'Ag in the Middle' & Eating Local with Kathleen Bauer
Kathleen Bauer is a writer, blogger, producer and cook who connects the dots between what’s happening with farmers in the fields and what she puts on her table to feed family and friends. Her blog, called Good Stuff NW, got a lot of attention for an article she wrote in March 2017 called Why I’m Quitting Tillamook Cheese. “Within 2 days of posting it on the blog [the article] started going viral which was very very scary to see, I’ve never had a post go viral before. To-date it’s gotten close to 980,000 hits on it,” says Kathleen of the article that brought her so much attention inside—and outside—the good food movement.
“I think it has a lot to do with the fact that in my mind Tillamook [County Creamery Association] wasn’t telling the straight story. They were still trying to sell themselves as a local co-op, a local dairy.” She feels that Tillamook cheesemakers led consumers to believe that they were still a small, local creamery, when really they had joined hands with agribusiness, and few of their products were truly local anymore. This realization that Tillamook cheese might not be all Kathleen had grown up believing it was led her “on a quest to look for more locally produced and healthier products that come from local sources where my money would support local farmers.”
As a result of this quest, Kathleen has been increasingly interested in the idea of “ag in the middle”—the idea that we need to help small farmers scale up to ‘middle-sized’ farmers and that, in turn, we need to help these mid-sized farmers compete with Big Ag because they are more sustainable, can produce the same yields and contribute meaningfully and measurably to their communities.
“I’ve heard so many times from conventional ag people that you either have to get big or get out. I don’t believe that’s true, and that’s why I’m interested in the topic of ag in the middle,” says Kathleen.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Kathleen Bauer, a writer, a blogger and producer. Kathleen’s blog is called Good Stuff Northwest, and she connects the dots between what’s happening in the field and what’s she’s putting on her table.
KATHLEEN BAUER: Thank you, I’m totally pleased to be here.
TM: It is so fun. I did tell our listeners that you were a blogger but what I didn’t say is that you’re blogging in Portland, Oregon. I couldn’t help wondering—is it intimidating to be a blogger in such a foodie city and be blogging about food and agriculture?
KB: It probably should be, but I approach it more from a place of curiosity and learning. So I’ve tried to share that journey with people on my blog. So I don’t consider it intimidating because I don’t pretend to know everything—and I certainly don’t know everything.
TM: And I also, when I introduced you, failed to say, wow, you’re also a cook! And I had so much fun cruising your blog, and it was really fun to see the things that you’ve experimented with. Like, for example, tell us: Just how hard is it to make your own kimchi?
KB: It’s actually super simple once you get over your fear of fermentation—of things blowing up or going bad or whatever. It’s really easy. You just take cabbage, chop it up, mix in salt—it’s a lot like sauerkraut—you mix in salt and let it sit, and then you add peppers and other vegetables to it. And it’s super easy, you just let it sit.
TM: Yeah, it just takes some time. And how long do you let it sit?
KB: It depends on how you like it. I think you can kind of taste it after about a week—maybe a few days to a week. And then when it gets to the point where you really like it, then you can stick it in the fridge and it will keep for, basically, ever.
TM: I’m thinking about when we first met, 20 or 30 years ago already, there wasn’t this fermentation craze. What do you think—how did this all come here? You must’ve watched it as it came into Portland.
KB: Well, it’s kind of—it has grown exponentially here. I think a lot of it—I think it goes back to the establishment of the urban growth boundary in the 1970s, which allowed local farms to flourish close to the city center and the rise of farmers’ markets. And I also think that the national movement toward people knowing where their food comes from, and wanting to learn about some of these basic procedures and processes like fermentation, just kind of grew out of that. I mean, it’s kind of leftover from the hippie days, which you and I both remember. Seriously! I mean, our mothers—my mother canned. She didn’t do fermentation but she canned a lot. And I was just like, “Oh, I don’t need to learn that. I don’t care.” So it’s kind of like I remember that and miss that and I want to explore that again, kind of rediscover that and reconnect with that.
TM: Well, do you see the fermentation craze being a little bit about maybe the Asian-ization? I mean, when people think of Portland they think all these people are the trendsetters. And I’m not thinking that maybe fermentation is exclusively from Asia.
KB: It could be from the growth of becoming aware of other cultures and their processes and traditions. And eating that food, say, in restaurants and then kind of going, “Well, I wonder how that works?” And I think that’s a little part of it, but I really think it has a lot to do with the availability of really good ingredients.
TM: And then the other little cooking tip that I just learned from you, and combing through your blog, was how you didn’t want ricotta with lactose, so you got lactose-free milk and then made your own. And I think for many of us who have never done such a thing, we would find that almost a huge leap, and yet you dove right in. And maybe you can say something about how that came out.
KB: Oh, that! No, actually I think, really, thank God for the internet because I can hear about something and go, Well, what would it take to make that? And then I look it up and look at several recipes and I’m just like, Wait a minute, this is so easy. I could do this! It’s got three ingredients. It’s not complicated. It’s like, I learned about making my own peanut butter. It takes five minutes and a blender. And I had no idea it was that simple to do those things. So that’s kind of where that stuff comes from. If I look it up and it looks like it’s doable, and I’m not going to kill anybody, then I’ll try it.
TM: Why is it that the new generation doesn’t seem to want to cook? I have to ask almost everyone I talk to this question. Because I feel like there’s this mysterious thing and that someone’s going to give me some great insight into all of this.
KB: I don’t think that’s true. I think young people really are interested in cooking. I think they are not… I’m trying to think the right way to say it. I think a lot of them don’t have time—as many of us didn’t when we had kids or careers when we’re really busy. But I really think that young people are interested in cooking. I meet lots of them and run into lots of them through my blog and through Facebook and the various social media things. They’re very interested in learning about it. And that’s why I try to focus on easy recipes, easy things you can do yourself, like make peanut butter, or use corn on the cob and make your own corn stock, or simple recipes that don’t take a lot of effort and time to make but are really great, especially when you use local and healthy ingredients.
TM: Well, you know, I was actually—now that you mentioned using corn and making corn stock—I was actually intrigued with that too because, of course, I do eat meat and I don’t eat a ton of it, but I do love broth. And I’m always trying to figure out how to make a nice, rich vegetable broth. I had never heard of… Can you describe what you do to make a good, rich corn broth?
KB: I don’t do anything except throw some corn cobs in a pot, cover them with water, and cook them for a bit, and bring them to a boil for about 30 minutes. Seriously, that’s it! Even when I make chicken stock I don’t make a really complicated stock. I just boil the carcass, basically, or simmer the carcass [unclear].
TM: I was going to say, you don’t boil it!
KB: No, I’ve watched Tampopo many times and—
TM: You don’t want nightmares!
KB: Yeah! But no, I don’t add a lot of things like carrots or onions or whatever. And I know people are going to go, “What!” But I like things simple and I like basic flavors. And then I’ll add carrots and onions and all that stuff if that’s what the recipe calls for or what the preparation calls for. So it’s really, really easy. I just try to keep things very simple, because I’m not a professional cook. I’m a home cook. I just cook for my family and our friends and that’s it.
TM: One of the things that I really admire about your blog and your work now, you’re connecting the dots a lot between loving to cook and loving food. And I know my listeners have heard this over and over again: when you cook for yourself, you’re healthier.
And then I was just reading that you are actually going to a conference this month on “Ag in the Middle.” [“Ag of the Middle”] So I’d love to move from cooking to talking a little bit about farming and farmers. You sure know a lot of them. Maybe you didn’t start out knowing a whole lot of farmers, but how did you start moving in from that loving food to really wanting to be more connected? And I know there’s a movement around that, but I bet you’ve been on the forefront of that.
KB: Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily been on the forefront, but I did do, one of the first writing projects I did was for The Oregonian. I did a column for two years about farmers markets and met tons of farmers, started going out to their farms to talk with them some more to get backgrounds for the stories, and kind of got involved that way in this town.
TM: And so can you say a little bit more about some of the farms and farmers that you’ve met as you’ve been doing this? How would you describe the small farm culture around Portland?
KB: I would say it’s very dedicated. They’re very involved in food issues. A lot of the farms, like Ayers Creek—Anthony Boutard, he has done a column for the blog for almost 10 years now, off and on. They’re his newsletters that I republish, and he writes some custom things for the blog as well. He’s a fabulous writer. He has a book called Beautiful Corn that talks about his involvement and passion for growing corn, particularly old varieties of flint corn, and then developing his own—for instance, his Peace No War purple corn that they dry and grind—and they also grow popcorn. He grows squash, as you said.
He’s working right now on a melon called Ave Bruma that’s a winter melon that’s based on an old variety from Italy that was basically moribund. The seed had kind of gone to seed, if you will, and he’s working on bringing that back. And he’s working with Ava Gene’s restaurant, the cooks and the chefs there, to taste it and work with him on developing the flavor. Which is, as you know, our friend Lane Selman also works with a lot of chefs and farmers, and bringing them together to have that conversation with flavor. And I think that’s really bringing a huge new element into the picture, to have conversations about our food that gets people who wouldn’t normally be talking together, to discuss, you know, what would it take to grow a red pepper that both is fabulous tasting and also is easy to work with in the kitchen. One thing they decided in their conversations was to reduce the shoulders on it so that it’s easier to do prep on it in the kitchen.
TM: I’m sure, for our listeners, whenever we think about the way we’ve tried to create new varieties it’s been to have more abundance, more yield.
KB: Or easier packageability, storability.
TM: Yeah, consistent size, and of course to resist pests. And then now, a great movement for flavor and for what happens in the kitchen is—that’s so exciting!
KB: Yeah, I do too. I think it’s really, really exciting.
TM: And I love that you just mentioned Lane. I saw and spent a little bit of time with Lane, actually, at an event that someone you interviewed recently, Matthew Dillon. And they were doing a lot of beautiful work on heirloom varieties and seeds. So, what did you learn when you interviewed Matthew?
KB: He is very funny and he’s incredibly smart. With the people I interview, I’m always interested in finding out how they got into the business, how they got where they are now. And it was fascinating to talk with Matthew about his upbringing in Nebraska and about his experience with commodity, conventional agriculture there and how that affected his family. It basically killed his father because of cancer. It stunted his own growth because of the nitrates in the water and got him involved with organic agriculture, because he had never experienced that.
And he came here and worked at a farm, I believe in California, and learned about organic systems, which got him involved in organic seed because he wasn’t seeing organic seed. Organic farmers were using traditional conventional seed and then growing them in organic soil. And so that got him wondering, well, we’ve got these organic crops—where’s the seed coming from? And why don’t we have organic seeds? So that got him involved in starting a group called the Organic Seed Alliance, which is still existent today. And then he left there after several years and went to work for Clif Bar, which is another exciting thing about corporations now getting involved in production of food and production of healthy food and healthy seed and helping to bring that along to help their supply chain.
TM: And what a great connection, once again, between your love of food and then all the seeds and the farmers and of a company like Clif Bar. I admire them so much because they’ve been funding Matthew in Seed Matters, in the whole movement towards trying to save seeds and also the organic movement. But I will just correct you a tiny bit saying, “a corporation.” I will say that, for our listeners, Clif Bar actually is half ESOP [employee stock ownership plan].
KB: Oh! Interesting.
TM: Yeah, and they are a very interesting hybrid of corporation or a privately held ownership, and half owned by their employees.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today with Kathleen Bauer, a writer, a blogger and producer, and we’re talking about food and the connection between farming and cooking and diversity and deliciousness. So fun to be talking with you, Kathleen, about all these things that I myself have such a passion for.
And certainly one of them, also, once you start loving food it is so hard not to start understanding food politics. And I understand that there’s a conference coming up this month, “Ag in the Middle.” [“Ag of the Middle”] And this is a topic that I feel is very important and is near and dear to me because it was started by a most wonderful man who is out of the Midwest, Fred Kirschenmann. And I just wanted to hear a little bit more about why you were interested in this conference. Why did you mention this on your blog?
KB: Well, one of the reasons I wanted to mention it is because I don’t know a lot about it. It’s kind of a new buzz word in ag circles, ag of the middle, or ag in the middle, depending on how the person uses it. It seems to be—and you can tell me if this is correct—it seems to me to be about helping small producers scale up and become midsize producers. Is that correct?
TM: That’s part of it, but the other part of it is that the farmers that we’ve been losing—and we’ve lost five million farmers since 1960—have been these ag in the middle farmers. So you have these huge mega-farms that you’re familiar with, but these farms are not as efficient, in a lot of the studies that have been coming out of the Leopold Center, as midsize farms who can do it and produce great yields. And maybe they’re only 1,000-cow farms or 500-cow farms, and then they can protect the water, they can protect the soil, andthey can be economically viable, if they didn’t have to compete with all these huge, gigantic CAFOs—confinement and feedlot operations—that externalize their pollution and other things.
KB: And are heavily subsidized.
TM: And heavily subsidized. We have to start paying attention to these farmers in the middle who are the most sustainable, can produce the same yields, and can then, because they’re smaller, can really be contributing to their communities.
KB: Mm-hmm. And they tend to more—they tend to contribute more and be involved more in their local communities.
TM: And you were saying this project was trying to get smaller farmers to scale up, the middle, ag in the middle farms. And the reason why is because they are the ones that are going away fast. They’re becoming extinct as fast as the Monarch butterfly. But you have these big, big CAFOs who are taking over a lot of agriculture and really aren’t producing really very great food. And then you have the smaller farmers, who are making it through CSAs and farmers’ markets. And then those farmers who are going to produce the best food for us are the ones that are disappearing. So I’m really happy that you’re going to this conference.
But tell me more about what you learned about the big dairies when you dove in and decided to see what was going on with dairy and corporate ag.
KB: Well, I originally started with a blog piece I did about why I was quitting buying Tillamook cheese—which, as a native Oregonian, I was raised on. But I really, really was committed, and I kind of knew that their practices weren’t exactly what I would like, but I kind of looked the other way, like many of us do. And I just got to the point where I realized, and I talked to enough farmers who were saying these practices, the way that they’ve upscaled and basically sold their souls to a large corporate entity called R.W. Offutt [R.D. Offutt] out of the Midwest, I think, and they have decided to go with the corporate agriculture, the CAFO model, which, as I said, has 70,000 cows in containment. And they also use milk from another 30,000 cows that’s just 30 miles from that in a very isolated part of the state, so most people don’t see it. They’ve moved most of their processing to a processing plant in the town of Boardman, which is where these CAFOs are located. And I am just horrified about it.
So I wrote about that, about my decision. And it was purely personal—I wasn’t calling for a boycott, I wasn’t saying they’re horrible people. I just said I just can’t support this product anymore. And so it led me on a quest to look for more locally produced and healthier products, what I feel are healthier products, that come from local sources where my money would support local farmers who are either smaller, in the middle, as you said.
And so that led to me writing this story about the mega-dairies in Oregon. And it was first published by Edible Portland magazine, and then it was recently picked up by a website called Civil Eats that writes about food issues, that publishes stories about food issues.
TM: That blog, I understand, got picked up by lots of people, too. Were you surprised at how many people were paying attention to your blog?
KB: Yeah. After about—and we’re talking about the blog post about why I was quitting buying Tillamook cheese—it, within two days of posting it on the blog, it started going viral, which was very, very scary to see. I’ve never had a post go viral before. And to date it’s gotten close to 980,000 hits on it.
TM: Oh my gosh!
KB: But I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, in my mind, Tillamook wasn’t telling people the straight story. They were still trying to sell themselves as a local co-op, a local dairy, and most of their milk does not come from a local company. It comes from a company that’s owned out of state, and most of the profits go out of state, although they are located here—their source of milk is here. That kind of stuff shocks me, and it’s appalling, and I think it’s appalled a lot of people. And it’s sad—I mean, as a native Oregonian, again, it’s a very sad development.
TM: Well, especially when you learn the history of how in the 1880s, what could you do on the coast, in this beautiful, temperate rainforest—
KB: With beautiful grass.
TM: Beautiful grass.
KB: Beautiful pastures and healthy cows and a small co-op that got together and formed this dairy and this creamery that has become part of Oregon history and Oregon culture.
TM: And it’s actually such a moving story, because the reason they were in the cheese business was because it took them forever to get their cheese from the coast, where all this beautiful pasture was, to Portland. And they surely couldn’t just ship milk. And then also they didn’t have refrigeration at the turn of the century. It was like 1880s or ’90s. And so they started using—
KB: Guess what?
TM: —this thing called annatto to make sure that all the cheese looked the same, because when you just did it white, it had all these different colors, so then they added—
KB: The orange coloring.
TM: —the orange coloring.
KB: That’s right!
TM: Yeah. And then they would try and take it on boats or very slow wagons across—it was a real trek to get from the coast into Portland. And so they have just a remarkable and lovely story.
KB: Wonderful story! But again, it’s talking about how a company sizes up. And I’ve heard so many times from conventional ag people that you either have to get big or get out. And I don’t believe that’s true, and that’s why I’m interested in the topic of ag in the middle.
TM: So, you don’t believe that’s true. And I know there are people out there who would disagree with you, like—for example—the USDA, who just posted something today that actually chilled me. I think the actual headline was “Biotech, Not Organic, Is the Roadmap to Rural Prosperity.” And this was a report done by the USDA to try and convince farmers probably not to even be ag in the middle or organic, but your prosperity is biotech. And my listeners also know how I consider biotech, which is not very favorably, especially when we know that it’s really not about the genetically altered seeds, it’s about the amount of pesticides being used and perpetrated upon the Midwest communities. This is such a heartbreak for me. We’re losing bats and, of course, bees and so on. So it’s so hard to be a foodie these days and not understand what’s going on in corporate ag.
If you’re not really big and you’re not really small, and you’re a midsize farmer and you’re not organic, and you’re in Oregon trying to be a dairyman with 500 cows conventionally, you are probably struggling.
KB: Well, and that’s why the Tillamook—the “get big or get out,” for me, doesn’t work because I think, speaking about Organic Valley, I think Organic Valley is a great example of a co-op that has gone national, that does have huge output, that does succeed, but you’re doing it with organic farmers and small herd sizes.
TM: Right, they’re small to ag in the middle. The idea that we haven’t talked about yet is when food is grown in these humongous ways, they use practices that actually aren’t as healthy as the food. And dairy is the most wonderful example of it because when cows eat grass they are healthier.
TM: They just simply are.
KB: Well, as Jon Bansen put it, they’re fermentation vats on four legs. And they need that grass and those other nutrients to help that fermentation process. And they don’t do well on corn and salt.
TM: Yeah. Well, they have four stomachs. The difference of omegas in conventional milk and grass milk—and this can be grass milk that’s conventional or organic—the more cows are in grass, the higher their omegas are.
TM: And the healthier the cow, the healthier the product from the cow.
KB: Well, and the healthier the people who drink it or eat it, in the case of cheese.
TM: Exactly. So not only do you want deliciousness now; there’s a correlation probably between lovely, beautiful-tasting food and the health of the food.
KB: D’ya think? And that’s exactly what I try to talk about, is incorporating the issues and trying to get people aware of the issues, and then bringing that awareness to their kitchens—without preaching at them. I hope I don’t do that. I hope I just can communicate my excitement about food and farms and local food.
TM: So, for those out there who are wanting to follow Kathleen Bauer and get these lovely tips of how to create delicious foods in a simple way, and without preaching, GoodStuffNW.com. Check out Kathleen. Kathleen, you tweet too, don’t you?
KB: Oh yes, immensely. I’m sure many people who follow me on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook are very tired of the amount that I do it, but I really try to share information that is useful.
TM: Thank you for doing it.
KB: Well, thank you very much. I’m so gratified that you asked me to be here, first of all, and that you read my blog.