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At the Natural Capital Center: Gustafson brings fresh, hopeful stories to dinner

Katherine Gustafson uncovers her new book, Change Comes to Dinner.

Author of Change Comes to Dinner, Katherine Gustafson
Katherine Gustafson

Katherine Gustafson traveled around the United States seeking working examples of how to build a more sustainable, satisfying, and fair food system. She documented her many stops, the people she met, and the solutions she uncovered in her new book, Change Comes to Dinner. The narrative uncovers promising models we could and should replicate more widely, and it lets readers bask in a lot of hard work and ingenuity. We asked Gustafson, who will read from her book at Ecotrust on May 18, at 5:30, to give us a taste of the many stories that fill her pages.

Your book is full of hopeful examples, but can you isolate one new development in the food movement that feels especially promising to you right now?

Aquaponics – the practice of growing fish and greens together in a closed-loop symbiotic system of aquaculture tanks and hydroponic trays – gives me a lot of hope, especially with wild fish stocks getting so much pressure throughout the world. The fact that such systems also produce healthy greens and can be located in urban areas is a great bonus.

I visited a small aquaponic operation in Cape Cod, of all places, where a bustling marina with an amazing fresh fish market (featuring saltwater fish, of course) was just a few miles down the road. This farmer was having success selling his tilapia (a freshwater fish) and salad greens at farmers’ markets and his koi to suppliers of ornamental fish in the region.

Book by Katherine Gustafson, Change Comes to Dinner

Have you read anything in the news recently that your book can shine a light on?

As it was just Mother’s Day, a little article about a mother-daughter farm tour in the Iowa City Press Citizen caught my eye. An important trend going on in our farmland – one that seems to be almost unrecognized – is that older women are increasingly becoming the sole owners of farms they aren’t used to managing. According to Iowa State Extension, about one in every ten acres of farmland in Iowa is now owned by a single woman over 75 years old.

These women have always thought of themselves as “farmers’ wives” regardless of how much they participated [on the farm]. When they are widowed and the land passes to them, they [inherit] the responsibility to make decisions about the disposition of that land and its future.

In the book, I write about an Iowa organization called Women, Food, and Agriculture Network that is running women-only workshops to help [these landowners] understand their decision-making power and learn how to make the kinds of choices that will help them steward their land well.

You call out FoodHub, a venture of Ecotrust, in your chapter on “Cultivating the Internet.” Why do you see the internet as a promising arena to spur a revolution in how America eats? 

I like to say that the internet is the ace up the sleeve of small-scale producers, because the connective nature of it gives small, local growers an edge over larger suppliers. These types of services can help regional food economies writ-large without necessarily focusing only on small-scale producer. Such services level the playing field so that all the producers can compete equally, which certainly hasn’t been the case in the offline economy.

There’s a notion in your book about shrinking the distance between farmers and eaters in the area of knowledge. What does a dinner look like when you shrink that distance?

I do believe that focusing solely on geographic distance in judging food’s sustainability is missing the forest for the trees.

To use some examples from the book, my imagined dinner might include meat from a producer in my region (I live in the Washington, DC area) whose practices I am aware of – say, a chicken from Polyface Farm – supplied to me via a consumer buying club, an online local-food distribution service, or a farmers market.

I might have some Rancho Gordo beans on the side. They would have to be shipped to me long-distance from Napa, California, but I know these are heirloom species of beans, which help increase our country’s agricultural diversity (and taste better, to boot), while also supporting farmers in California and seed growers elsewhere.

I’d supplement this hearty fare with a salad of fresh greens from a local farmer (or my own backyard, if only I had any kind of green thumb) and some bread I had baked using flour from Shepherd’s Grain, a Washington company that grows wheat using no-till methods that preserve soil health.

On your many stops, what experience took you furthest from your comfort zone? What experience gave you the most joy?

Watching the slaughter of one cow, four pigs, and 14 lambs done by a mobile slaughter facility on a farm in Washington took me pretty far out of my comfort zone, considering I used to be a vegetarian for 11 years. I was nervous on the morning I was to witness this, wondering whether I’d be able to stomach it. But I was pleasantly surprised by how little it traumatized me; it was so efficient and exact.

And because I’ve been a meat eater again for many years now, I felt satisfied to have seen what it takes to create the food I enjoy.

It is really too difficult to choose just one experience that gave me the most joy, but I’d say that some of the best moments were those in which I was invited to sit down with farmers at their tables to eat some of what they had grown. At Open Oak Farm in Sweet Home, Oregon, I had a delicious lunch of beans and salad with four young, bean-loving farmers who had spent several hours sharing with me the challenges and opportunities of their farming life.

Everywhere I went, people freely shared with me their knowledge, their passion, and their food.