Challenge: Eat local

Look out for the locavores that will roam city streets starting Friday in search of snacks — of the local variety.

People who prefer to eat food grown or produced in Southern Oregon will be out in droves for The Rogue Initiative for a Vital Economy's third annual Eat Local Challenge.

The Rogue Valley culinary adventure, through Sept. 14, will feature more food tasting, wine sampling and farm touring than in past years.

"It keeps getting a little bigger and more fun each year," said Wendy Siporen, THRIVE director. "We've definitely been a part of the whole local food movement and more people just want fresh, local food now."

The event encourages people to think about where their groceries come from, Siporen added.

"For both the people who participate and the farmers, our aim for this week is to put people in direct touch with those who are producing or preparing their foods. It's about promoting local business and growing community at the same time."

Suzanne Willow, co-owner of Willow-Witt Ranch in Ashland, has noticed a surge of interest in local food since she began farming 23-years-ago, she said.

"We started out with one goat," she said. "But gradually we've been able to increase our vegetable offerings and we've increased our (number of) chickens because we became part of the Southern Oregon Poultry Group."

This year is the first the farm has had enough resources to participate in the Eat Local Challenge, Willow said. She and farm co-owner, Lanita Witt, will offer a ranch tour and host a discussion of sustainable farming practices from 3 to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Willow and Witt, who are partners, grow potatoes, onions, shallots and other coldwater vegetables. They also raise goats, chickens and hogs. They sell all of their produce, eggs and milk at a farm stand on their property. Locals can also order cuts of meat and pick them up at the farm.

"There's absolutely a bigger variety of local foods and a much larger community of people producing local foods now," Willow said. "THRIVE really helps bring together the small farms and the community so that there is wonderful information sharing going on."

The Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market allows local farmers to peddle their goods year-round, but special events this week will aim to draw in more shoppers and encourage them to try food from new vendors, said Mary Ellen De Luca, manager of the Tuesday market in Ashland and the Thursday market in Medford.

"It encourages people to say, 'Hey why go to the store and buy what grown in Mexico or Southern California? Let's just eat what's offered here in this beautiful valley that has so much,'" she said.

The market will host a Tomato Taste-Off during regular market hours on Tuesday and Saturday. The events will also feature a competition for the biggest, tastiest and ugliest tomatoes. Locals can bring tomatoes from their own gardens and enter them in the contests.

"It's a fun time and it's just a way to say thank you to our customers by offering them a wide array of tomatoes — the tastiest tomatoes in town." De Luca said.

The Eat Local Challenge mascot is a ripe, plump tomato named Local Lucy. Her antithesis, Traveling Tom, is shriveled and weary-looking.

Even if people learn from Local Lucy and come home with basketfuls of fresh food, they still need to learn to cook like locavores, said Mary Shaw, Ashland Food Cooperative culinary education specialist.

"It's one thing to be aware of local food, especially in this time of year when we have so much bountiful food in the Rogue Valley, but it's another thing to know what to do with it."

As part of the Challenge, Shaw has organized an Early Fall Dinner Cooking Class featuring local wines on Sept. 12, from 6 to 9 p.m.

The Co-Op will also host two free cooking demonstrations next week on roasting veggies and creating a pear spinach salad.

The Eat Local Challenge will culminate with the Rogue Flavor Dinner and Auction at RoxyAnn Winery in Medford. The five-course dinner will feature all local food prepared by area chefs. Tickets are $75.

Organizers admit they are making the locavore lifestyle look easier by holding the Challenge in September, when The Rogue Valley is ripe with produce.

"It won't be so appealing in January, but if you start now when there's so much you can do with local food, it's easier to continue through the winter," Shaw said.

For more information or for an updated schedule of Eat Local Challenge events, log on to

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