Community Members Ensure Local Food Movement is Here to Stay
By Autumn Whitaker
Hot summer sun poured over the fields of Millsap Farms on a sticky June afternoon as Amy, Katie and I pulled into the long driveway. We drove up to the house in a cloud of gravel dust just as Sarah Millsap, in a dress and apron, golden hair braided up off her neck, walked out the door to greet us.
The three of us arrived to represent MaMa Jean’s at the Farmer’s Market of the Ozarks (FMO) Farm To Table dinner. We were directed down to the common area- an open outdoor dining space- to unload our food and prepare to serve. This little clearing, with tall trees overhead for shade, tables and chairs decorated with wildflowers, and sweet little strings of soft white lights stretched overhead, would be the setting for the Farmer’s Market of the Ozarks’ (FMO) Farm-to-Table Dinner. At every place setting, beautifully screen printed menus announced the evening’s courses.
The Millsaps themselves use this area weekly for their own pizza dinners. With 3 handcrafted brick ovens and a sizeable work station underneath a long wooden canopy, they make and serve a variety of handmade, wood-fired pizzas every Thursday, using ingredients right from their garden. It’s a quick and easy drive from Springfield, but the setting evokes feelings of another place and time completely.
But on this particular evening, the famous Millsap Pizzas were only a part of the picture. Next to the unique and handcrafted pizzas, we would be serving up MaMa Jean’s Market Salad: delicious local greens dressed simply with olive oil and seasoned with nama shoyu. Amy used our bulk picking spice to pickle cauliflower, setting off the subtle salad with a burst of intense flavor. Next to us, Metropolitan Farmer would be providing asparagus and goat cheese soup paired with local Artisan’s Oven bread. The dessert bar was stacked with area favorites Benissimo Gelato, Hilton Garden-Inn, Date Lady and Granolove.
Guests who purchased their tickets at the Farmer’s Market were treated to more than just dinner. Dallas Jones served up a batch of Ozarkian folk songs and the master farmer himself, Curtis Millsap, offered a tour of his farm. In exchange for this special evening, guests who purchased their tickets at the FMO for this fundraiser were contributing to its future success.
As attendants for the Farm to Table Dinner began to arrive, the ovens were fired up and pizzas starting popping in and out. Sarah Millsap and her children spread out dough and toppings for the 100+ guests while FMO host Lane McConnell handed out beer and wine. While preparations were underway, Curtis started the farm tour, showing various points of interest across the farm.
As a cultivator of local food, Curtis spoke with both warmth and wisdom of his farming experience. I stood among other members of the community, listening and smiling with sweat beads forming on my face. Even with bugs on my ankles, I could feel me allegiance growing. Was it the smell of pizza in the air? Was it the Mother’s beer in my hand? Whatever it was, I wasn’t the only one feeling it. Other area farmers stood shoulder-to-shoulder among the guests and listened as our host explained his practice of spreading out and rotating crop placement as a method of pest control. He spoke with excitement about the benefits of seasonal eating. He spoke with affection about the ones who share in his love and work: his wife and children, his tight-knit group of interns, even the groups of young children who come to learn and play here. He then took us to the solar Chinese greenhouse where he boldly stated, “I’m as weary of the term ‘sustainable’ as anyone.”
Of all his points, from the biodegradable mulch film to his passion for nutrient-rich soil, this one stood out above the rest. As someone who works in a natural market, sustainable is a word I hear and say constantly. I didn’t even realize how “weary” I was of this part of my vocabulary. As Curtis explained, we can’t really say something is sustainable until it’s been proven to work for a hundred years. We can hope it will be, but there’s really no way to know. He prefers to claim the term “adaptable.” One practice might work really well for a time, but elements may be introduced to his environment which requires a change in practice. A method is only as sustainable as its environment is controlled. When your environment is the earth – soil, animals, and weather – you have to be ready to adapt. It was a breath of fresh air to hear someone shake loose a term used so heavily in the world of natural foods. It felt so honest and understandable.
When it comes to food the reality is, if you don’t have people to trust, you’re only hope is to trust a label. Is it organic? Is it GMO free? Is it sustainably grown? These are questions I hear (and ask) constantly while walking the aisles of the grocery store. But when you’re talking to a person with the same dirt under his fingernails as is still clinging to your future dinner, something changes. A trusting relationship is introduced and is far more powerful than any vague label.
There is a purpose behind the words we use and the way we classify the things we consume; Make no mistake, labels have their place. But the local movement is about recognizing the people behind the salad, the pizza, the beer. In prioritizing one another, we prioritize our community.
The sun sank in the west and brought a cool breeze over the garden. Our tour guide ended his presentation with “Let’s eat!” and led us back to the beautiful feast awaiting us all. As we followed the sound of guitar and the smell of our dinner back to the open area, it was clear: The summer harvest was bountiful and it was time to celebrate.
Photos by Katie Caudle