By JIM ROMANOFF
When a vegetable patch at the White House eclipses the famed presidential rose garden, it's clear the local food movement has gone mainstream.
Direct sales of food from farms grew 49 percent to an impressive $1.2 billion between 2002 and 2007, according to the latest government agricultural census. Yet many local meat farmers are struggling.
Part of the problem, chefs and local producers said, is how Americans cook and eat.
From pigs, for example, consumers are mostly interested in eating "high on the hog," which describes the choicest cuts.
"The loins and racks of a pig, for instance, are easy to sell," chef and meat expert Bruce Aidells said, "but that leaves the legs, shoulders, head and belly, which make up most of the animal."
Farmers often end up selling less sought-after cuts at a substantially lower price per pound or, as a fallback, turn them in to ground meat. But turning the meat into processed foods or grinding it into patties or nuggets, as industrial farmers do, is more difficult on a smaller scale.
Frank Pace, a trained chef and the meat manager at Healthy Living Market, a large natural food store in South Burlington, Vt., agrees. For the most part, his customers go for loins, chops and steaks because those cuts are suited to the type of quick cooking American's are used to.
"Customers that live in areas with lots of farms are more likely to buy a variety of cuts," Pace said, "but for most, it's whatever they can throw on the grill for a fast meal."
Shannon Hayes raises chicken, beef, veal, lamb and pork with her family at Sap Bush Hollow farm in upstate New York. To sustain local agriculture, she said, consumers need to have a basic understanding of how to work with each of the different parts of the animal so they can make meal planning decisions based on what the farmer has in stock, "not what the recipe featured in the latest cooking magazine tells us we have to run out and buy."
Hayes said she often helps her customers select alternative cuts "either to suit their budget, or to meet their needs with what I happen to have." Each time, she said, they learn to work with something new, their confidence grows and her business benefits. She has even written two cookbooks, "Farmer and the Grill" and "Grassfed Gourmet."
The Obamas have helped support the local food movement in other ways, as well.
Last spring, they dined at New York City's Blue Hill Restaurant, where award-winning chef Dan Barber's menu showcases local producers as well as meat and produce that the business raises on its own farms.
Other chefs have also supported local, natural and organic meats. The effort has been pushed along by recent meat contamination scares and high fuel prices involved in shipping food from around the country and around the world.
Most top chefs will create their daily specials (or in Barber's case the whole menu) based on what is the freshest and most delicious at the market each day. Learning to eat locally is about learning to work with what is there, Hayes said.
"Surprisingly," she said, "this broadens our culinary experiences, rather than narrows it, because most local foods are only in season for a brief period, and thus our menu repertoires are always needing to change."
When it comes to meat, Barber said it's the more muscular, tougher cuts such as chuck, shoulder and brisket that have the most flavor. Home cooks just need to "reacquaint themselves with the low heat, slow cooking methods that are needed to bring out the tenderness," he said.
At Healthy Living Market, Pace is starting to offer cooking classes and demonstrations to teach his customers techniques like braising and slow-roasting to that end.
In the meantime, Pace is purchasing whole animals and using his culinary training to turn the parts that don't sell as well into prepared products such as gourmet pates, terrines and rillettes, which are made by slow-cooking finely shredded meat in seasoned fat for preserved spreads that can be served on toast or bread.
Consumers can also support local meat growers by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. These farms work similar to a magazine subscription, though in this model you pay in advance and then receive various foods as they are harvested or come to maturity.
With CSA membership, Aidells said, the farmer can't make money by just giving you steaks and chops, so you occasionally get a box with "lots of mystery cuts in it."
No worries, he said, many of the best tasting dishes can come from the surprises.
On the Net:
Find a CSA in your area: www.localharvest.org/csa