By Cheryl Kollin, Full Plate Ventures

Caroline Taylor started the discussion off declaring, “I just want to say that I feel humbled joining the panelists gathered here today to talk about our local, sustainable food system.” The Executive Director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance was indeed in good company joined by activists, farmers, chefs, nutritionists and food lovers.

Cheryl Kollin (Full Plate Ventures), Bill Franz, and Glenda Grogan serving quiche.

Forty people gathered around the table at Bethesda Green on the morning of Sunday, August 21, to enjoy a locally sourced, homemade breakfast.

The discussion, Closing the Loop in our Food System, introduced various perspectives of our local food system. Today’s gathering was the first of three educational and delicious food events in the series, On the Farm; Around the Table – Connecting farmers, food, and community in three meals.

The series, hosted by Bethesda Green and Full Plate Ventures explores the complex issues around building our local, sustainable food system and introduces attendees to those who are the passionate architects of this newly emerging system.

Caroline encouraged the audience to let our County Council know how you feel about protecting Montgomery County’s 93,000 acre Agricultural Reserve and to encourage the Council to approve policies that protect and expand local farming.

Caroline was joined on the panel by Shannon Varley, a farmer and owner of Bella Terra Family Farm, who shared the challenges of converting conventional land into organic farming. “My husband and I are painstakingly reclaiming a few acres at a time and have 10 acres in cultivation in which we raise high-quality, grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, vegetables, flowers and herbs.”  She’s fortunate to have secured a long-term lease to farm on. She and Montgomery Countryside Alliance created Land-link, a program to match new farmers with available, affordable land.

Many local farmers sell their wares directly through local farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Diane Welland, a registered dietitian and author on the panel discussed how buyers have to shop differently when eating seasonally. “Instead of planning your menu and shopping the aisles of the grocery, you need to see what’s ripe that week at the farmer’s market and then plan your meals,” explained Diane.

Restaurant owners face challenges of finding local sources of food for their menus. Tony Alexis, owner of Yamas Mediterranean Grill, offers a moderately priced menu that includes organic ingredients. “I believe that the sustainable food movement starts with land stewardship, healthy eating choices, and even how my employees are fairly treated,” he shared with the audience. He’d like to source locally, but hasn’t yet found a steady supply—one of the challenges the series highlights and collaborators hope to address, recognizing the need to build an aggregation and distribution system for local foods beyond farmers markets and CSAs.

This series begins to informally build relationships between producers and buyers. “I made some great connections this morning and hopefully will be working as a volunteer one day at Bella Terra Farm,” offered attendee Misha Clive of the Green Business Network. Today’s gathering also proved successful in connecting businesses to one another. “It was a wonderful day to connect,” exclaimed panelist Jessica Weiss, Executive Director of growingSOUL. “It is quite possible that Shannon Varley found a way to feed her animals inexpensively and rejuvenate her soil, while I found a new home to begin municipal composting. It was a very powerful gathering and I look forward to continuing to connect the dots with all of you,” she shared with me after the event.

Jessica calls herself a nutrient aggregator, which as she explained to the audience, “growingSOUL’s mission is to create a holistic zero-waste food system. We collect and compost food waste from restaurants and institutions to return nutrients back to the soil instead of wasting it in landfills.”

Attendees’ interests in this discussion ranged from personally wanting to eat a healthier, locally sourced diet, to professionally engaging in local policy issues around land use and available farm land in Montgomery County. The audience included writers, film makers, and educators all interested in promoting better eating through the growing and production of sustainable foods. The morning was capped off with a tour of the Bethesda Central Farm Market, introduced by founder Mitch Berliner who described the vibrant mix of producers, artisans and musicians he assembles weekly.

Greg Glen from Rocklands Farm.

The series continues Saturday, September 10 with Fertile Ground – A local, sustainable farm tour and lunch. Join us for this family friendly tour of Rocklands Farm, in Poolesville, Maryland, just 35 minutes north of Bethesda. Free bus transportation leaves from Bethesda Green at 11:45 am and returns at 3:30 pm. Lunch will feature Rocklands’ own grass-fed beef burgers with a variety of vegetarian sides and fruit cobbler. The series concludes on September 19 with dinner at Chef Tony’s Restaurant that will feature a menu around seafood, artisan cheeses, local wine and whatever is fresh from the farm that day. For details and registration visit, On the Farm, Around the Table.

Bethesda Green and Full Plate Ventures gratefully acknowledge our supporters, including MOM’s Organic Market, Chef Tony’s Restaurant, Norman’s Farm Market, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and all of our contributing partners.