Thoughts: Local vs. Sustainable

I am very proud to contribute to The Chefs Collaborative Cookbook, which being published by Taunton Press and due out this Spring.  It’s an exciting project that I am honored and happy to be involved with.

When putting together some notes and thoughts for the book, the topic of  ”Organic vs. Local” came up.  It’s a hot topic and a good question.  Is there really one right answer?  I felt compelled to write down my own thoughts and ideas on the issue to try and better understand myself where my own principles, goals and ideals lay.   When I was done, I felt it truly described the working philosophy that drives nicks on broadway and my daily persuits, so I thought I’d share them…

Organic vs. Local

Which is better? Which is more important?

As a chef trying to make conscientious, thoughtful decisions, I really hope to accomplish both.  Though many times as both chefs and consumers we are faced with choosing which is truly more important to us, I’d like to think we’re moving in a direction where soon we’ll be able source our foods and accomplish both goals.

Often times, and for many reasons, these choices can’t always the same, especially here in New England, where seasonality and economy of scale are harsh realities.  Many other factors play into this, not the least of which are: cost of certification, process, equipment/materials and the accessibility/feasibility for farmers and producers to make the change.
As chefs(and consumers)today we are often posed with having to decide, so again we ask, which is more important to us? Should supporting small, local farmers and artisan producers in your community or purchasing fully certified organic/sustainable products from farmers and producers outside our local areas take precedent?

To some choosing to support certified organic/sustainable is paramount above all else.  They believe (and in some circumstances they are correct) in the principle that we must support those who are practicing better farming/production methods in order to get better product, and for those systems to take root.  They believe that if we support those producers/growers they will thrive and those using less desirable methods/practices will either catch on to compete, or fall by the waist side.

The problem with this argument is that if you choose this as a way of operating you could be creating a much bigger carbon footprint, supporting larger scale business/production companies and sending money out of your community that could be used to educate, promote and build better local food systems, and create communities that understand and value the ideals behind a food-centric economy/culture.  Some choose to support local growers/producers whatever the cost, and whatever the quality of product, method of production/harvesting. With an understanding that supporting local food systems not only allows you to use foods at their optimum ripeness and seasonality(by cutting down on travel and the necessity for early harvesting) but also reduces our carbon footprint and supports your community with major socio and economic benefits.

What do I do at nicks? I try to accomplish both…

With the costs involved with being certified organic/sustainable, many small farmers/producers simply can’t afford the certification process, but there are many out there that are doing the right things and using organic/sustainable practices/methods.   There are also many others trying to do the right things, educating themselves and their customers, and working towards being able to afford better equipment/materials and the ability to produce/grow/harvest more.  I am of the belief that they will never be able to do so if we don’t support them both financially and logistically.  Local farm lands cannot be reclaimed and farming cannot become a viable source of income and lifestyle without this.

I always try to source locally first.  I always look to support someone in my local community if it’s at all possible.  My team and I work tirelessly at finding farmers and producers in our area that we can work with, and that will work, grow and learn with us.  That being said, quality is always paramount above all else. Just because its local, doesn’t mean its good. It has to be good.  Then we go from there.  If we can’t adapt to what’s available locally, or get a local producer to adapt to what we feel is right and good, then we look outside our local community for other like minded farmers/growers/producers/harvesters in other areas in the country/world. Though I’d always like to (and am sometimes am fortunate enough to) feature only locally sourced items, its not always possible, and I feel that supporting other communities and passionate/dedicated people is also valuable and right.

Our systems are ever changing, and not without challenge. What’s important to me is to work tirelessly at building relationships with my peers and my community so that we can all learn and grow together, keeping open minds, making positive progress and moving towards building more permanently healthy, available, accessible and powerful local, national and international food systems.

-Derek Wagner

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