Eating local

Nation's first Farm-to-Table legislative caucus kicks off in Texas with dinner, fundraiser

Nation's first Farm-to-Table legislative caucus kicks off in Texas with dinner, fundraiser

Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_1
John Dwyer, founder of Angel Valley Organic Farm in Jonestown, hauls off the sign for his farm stand after a busy day on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. Dwyer and his wife, Jo, sold their first vegetable in 1999 and now have a six-acre operation about 25 miles northwest of Austin.  Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_2
This purple kohlrabi was pulled from the ground on Tuesday at Angel Valley Organic Farm in Jonestown, then brought to market the following day, where it found its way to a dinner plate Wednesday night. Farm to table in 36 hours. Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
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Beets are in season at the Angel Valley farm stand on Jollyville Road in front of the Asian American Cultural Center in North Austin. Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_4
Green kohlrabi was almost gone in the first two hours of Wednesday's farm stand for Angel Valley Organic Farm (Jonestown, TX.) Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_5
Angel Valley Organic Farm staffer Dana Newlove sells some of the last of the chard after a busy day on Wednesday at the farm's stand in front of the Asian American Cultural Center on Jollyville Road. Photo by Charlie L. Harper III
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_1
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_2
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_3
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_4
Austin Photo Set: News_Karen_farm to table_nov 2012_5

AUSTIN — The bright purple kohlrabi was pulled from the ground on Tuesday at a farm about 25 miles northwest of Austin. Angel Valley Organic Farm employee Dana Newlove sold it to us for $1 at a farm stand off Jollyville Road as owners John and Jo Dwyer ate their lunch nearby. 

The kohlrabi was on our kitchen table by Wednesday afternoon, about a day after it was harvested on the Dwyer’s six-acre family farm on the edge of the Texas Hill Country. In its most simple form, that is the very essence of farm-to-table dining. Buy it from the farm. Bring it to the table. 

“It’s more expensive than you’ll find in the grocery store, but when you get it, bring it home and eat it — it is so much better,” said Dwyer, who worked in the auto industry before selling his company and opening the farm in the late 1990s. 

Lawmakers taking notice

In the Lone Star State, which saw a huge decimation of the family farm over the last 30 years, lawmakers are paying attention. 

Thursday night is the official kickoff reception, dinner and fundraiser for the nation’s first Farm-to-Table legislative caucus, composed of legislators in the Texas House of Representatives who are committed to making it easier for urban and rural family farms to survive and produce healthy, whole foods for Texans all over the state.  

Chaired by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, with state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, a Brenham Republican, serving as vice chairman, the coalition has drafted an extensive agenda for the Legislature, which convenes in January, that addresses issues ranging from putting more local food into schools to removing barriers to growth for urban family farms, among other issues. 

It’s one of those rare policy areas in the Lege that can easily cross party lines.

“These issues aren't just bi-partisan, they are non-partisan,” Rodriguez said. “Our food supply is one of the most important things we can address. Not always for the same reasons, but conservatives and liberals often arrive at the same place when it comes to local food issues. After all, a family run farm is the ultimate small business.” 

A growing trend

Our world is increasingly plagued by lying food companies, mega-farm greed and poison (lookin’ at you, Monsanto), flagging health in adults and children, massive recalls of corporate products, horrific working conditions, food-borne illness, security concerns, fast-food dominance and less trust of government oversight agencies than ever before.

This may explain the nation’s growing love affair with local food. Farm-to-table restaurants like Hillside Farmacy and Foreign & Domestic in Austin regularly land on "Best of" lists. Documentaries like Food Inc. warn us of the dangers of corporate farming, and channels from the Food Network to the Travel Channel feature specials on the movement. 

“It’s hours fresh,” said Mary Anne Frasher, who buys most of her produce from Angel Valley, explaining why she is a farm-to-table shopper. “It’s clean, and we know whose product it is.” 

A dozen employees and six delivery trucks at John Lash’s Austin-based distributorship, Farm to Table, distribute local food grown within 110 miles of Austin to some 150 restaurants in Austin and San Antonio, as well as about 80 schools and independent grocers. 

“When I started, it was me and my son,” Lash said, by way of illustrating just how much things have changed.

Legislative action

Among other things, Lash would like to see the new caucus address issues such as increasing access to local food by school districts and encouraging governmental entities — including the Capitol Grill inside the Capitol in Austin — to serve only local foods in state-run cafeterias and at events. 

The folks at Angel Valley Organic Farm say lawmakers should address how economically difficult it can be to run a family farm, starting with updating laws written while urban and rural family farms were on the decline. Laws that were meant to reign in corporate farms but are just throwing up roadblocks to smaller operations that don’t have the same issues.

The legislative caucus will make recommendations to members on legislation and voting, and will be a clearinghouse for information coming from the local food advocacy community. The caucus is an entity of the Texas House and can only have state reps as members, but the public can help through supporting the agenda and donating to the cause.

A look at the Texas House Farm-to-Table Caucus legislative agenda

1. Local Food

  • Allow sampling of produce and prepared foods at farmers' markets.
  • Expand the array of allowable foods for sale under the Cottage Foods Law.
  • Allow Cottage Foods to be sold at farmers' markets and farm stands, not just out of the home.

2. Local Farms 

  • Reduce the barriers to Agricultural Tax Exemptions for Urban Farms.
  • Protect urban farmers from the imposition of wastewater fees for water used for agricultural purposes, since such water does not enter the wastewater system.
  • Protect land owners from liability for allowing use of private land for parks and wildlife and community gardens.
  • Incentives for private landowners to repurpose unused property for community gardens.
  • On-site processing of feral hogs and deer, followed by the introduction of those meats into the food system, including food banks, soup kitchens and other markets. (Resolution) 

 3. Table 

  • Work with Texas A&M and governmental bodies to offer continuing education programs for Health Inspectors. Specifically, work with governmental regulatory bodies that enforce current rules relating to the production and consumption of harvestable goods, as well as look at the possible revision of current rules relating to the production and consumption of harvestable goods. 

4. The Gulf

  • Work to protect and expand oyster reefs and production.
  • Address sustainable fishing practices in Gulf waters.

5. Food Security/ Childhood Obesity

  • Increase access in “food deserts” to healthy and fresh foods (including discussions of pop-up farmers' markets and farm stands, for example, the Jessop wagon outreach program proposed by Ag Ext. Houston).
  • Work with school breakfast/lunch program to offer healthy and fresh foods to children (look at Sustainable Food Center’s Farm to School Program). 
  • Explore expanded WIC matching for fresh foods.