Taste-testing a way to make truly local, crusty Kentucky bread

November 3, 2014

141028Wheat0016Jim Betts, front, owner of Bluegrass Baking Co., works with David Van Sanford of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture to test baguettes made with five varieties of wheat they raised in Lexington that usually don’t grow well in Kentucky. Betts checks the aroma, while Van Sanford pulls a slice apart to check texture and taste. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Why have the French always eaten baguettes, while Kentuckians preferred biscuits? The answer may have more to do with climate than culture.

Kentucky’s wet winters are more conducive to growing the low-protein “soft” wheat used for soft breads, biscuits and cookies than high-protein “hard” wheat, which works best for crusty breads.

But Jim Betts, who owns Bluegrass Baking Co. on Clays Mill Road, has noticed a couple of trends in recent years: his customers are buying more crusty, chewy breads, and they want more of their food to be locally grown.

“We’re trying to source as many locally produced products as we can,” Betts said, adding that a couple of organic farmers in Central Kentucky have told him they want to grow new varieties of wheat if they can find a market for them.

141028Wheat0068So Betts began talking with experts at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture to see if it might be possible to find varieties of high-protein wheat that would grow well here.

He also wanted to know if there would be noticeable differences in taste between organically grown Kentucky flour and the nearly one ton of North Dakota flour he buys each week from ConAgra Foods.

Betts worked with Mark Williams, a horticulture professor who teaches sustainable agriculture, and David Van Sanford, a wheat breeder in UK’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

A year ago, they planted four varieties of wheat they thought might work, including one developed in North Carolina for wet Southern climates. One was grown at UK’s Waveland research farm in south Lexington, the rest at the Spindletop research farm north of town.

“Of course, we chose the worst winter in 20 years,” Betts said. “But we got some flour out of it.”

That flour was given to Andy Brown, Bluegrass Baking’s chief baker, who used it to make baguettes.

Last Tuesday, Betts brought Williams and Van Sanford together to do a blind taste test of the four baguettes, along with one of his store’s regular baguettes and a “ringer” made from UK-produced soft wheat. They were joined by Bob Perry, a UK professor who teaches gastronomy and dietetics.

Betts and the UK professors sliced up each baguette so they could smell, taste and pick it apart. They evaluated each on the color of its crust and the aroma and texture of the “crumb” inside.

When wheat is mixed with yeast, water and salt to make bread, the fermentation releases gasses that form bubbles in the bread — and produce that wonderful smell. The higher the flour protein, the bigger the bubbles, the larger the loaf and the chewier the bread.

Betts likens this “gluten strength” to a balloon: “The stronger the balloon, the bigger it can get.” The problem with low-protein flour is that it “cannot hold the tension you need to make a good, crunchy loaf.”

The men agreed that some of the wheat varieties made better baguettes than others, but all were good. The “ringer” loaf wasn’t as good as the others, but it wasn’t bad.

Having demonstrated that high-protein wheat can be grown in Kentucky, Williams said the next challenge is to refine farming practices to maximize consistency, quality and yield.

Van Sanford said about 500,000 acres of wheat is now grown in the state, mostly in Western Kentucky, but almost all of it is low-protein varieties. Growing high-protein wheat for local consumption would require more than planting different seeds. Farmers would need storage and milling facilities — and customers.

Central Kentucky once had dozens of flour mills, which survive only in the names of the roads that led to them. Weisenberger Mill in Midway is the last one operating.

But here’s the big question: Can high-protein wheat be grown economically enough for Kentucky farmers, millers and bakers to all make a profit at a bread price Kentucky consumers would be willing to pay?

Betts thinks so. He says many Bluegrass Baking Co. customers realize that fresh, local food tastes better, and the more they can keep their money in the local economy, the better it is for everyone.

Creating this new niche market for Kentucky farmers would be a challenge, but I give it better odds than convincing Frenchmen to eat biscuits.

141028Wheat0037Betts, left, talks with Van Sanford, center, and Bob Perry of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture as they evaluate baguettes made with five varieties of wheat UK grew.

 


UK seminar will focus on challenges of local food economy

September 22, 2014

Creating strong local food economies has become a trend, if not a fad, all over the country. But the prospects in Kentucky seem more promising than in many places.

Kentucky’s fertile soil, temperate climate, abundant water, central location and dispersed population have made the state an agriculture powerhouse for more than two centuries.

Since the collapse of the tobacco economy, more Kentuckians have been exploring ways to recreate and reinvent local food systems like those that prevailed before World War II.

But local food is not just an issue of local economics and self-sufficiency.

It is often more nutritious than food grown in huge quantities and shipped great distances. That’s a big issue as America struggles with an obesity epidemic, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and soaring health care costs. And local food also just tastes better.

But there are big challenges, from processing facilities to distribution networks. The biggest challenge is this: how can locally grown food be both profitable for farmers and affordable for consumers, especially those with low incomes?

Those questions are at the heart of this year’s Lafayette Seminar in Public Issues, an annual program sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Gaines Center for the Humanities. The seminar will explore these issues in three programs over the next three weeks, all of which are free and open to the public.

The seminar’s keynote speaker at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre is Robert Egger, who has spent 25 years feeding and providing food-related job training to poor people in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. His talk is called, “Revealing the Power of Food.”

As a young nightclub manager, Egger volunteered at what he found to be a well-intentioned but inefficient soup kitchen for homeless people in Washington, D.C. The experience prompted him to start D.C. Central Kitchen in January 1989 by getting a refrigerated van, picking up food left over from President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration and delivering it to local shelters.

The non-profit organization uses food donated by hospitality businesses and farms to feed hungry people and train poor people for food-related jobs. During 24 years as president of D.C. Central Kitchen, Egger helped start more than 60 similar community kitchens around the country.

Egger recently moved to Los Angeles to start LA Kitchen, which recovers fresh fruit and vegetables for use in a culinary arts job training program for men and women coming out of foster care or prison. He is author of the 2004 book, Begging for Change: The Dollars and Sense of Making Nonprofits Responsive, Efficient and Rewarding For All.

The seminar’s second session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 at the Lyric Theatre, is a panel discussion called “Whose Farm to Whose Table?” It focuses on increasing access to local food in Central Kentucky’s underserved communities.

Panelists are community garden activist Jim Embry; Mac Stone, co-owner of Elmwood Stock Farm and a founder of the Kentucky Proud program; Karyn Moskowitz of New Roots Inc. and the Fresh Stop Project; and Ashton Potter Wright, Lexington government’s new local food coordinator. The panel will be moderated by Lexington food blogger and cookbook author Rona Roberts.

The final session, at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 9 at UK’s W.T. Young Library, is a panel discussion moderated by former UK Agriculture dean Scott Smith. It will explore challenges of getting local food into universities, schools, businesses and other large institutions.

Panelists are Sarah Fritschner, Louisville’s local food coordinator; John-Mark Hack, executive director of the Midway-based Local Food Association; UK agriculture professor Lee Meyer; and Tony Parnigoni, Aramark Corp.’s regional vice president.

The topic is especially timely given UK’s controversial move to outsource its dining services to Aramark, the giant food corporation that is putting up $70 million to build new campus dining facilities.

Amid pressure from local food advocates, Aramark agreed to contribute $5 million to a new local food institute at UK and to purchase millions of dollars worth of food from Kentucky farmers.

“There has been a lot of buzz about local food and enhancing access to local food and capitalizing on the agricultural economy of the Bluegrass,” said Phil Harling, a UK history professor who recently became director of the Gaines Center. “We’re trying to bring together a bunch of different strands.”

If you go

  • UK’s Lafayette Seminar this year focuses on local food. All sessions are free and open to the public.

    5:30 p.m. Sept. 24, Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St. Robert Egger, founder of LA Kitchen and DC Central Kitchen, speaks on “Revealing the Power of Food.”

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 1, Lyric Theatre. Panel discussion about expanding access to local food.

    5:30 p.m. Oct. 9, W.T. Young Library, 401 Hilltop Ave. Panel discussion about challenges of getting local food into large institutions.


Developing local food economy is focus of new Lexington job

June 16, 2014

As a child growing up in Gratz Park, Ashton Potter Wright often walked downtown to the Lexington Farmers Market with her parents, who were early owners in Good Foods Co-op.

“They instilled in me that it’s important to know where your food comes from and to support local growers and business owners,” she said. “It makes sense to me, and I hope to help make it make sense to other people.”

That will be a big part of Wright’s new job as Lexington’s first local food coordinator.

Wright1Wright, 29, started earlier this month in the pilot position, where she will work with Central Kentucky farmers to help them find markets for their meat and produce. She also will help educate and create more individual and institutional demand for locally produced food.

“With local food, you’re not only helping the economy and the environment, but you’re getting great, healthy, delicious food that’s grown by somebody nearby,” she said. “We’re keeping dollars in the region and improving the health of the region.”

Wright will be part of the city’s Office of Economic Development. The job is funded through private grants, agriculture development funds and $25,000 from the city. Steve Kay, an at-large member of the Urban County Council, worked for several years to create the job.

“It’s exciting, but it’s a bit overwhelming,” Wright said. “There’s so much that can be done and so much that needs to be done.”

Wright brings a strong background to the job. After graduating from Henry Clay High School and Rhodes College in Memphis, she worked at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and earned a master’s degree in public health from Georgia State University while her husband, Jonathan Wright, went to Emory University’s law school.

Last fall, Wright finished her doctorate in public health at UK and went back to Atlanta for a fellowship at the CDC. She also worked in Lee County, helping create a program where local farmers provided food for schools.

Kay assembled an advisory committee a couple of years ago that includes a who’s who of local food players, including Nancy Cox, the new dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture; chef and restaurant entrepreneur Ouita Michel; youth nutrition activist Anita Courtney and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm, a national leader in the organic farming movement.

Wright said she will begin by working closely with the advisory committee to assess needs and opportunities, both immediate and long-term.

“Everyone has an opinion about what needs to be done,” she said. “So these first few months are going to be spent listening and understanding.”

There also are good ideas to be gleaned in Louisville, where Sarah Fritschner, a former food editor at the Washington Post and The Courier-Journal, has been the farm-to-table coordinator since 2010.

“There’s a lot to be learned from her and also from cities across the country that are doing similar work,” Wright said, citing Baltimore and Asheville, N.C., as examples.

Wright sees opportunities to educate young people about the importance of healthier eating and local food. Wright previously worked with Courtney on her Tweens Coalition and Better Bites youth nutrition programs, as well as her effort to bring fresh produce to two small markets in low-income Lexington neighborhoods.

Much of Wright’s job will involve connecting local farmers to schools, hospitals and other institutions that could purchase their food. She said public schools already buy some local food, but could do much more if they had the right help.

Eventually, she hopes to develop more infrastructure for the regional food economy. Those include more local meat processing plants, such as Marksbury Farms in Danville, as well as aggregation, processing and distribution facilities for local vegetables and fruits.

Also, the region needs more commercial kitchens where farmers can take what they grow and turn it into value-added products, such as preserves and sauces, and process food for consumption off-season. Wright also is intrigued by the use of Internet technology to connect producers with consumers.

“People have been interested in local food here for years,” she said. “But there are so many people and groups working on it here now that the time feels really right for the next big step.”


Mayer may not become mayor, but he has some good ideas

May 10, 2014

What makes a good mayor? Someone with both good ideas and the political and management skills to make them happen. Jim Gray has demonstrated both qualities during his four-year term.

Gray has two challengers for re-election in the May 20 primary: Anthany Beatty, who became a University of Kentucky vice president after retiring as Lexington’s police chief, and Danny Mayer, an English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College who for four years published the community newspaper North of Center.

Beatty has demonstrated good management and political skills, but he doesn’t seem to have many ideas. His campaign website and public statements have offered only vague generalities about city issues and what he would do as mayor.

Mayer has little political or management experience, but he has developed a detailed issues platform. While some of his proposals are controversial, there are good ideas there worth discussing.

The Gray and Beatty campaigns have raised well into six figures. Mayer said he has taken only three contributions totaling $250 and has loaned his campaign a few hundred more. He hasn’t even invested in yard signs, which he admits was a mistake, and is mostly campaigning door-to-door and online.

“A lot of my work has been trying to plan out alternative visions and ideas; I look at it as the end point of what I did with North of Center,” Mayer said. “But rather than just talking about what we are doing wrong, this was a way to flesh out a positive vision for the city.”

DannyMayer

Danny Mayer

Among Mayer’s proposals is a $15 hourly minimum wage for city employees and contractors, as Seattle is considering. He also wants to decriminalize marijuana use, which probably would require state rather than just city action. Both moves, he said, would strengthen low-income neighborhoods by putting more money in families’ pockets and fewer people in jail.

Mayer’s two main proposals are less controversial, and they make so much sense that they should be part of the election conversation whether or not he is the candidate who emerges from the primary to challenge Gray in November.

Mayer said that as mayor he would strategically invest in growing Lexington’s local food economy and developing the city’s “greenways” — abused and neglected urban streams and watersheds whose restoration could improve overall water quality, create recreational opportunities and provide paths for walkers and cyclists.

Lexington developed an extensive Greenways Master Plan in 2001, which was approved by the Planning Commission. But Mayer said too little has been done to implement and expand on that plan.

Under a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Lexington must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to correct long-ignored water quality problems caused by suburban development. That provides the perfect opportunity to make the most of our natural greenways, Mayer said.

Greenway development could help connect Lexington’s fragmented trail system, making it easier for suburban residents to get around on foot or bike. Modest infrastructure investments at key connecting points around Lexington could make a big difference, he said.

More walking and biking trails, along with investment in Lextran to expand routes and service hours would reduce traffic congestion and air pollution and increase mobility for low-income residents.

Mayer also said that as mayor he would budget $1 million for investments in local food, which has been growing in popularity. Growth in that sector will be important as climate change and rising transportation costs erode the nation’s industrial agriculture models of the past few decades.

Nutritious local food also fights obesity and other health problems that are contributing to rising health care costs, Mayer noted.

Investment in local food projects would create work for the growing number of UK and BCTC students graduating with sustainable agriculture expertise, as well as lower-skilled people who need jobs. It also would allow non-profit organizations such as Seedleaf and Food Chain to build on work they already are doing.

Some unused city park land could be used for expanding greenway trails or producing food, Mayer said, and the city could do more to promote backyard and community gardens.

“I see that as a 21st century economy,” he said. “These markets and segments are growing, but we haven’t talked about how we could legitimately scale them up. You just need models and an emphasis, like we did with Victory Gardens in the 1940s.”


National Provisions gives Lexington food scene a new flair

December 9, 2013

131203Boulangerie0093

Owner Andrea Sims works behind the counter at National Boulangerie, a bakery that opened last week at the corner of National and Walton Avenues. Sims, an artist, and her husband, restaurant veteran Krim Boughalem, are renovating the former industrial building into sophisticated space with an open feel.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When Andrea Sims moved back to Lexington from New York City with her French husband, Krim Boughalem, they made waves in the local food scene by opening Wine + Market in 2008 and Table Three Ten in 2010.

Their latest venture could be more like a tsunami.

National Boulangerie, a French-inspired bakery, opened last week at the corner of National and Walton avenues. Within six months, they plan to build out the rest of their 16,000-square-foot space with a brasserie restaurant, wine shop, beer garden, grocery and oyster bar under the umbrella name National Provisions.

“Wine + Market was a perfect start for what we want to do, but the space was too small,” Boughalem said. “This is the same thing on a much bigger scale.”

The couple’s goal is to replicate aspects of traditional French cuisine and food systems, but give them a distinctly Kentucky flavor. Through volume buying, doing all of their own cooking and managing the synergies of each business to reduce waste, they hope to keep food quality high and prices affordable.

“We would like to make everything from scratch here, with ingredients from local farmers,” Sims said. “We’re trying to get back to the old-fashioned idea of food.”

131203Boulangerie0078Plans include brewing small batches of their own beer for the beer garden. The wine shop will include a tap so customers can bring their own containers to fill. Boughalem also plans to sell seafood wholesale to other restaurants.

“A traditional French brasserie has a theme, the region where it is located,” he said. “Our theme will be the Bluegrass, so we will mix French bread and pastries with biscuits and gravy, chicken and dumplings.”

National Provisions is housed in a turn-of-the-century industrial building the couple has leased long-term from Walker Properties, which is redeveloping National Avenue as mixed-use commercial zone. This building’s previous uses included a bottling plant and tile shop.

“We had noticed the building driving by and just loved it,” Sims said. “When it came available, we had just opened Table Three Ten and weren’t even settled in there. But we went ahead and got it because the building and location were just perfect for us.”

Only minutes from downtown, National Provisions is nestled between the increasingly affluent Bell Court, Mentelle and Kenwick neighborhoods and the busy corridor where Midland Avenue becomes Winchester Road.

Boughalem, 47, who had nearly two decades of restaurant experience in New York and London before moving to Lexington, spent two years scouring eBay and auctions for used restaurant equipment and fixtures.

The couple has assembled a huge commercial kitchen that will be the engine of their enterprise. Brian Surbaugh, executive chef at Table Three Ten, heads a five-person staff that is getting the kitchen up and running.

Sims, 44, redesigned the cavernous building into elegantly casual space with an open floor plan and lots of natural light. Red steel frames of glass will divide the beer garden and wine shop — and give patrons a full view of the kitchen.

The bakery’s exposed ceiling beams have been painted bright red. Counters and tables were made from pink Norwegian marble bought at a bargain price. Sims spent countless hours painting a faux-marble finish on the walls — an old-world skill she learned while studying art in France.

A year after opening Table Three Ten on West Short Street at Cheapside, the couple sold Wine + Market, at the corner of West Second and Jefferson streets, to Renee and Seth Brewer, who also own the nearby Enoteca wine bar. Boughalem and Sims plan to keep Table Three Ten.

National Boulangerie is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. Once the restaurant, beer garden and wine shop open, operating hours will extend to midnight.

The market will be the most unusual aspect of the couple’s plan. They expect it to open by late spring, selling fresh local meat and produce, fresh seafood and European cheeses, meats and specialty foods.

Boughalem and Sims think they will find plenty of customers, thanks to the growing popularity of fresh, local food and TV cooking shows that are turning more people into “foodies.”

The market also will offer prepared, ready-to-eat meals, which Boughalem thinks will appeal to people who want gourmet food but lack the time or skill to prepare it. “People are getting used to buying more quality,” he said. “For many, good food is a luxury they can afford.”

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New bakery gives National Avenue an international flavor

December 3, 2013

131203Boulangerie0093

Owner Andrea Sims works behind the counter at National Boulangerie, a bakery that opened last week at the corner of National and Walton Avenues. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

131203Boulangerie0100I spent the morning at National Boulangerie, a new French-inspired bakery at Walton and National avenues. It was opened this week by Krim Boughalem and Andrea Sims, the husband-and-wife team that started Wine+Market on West Second Street and sold it to open Table Three Ten restaurant on Short Street near Cheapside.

The bakery is fabulous, but it is just the beginning. The couple have leased and are renovating 16,000 square feet of space in a turn-of-the-century industrial building. Within a few months, they plan to add a brasserie restaurant, wine shop, beer garden and international grocery with an oyster bar. The complex will reflect their experience with food in France and New York, plus a lot of Kentucky influence.

Here is National Boulangerie’s Facebook page. Stop by and try it, and read my column about it in next week’s Business Monday.


Lexington has come a long way in just a few years

December 2, 2013

Lexington changed a lot between the time I went away to college in 1976 and returned in 1998. But I think it has changed even more profoundly since then.

The earlier changes were mostly physical — vast tracks of rural land turned into subdivisions and strip malls. Recent changes have been more about attitudes.

Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., talked about some of those attitudes in his interview with Tom Martin. They discussed how Lexington can attract innovative talent for the 21st-century economy.

Kimel understands the power of innovation and ideas better than anyone I know. If you haven’t read the interview yet, grab a highlighter and mark the attitudes he mentions.

Here are some I noted: Self-starter. Creative problem-solving. Imagination. Tolerance for risk and failure. Embracing diversity.

Lexington isn’t as open to new ideas as it needs to be, but it has made considerable progress. This city is less buttoned-down than it was just a few years ago, and that has made it a much more interesting place to live, work and play.

I don’t know why it happened, but I have a few hunches. One is that technology has empowered more people, making it easier for them to innovate and succeed. At the same time, social media has made it easier for them to connect with one another.

Technology has made the structures of Lexington power and influence younger and more diverse. People feel less pressure to conform, less need to seek “permission.” This is especially true in arts and culture, which are leading indicators of social and economic shifts.

131108Mural0025For example, consider the positive buzz created recently when a Brazilian artist was invited to paint a giant, psychedelic Abe Lincoln mural on a big blank wall downtown. It is an amazing piece of art, sure to become a Lexington icon.

Had that happened a decade or two ago, many of Lexington’s powers-that-be would have scoffed. Most likely, such a mural would never have happened at all.

The mere suggestion of it would have spawned high-level discussions where caution would have outweighed creativity. If anything at all resulted, it would have been a “safe” mural that would neither offend nor inspire anyone — perhaps a pretty field of horses, none of which would be blue.

A Lexington Tattoo Project in the 1990s? No way.

Lexington’s economic creativity can be found in low-rent office space all over town. For example, there are dozens of innovative technology companies such as Cirrus Mio, Medmovie and Float Money, plus biotech firms whose market niches are as hard to understand as their names are to pronounce. There are two tech startup incubators on Main Street, Awesome Inc. and Base 163.

Of course, all innovation isn’t high-tech. Sometimes, it’s simply looking around at what makes a place unique and wonderful and finding new ways to develop and market it. Alltech gets it. So do chef Ouita Michel and the “Kentucky for Kentucky” guys. The once-stodgy bourbon industry has become a hotbed of innovation, and business is booming as a result.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of new Lexington creativity:

Four young entrepreneurs wanted to start a craft brewery. But they didn’t just want to sell beer; they wanted to build community. Their West Sixth Brewery has been wildly successful by breaking all of the old “rules.”

Rather than locate in an affluent suburb, they bought an abandoned 1920s bread factory in a transitional northside neighborhood. An old-style developer would have bulldozed the factory and built a faux-fancy brewpub. Instead, these guys hired Lexington developer Holly Wiedemann, a master at turning old buildings into cool, functional spaces.

The once-abandoned factory, now called The Bread Box, houses West Sixth’s brewery and pub, plus other tenants including artist studios, a nonprofit bicycle shop, a coffee-roaster, a women’s roller derby team and a seafood restaurant.

Smithtown Seafood gets some of its fish from Food Chain, an urban agriculture nonprofit that raises them in tanks in the next room. Brewery waste is fed to the fish and fish waste fertilizes greens grown under artificial lights and served in the restaurant. Win, win, win.

The Bread Box is an example of innovative talent in action, and it creates the kind of community where innovative, talented people can see there is opportunity to realize their own dreams.  


Chef’s tour highlights growth in Kentucky’s local food culture

October 29, 2013

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Chef Ouita Michel, left, talks with Jean and Leo Keene, who since 1988 have operated Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, which specializes in garlics. Michel said she has bought garlic from them for her restaurants for years. Michel led a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday that included Claire Carpenter, second from left. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Ouita Michel doesn’t get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.

Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.

The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.

Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants’ success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley’s.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.

Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.

Kentucky’s local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state’s Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.

Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner’s salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey’s restaurants.

131026OuitaMichel0072About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel’s tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.

Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O’Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state’s largest certified organic farm.

“There is a seasonality to local food,” Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.

Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.

“We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically,” she said. “It’s also better for the farmers, and it’s just a more responsible thing to do.”

Michel’s newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewing in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.

“I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown,” Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.

The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.

Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.

“We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is,” she said. “It’s just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we’ve had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market.”

State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.

“If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns,” she said. “Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers.”

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Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

130920BerryAg0094Jonas Hurley, right, owner of River Run Farm & Pottery in Washington County, shows students in St. Catharine College’s new Berry Farming Program his array of solar panels, which provide about 60 percent of his farm’s power and should pay for themselves within a dozen years. In the center is the Berry program’s director, Leah Bayens. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture economists have been sounding a death knell for the American family farm for decades. Since World War II, farming has been all about machinery, chemicals and the idea of “get big or get out.”

More recently, though, the sustainable-agriculture movement has shown an alternative path. It is based on creating new markets and innovative farming techniques rooted in the wisdom of nature.

The movement has been fueled by consumers who want fresher, tastier produce and meat that isn’t sprayed with chemicals and pumped full of hormones. Many consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.

Sustainably produced local food nourishes communities as well as bodies. Many farm families want to stay on their land, finding that the rewards are worth the hard work. They also want to make sure the land isn’t poisoned and eroded, so future generations can keep farming.

With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location, Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend. Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global gurus of sustainable agriculture.

This fall, St. Catharine College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in Washington County, started offering bachelor’s degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism.

St. Catharine’s Berry Farming Program incorporates Berry’s sustainability philosophies and was developed in conjunction with his family’s Berry Center in the Henry County town of New Castle.

(Berry’s alma mater, The University of Kentucky, where he taught English for many years, has developed a respected sustainable agriculture program. But Berry had a very public breakup with UK in December 2009, when he withdrew his papers after the university named the new basketball players’ dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for millions of dollars in coal industry donations.)

Assistant Professor Leah Bayens developed St. Catharine’s four-year Berry Farming Program, which combines interdisciplinary study in agriculture, ecology, business, marketing and community leadership with hands-on farm internships.

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Bayens launched the program this fall with four students in the introductory class, which uses as a supplementary text Berry’s landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which helped spark the sustainability movement.

Three international students will join the program in January, thanks to scholarships from Eleanor Bingham Miller, whose Louisville family once owned The Courier-Journal. Bayens will choose those students from the more than 60 applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America, where sustainable agriculture is desperately needed.

The Berry Farming Program’s first four students represent an interesting mix of the sons and daughters of Kentucky farm families.

Freshman Marshall Berry is Wendell Berry’s grandson, and he is trying to figure out whether he wants to make a career of farming, as his father, Den Berry, did. Does he feel any family pressure? Maybe a little, he said.

“I know I want to live and work on a farm,” said freshman Winifred Chevront, who grew up on a Taylor County farm. “I think this could help me achieve my goals.”

Pamela Mudd, a junior who transferred here after studying food science at UK, comes from a large Washington County farming family.

“I want to get some new ideas for keeping our family farm in the family,” she said.

Jacob Settle, a junior, comes from a Washington County farm family and has built a regionally successful freezer-beef business with his brother, Jordan. Rising Sons Beef sells locally bred, born and raised beef that is free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

Bayens has taken her class on several field trips to see area farms. Last month, I joined them on a tour of Jonas and Julie Hurley’s River Run Farm & Pottery near Springfield.

The Hurleys raise sorghum and vegetables, hogs, chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks and sheep. They also have a dairy cow and a llama. They produce almost all of the food they and their two young sons eat, selling the surplus at a local farmer’s market. Jonas Hurley also sells his pottery and teaches classes.

A few months ago, Hurley installed solar panels that produce about 60 percent of his farm’s power. The $14,000 investment should pay for itself within 12 years, he said.

“I want the students to get opportunities to meet, mingle and work side by side with different kinds of farmers so they can see what kinds of creativity and inventiveness are at work,” Bayens said. “There is a lot of opportunity out there for farmers willing to find it.”

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‘Hippie’ restaurant Alfalfa celebrates 40 years of good food

April 23, 2013

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 Alfalfa Restaurant moved into the Downtown Arts Center on Main Street a decade ago, decorating its wall with the sign letters from the original location on South Limestone Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

The way restaurants come and go, this one would seem like a long shot. A group of idealistic 20-somethings with little money and no experience wanted to serve wholesome food at reasonable prices.

Short of chairs on opening day in April 1973, they offered free meals to customers who donated them.

“We had an unusual business plan at first: six partners and two menu items,” said Art Howard, one of the original partners. “I wouldn’t recommend that now.”

Alfalfa Restaurant not only survived, it became a local institution that is now one of Lexington’s oldest restaurants. Current and former customers and employees are invited to a 40th anniversary party, 4 to 10 p.m. April 28 at the current location, 141 East Main Street.

“We’ve basically tried to have fun with the place,” said Jake Gibbs, an off-and-on minority owner who started washing dishes as a graduate student in 1979 and now tries to manage Alfalfa as well as a reluctant capitalist can.

“We don’t do a huge business,” Gibbs said. “We roughly break even every year.”

Artie Howard cooks during Alfalfa's early days. Herald-Leader photo.

Artie Howard cooks during Alfalfa’s early days.

Making money was never the main goal. Alfalfa, after all, was started by what the restaurant’s website calls “hippie-type” young people with what was then a novel interest in healthy, locally produced food.

“We were pretty much ahead of our time,” said Howard, who sold his interest in Alfalfa a few years later, became a chef and, since 1995, has owned The Ketch Seafood Grill on Regency Road.

“They bought real vegetables from real local farmers before it was cool,” said Rona Roberts, a regular Alfalfa customer since 1973 who now writes the food blog Savoring Kentucky. “They have a lot of distinctive food; they’ve never given up on making everything themselves.”

When Alfalfa opened at 557 South Limestone, near the University of Kentucky, it was financed with $2,000 that Howard inherited from a grandmother and $100 or $200 kicked in by each of the other five partners, he said.

The restaurant’s name was the result of a desperate brainstorming session as opening day neared. Howard can’t remember who came up with “Alfalfa,” but he said it might have been less a reference to the forage legume than to a character from the 1930s Our Gang comedies, then in TV reruns.

Howard had been interested in starting a bakery, so he became the baker, setting a standard for fresh-baked, whole-grain bread that baker Tom Martin has kept going for the past 35 years.

Partner Leslie Bower, who had trained at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in France, was the first head cook. (She was murdered in 1979 when she stopped in Georgia to ask directions.)

The restaurant’s most notorious employee was a cook in 1974 known as Lena Paley. Soon after she abruptly left town, Alfalfa employees recognized her on an FBI “wanted” poster as Susan Saxe, an accomplice in a 1970 Boston bank robbery in which a police officer was killed. Captured in 1975, Saxe pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was paroled in 1982.

Jake Gibbs, who manages the restaurant, began as a dishwashing graduate student in 1979.

Jake Gibbs, who manages the restaurant, began as a dishwashing graduate student in 1979.

Alfalfa left its original home a decade ago and moved into the Downtown Arts Center on Main Street. Gibbs said the restaurant is negotiating for another 10-year lease.

All of the original partners left Alfalfa long ago, and there have been several owners over the years who started as employees of the restaurant. They included Marina Ubaldi, Jeff Gitlin and Gibbs, who teaches history at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

Jim Happ, the main owner since 2004, also is CEO of Labcon North America, a California-based manufacturer of sustainable laboratory materials. He and his wife, Betsey, met while working at Alfalfa. They named their daughter for Helen Alexander, who has been a cook there for 25 years.

Like previous owners, Happ and Gibbs have tried to maintain the quality and variety of Alfalfa’s health-conscious food, as well as the family atmosphere for both customers and employees.

“Alfalfa’s is such a nice family,” said Lexington artist John Lackey. He and his wife, Jenny, both worked at the restaurant, as did their son, Quinn, 21. Their younger son, Dylan, 17, works there now.

“It’s a labor of love,” Lackey said of Alfalfa. “It’s just such a great, interesting collection of people; the right balance of service and insanity.”

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Alfalfa staff members photographed in 1974, the year after the restaurant opened. Among the owners at the time were, left to right, Marina McCulloch (wearing hat), Leslie Bower (front left in dark shirt), Artie Howard (tallest in back,  with beard), Lucia Walls (front right in dark shirt) and Ann “Panny” Hobson (right center).  Photo by Guy Mendes

 


Conference reflects on issues raised in landmark Wendell Berry book

April 9, 2013

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Wendell Berry, right, joined conference attendees on a tour Saturday of the farm at St. Catharine College in Washington County. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Wendell Berry is a true conservative. He believes in conservation, the idea that God gave us the Earth to sustain our lives and the responsibility to care for it so it can sustain the lives of future generations.

Four decades ago, the writer and farmer was alarmed by the methods and economics of modern farming and mining, which were (and still are) destroying land, water and rural communities. So he wrote his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, which has become an international classic.

That book and Berry’s subsequent work did much to spark the sustainable agriculture and local food movements, just as Rachel Carson’sSilent Spring in 1962 helped spark the environmental movement.

So it was no surprise that 300 people from 35 states and several foreign countries came to Louisville and Springfield last weekend for a sold-out conference revisiting the book. Well-known speakers discussed both progress and challenges, and they pondered this question: What will it take to resettle America?

The conference was organized by the Berry Center in Henry County, which is run by Mary Berry Smith to promote the philosophy of her father, as well as her uncle and late grandfather, both farmers, lawyers and conservationists named John Berry.

On Saturday, the conference was at St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the Berry Center has just begun a partnership to create undergraduate degree programs in ecological agriculture. The Catholic college campus includes an 800-acre farm the Dominican Sisters of Peace have operated since 1822.

The conference included an on-stage interview of Berry by veteran journalist Bill Moyers, who will use it on one of his Public Broadcasting System programs. Other speakers included Bill McKibben, the best-selling author and climate change activist; Wes Jackson, a MacArthur “genius” award winner and founder of The Land Institute, a leading sustainable agriculture organization; and Vandana Shiva, a renowned author, scientist and environmentalist in India.

In his interview with Moyers, Berry blamed many of today’s ecological problems on industrialization, unbridled capitalism and political systems that favor wealthy corporations, which make big political contributions to reap far bigger returns in taxpayer subsidies and lax regulation.

“There’s no justification for the permanent destruction of the world,” Berry said. “It’s not economically defensible. It’s not defensible in any terms.”

Berry, 78, lamented that the three and a half decades since his book’s publication have been marked by further environmental degradation, from strip mining and soil erosion to water pollution and accelerating climate change.

“It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that is not in danger,” he said.

Berry noted that black willows no longer grow beside his Henry County farm on the banks of the Kentucky River, 13 miles from where it empties into the Ohio River, but still flourish just upriver on the Ohio. There seems to be something in the Kentucky River’s water they can no longer tolerate.

“If the willows can’t continue to live there, how can I be sure that I can continue to live there?” he asked.

Berry, a lifelong Baptist, said the unholy alliance between corporate capitalism and many conservative Christians is “a feat which should astonish us all.”

“A great mistake of Christianity is speaking of the Holy Land as only one place,” he said. “There are no sacred and unsacred places; only sacred and desecrated places.”

But Berry noted that many faith communities are beginning to heed the Bible’s call to environmental stewardship and justice. That gives him hope, as does the growing popularity of organic food, local farmers markets and the sustainable agriculture movement.

“I don’t like to talk about the future, because it doesn’t exist and nobody knows anything about it,” Berry said. “The problems are big, but there are no big solutions.”

Berry said he thinks “resettling America” will require enough people living on and being able to earn a living from the land to take care of it. That will take individual initiative, better government policies and the political will to deal with urgent global threats such as climate change. Can it succeed?

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” Berry said. “We only have a right to ask what’s the right thing to do and do it.”

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Journalist Bill Moyers, left, and writer Wendell Berry autograph books after Moyers filmed an interview with Berry. It was part of a two-day conference revisiting Berry’s landmark 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America.”  Photo by Tom Eblen


UK sets public forums tomorrow and April 18 on food outsourcing

April 8, 2013

The University of Kentucky officials have scheduled two public forums to gather opinions as they decide whether to outsource food service operations. I wrote about the issue in my column Sunday.

The first forum will be 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. tomorrow evening (Tuesday, April 9) in the Worsham Theater at the Student Center. The second forum will be 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on April 18 at the William T. Young Library’s  UK Athletics Auditorium.

To read my Sunday column, click here. To read more about UK’s goals and process, click here.

 


Love of great coffee put Magic Beans friends back in business

April 8, 2013

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Shuyler Warren, left, and Keith Hautala of Magic Beans Coffee Roasters follow the progress of a batch of roasting beans. Their roaster uses hot air, and the temperature can be calibrated to within 1 degree Fahrenheit.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

For some people, a great cup of coffee is worth a little extra trouble and expense. Keith Hautala and Schuyler Warren are two of those people, and they hope more Kentuckians will be, too.

Last December, the friends started Magic Beans Coffee Roasters, which uses a high-tech process to produce fresh, precisely roasted single-source coffees from around the world.

Bags of the whole-bean coffee are sold at Sunrise Bakery, Wine + Market, Town Branch Market and West Sixth Brewery. Brewed coffee will be on the menu of County Club restaurant, which opens later this month at 555 Jefferson St.

Magic Beans also will sell beans at the Lexington Farmers Market at Cheapside on Saturdays, beginning April 13. The company has a Kickstarter.com campaign under way to raise money for a brewed-to-order coffee bar at its market booth.

“We’re trying to convert people,” Hautala said. “We’re trying to create demand for something among coffee drinkers who are, by and large, satisfied with the coffee they’re buying from Starbucks or the grocery store.”

130302MagicBeans-TE0058Hautala said that when he moved to Lexington in 1999, “I discovered there wasn’t much in the way of coffee options.”

He missed the fresh coffee available in California’s San Francisco Bay area, where he grew up.

So he started a coffee shop called Magic Beans near the University of Kentucky campus. Warren, 37, was then an undergraduate working at a nearby restaurant and they became friends.

The coffee shop struggled and closed after a couple of years. Hautala became a copy editor at the Herald-Leader and now works for UK public relations.

Warren moved to Oregon for a decade before returning to Lexington, where he works in recycling programs for Bluegrass Pride.

“I also got spoiled by all the coffee options on the West Coast,” said Warren, who reconnected with Hautala and told him, “We’ve got to re-imagine Magic Beans as a roasting-only operation.”

They knew what they needed: A fluid-bed roaster patented by Michael Sivetz, an Oregon man who was a guru of coffee roasting for decades before his death last year at age 90. The only other Sivetz roaster they know of in Kentucky is used by Heine Brothers’ Coffee in Louisville. Hautala and Warren found a used one for sale online and borrowed from their retirement accounts to buy it.

They have installed the roaster in a small, dungeon-like room they rent inside the Bread Box at West Sixth and Jefferson streets, the former bread bakery that houses West Sixth Brewery and several other tenants.

Each Saturday, Hautala and Warren roast only as much coffee as they expect to sell the next week.

130302MagicBeans0077A Sivetz roaster floats the beans on a bed of super-heated air until they are evenly cooked to a temperature that can be controlled to within 1 degree Fahrenheit. Hautala said the process preserves flavors often lost in conventional steel-drum roasting. Each bag of Magic Beans is marked with the roasting date.

“There’s a huge difference in coffee that was roasted today and coffee that was roasted a week ago,” he said. “As time goes on, there’s sort of diminishing returns.”

The coffee Magic Beans buys from a Minnesota-based company is imported fresh, and each variety can be traced to the farm where it was grown.

“For single-origin coffees, you’re able to highlight the individual characteristics of the beans themselves as opposed to the roast,” Warren said. “We really believe that great coffee is made on the farm. We’re only the last step in the process.”

Magic Beans’ buying method means it doesn’t always offer the same coffees. From month to month, coffee may come from Central America, Africa or Indonesia, depending on the best variety available at a given time.

“If you’re the kind of person who likes something different and likes to buy seasonally, that’s appealing,” Hautala said.

All Magic Beans coffees sell for $12 per 12-ounce bag — about $5 more than premium whole-bean grocery coffee and about the same as Starbucks. But Hautala said Magic Beans is two or three dollars a bag cheaper than coffee from similar specialty roasters elsewhere.

The friends say their business is off to a good start, but they don’t plan to quit their day jobs.

“It is a labor of love for us right now,” Hautala said. “We’re not going to be taking on Starbucks anytime soon.”


UK food service decision: what is best for Kentucky in the long run?

April 6, 2013

The University of Kentucky raised eyebrows last year when it decided to outsource housing to a private company. Now, it is considering doing the same with food service.

These are tough questions, but, after years of declining state support, UK needs to be asking them. What are the right answers?

By all accounts, UK Dining Services is well-managed. It pays for itself and provides good food and jobs. So why consider outsourcing? It is not about saving money, UK spokesman Jay Blanton said.

As with the decision to outsource housing in a 50-year deal with Memphis-based Education Realty Trust, this possible deal is more about raising capital. Lots of it.

“A business partner potentially could pop tens of millions of dollars into infrastructure improvements,” Blanton said.

UK needs capital because it has a lot of catching up to do on infrastructure. The General Assembly has always been stingy about letting UK borrow money for new and improved buildings, even when it could generate revenues to repay the debt.

But there are other considerations, too, Blanton said. Might a giant food service corporation be able to offer more variety and convenience at less cost?

“The question becomes what are the core competencies we have?” he said. “What are the things we do best as an institution, and then what are the things that need to be done as services to students that might be best facilitated with a partner?

“We’re not going to give up course delivery and instruction; we do that better than anybody else,” he added. “But are we the best entity to build a residence hall? Are we the best entity to provide food service? Or is that better facilitated through a partner? It’s worthwhile to at least ask the question.”

There are other issues, too. Dining Services has become a key player in supporting Kentucky’s budding local food movement. This year it will buy more than $1 million worth of “Kentucky Proud” products.

UK Dining Services is just the kind of partner UK’s College of Agriculture needs to help Kentucky farmers develop more sustainable production methods that in the long run will provide the state with more healthy food and stronger local economies.

As a land-grant university, UK’s mission extends beyond the classroom. The university has a responsibility to help show Kentucky the way forward by supporting innovation that will improve quality of life. That is a big reason some students, faculty and citizens have objected to outsourcing.

UK officials said last week that they will consider proposals from food service corporations, hold public meetings and make a decision by the end of the year about whether or not to outsource.

But, in response to the concerns, UK officials said that if they do outsource, they will protect current employees’ jobs and set criteria for vendors. That would include a mandatory commitment to partner with the Kentucky Proud program to buy locally produced food.

Those assurances are commendable, but are they good enough? That depends on how the criteria are set, and how well UK officials follow through during the decades this contract is likely to last.

Tens of millions of dollars in up-front capital is a powerful incentive. But any company offering that kind of capital to UK will want to find ways to get its money back, plus a healthy profit.

In many ways, UK’s outsourcing of housing made sense. UK will quickly get a more adequate supply of good, on-campus housing. But some critics worry that the housing will be too expensive for students. Others worry about the quality of the new residence halls.

Those critics say UK should have negotiated for more durable and energy-efficient construction, which would then have saved money in the long run through lower operating costs. Plus, at the end of the contract, UK would inherit buildings with more potential for future use.

Whichever way UK decides to go on food service, a real commitment to supporting local, healthy and sustainable food production is critical for Kentucky’s future.

As UK officials consider all of the implications of this long-term decision, they should keep this question in mind: Will a corporation care more about what is best for Kentucky or what is best for its shareholders?


Food Chain: non-profit aims to strengthen local food economy

July 8, 2012

Rebecca Self, executive director of Food Chain.  Photo by Tom Eblen

When her husband and his partners were planning West Sixth Brewing Co. last year, Rebecca Self realized the 90,000-square-foot former bakery they bought to house it — now known as The Bread Box — could help her achieve some entrepreneurial dreams.

She was then education director of Seedleaf, a Lexington non-profit organization that develops community gardens and teaches people in low-income neighborhoods about sustainable agriculture and nutritious food.

Self was passionate about Seedleaf’s mission, but she wanted to take it a few steps further. So she assembled a board of directors and staff to create a new non-profit, Food Chain. The goal is to demonstrate indoor food production and preparation in urban Lexington and teach sustainable agriculture skills to youth and adults.

“We’re trying to reimagine the local food economy by rethinking the urban spaces we have,” said Self, 33, a graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By late fall, Food Chain will launch its first project: A huge, windowless room beside the brewery will become Kentucky’s first indoor aquaponics farm, where fish and plants grow together using the same water in a closed loop.

Here’s how it works: Waste grain from the brewery is fed to fish, mostly tilapia, which grow in tanks. Water with the fish’s waste flows through long troughs, where greens, herbs and other food plants grow in a medium under artificial light by absorbing nutrients in that waste and, in the process, cleaning the water.

Once the system is up and running, Food Chain will harvest 240 plants each week and 125 pounds of fish per month, Self said. The system also will produce 120 pounds a year of freshwater prawns, which grow in the troughs where plants are raised.

Renowned chef and restaurant entrepreneur Ouita Michel of Midway, who is on Food Chain’s board, plans to open a fish-and-chips restaurant in the building to serve the tilapia in West Sixth Brewery’s taproom. The fish and greens’ trip from tank to kitchen to plate will be only a few yards, Self said.

Excess greens will be sold to other local restaurants.”We don’t want to go toe-to-toe with in-field farmers, so we’ll grow lettuces and mixed greens primarily off-cycle,” she said. “What we think is probably going to be one of our bigger products are what’s called microgreens, which are the stage before baby greens.”

Those immature plants are packed with nutrition and sell for high prices; restaurants want them, but they are hard for soil-based farmers to grow.

Students from the University of Kentucky’s sustainable agriculture program helped build a small demonstration aquaponics system, where greens, herbs and large-mouth bass are being raised. The full-scale system will be built during the next few months with help from Kentucky State University aquaculture students.

Food Chain has raised more than $60,000 of the $113,000 cost of renovating the space and buying and installing equipment, Self said. That money came mostly from local donations. The organization now is applying for agriculture development grants and planning fund-raisers.

Food Chain expects the sale of greens and fish to cover most operating costs, but the group will continue seeking grants and donations to fund educational programs. Once the aquaponics farm is up and running, Self plans to begin using more brewery waste to grow mushrooms in the basement for sale.

Then Food Chain will put hoop houses on the building’s roof to grow vegetables and create a vermaculture demonstration, where worms break down organic waste into fertilizer.

Food Chain’s third phase will be construction of a certified commercial kitchen in the building. It will be used to teach people how to prepare and preserve the fresh food they grow. The kitchen also will be available for use by entrepreneurs who want to process their locally grown food into jams, pickles, sauces, pesto and other products for sale.

Food Chain will create a few jobs itself, but its main goal is to provide training in sustainable agriculture techniques that will allow people to create their own jobs and businesses, and strengthen Central Kentucky’s local food economy.

“What we’re trying to do is educate and market,” Self said. “We think we’re going to help impact a lot of jobs regionally as people come here to learn and then go off and start doing this on their own.”


Plant to Plate teaches healthy eating habits

May 9, 2012

Students in the Plant to Plate program at the Family Care Center’s alternative high school began this spring by planting vegetables in donated bourbon barrels in the center’s courtyard.  Photo by Ken Gish

 

Sharon Aguilar said her 15-year-old brother likes to eat fast food, but she wants something better for herself and her 1-year-old daughter, Isabel.

So she is learning to buy and cook fresh food. She is even trying to grow lettuce in a little plot outside her family’s apartment, although a rabbit seems to be getting most of it.

Aguilar, 18, read recently that she and her peers might not live as long as their parents because of poor nutrition. “I don’t want that for my daughter,” she said. “Maybe I can make things different for her generation.”

Aguilar’s interest in nutrition was sparked by Plant to Plate, a service project organized by members of this year’s class of Leadership Lexington. The 33-year-old leadership development program, sponsored by Commerce Lexington, helps local professionals become more familiar with different aspects of the community.

“We started out with the idea of trying to do something with gardening, nutrition and students,” said class member Kenneth Gish, an attorney with the firm Stites & Harbison.

In the process of exploring options, the class discovered Lexington’s Family Care Center, which provides education and social services to try to help families become self-sufficient. Its programs include an alternative high school for young mothers and pregnant teens.

Leadership Lexington class members spent the fall and winter organizing Plant to Plate and enlisting the help of people and companies to make it happen. They launched the effort in February with a series of presentations for the girls about nutrition, shopping for food and gardening. They were given by dietician Judy Lawson, Alexa Arnold of the Lexington Farmers Market and organic farmer Sandy Canon.

Several of the school’s two dozen students got to attend the Bluegrass Local Food Summit, organized each March by community garden activist Jim Embry. “He’s my role model now,” Aguilar said.

Leadership Lexington class members helped the girls plant container gardens in the Family Care Center’s courtyard using half bourbon barrels donated by Buffalo Trace Distillery, soil given by Southern States, plants and tools from Fayette Seed, compost from Gunston Farms and garden hoses from Chevy Chase Hardware.

“It has been great to see the willingness of people in the community to get involved in this,” Gish said. “It was a fun process.”

The day I visited, the girls were getting lessons in healthy cooking from Jeremy Ashby, executive chef at Azur restaurant in Beaumont Centre, and Sylvia Lovely, the restaurant’s owner. They do a radio show about food, Sunny Side Up, each Saturday at 11 a.m. on WLAP-630 AM.

“One of the things we want to talk about is that local is better,” Ashby said as he told of good sources for locally grown food. He taught the students to properly cut vegetables and prepare a simple but delicious meal of almond-crusted chicken, carrots sautéed with thyme, corn bread, and macaroni and cheese.

Aguilar said she had never been a fan of broccoli, but she still might try the mac-and-cheese recipe at home. Her daughter already likes fresh vegetables better than she does, she admitted.

“It’s not as hard as I thought it was to eat healthy,” she said when asked what she has learned. “And it tastes better. I don’t like canned spinach, but I like fresh spinach.”

Plant to Plate has made a difference, said Joanna Rodes, director of the Family Care Center, which is run by the city’s Division of Family Services.

“I’m pleasantly surprised at how much they have enjoyed it,” she said of the students. “I hear them talking more about cooking at home and making healthy choices for their children.”

Rodes hopes to build on many aspects of the Plant to Plate experience, from cooking classes to growing vegetables. But it will take more volunteer efforts from individuals, companies or groups like Leadership Lexington.

“We’ve lost a lot of resources,” she said. “So we just can’t do it without people who want to do good things.”

For one thing, Rodes said, the students’ excitement about container gardening makes her think a much larger garden on the center’s grounds could be successful — if volunteers were willing to help.

“I feel that we could take any of these avenues and go 100 miles,” she said.

Jeremy Ashby, executive chef at Azur restaurant, shows Sharon Agular how to use a chef’s knife to julienne carrots. Photo by Tom Eblen

Jovanna Martinez, left, and Sharon Agular learn to cook almond-crusted chicken during a cooking class led by Jeremy Ashby, executive chef at Azur restaurant. Photo by Tom Eblen


Local food guru Jim Embry a model of activism; UK’s John Stempel on the state of the world

January 18, 2012

As the Unity Breakfast began Monday morning in Heritage Hall, Jim Embry was working the room.

Lean, fit and hard to miss in his colorful clothing and gray dreadlocks, Embry was quickly moving from table to table, handling out leaflets to promote his annual Bluegrass Local Food Summit, March 22 to 24 at Crestwood Christian Church.

Breakfast was followed by inspirational speakers and award presentations. But when Embry’s name was called as one of two Unity Award winners — along with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Bluegrass — he was gone. A son accepted the award for him.

“I have to leave by 8:15 to catch a 9 o’clock flight,” Embry had told me as he rushed from table to table, handing out leaflets to the breakfast’s 1,400 attendees. “I’m speaking this afternoon at Yale.”

It was classic Jim Embry. Who has time to rest on laurels when there is a world out there in need of improvement?

Embry, 62, was the featured speaker Monday afternoon in New Haven, Conn., at a master’s tea, sponsored by Yale University’s Pierson College and the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

Jim Embry, left, talks with Richard Knittel of Versailles in October, as they both joined Occupy Wall Street protesters on Main Street in Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Embry now spends most of his time promoting sustainable living and locally grown food. But the Richmond native has been an activist since age 10, when his mother was president of the Covington chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He grew up attending civil rights events.

As state youth chairman of the NAACP, he helped organize the 1964 March on Frankfort, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Embry went on to become president of the University of Kentucky’s Black Student Union. While he was in college, a summer job in New York City sparked his interest in health and food justice. In 1971, he helped found Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op.

After a four-year stint in Detroit as director of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, Embry returned to Lexington in 2005 and founded the Sustainable Commun ities Network (Sustainlex.org). He has helped develop more than 30 community gardens and taught school garden workshops for more than 300 teachers.

Embry’s other passions range from the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice to the Interfaith Alliance and Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden. Later this year, he plans to publish his autobiography, Black and Green, and a book of photographs, Through the Lens of a Sacred Earth Activist.

“I come from a long lineage of activists, so I don’t know any better,” he said.

Outlook for 2012

John D. Stempel, retired director of UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, doesn’t so much try to improve the world as understand it.

He spent 24 years as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, including a four-year stint in the U.S. embassy in Iran before the 1979 revolution.

Stempel gave his annual State of the World speech to the Lexington Rotary Club earlier this month, saying he expects this year to be even more turbulent than last year. Among his concerns:

■ The likelihood that European debt and American politics will hamper economic recovery.

■ The possibility of cyber attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure. “Our illusion of invincibility serves us poorly,” he said.

■ The potential for an Iranian nuclear crisis, increasing instability in Pakistan and tensions between India and Pakistan.

■ Iraq’s future. “The violent sectarianism the U.S. takeover and occupation provoked has already begun to transform Iraq from a nastily ruled balancer of Iran into a traumatized society under extensive Iranian influence. Not a good trade-off.”

Stempel said he worries about a “crisis of global governance that impedes common-sense solutions to common challenges like climate change, energy and food costs and availability, plus the imbalance between expanding human needs and the limited capacity of the world’s ecosystem to satisfy them.”

The U.S. presidential election is unlikely to help, he said.

“An administration that has delivered on only a precious few of the major promises it made to achieve election in 2008 seeks re-election against an opposition that seems more intent on repealing the 20th century than addressing the real and pressing challenges of the 21st,” Stempel said. “No one expects a serious discussion of the challenges now facing either the United States or the world.”


Seedleaf grows gardens — and gardeners, cooks

October 19, 2011

A seed leaf is the first sign that a plant might take root and flourish. It seemed like an appropriate metaphor for what Ryan Koch hoped to do in Lexington.

Koch’s idea began germinating in 2007, when a farmer donated a garden plot to Communality, a small Christian faith community to which Koch and his wife, Jodie, belonged.

The experience led Koch and others to form Seedleaf, a non-profit organization with this goal: “Nourish communities by growing, cooking, sharing and recycling food.”

Seedleaf now sponsors eight community gardens in the East End and north side neighborhoods, plus one in Gainesway and another at Sayre School. The organization works with 16 restaurants and caterers to collect pre-consumer waste food to turn into compost to nourish those gardens.

Seedleaf also partners with other non-profits to do educational programs aimed at restoring local food culture, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

“I want us to serve as a reminder,” said Koch, a Californian who came to Kentucky to study at Asbury Theological Seminary. “There was a time when we wouldn’t have needed a Seedleaf because people knew how to grow and cook their own food.”

Seedleaf celebrated the end of its fourth growing season last weekend with a picnic Saturday to thank volunteers. Koch estimated that 1,200 volunteers — many of them college students — have helped with gardens and programs.

“We’ve come to be trusted in Lexington as a place where volunteers can come in and be well-used,” he said.

On Sunday, there was another picnic for six young people who completed this summer’s SEEDS program. Service Education and Entrepreneurship in Downtown Spaces is a training program for fifth- through eighth-graders, sponsored by Blue Grass Community Foundation.

Each student spent more than 70 hours working in the gardens and taking classes, said Rebecca Self, Seedleaf’s education director and only other employee. After asking neighbors what kind of produce they would buy, the students planted, raised and harvested vegetables and sold them at the William Wells Brown Community Center. The most popular items: tomatoes, collard greens and green beans.

What the students enjoyed most, though, was learning to cook and eat what they grew. They were taught cooking skills by Self and chef Ouita Michel, who owns the Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station and Windy Corner restaurants.

Twin sisters Rosa and Petra Navarro, 15, said they like fresh vegetables a lot more than they did before their work with SEEDS. So does Jawuan Walker-Brown, 12.

“I really enjoyed myself,” he said “I got to cook and eat — I really like to eat.”

The largest of Seedleaf’s spaces is the London Ferrell Community Garden on East Third Street, between Lexington’s main fire station and the Old Episcopal Burying Ground. The garden is named for a prominent minister in the early 1800s who is the only black person buried in the all-white cemetery next door.

The London Ferrell garden includes 40 plots that neighborhood families can rent for $5 a year. Plus, there are plots for SEEDS participants and a community plot with produce for anyone who helped tend it.

Seedleaf provides meals to Kid’s Café at the East Seventh Street Center, using its produce and food from God’s Pantry.

The organization also teaches cooking classes at the Florence Crittenton Home on West Fourth Street, one of the nation’s oldest shelters for pregnant girls.

“They’re going to have to feed themselves and a baby, and this points them toward independent living,” Koch said.

Koch and Self are pleased with how their seed leaf has flourished, but they have bigger ambitions.

Seedleaf’s annual budget of about $70,000 comes equally from grants, donations and money earned from composting and other services. Koch said he would like to add another staff member or two to help manage the growing corps of volunteers.

In addition to making people healthier and more self-sufficient, learning how to grow and prepare food can promote generosity and neighborliness, Koch said.

“We want to grow more gardens,” he said. “But more than that, we want to grow more gardeners and teach people how to cook. We see a lot of opportunities to partner with people and organizations that are doing good things in Lexington.”

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Friends share love of fresh pasta with Lexington

July 24, 2011

Lesme Romero and Reinaldo Gonzalez became good friends as college students in Cleveland. They had grown up in South America with Spanish fathers and Italian mothers, and both loved good food.

They shared an apartment in the Little Italy neighborhood and worked four years as cooks in some of Cleveland’s best Italian restaurants, where they learned to make fresh pasta.

Romero, 33, earned business degrees and eventually moved to Florida to work in finance. Gonzalez, 37, became an industrial engineer and took a corporate job in Lexington.

During a visit several years ago, Gonzalez took Romero to the Lexington Farmers Market to buy fresh produce. They went back to Gonzalez’s home, made fresh pasta and cooked a delicious meal.

“I remember saying to him, ‘I wish I could do this for a living,'” Romero said after making the pasta. “And his wife, Heather, said, ‘Well, why not?'”

So, in 2009, they started Lexington Pasta. Using a countertop pasta machine, they made samples and took them to restaurants. Bellini’s gave them their first order, for 20 pounds. “It took us 20 hours to make on that little machine,” Romero said. “But we were just excited to have an order.”

Now, the company has more than $50,000 worth of pasta equipment and makes 600 pounds a week. Some of it goes to the best restaurants in Central Kentucky. The rest is sold in specialty stores, at farmers markets and at Lexington Pasta’s tiny downtown shop in a converted two-car garage for $2 for a 4-ounce serving.

Romero manages the company, which has three employees. He makes daily deliveries downtown on a bright red scooter, and he has become a fixture at the farmers market at Cheapside on Saturdays and Southland on Sundays. “I used to have a name,” he said with a laugh. “Now I’m ‘The Pasta Guy.'”

Why eat fresh pasta instead of cheaper stuff that comes dried in a box? Because it tastes better, Romero said.

“It’s the subtle part of the dish that makes the difference,” said Debbie Long, owner of Dudley’s on Short, which uses Lexington Pasta in several dishes. “They have a wonderful product. They are very customer-oriented and they are easy to work with. I think they’re a great addition to our food community.”

Lexington Pasta is made with semolina flour, eggs and flavorings from fresh ingredients, many of which are locally grown, Romero said. The pasta, which keeps in a refrigerator for about 10 days, comes in 10 cuts and 10 flavors, including spinach, cilantro, portobello and chipotle. Fresh egg ravioli comes stuffed with spinach or Parmesan, ricotta and mozzarella cheese.

The company takes orders for gluten-free, whole grain, spicy diablo, lobster and Spanish saffron pasta. Some restaurant chefs have worked with Romero to create specialty pastas for signature dishes.

One way Romero cultivates customers is by offering “Pasta 101″ classes for six to eight people once a week. At the two-hour class, which costs $45, students learn to make pasta and then use it to fix a gourmet dinner. The evening includes Kentucky wines, cheeses and an Italian dessert. The classes are booked up through early September, said Romero, who plans to add a ravioli-making “Pasta 102″ class.

Because of his business education and background, Romero said he is always thinking about ways to grow the company. He has his eye on a pasta machine that would produce 70 pounds an hour, up from his current machine’s 40 pounds.

But Romero said he doesn’t want Lexington Pasta to grow too fast or too big. He likes the feel of his tiny downtown shop, where he knows many of his customers.

“I have felt so welcomed by this neighborhood,” Romero said. “I love what I do. When people come back in the shop and say, ‘That’s the best pasta I’ve had in my life,’ that’s the best reward for me.”

Lexington Pasta

Products: Sold at markets including Shorty’s, Good Foods Coop, The Mouse Trap, and Lexington Farmers Market.

On the menu: Served at Central Kentucky restaurants including Bellini’s, Portofino, Dudley’s, Nick Ryan’s, Azur, Holly Hill Inn, Windy Corner, Alfalfa, Boone Tavern, Columbia’s, Varden’s and Le Deauville.

Where: 227 N. Limestone

Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.

Learn more: (859) 421-1764 or LexingtonPasta.com

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Coming to Lex Farmers Market: Fresh, local books

June 7, 2010

In addition to local food, you will soon be able to buy local books at the Lexington Farmers Market. And, in true market fashion, you will be buying them from the authors.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and The Morris Book Shop are partnering with the market to create a Homegrown Authors booth, to be staffed by local authors from 9 a.m. to noon each Saturday at Cheapside.

The booth will begin June 12 with the Carnegie Center’s writer in residence, Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss and VoiceMale; and market vendor Abigail Keam of Abigail’s Honey. She has written a murder mystery, Death by a Honeybee.

Other Homegrown Authors booths are planned for June 19, July 10 and July 24.

“We’re hoping people will support their local writers just as they support their local farmers,” Chethik said.