Citing everything from health benefits to taste and environmentally friendly growing practices, an increasing number of Acadiana shoppers are turning to local farms for their food.
If you ask Anne Blanchet what she does for a living, she'll tell you she raises grass-fed beef cattle. Watch her at work though, and aside from calling the cows to move on to the next pasture, Blanchet doesn't do too much heavy lifting. She doesn't haul grain because her cows aren't corn-fed, the way much of the beef in the meat industry in America is today. She doesn't boost her calves' growth with hormones, nor does she treat them with preventative antibiotics. She doesn't ship them to a feed lot in the Midwest for "finishing" (feeding them all the corn they can possibly eat) before turning them into steaks. What Anne really does is raise grass. Nature and the cows do the rest.
Anne and her husband Ben are part of a wholistic food movement, fueled in part by America's burgeoning love affair with regional cooking and ingredients, and a new generation tapping into the utopian ideals of the 1960s. The economic result of this convergence is sending droves of people to small scale growers in their neighborhood or the organic isles of supermarkets. Their love of feeling more connected to nature is also part of a growing mistrust of global industrialized agriculture.
"It's absolutely scary, what's on the shelves," says Anne. "Knowing what agribusiness does to our food and what government standards are makes it worth paying attention to what you're getting." In recent months, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture have issued multiple food alerts based on fatal amounts of hepatitis A contaminating shipments of Mexican green onions, E. coli outbreaks traced to California spinach, salmonella discovered in Peter Pan peanut butter, botulism found in San Diego-based Castleberry's canned chili and Chinese seafood contaminated with suspected carcinogens or unapproved antibiotics. In Acadiana, a growing number of people want personal connections with local farmers who can assure them that their food is being grown and handled safely.
Food safety is on the mind of Dr. Adrien Stewart, a local dermatologist who's been shopping at the Acadiana Farmer's Market for the last 15 years. The revelations of unsanitary growing conditions in overseas markets coupled with the tons of petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides applied to American crops have kept her faithfully shopping for cucumbers, tomatoes, squash and sweet potatoes at the crack of dawn. "Remember Icon?" she asks.
In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized Aventis CropScience, a global agriculture company, to market rice seed treated with the company's insecticide, Icon, to combat the rice water weevil. Extensively used in Louisiana, Icon proved toxic to crawfish, a companion crop in rice paddies, leading Louisiana farmers to file lawsuits against Aventis for crop loss and contamination of their fields. In 2004, Icon was pulled off the global market.
But fear isn't the reason Stewart and hundreds of devotees get up at the crack of dawn to visit Acadiana's farmer's markets. Seasonal fresh produce picked vine-ripe and a desire to support local farmers and preserve farmland in an age of suburban sprawl is the driving factor. "I think it's more nutritious to eat really fresh vegetables in season than those that are frozen, canned or have traveled from who-knows-where," says Stewart. Over the years, she has built lasting friendships with the farmers she trusts.
"I can look David in the eye. I trust him with my food."
David Richter, founder of the early morning market on Dulles Drive behind Lafayette High, has been farming full time since 1958. He had a house-to-house route in Rayne before he started the market in 1970. Independent and politically conservative, Richter snorts at any sort of government intervention in agriculture, claiming that most government programs are designed to help mega-agribusiness ' enormous companies like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland ' rather than the local truck farmer who cuts out the middleman and sells food directly to his neighbors. Richter refused any federal, state or local funding in setting up the market. No government money means no government regulation, which Richter characterizes as interference. "Farmers know what they need to do," he says. "This way the farmers can run it themselves."
On a recent August morning, the market bounty included a broad variety of vegetables and fruits. Eggplant, sweet and hot peppers, cucumbers, several different types of squash, potatoes, okra, field peas, lettuce, figs, pears, muscadine grapes and live herbs growing in pots were all available. The rub is that you have to shop on farm time: 5 a.m. till about 9 a.m., Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Otherwise, you're out of luck. And what's missing from the fruit and vegetable cornucopia are the other food groups ' grains and bread, dairy products, meat, fish, and oils. Finding and stocking a pantry with locally produced groceries, at first blush, looks like a lot of work.
Courtney and Blake Aillet have three children under the age of 6. They want their kids to eat a healthy diet composed of fresh meats and vegetables, not packaged, processed foods. "I have a routine," Courtney says. Every other Wednesday, she shops at Vitamins Plus for yogurt, flour, sprouted grain bread and vitamin supplements. Saturday mornings, the family goes to the City Garden Market in the Oil Center to buy organically raised fish, poultry, eggs and produce from Gotreaux Family Farms.
"We have a cow share in a farm in Maurice," Courtney continues. "This means we legally own part of a cow and we go out there once a week to get raw milk. If we run out of that milk, which is just two gallons a week, we pick up some Smith Creamery milk and butter ' which is a local dairy ' at Fresh Pickins. It's pasteurized but not homogenized ' the next best thing. We order raw cheese from a dairy farm in Missouri. It's more local than buying cheese from New Zealand or China or somewhere."
Ground beef comes from the organics section at Target, which specializes in natural foods, those not containing antibiotics or growth hormones. Earl's Market, right down the road from the Aillets' house, is a local stop for sausage. Then there are things that don't grow in Louisiana but are too good to forgo, says Courtney. Cherries, for instance. "I look for organic cherries at Target, but if they don't have them, I'll compromise sometimes," she says.
The payoff for all the time it takes to shop ' Courtney estimates about three to four hours a week ' is measured in their children's health. "The kids don't get sick," Blake says. "We don't go to the doctor unless we have to for check-ups. And we believe when children are properly nourished they behave well. If you don't pump them up with sugar and dyes and artificial flavors, they can learn better."
For local painter Rosanna Czarnecki, better health is the payoff. "We can heal ourselves," she says, "by eating the right things." Czarnecki had a mysterious ailment no doctor seemed able to diagnose. In treating her puzzling symptoms (later identified as Lyme disease), she had a terrible reaction to a cortisone shot, which wound up causing neurological and immune system problems. Her doctors prescribed massive amounts of antibiotics, pain killers and antidepressants. Miserable and in constant pain, she began reading about how the body can mend itself, given the proper nutrition. She began buying organic eggs, chickens, fish and vegetables from the Gotreauxs. Two years later, she is down to one prescription and feels much better. She credits it to her locally grown organic diet. "People don't understand that our diet of fast food and the pesticides in industrially grown food are poisoning us," she says.
The conversation about the benefits of fresh food always comes around to conventional growing versus organic. Some local farmers refuse to use pesticides, opting for techniques like companionate planting to keep bugs away. Others say they use the smallest amount of pesticides and chemical fertilizers possible. It's a question of economics on one hand ' every pound of fertilizer spread on the ground is a few cents lost in sales at the market ' and being willing to do the intensive labor it takes to grow an organic garden on the other. Farming has so many nuances and variables; sometimes just asking about chemicals is a touchy proposition. Just mentioning the word "organic" to a farmer who uses a touch of pesticides often sets off a reaction. Audrey Miller, who sells her fruit and vegetables at the Acadiana Farmer's Market, defends her use of commercial fertilizer.
"It's a sterile product," she says. "I use it to keep from importing E. coli in manure." Eddy Romero, who has a year round pick-your-own fruit orchard in Coteau, says he built up his soil with filter press mud, containing trace chemicals used on sugar cane, from the cane mills. "In China, Mexico, they can use chemicals we can't use," Romero says. "They've been banned. They'll have bigger, prettier fruit. But it has chemicals that will make you sick. That's why stores should have signs, saying where the fruit comes from."
Organic food is raised in soil untouched by chemical fertilizers. Organic farmers like Dawn and Brian Gotreaux of Scott, who sell their vegetables, chickens, eggs and fish at the Oil Center farmer's market, talk a lot about building soil. "Our farm was a sugar cane field," says Brian. "We had to remediate the soil." Cane, a tropical grass, strips nutrients. Brian added seaweed, which releases water soluble minerals into the soil; planted beans and peas to fix nitrogen from the air; and designed a rolling chicken house for their egg-laying hens that can be moved a few feet each day, eventually covering every foot of their pasture. The mobile henhouse allows the hens to eat fresh grass and scratch the surface of the soil for worms and grubs. Meanwhile chicken manure enriches the soil. The uncrowded conditions, rich earth, fresh greens and sunshine pump up their eggs with the healthy fatty acid omega 3, an essential component in human health and the development of brain cells.
That same natural system ' soil replenished with decaying organic matter and coupled with sunshine ' is the backbone of nutrient-rich vegetables and fruit. Plants grown in humus-rich soils are able to absorb complex sugars and minerals more easily. "Healthy plants actually repel bugs," says Gotreaux. Studies published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry have shown they have a higher nutritional content and the extra plus is deeper flavor.
While some people are convinced that organics are the only way to go, fresh picked, locally raised food in Acadiana's year-round growing season offers a compelling alternative. Fruits and vegetables begin to die the moment they are picked. More nutrition is retained by getting them to the table quickly. For many, local trumps organic if the choice is between imported and from the farm next door. Another factor in food choices is the energy cost. Shipping lettuce from California or veal from Chicago leaves a heavy carbon footprint, but the USDA subsidizes shipping costs, which tends to help the mega farm supplying supermarket chains rather than the small speciality grower. Shoppers are often taken aback by the price of a dozen local organic eggs, about $3, but farmers say that's the real cost. And, of course, cooks will tell you fresh country eggs perform better in the kitchen, and those sunny golden yolks taste entirely different than their industrially hatched cousins.
The environmentally conscious new generation and gourmet cooks often wind up shopping in the same place ' the Blanchets and their cattle farm is a perfect example. Brookshire Farms' beef is chemical-free. It's pricey, too; shoppers have to buy a share of a cow rather than a single steak. A quarter of a cow weighs in the neighborhood of 100 pounds and averages about $7 a pound for a multitude of cuts ' from ribeye to soup bones. When you buy beef from the Blanchets you truly get the whole cow. But how does it taste?
Ben Blanchet gets ready to sizzle up a hamburger in a black iron skillet in his kitchen. While the frying pan heats, he uncorks several bottles of young Bordeaux wines he bought at Philippe's Wine Cellar. He winces at the suggestion of drinking Louisiana-made wines ' "too sweet," he says ' but if he can't get something locally grown, he shops at locally owned businesses. Ann, meanwhile, is stewing some roma tomatoes with a little bit of onion in olive oil, which she bought from Cedar Grocery. Chilling for dessert is a dish of pears from the Blanchet's tree, poached in the remains of last night's wine. Ben will pair that with Creole cream cheese from Smith's Creamery, a Louisiana dairy.
The burgers are smoking in the pan now, filling the kitchen with a meaty perfume. The difference at first bite is subtle. On the tongue, the savory flavors begin to deepen, the juices flooding the palate with fat and herbal notes. "The taste of the terroir, the soil, comes through in the bouquet of a well made wine," Ben says. "My beef is like wine ' you can taste the grass the cows were raised on." Millet, crabgrass, clover, buttercups and goat weed dot the 35 acres the cows graze. Perhaps Blanchet's terroir cachet is a bit of clever marketing, but he really doesn't need to say a word. His heavy, dry-aged beef is usually sold out a year in advance, whether for its health benefits or full-bodied taste. The Blanchets gather at the table and admire the bounty of Louisiana's farmland. Ben raises his glass with a toast: "Bon appétit."
Hear Mary Tutwiler talk with Conni Castille on KRVS' program "Lacouture Lagniappe."
LOCALLY GROWN AND PRODUCED FOOD
A COW TO LOVE
A grass-fed biodynamic farm in Maurice with hand-milked cows. It offers a cow share program, allowing you to own your own cow, along with other share owners. The farm boards and will milk the cow for you. It also offers pecans, pastured poultry and eggs. Contact Theresa Taylor at (337) 804-2983, 7539 Soop Road, Maurice
Pasteurized, but not homogenized milk, cream, butter, Creole cream cheese, from grass fed cows raised on one of the only remaining family owned and operated dairies in Louisiana. Sold locally at Fresh Pickins, Kaliste Saloom. Call (985) 877-4445, 29184 Mt. Pisgah Road, Mt. Hermon. www.smithcreamery.com
BELLE ECORCE FARMS
Owner Wanda Barras makes natural, old-world style goat cheeses without the use of preservatives, additives, hormones, or antibiotics. She offers fresh, ripened and aged (raw and pasteurized milk) goat cheeses using French-Acadian artisinal methods. Sold locally at Joey's Specialty Foods on Bertrand Drive. Contact Barras at (337) 394-6683, 6939-G Main Hwy, St. Martinville
CHEF JOHN FOLSE'S BITTERSWEET PLANTATION DAIRY
European style yogurt and Creole cream cheese made from Louisiana dairy farm milk. Sold locally at Champagne's Market in the Oil Center. Check out Folse's Web site for more items and outlets outside of Lafayette. www.jfolse.com/bittersweet_dairy
POUPART'S FRENCH BAKERY
Classic French baguettes, sourdough, buckwheat and whole grain loaves, hand made daily in the family run bakery. Call 232-7921, 1902 W. Pinhook Road, Lafayette www.poupartsbakery.com
Hand made french bread, ginger bread, individual fruit pies, in a historic bakery run by fifth-generation bakers. Sold locally at Winn Dixie stores. Contact Matt Lejeune at (337) 276-5690, 1510 West Main St., Jeanerette
GOTREAUX FAMILY FARMS
Organic vegetables, chickens, eggs, guinea hens, turkeys, tilapia, sprouted cereal. Sold locally on Saturdays at the City Garden Market in the Oil Center, 8 a.m.-noon, or contact Dawn Gotreaux at (337) 873-0383, 205 Facile Road, Scott www.gofamilyfarms.com
Grass finished, dry aged beef, pastured veal and meat goats. Contact Anne Blanchet at (337) 893-5115, 8916 Brookshire Road, Abbeville brookshirefarm.com
KEVIN GUIDRY PRODUCE
The family owned produce market buys directly from local farmers. While it also buys out-of-state items such as lettuce from California and apples from Washington, it has signs designating homegrown vegetables and fruit. Currently, Guidry's sells local okra, squash, watermelons and muscadine grapes, at the same price they are offered at the Acadiana Farmer's Market. Call (337) 269-4726, 3619 Moss St., Lafayette
EDDIE ROMERO'S ORCHARD
Eddie grows fruit year round at his pick-your-own orchard. Right now there are figs, muscadine grapes and asian pears, but with fall just around the corner, persimmons, and his citrus crop should be coming in once it gets cool. It's best to call after 5 or on weekends, when he's off work and can joyously lope around the garden, offering tastes of his 20 different varieties of figs. His brother Daniel has another pick-your-own orchard right across the street. Call (337) 364-3370, 5119 Freetown Road, Coteau, La. Daniel Romeo can be reached at 337-365-1690.