Locally Sourced: Take an up-close look at agriculture

Most of us have already accepted the symbolic end to summer.

We’ve turned off the air conditioner, adjusted to the school routine and lamented what was possibly the worst pool season ever. As we transition to cooler thoughts and warmer clothes, we begin to adjust our schedules for shorter days and action-packed weekends.

If you delight in gathering your food while enjoying the great outdoors, then put on your favorite fleece and visit some of the area’s many farms, orchards and ranches. Whether it’s pumpkins, bedding plants or local wine, the Kaw Valley area offers hundreds of agricultural destinations open to visits, hikes and hands-on experiences that have great value beyond the retail goodies you take home.

Agritourism is defined as any ag-based operation or activity that brings visitors to the farm, dairy or ranch. In Kansas (we are a little slight in other types of tourism), it’s a pretty big deal. There are many kinds of agritourism and each offers unique lessons to be learned from the experience. Some agritourism experiences beg us to rethink the realities and accept the consequences of our diets while prompting us to ask questions about our food system.

Over the past few generations we’ve emotionally cleansed the dirt, sand and slaughter from our food, and from the expectations we frame around selecting our groceries. Many of us had parents who taught us food should be fast and convenient, and now we stand divided on how we’ll teach our own children about food origins.

Despite a major trend in society to make better food choices, we are still largely in the dark about the sources, practices and the people who cultivate our dinners. Visiting the farms that produce our groceries can quickly mend the disconnect we often have with our food principles and help us feel safe from the industrial food nightmares we see in the news.

I like to think of agritourism as a connection to simpler times and a legit perspective-changer when contemplating where our food comes from. I tend to steer away from the cute and clean examples and get right to the dirty, dangerous and sensory-challenging ag experiences that maximize the physical, environmental and social aspects of farm-fresh foods (often requiring a private tour). But then climbing an apple tree or milking a goat is my idea of a rewarding Sunday.

Spend some time this season visiting some of our wondrous agricultural destinations and engage with the people who put energy into what we call “local.” Experience how good wine tastes while shooting the breeze with its maker and learn that the sweetest and most flavorful apple is almost never shiny and perfect at all. There is a reason the worm chose it.

If there is one thing that grows well in the Kaw Valley, it’s sweet potatoes. This is an amazing and simple recipe I developed with my students at the Eudora/De Soto High School Culinary Program. The beauty of the sweet potato flavor speaks for itself.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Mashed Sweet Potatoes

Serves 6 as a side dish

Ingredients

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (I like sweet potatoes from Pendleton’s Country Market)

6 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons salt (used separately)

1/4 cup whole milk

Directions

In a medium pot, simmer potatoes in approximately 1 1/2 quarts of water with 1 teaspoon of the salt until soft and crumbling. Drain in a colander and allow to steam off extra moisture for a minute or two (mashed sweet potatoes tend to be thin and wet, and this will help concentrate the starch).

In a stand mixer with paddle attachment (preferred), in bowl with a hand mixer or the old-fashioned way with a potato masher, blend with milk, softened butter and remaining teaspoon of salt.

Serve immediately or place in a warm oven until service. One or both teaspoons of salt can be omitted for reduced sodium.

— Rick Martin is executive chef and owner of Limestone Pizza. He is a contract trainer for Lawrence Public Schools Food Service and the Kansas Department of Education Child Nutrition and Wellness, as well as a consulting chef for Just Food Kansas. He has been preparing food for the Lawrence community for more than 20 years.

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