Why Miles Don't Matter: The 'New Local'

While the rest of the world might be touting the pros of buying local and sustainable foods, one conference might just redefine everything you thought you knew.

Farmer Lee Jones, of well-regarded farm The Chef's Garden, is hosting the first Roots Conference, a gathering of several key members in the food scene to discuss issues like ethical farming, the role of photography in food, and the foods of America before Columbus set sail. For two days, Sept. 8 and 9, food notables like Curtis Duffy, Claus Henriksen (formerly at Noma, now Dragsholm Slot), and photographers Evan Sung and Kristin Teig will discuss all these issues at The Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio.

"We've been intrigued by the dialogue that's happening at MAD and over at Oxford and we think that it's an amazing conversation," Jones told The Daily Meal over the phone. "We felt that there was a real void in the States."

One of the most notable of the discussions involves the "new definition of local," where Henriksen and Søren Wiuff (a Denmark farmer who supplies Noma, etc.), plan to redefine "sustainable," focusing more on ethics instead of miles. "Local doesn't always define quality," Jones said. "I think people mean well [with the local movement], but if we were just doing business in a 200-mile radius on our farm, we wouldn't be sustainable."

Instead of thinking about miles, Jones says, think about quality, like small-batch makers who are creating products that are unique and worth the money. "Thomas Keller, he works with a woman who has 10 cows in Vermont and makes the most amazing butter," Jones said. "He has the butter shipped to him at French Laundry and Per Se, and the reality is she's not sustainable without his support." And while shipping butter across the United States might not be "local," exactly, the support given to small-batch artisans is necessary. And Jones hopes that eventually, the demand for these products will increase the supply.

"When they stay unique and specialty they become only for the elite," he said. "The more commonplace that we can make them, and create an expectancy of nutritious, healthy quality products, I think we would have a great venue for a healthier nation."

Of course, most local farmers are smaller than, say, Monsanto, but Jones hopes that eventually the spotlight will focus on farmers who are reviving regional specialties and rediscovering the real roots of America. "The reality is, frankly, there's some shame in our history that hasn't been discussed," Jones said, "and there's dialogue that needs to get out on the table," dialogue about the lost foods that were native to the soil, and what the culinary traditions of America really are. And it's that sort of discussion that's driving the re-definition of "local," "regional," and "sustainable," as culinary traditions of Native American tribes start to play a larger role in American produce.

"We dig in the earth, and we find Indian artifacts and arrowheads, as we work so intimately with the soil," Jones said. "It always made us wonder what more could we learn about who was here before, and what they grew, and what the roots of our culinary cuisine really were."