I thought a lot about local food last night as I made the 28-mile (roundtrip) journey to get the turkey I'll roast for my family's Christmas dinner. Does it make a lot of sense, I wondered, for one person (me) to use over a gallon of gas to pick up one turkey?
I have to conclude that it probably does not, and yet the drive was worthwhile, even though I really don't like to drive, especially at night and especially when the car windows aren't particularly clean, which mine weren't. The drive nevertheless led me to ponder geography and culture and agriculture as I passed through town and then alongside the Haskell Indian Nations University, an institution originally created as a boarding school to train native children in the Euro-American trades and home crafts. I passed the Baker wetlands, whose welfare is threatened by a planned roadway despite more than 15 years' worth of protests and delays, and I passed by miles of farmland, with more and more of it cut into oversize lots for people with more dollars than sense (to borrow my mother's phrase) and a romantic notion of "living in the country."
I am reminded that living in harmony with the land hasn't really been a hallmark of these United States.
Meanwhile, I was driving into the dark because the real country people, including the farmers who raised the pastured turkey I was going to collect, often aren't on the farm in the daytime, having to earn a living in town, just like most farmers. (Read about off-farm income (PDF) in Table 4 of this USDA document, which shows the proportion of farms that depend on it. Links to the whole report can be found here.)
At last I reached the dirt road that goes past Vesecky Family Farms. Two big dogs met me. (A Great Dane? A Newfoundland?) John Vesecky fetched my frozen turkey, a Broad-Breasted White that I may well have seen in the pasture during a farm tour in the early fall. As with grass-fed beef, pastured turkeys — even the Broad-Breasted, bred for its ability to get big-chested fast — cost more because they take longer to get to market weight. (He also has heritage turkeys, but I just couldn't spend the $3.75 a pound for them.) Vesecky's son and grandson fiddled with bicycles nearby. I made small talk with the grandson, who said they got 6 inches of snow, compared with the 2 1/2 inches we got in Lawrence last week. Our snow was gone, but they still had a little of it left after a couple of 50-degree days.
The transaction completed, I headed down the hill and around the bend with my turkey sliding around on the floor beside me. I feel good about having that turkey, even with the drive. (And don't most Americans drive to the grocery store, after all?) The vaunted efficiencies of the big producers affect the land and the diners in ways I don't like. The drive reminded me that the price for a healthy main course that keeps this farm a little healthier really isn't too high.
The centerpiece of my Christmas dinner will be that bird. The milk and butter will be local, too. The potatoes and sweet potatoes will have traveled from Colorado, the cranberries a good distance more. It won't be a local meal, but it will feel a lot closer to home and a lot closer to living in harmony with the land than the alternative.