more members of the community "who are focused on being healthy and eating healthy food" need to participate. That's an opportunity for families to not only get healthy, but teach children healthy eating habits.

"Most people don't realize that lettuce can taste so good and that all lettuce is not iceberg variety," he said, extolling the virtues of his farm-fresh produce.

"You feel better when you're eating healthy," said local SLC Foodie blogger Becky Rosenthal. She touts local foods as the best option, shares recipes for healthy cooking and often highlights local restaurants that are supplied by local farms.

"Fresh foods have better flavor, and I once met a farmer who told me produce that is living has more nutrients than produce that has to travel long distances to get to you," Rosenthal said. "Local produce, even grown in your own garden, has been living or in the ground recently and provides fresh and rich nutrients to your body."

She said she's noticed more restaurants offering fresher ingredients, including some that advertise buying their produce from local farmers markets.

"There are a lot of farms that are within an hour drive of the city," Rosenthal said. "People can visit them and see it for themselves. Some even let you pick their produce."

To keep with the growing trend of healthy eating, Felsted hosts unique dining events at La Nay Ferme, inviting chefs to pick and prepare foods from the rows and rows of fresh, living produce and then serve it to the guests. He said he hopes it inspires people to be more creative with their food and eat more healthfully.

Tim and Britney Beardmore, of Salt Lake City, visited the farm last week for dinner. The couple typically shops at local markets for fresh produce and enjoyed the variety of tastes the mal at La Nay Ferme offered.

“Anything coming from a local farm you know is fresh, has no chemicals used in growing it and makes you feel like you’re eating more healthy,” Tim Beardmore said, adding that he probably eats vegetables at every meal, some of which come from their small home garden.

Their meal, which included accents of edible flowers, fruits, vegetables, fresh herbs and whole grains, was prepared by the Art Institute’s International Culinary Schools’ chefs in training. Some of them had never worked with such fresh foods.

While some of the offerings seemed exotic, the only real complaint among diners was that they ate too fast.

The idea of cooking with fresh produce, as well as the scenic setting at the farm, inspired recent BYU graduates Sara and Kyler Pilling to add even more unique tastes to their food repertoire.

“I liked knowing where it came from,” Sara Pilling said. Living in a condo, the two lack gardening space, but do have a few potted herbs to work with.

“It all makes me want to be more organic,” Kyler Pilling said. “The food tastes better when it is fresh, and a garden is definitely better than a store.”

Bradbury said gardening means more to her than the miracles that come out of it.

"It's very therapeutic growing a garden," she said. "I just enjoy the time spent down on my knees. I love planting a tomato seed the size of a baby's fingernail and within just a month, seeing beautiful, wholesome fruits coming from it."

Chickens also roam her Bountiful garden and their manure is used to fertilize the crops.

A co-op is born

Two women in Arizona decided in 2006 to help themselves add more health to their households and inadvertently started a fruit and vegetable revolution.

"We both come from farming areas in California and the thought of not having fresh produce was shocking to us," said Sally Stevens, co-founder of Bountiful Baskets. When jobs were lost and families kept growing, Stevens and her friend Tanya Jolly cut coupons and pinched pennies, but fresh fruits and vegetables still seemed out of reach.

After a trip to a wholesaler, they realized buying in bulk could save them and others bundles of cash. The co-operative now serves hundreds of thousands of households in nearly 20 states.

"Aside from being a mom, that is the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life," Stevens said. 

The two women take $15 contributions from individuals who sign up for the baskets each week online, at www.BountifulBaskets.org. They scour the market for the best deals, as well as the best variety and trucks show up at drop-off points throughout the country every Saturday, where volunteers fill baskets and each family arrives to pick up their bundle of produce.

Occasionally, the baskets are supplemented with fresh bakery products, but only after they've been carefully selected, having only pure ingredients "that you can actually understand when you read the ingredient list," Stevens said.

Bountiful Baskets remains a co-operative, made possible only by the hundreds of volunteers across the country and weekly contributions, which are used entirely to purchase produce.

As evidenced in the thousands of letters and e-mails the Stevens and Jolly receive each week, Stevens believes the option has inspired many to eat better and also be more creative with the meals they feed their families.

Farmers markets

Attendance and vendor participation at local farmers markets is also at an all-time high.

The USDA, which registers and tracks markets across the country, reported Friday that farmers market popularity is "mostly due to the growing consumer interest in obtaining fresh products directly from the farm."

Farmers markets, the agency said, are an important sales outlet for agricultural producers nationwide. 

"People find a value in supporting local businesses," said Salt Lake City's Downtown Farmers Market communication director Nick Como. "And there is certainly a health benefit from locally sourced foods."

The downtown market recently added an additional sales day, offering fresh produce options on both Tuesday evenings and on Saturday mornings. And to accommodate the swelling crowds, this year officials doubled the size of the aisles within the market and stocked on-site ATMs with even more cash.

The farmers market has invigorated an area of downtown that traditionally has been challenged economically. Pioneer Park also hosts concerts Thursday nights and family-friendly movies on Fridays.

In addition to the central market, many cities host their own, bringing together local farmers and gardeners alike to sell their crops.

Como said the presence of new food trucks in Salt Lake City is also a testament to the residents' overall desire to have access to fresh food and local vendors.

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