Local Heroes 2010

Local Heroes

By Emily Freeman

The vitality of our region’s local food scene can be attributed to various factors. We live in a part of the country with a longstanding economic and cultural relationship to agriculture. Our network of food co-ops is unrivaled. We have truly gifted chefs and farmers and small-scale producers whose reputations in many cases stretch beyond the boundaries of the Upper Midwest. And perhaps most importantly, there’s an ethos of camaraderie and mutual support that serves to strengthen the local food scene as a whole, rather than just elevating the status of a few individuals.

Nevertheless, there are indeed individuals who stand out as true leaders, consistently turning out the kind of high-quality gastronomical products and experiences that we’ve come to expect or rely on. Who among us hasn’t stumbled on a locally made product so good that it effectively ruins you for every other brand’s version of the same item? Or dined at a restaurant that raises the bar so high that you’re forever slightly disappointed by subsequent dining-out experiences? Or attended an event that fills you with such fervor for sustainable agriculture that you can no longer pass through the average supermarket produce department without an acute awareness of their pumped-up, unseasonable inventory? We are often permanently altered by our education about food, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing.—the Local Heroes don’t seem to think so.  

The votes have been counted, and we hereby present Edible Twin Cities’ 2010 Local Heroes, individuals and organizations declared to be the best, most inspirational, or most influential in their fields. These Heroes have helped elevate the Twin Cities food scene to new and amazing heights, have been instrumental in altering our taste buds and food philosophies, and remind us that caring about our food is not simply an indulgence, but perhaps a necessity.

Farm / Farmer: Riverbend Farm • Greg and Mary ReynoldsGreg and Mary Reynolds

Riverbend Farm’s CSA shares are beautiful, the vegetables washed and bundled and perfect-looking. While this might not seem like a big deal at first, when you’re several weeks into your CSA experience you’ll realize how much you appreciate not having to go to great lengths to remove dirt and moisture from the product before you can snack on it or stow it in the fridge. Riverbend distributes through its CSA program, as well as selling directly to Twin Cities restaurants and food co-ops. In springtime, their greens are some of the first to arrive on co-op shelves, delicate bundles of peppery arugula and tender mizuna, perfect in a salad or gently cooked. Their delicate nature bears testament to the short distance—about 30 miles—they’ve traveled from field to store. These are not crops grown to withstand transcontinental trips in refrigerated semis, and that’s why we love them. Greg Reynolds’ newsletters—sent to CSA members, produce buyers, and chefs, as well as archived on the Riverbend Farm website—are informative, well-written, and provide clear evidence of how much Reynolds cares that his various stakeholders
understand what goes on behind the scenes and under the soil.

Even a short conversation with Reynolds makes it abundantly apparent that he cares just as much about what happens off the farm; he’s excited about the growing Farm to School movement, which brings sustainable local food into school cafeterias and benefits students’ health both physically and mentally. He weighs in passionately about industrial ag and the push back small farmers are feeling from them as the local food movement gains momentum. And when it comes to his newly acquired Local Hero designation, he’s honored yet humble: “It really is nice to be recognized as one of the Edible Twin Cities Local Heroes. I’m surprised and gratified that that many people thought that we were the best farm in the area. I hope people chose us because our produce tastes good and for what we have been doing to raise local awareness of food issues.”

It’s safe to say it’s both those things. You’d be hard-pressed to talk to a chef, look at a food blog, or chat up a co-op produce worker without hearing about Riverbend Farm. The Reynolds’ reputation for excellence is well-established, and every bit deserved.

Non-Profit: Land Stewardship Project
George Boody  of LSP

Land Stewardship Project (LSP) is one of those organizations with a lofty mission statement and a multi-limbed program base. But talk to anyone who’s familiar with LSP and you’ll quickly discover the ways in which it’s making tangible differences to sustainable agriculture in our region through the lives of the people involved. The Farm Beginnings program provides education and mentoring to new farmers or to those simply exploring sustainable farming as a possible career; students learn both on the farm and in the classroom, covering everything from calf care to putting together a business plan, and qualified graduates of the program are eligible for no-interest Livestock Loans.

LSP also helps connect farmers to consumers, producing a yearly CSA directory as well as guides to retailers and restaurants that feature sustainably produced local food. And they work closely with state and local policy-makers to encourage the passage of agricultural legislation that impacts positively on people, animals and the land.

Says Executive Director, George Boody: “High-quality food needs to be accessible not only to those who can afford to pay more for that quality, but also to those who can’t afford the higher prices of good food, or even find it, whether in rural or urban areas.”

To this end, LSP recently partnered with a south Minneapolis neighborhood association to negotiate access to open space for a new community garden, and they’re forging relationships with groups like the Indigenous People’s Green Jobs Coalition, helping to ensure that access to clean food and a stake in the new green economy are accessible to as many people as possible. LSP’s reach is broad but not diffuse, their goals ambitious, but by no means out of reach.

Food Artisan: PastureLand Cooperative
Farmers of PastureLand

At the Twin Cities food co-op where I used to work, my co-workers were crazy about PastureLand butter. I couldn’t figure out what the deal was, why people on limited budgets were spending upwards of $6 on butter. I mean, butter’s just butter, right? But then I tasted it, and realized how wrong I had been. Not all butter is alike, and PastureLand’s cultured butter is so unlike the average butter as to deserve its own category entirely. It’s truly a butter than can be eaten on its own, like cheese (though I wouldn’t recommend such indulgences on a regular basis). Its flavor far surpasses the simple fat-plus-salt equation that I’d long thought as having defined butter. It tastes instead of the sun-warmed grass of Southeast Minnesota, of happy cows ambling slowly through the fields, casting occasional glances toward the barn where their doting human stewards patiently await their return.

Suffice it to say that any company that makes a butter this good performs equally well with cheese. Their cheddars, goudas, and “Alpine Sisters” varieties are handcrafted by stars of the local cheese-making scene, and have received numerous accolades from the American Cheese Society. PastureLand products can be purchased at better local groceries and co-ops, or ordered from the company’s website and shipped directly to anyone in your life who’s foolish enough to think that butter’s just butter.

Beverage Artisan: Morgan Creek Vineyards

Georg Marti was no stranger to fermented beverages when he started Morgan Creek Vineyards in the mid-1990s. His great-great-grandfather was August Schell, founder of August Schell Brewery in New Ulm and Georg spent his early days working for his dad at the brewery his great-great-grandfather had built. The family’s focus had always been beer, but Georg Marti has also begun making a name for the family in Minnesota wines.

Georg and his wife Paula Marti have built a winery that gives visitors a true Minnesota wine outing, creating a comprehensive and informative vineyard experience. They offer regular tastings and tours of the underground wine caves, as well as special events like the annual grape stomp. The Martis employ a “best practices” approach to agriculture, using low-chemical methods with an eye toward a transition to organics. They hope to eventually convert to using solar energy for powering both the production and retail areas of the winery. Most of Morgan Creek Vineyards’ seventeen wine varieties are made using cold-hardy grapes developed by the University of Minnesota, and provide the perfect accompaniment to an all-local dinner, or tucked into a gift basket with other Minnesota-made food.

Chef / Restaurant: Mike Phillips • The CraftsmanMike  Phillips

Craftsman chef Mike Phillips may be just as well known for what he does outside of the kitchen as inside. He’s a fixture on the educational side of the local food scene, participating in events, teaching Historical Society-sponsored sausage-making workshops, and meeting with other chefs interested in working closely with farmers—helping them to network and strategize and learn to bring the farm to the table in the same way Phillips has at the Craftsman for the past six years. Phillips views the interest in a local food identity not as anything new, but rather a welcomed return to the European traditions that fell by the wayside in our region’s more recent history.

“It’s a connection that skipped a generation or two, and it’s nice that people are taking note of it and understanding that it’s missing,” says Phillips.

He speaks about the upper Midwest terroir not just in terms of the products themselves, but of the fierce consumer loyalty that’s part of what allows these products and their makers to flourish. To Phillips, local food has finally become a movement, not simply a peripheral phenomenon, and when he speaks about the people and things that help fuel the movement, there is a kind of awe and adoration in his voice.

“We have such great products and plenty to be proud of here,” he says. “Elevating them and bringing them into the spotlight is pretty important to me.”

This last point is abundantly evident, both in the award-winning entrees at the Craftsman, and in Phillips’ clear dedication to helping others learn to love our region’s food just as ardently as he does.

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