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Farmers embrace growing domestic spice trade

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When Krissy Scommegna took a job at the Boonville Hotel & Restaurant in Anderson Valley, Calif., she spent a few months helping the innkeepers, bartender, and wait tables, basically doing whatever was necessary, before breaking out. a path in the kitchen. There she learned to cook, paying close attention to how the chefs sourced their ingredients.

“We bought as much local food as possible. In addition to the garden we had at the hotel, we bought from farmers in the valley,” says Scommegna. “I thought – if we’re doing this for produce, why doesn’t this extend to our spices?”

Spices have long been in a neglected corner of the local food movement. In some cases, it’s because customers don’t know how to look for local spices. In others, it’s because many spices thrive in more tropical, subtropical, or generally more specific ecosystems, which are rare in most of the United States.

“I thought – if we’re doing this for produce, why doesn’t this extend to our spices?”

“There are many common spices for which the climate in the United States is not conducive to commercial production because tropical conditions are required, including black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cloves , etc,” said Laura Shumow, executive director of the American Spice Trade Association. “While it is possible to grow small amounts of these crops with great care, the environment is simply not suited to growing sufficient quantities to meet US commercial demand.”

Yet growers like Scommenga and others across the United States see the promise of producing even small amounts of the spice. Some do this to help diversify their sources of income, while others believe that as consumers become more aware of how their food is grown and produced, they will seek out local spices that they can trace back to their origins.

Domestic spice grower checks his local pepper crop for spices.  (Photo courtesy of Boonville Barn Collective)

Photo courtesy of Boonville Barn Collective.

Most of the spices in the world are grown on small farms, where farmers sell their entire harvest to a middleman who sells the spices to another middleman and so on, until they finally make it a big brand. of spices. Along the way, traceability is often lost. (It’s something that companies like Diaspora Co. and Burlap & Barrel are trying to combat with their one-stop sourcing, which also benefits small farmers.)

“When you’re buying directly from a farm in California, it’ll probably be fresher than something you’ve bought elsewhere because it didn’t have to sit in a shipping container to get to the United States” , said Scommegna. .

When Scommegna first started working at Hotel Boonville, they sourced much of their chilli powders, such as Espelette chilli, from the Basque region of France. Knowing that they have a similar climate, Scommenga figured she might as well try farming and producing chili powder.

Over the past decade, Scommegna has turned that experience into a thriving spice company, Boonville Barn Collective, which produces Piment d’Ville (their version of Piment d’Espelette) on a seven-acre farm in a valley in the northern California. Boonville Barn Collective has become one of the largest sources of Piment d’Espelette style chilli powder outside of the Basque region.

It’s one of many farms in the United States, including Old Friends Farm in Massachusetts, Peace and Plenty Farm in California, Calabash Gardens in Vermont, Anjali’s Cup in Hawaii, and Southern Escape Vanilla in Florida, showing that the spice trade is not just international.

A specialized culture on a small scale

According to the American Spice Trade Association, most of the dried herbs and spices used in the commercial spice industry are imported, with only a small fraction sold directly to consumers cooking at home.

“It is important to recognize that the vast majority of spices are used as ingredients in restaurant or food service dishes or in packaged food products. The spices used in these dishes play a huge role in flavor, the overall percentage of spices used in a finished food product is usually very low,” Shumow said. “As such, I suspect that companies wishing to market their spices sourced from the United States may find the greatest demand in the direct-to-consumer market.”

Small farms like Boonville — or even the 30-acre Old Friends farm in Amherst, Massachusetts — aren’t usually part of the spice conversation, as it tends to revolve around big brands that matter. Still, spices can be an important crop for the right kind of farmer.

Casey Steinberg, co-owner of Old Friends Farm, started growing turmeric in his home on an experimental basis over 10 years ago and has since grown it into a small staple crop.

“Most of it is sold fresh, but we process some into flavored honey, and some is dried for spice blends,” Steinberg said. “It’s a very specialized culture, but our goal is not exponential growth; it works really well in small quantities.

Harvesting turmeric at Old Friends Farm.  (Photo courtesy of Old Friends Farm)

Harvesting turmeric at Old Friends Farm. (Photo courtesy of Old Friends Farm)

Old Friends Farm sells its produce primarily at wholesale, including to Berkshires grocery stores, although they do direct-to-consumer sales through an online marketplace. The income from their spice production represents less than 1% of the overall farm income. Still, it helped them diversify their offerings on what started out as an operation that primarily grew flowers, salad greens, and shiitake mushrooms.


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