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Local Food Frontier

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Spence Farm Chosen for Slow Food Almanac


Spence Farm Chosen for Slow Food Almanac

Slow Food International selected Spence Farm in Livingston County, Illinois to represent the United States in their yearly Almanac, which features one farm per country. 

 Settled in 1830, Spence Farm is the oldest family farm in Livingston County. Today the sixth, seventh, and eighth generation run the farm. These people – Willa Virkler, her son Marty Travis, and his wife Kris and son Will – are the stewards of Spence Farm. They are also part of a vibrant farming movement that is building a sense of community around food and farming. 

 Spence Farm raises many different farm products, ranging from ancient grains to heritage pork to heirloom cucumbers to maple syrup. According to Marty Travis, the emphasis is on flavor and resilience, not just yield, and all of the products are marketed directly to restaurants and consumers.

 In addition to running their farm, the Travis family started The Spence Farm Foundation and organized two groups of local farmers: Stewards of the Land and Legacy of the Land. These two groups function as food hubs that aggregate farm products and sell them to local chefs, restaurants, grocery stores, and institutions. The quality of their food quickly attracted the attention of Chicago chefs such as Rick Bayless (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, Xoco). Bayless and other chefs regularly visit Spence Farm and participate in their annual Harvest Feast and Bread Camp.

 Spence Farm’s community-building work aligns with the goals of Slow Food, which is a global, grassroots organization with over 100,000 supporters in 150 countries around the world. Slow Food links the pleasures of good food with a commitment to community and to the environment.

 Every two years, Slow Food hosts the world’s largest food and wine fair, Salone del Gusto, in conjunction with the Terra Madre world meeting of food communities. These events together attract over 250,000 visitors.

 The Slow Food Almanac debuted at last fall’s 2014 Terra Madre and Salone del Gusto, where the Year of the Family Farmer and the Ark of Taste were the organizing themes. Slow Food USA defines the Ark of Taste as “a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction. By identifying and championing these foods we keep them in production and on our plates.”

 According to Megan Larmer, manager of biodiversity programs for Slow Food USA, “Spence Farm was chosen to represent the incredible innovation and resilience of family farmers in the USA, and to recognize Spence Farm's particular contribution to growing the Ark of Taste and creating alliances with chefs and their urban clientele.”

 Spence Farm is a model of resilience and diversity, producing poultry, cattle, hogs, and over 200 varieties of vegetables and grains. Their pigs are the rare heritage breed-American Guinea Hogs, renowned for their rich flavor. They also grow a diverse mix of heritage grains, including Iroquois White Corn, Floriani Flint Corn, Red Fife Wheat, Einkhorn Wheat, and Sonoran White Wheat, all of which are on the Slow Food Ark of Taste.  

 The Ark of Taste project is designed to rescue culturally significant crops that are at risk of becoming extinct. To be “boarded” onto the US Ark of Taste, a food must: (1) be at risk biologically or as a cultural tradition, (2) be linked culturally or historically to a specific region, ethnicity or traditional production practice, (3) have outstanding taste, defined in the context of local traditions and uses, and (4) have sustainable market potential.

 Ark of Taste foods are those that have been threatened by market standardization, industrial agriculture, and environmental damage. Seventy-five percent of the world’s food now comes from only seven main crops, and from increasingly fewer varieties of those crops—ones that have been selected to produce not the most nutritious or delicious food, but those best suited to large-scale production and distribution methods.

 The paw-paw, wild ramp, and Jacob’s cattle bean are examples of delicious but at-risk Ark of Taste products. Although they are not suited to mass production or long-distance transportation, they are a precious part of our food heritage — a heritage being kept alive by farmers such as the Travises.  


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