The Internet provides the only connection Mark and Sandy Brown need to sign up for weekly deliveries of fresh, locally grown vegetables, fruit, even meat. The Jacksonville couple joined two community-supported agriculture programs with just a few keyboard clicks.
"Most of 'em have really good Web interfaces," says 47-year-old Mark Brown.
To understand how their food was grown and harvested, the Browns could read local farmers' blogs or "friend" the farms on Facebook, but the couple put aside technology for a centuries-old form of networking — the barn dance. With 5-year-old son CJ in tow, the Browns and more than 100 other local families spent a May afternoon at Central Point's Hanley Farm eating chili and cornbread, stomping their feet to fiddling, touring the fields by horse-drawn wagon and meeting their farmers.
"You want your kids to learn where the food comes from, that it's not just what you buy at the grocery store," says 41-year-old Sandy Brown.
Local farmers are more than happy to teach that lesson and increasingly interact with customers outside growers markets.
"There's nothing static about farming," says 26-year-old David Mostue, who hosts educational events on his family's east Medford farm. "Farms are evolving at a very rapid pace."
More farmers like Mostue are signing up CSA shareholders during the growing season and extending invitations to visit their farms. The "Meet Your Farmer Barn Dance" was planned for a second consecutive year by THRIVE, a nonprofit advocacy group for Rogue Valley food producers. And a new series of farm-to-table dinners — dubbed Farm to Fork — is bringing farmers and diners around the same table in the setting that grew and produced the meal's ingredients.
"It was just a no-brainer to take it to the next step and do it in the field," says Kristen Lyon, Farm to Fork organizer and chef known for favoring local foodstuffs.
Although the concept is based on the Willamette Valley version, known as Plate & Pitchfork, Farm to Fork doesn't appeal only to connoisseurs of wine and boutique foods, says Lyon. Guests at last summer's precursor event on Grants Pass' Blackberry Lane farm said they appreciated knowing exactly where their money went, says Lyon.
"We'll be directly linking up buyers and sellers," she says. "Buying the food that costs a couple extra dollars — it's worth it."
Prospective participants also asked Lyon whether they would see farm animals from the table. The first event June 5 at Salant Family Ranch outside Jacksonville promised a backdrop of lush pastures populated by nursing cows and frolicking calves. The scene inspires even vegetarians who don't plan to consume the meal's main ingredient but want to support the concept of small-scale, sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry, says rancher Peter Salant.
"When people see the setting ... all the things that hearken back to another picture of America ... it'll make 'em that much more confident in the food that they eat," says Salant.
Lack of consumer confidence in a nationwide food-distribution system, with its numerous recalls in recent years, often is cited as a driving force of the eat-local movement. With large-scale producers of organic foods just as vulnerable to contamination, more consumers are looking to their own region, state and city to supply wholesome, healthful food.
"I think industrial agriculture in this country is just moving in the wrong direction," says Salant. "I wanted to get back to basics."
Salant left a career in commercial food distribution for ranch life in 1994. He raised certified Angus calves for members of 4-H and Future Farmers of America for about a decade until the eat-local ethic gained a following in the Rogue Valley. Owners of New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro asked Salant to raise beef for their Talent restaurant in 2005. Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine of Ashland and The Garden Bistro at Jacksonville's McCully House also placed orders.
"All the good beef in the United States goes to restaurants," says Salant.
Determined to bring his product to a wider audience, Salant started selling individual cuts of beef at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in 2006. Salant's steers aren't certified organic, but customers are willing to pay $4 per pound for ground beef or about $20 per pound for whole tenderloin.
"People say 'I can't believe how good your ground beef is.' "
Meeting him personally at the growers market has much to do with consumers' confidence, says Salant. Seeing the direct link between food and its origins has convinced some customers to try beef again after years of excluding it from their diet, he adds.
"We are reconverting some vegetarians," he says. "I think it's important for people to know the life cycle of their food."
Immersed in the life cycles of plants, Anne Marie Ivan worked as a researcher for Oregon State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture before realizing her seeds of knowledge needed sowing in a community. A Rogue Valley native, Ivan moved back from Portland and founded Swallow Springs Farm in Wimer in fall 2008.
"I just always knew I wanted to have a farm," says the 35-year-old.
Settling into a niche market in the town of Rogue River, Ivan found herself one of the only sources for fresh produce at the town's fledgling farmers market. A year later, her first CSA program is full with 30 members signed up after she attended the May barn dance. The CSA model not only provides small farmers with financial support, but also the "emotional support" needed for such a major endeavor, says Ivan.
"CSAs are kind of the modern-day barn-raising, except they're like a farm-raising."