Going the extra mile for local food

BALTIMORE — Twice a year, Liz Reitzig drives 21/2 hours to a Pennsylvania farm, then heads back home to Bowie with half a cow in the minivan. Closer to home, she regularly meets a farmer in a parking lot to buy whole chickens. Fish comes straight from a Baltimore County guy who casts nets in Alaska and brings the catch back frozen. She picks up eggs at somebody's driveway and produce at the farmers market.

She hasn't been to a conventional supermarket in years.

"I would say about 80 to 90 percent of our food is coming direct from farmers," said Reitzig, 29, a stay-at-home mother of four. "Pretty much anything we can think of."

Reitzig is among a small but growing number of consumers who prize straight-from-the-small-farm food — and go to great lengths to get it. For them, the farmers market is but one stop in a complicated, ever-evolving food-distribution system they've sometimes rigged up themselves. Concerned about food safety, worried about the environmental effects of factory farming or simply swept up in locavore chic, they are seeking local and non-industrial foods they cannot find in supermarkets or afford at specialty retailers such as Whole Foods.

Some take turns with neighbors picking up meats at farms hundreds of miles away. Others, finding one another on Web sites such as eatwild.com, have banded together in co-ops and "buying clubs" so big that farmers are willing to deliver to them. Martha Holdridge, owner of West Wind Farm in Grassy Meadows, W.Va., drops off her grass-fed beef to customers in the parking lot of an Owings Mills natural-foods store, outside an Annapolis wellness center and on the edge of a Columbia cul-de-sac.

Liz Smith of Hamilton has plans to buy a whole steer from an area farmer and split the meat with four friends. Her name for it: "cowpooling."

"You have this strange patchwork of relationships that are happening," said Leo Horrigan, program officer for the Farming for the Future program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. "It's sort of cloak-and-dagger. I have a friend who said he was meeting a farmer halfway in a parking lot, and it sounded like a drug deal. 'OK, here's the money.' 'Here's the meat.'"

With local food all the rage but distribution systems lacking, even people who procure food for a living use some of these offbeat channels.

John Shields, chef-owner of Gertrude's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, can get his hands on "gorgeous" lettuce grown hydroponically in Waynesboro, Pa., only because David Smith, a northern Baltimore County farmer who takes his own natural beef and free-range eggs to the restaurant, delivers the lettuce for a small cut of the money that is exchanged.

"You have to start to develop your own unique distribution system and delivery system," Shields said. Back when he was a chef in Berkeley, Calif., Shields used to drive 60 miles round trip to get quail from a farmer in Petaluma, Calif. For Gertrude's, he buys directly from 30 to 40 farmers, keeping track of the orders himself.

"You have to be much more adventurous and committed to do these local products," he said. "You gotta want it."

Buying local food never used to be such a challenge. Shields, who grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s and '60s, recalls a bounty of Eastern Shore produce at the city's municipal markets and on barges in the harbor.

"There was a local food economy and there was a local food-distribution system," he said. All that was dismantled with the advent of Big Agriculture, he said. "It dried up."

In an era when restaurant menus brag about the provenance of nearly every ingredient, Shields has good reason to seek out local food.

Private consumers have their own motives.

That Alaskan fish appeals to Reitzig and others because fisherman Gaylord Clark — who also sells the free-range eggs he raises at Carriage House Farms in Stevenson — catches it in an environmentally sustainable way. A Catonsville co-op orders foreign produce through a Jessup wholesaler, but the members, concerned about pesticides, want it because it's organic.

Even the local farmers who benefit from these intrepid good-food seekers think the buyers are going to an awful lot of trouble.

"We're talking about a customer who's willing to travel, who's willing to try and find a farm, and willing to check out the product, and then they have to be willing to send in a deposit to hold the product," said Nick Maravell of Nick's Organic Farm, which raises grass-fed beef and free-range chickens and turkeys in Potomac and Adamstown.

And it's not cheap. Nick's customers pay about $300 for one-eighth of a cow, his smallest bulk quantity, which amounts to about 40 pounds of steaks, roasts and ground beef. That works out to about $7.50 a pound — substantially pricier than conventional supermarket beef, but cheaper than what customers might pay at specialty stores.

Beef raised on Jack Straw Farm's chemical-free pastures in White Hall goes for about $4 a pound, but customers must travel to a butcher in York, Pa., to pick it up. They are undeterred.

"I have a waiting list for spring already," said Debra English, who owns the farm with her husband.

Even the most ardent locavores concede that carbon footprints aren't going to shrink if they're always driving, individually, to far-flung "local" farms. Some say that's mitigated by their buying in bulk, which reduces the number of trips.

Virginia's Polyface Farm, celebrated for its sustainable farming practices in the book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and the movie "Food, Inc.," created its metropolitan buying club to save customers a drive. Every five weeks, Polyface delivers meat, eggs and other products to 28 drop-off sites within a three-hour drive from the farm. They have about 1,800 customers who buy that way.

"It's more effective to take one vehicle to the people than for 25 people to come to us," said Daniel Salatin, whose family runs Polyface.

Demand for local products has led to the creation of more farmers markets and has prompted conventional supermarkets to offer some local produce. But consumers who still can't find what they want are cooking up other ways to get it.

For Joan Plisko of Catonsville, that means getting about a dozen friends to order eggs together every two weeks from Carriage House Farms, so fisherman-farmer Clark will be willing to deliver. He leaves 30 dozen eggs in a cooler at Plisko's home, and her friends pick them up there. They pay $3.50 to $4 a dozen.

Plisko also buys Alaskan fish from Clark. She belongs to a separate co-op that orders dry goods such as oatmeal and rice through a Pennsylvania natural-foods distributor. From spring to fall, she buys a box of fresh vegetables each week from an area organic farm. Year-round, she gets organic produce through yet another co-op.

Plisko spent an hour one day last week sorting out the organic fruits and vegetables that a fellow co-op member had picked up from a Jessup wholesaler. She opened cases of bananas, mangoes and broccoli and divvied them into about two dozen laundry baskets, one for each family in the co-op.

The 44-year-old environmental engineer and mother of two didn't mind a bit.

"It's a very well-oiled machine," she said.

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