Mitch Morrison promotes farm-to-table initiatives for healthy eating and local farm sustainability.
As American farmland decreases, people are increasingly searching for locally sourced food. The farm-to-table approach to eating offers many benefits. It assures consumers of fresh produce and meats, allows farmers to remain in business, reduces transportation’s environmental impact and helps people eat healthier.
In northwest New Jersey, where many farms have been lost to development, community programs highlight the need for fresh food and also improve life for farmers and area residents. Mitch Morrison, of Sparta, New Jersey, is one of the people at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement through his New Jersey New World organization.
Mitch Morrison, Tour de Farm USA. Courtesy of Mitch Morrison.
After 35 years in information technology, Mitch decided to do something different. “The reason I went into health and food is because it’s my perception of reality that we’re going to be bankrupt in the United States unless we do something dramatic as far as our intake of food goes. And the bankruptcy would have to do with obesity-related diseases and all the health challenges that go with our extremely poor eating habits.”
Along with cofounder Ben Del Coro, Morrison organized the Sparta Farmers’ Market six years ago. What began with six vendors has grown to 38 and expanded into a winter market as well. The farm-to-table food promotion doesn’t end at the market, however. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are, as Morrison explained “where you buy a share or a portion of a share from a farmer, and on a weekly or monthly basis, you get a box of vegetables or meat or whatever you’re purchasing from that person. You do that as an upfront contract for 10 or 12 or 16 weeks, and that allows the farmer to have money to invest in his or her crops, machinery and so on. It’s a real win-win. The farmer has an income and you have the opportunity to get the most incredibly fresh produce.”
Like many areas in the country, northwest New Jersey has its share of families in need. While food pantries take care of the basics, there is a new area program to get farm-to-table meals to local residents. “We have a program called GIFT (Give-It Fresh-Today),” said Morrison, “where we ask our Sparta Farmers’ Market customers, and we get 1200-1300 people every Saturday to purchase one or two extra items and donate them to the GIFT program. We take that food, a lot of produce and meat, to one of six restaurants and those guys, for free, will cook up that food in their professional kitchens. Then an organization called SCARC will pick up at the restaurants and deliver to people in need. Right now SCARC serves 380 families and 800 people. In the past they’ve served shelf-stable food, not local, healthy food like this. So this is a whole game-changer.”
Courtesy of Mitch Morrison.
This year, two Tour de Farm Celebrations take place where cyclists start the day with a locally sourced breakfast, then ride through the scenic beauty of the Garden State, stopping at farms where the cyclists have tastings of what each farm offers. After a day of riding, participants enjoy a farm-to-table world-class lunch or dinner. Last year over 1100 bikers took part in the tours. It’s a great way to experience nature, agriculture and great food while increasing your awareness of the importance of maintaining the farming industry.
Mitch Morrison is quick to acknowledge these initiatives are not his own. His strong suit is seeing what other communities have achieved and pulling the resources together to implement those programs and to build on them. He recently organized the Eliminate Hunger Summit, where the goal was to bring people together who are in the position to actually make a difference.
Morrison has also gone bike touring cross-country and speaking with farmers. May 2016 marked his fifth ride across the US. He sees firsthand just how much farmland is being lost. “I did the 3200 miles in 29 days. It didn’t leave a lot of time, but I did talk to a lot of farmers and learned a lot along the way. In some states a small farm is considered anything under 1000 acres. I just wondered about the economics of farmers there and how they do it. It’s really amazing to see the small farmers going away in America, because they are. That includes our area too. We support small, local farmers and that’s who our Sparta Farmers’ Market customers support.”
At the Sparta Farmers’ Market, David Zelov of Kittatinny Mountain Farm spoke about working for six seasons as a small local farmer. “Now is a pretty good time for local food. There’s a lot of awareness for people of where their food’s coming from. Access to farmland is a problem. Purchasing farmland in this area is cost-prohibitive. What’s out there is not sold at a farmland price. We farm about an acre and a half and sell locally. We do two farmers’ markets and have a CSA program.”
In addition to loss of farmland, another problem for the industry is loss of the honeybee to chemicals. As beekeeper Andrzej Kurosz of Sweet Things & Wild Thyme Honey explained, “When you take a look at it from a distance, it’s common sense. It’s the neonicotinoids, which is pretty much an immunity blocker. It’s not killing the bees outright like an insecticide. It will allow their own weakness, their own viruses and diseases, to kill them. It’s sprayed on the plants and the plants secrete it through every pore, and that includes the nectar. So when you have a bee come visit a plant with a neonicotinoid and bring it back, it’s dehydrating that nectar into honey, so it’s concentrated and sooner or later they’re pretty much eating food that’s poisoned.”
Farm-to-table ingredients are not only important for the retail consumer but for local businesses offering an alternative to preservative-filled products. James Matar, the Hummus Boss, built his business on freshness. “I refuse to put my food in stores because I want you to get it when it’s made fresh. That’s why nothing is frozen; we use local products as much as we can. Once they’re in season, all local. It’s a one-man operation. I buy the food. I make the food. I package the food. I sell the food. Once this market is done, I give all my food to the school or to the camp that the kids go to now. So nothing gets recycled from one market to another market. That’s why the quality’s always high.”
Offering freshness and quality to the consumer is the goal, but continued farmland conservation is the key to maintaining it. In a small New Jersey community, Mitch Morrison and the local farmers are committed to the farm-to-table concept. They are starting a food revolution and hoping to make us all healthier in the process.