With the clink of artisan martinis and the pang of steep menu prices, it’s clear that Grange Kitchen and Bar on Liberty Street has joined the legions of swanky Ann Arbor hot spots. Grange is definitely trendy, but not just for its chill atmosphere and prime location. The restaurant, which opened in Bella Ciao’s old space this summer, is based on a more consequential trend: eating local.
Eating food grown and processed nearby isn’t a novelty. The idea of cutting out the middleman has been lauded as environmentally friendly and beneficial to local economies for a long time. But now, as climate change becomes a more pressing issue and the locavore movement grows, the quest is to maintain the most sustainable diet possible. To the most ardent locavores, their place on the sustainability spectrum is a measure of their love for the earth and their loyalty to the floundering Great Lakes State.
But the plausibility of adhering to a strict 100-mile-radius diet in a state that freezes over for much of the year is questionable. It’s difficult, but not impossible. The first step is committing to eating seasonally, or in other words, forsaking exotic fruits for vegetables that can be cultivated year round. And there are more locally grown options than may be expected. Thanks to a plethora of local farms, chefs and grocers dedicated to sustainability, any Ann Arborite can eat with a conscience in the dead of winter.
Brandon Johns, head chef and owner of Grange, doesn’t like to be tethered to the political label of locavore, but his clean and simple dining room exudes an air of “back to the basics”. The decor is sparse and modest: wooden floors are surrounded by spring green walls, where unframed canvasses showcase photos of thick julienned eggplant, hands cradling golden tomatoes and blood oranges sliced in half.
On each place setting, sand-colored cloth napkins complement a white linen tablecloth, and the one-page menu is typed on material not unlike a paper grocery bag.
For Johns, using local ingredients isn’t just about conserving the environment. First and foremost, it’s about assuring that his food is the freshest and best it can be.
“My main aim is to have a restaurant that serves great food, and to source as much as I can locally at the same time, because I think those things go hand in hand,” he said. “I’m not walking home with a flag on top of my head. I really just did it because I wanted good food. Then the political, social and environmental reasons that everyone’s sort of hot to hop on now came to light.”
All but one of Grange’s 13 food sources listed on its website are in Michigan, with five producers based in Washtenaw County that provide Johns with fresh fruit, meat, eggs, coffee and more. Besides alcohol and spices, Grange’s one out-of-state source is a farm in Ontario, Canada that produces millet.
As crops in Michigan are harvested at different set points each year, the trick to Johns’s trade is reimagining Grange’s menu to suit changes in the season. According to Johns, asparagus is only available locally for four weeks in the spring, but most everything else that grows here — tomatoes, peaches, pears, carrots, squash, apples, onions, apricots — are available until mid- or late October. Wintertime brings root vegetables like potatoes and hardier greens like kale and mustard leaves.
“I just always wanted to cook with the season,” Johns said. “As the season changes, your body changes what it needs.”
Right now, the menu is heavy on fish, meat, potatoes and squash. Conspicuously absent are traditional side dishes like broccoli and asparagus. But it is clear that Johns has applied some creativity in drumming up dishes that play to fall’s strong points, such as with an entrée of cider braised beef, roasted parsnips and pumpkin ravioli, or a vegetarian option offering zucchini and squash cakes with wilted greens and spiced tomato sauce.
As a whole, a local menu is more expensive to fill than a conventional one, so it demands that he be creative to compensate for the cost.
“I spend 12, 13, 14 dollars a chicken, where Tyson chickens would cost me three bucks a chicken,” Johns said. “Now I think the difference is worth it — you can completely taste it. But it also makes me use a lot of parts that no one else does. A lot of sausage.”
However, some customers that seek out Johns’ natural philosophy might want to fully understand it before they sit down.
“People complain about the duck, they say, ‘It’s too tough,’” he said. “And I go to the table and I say, ‘Well, the duck got to walk around. The duck evolved muscles.’ ”
Johns faces a challenge in running a restaurant with a self-enforced ingredient constraint. It’s not enough to find a local producer — he must also make sure that producer is using chemical-free cultivation and processing methods to assure the produce is of the highest quality. Johns said researching farms to attain ingredients with the highest levels of taste and nutrition and the lowest impact on the environment is a “huge time commitment.”
“Just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s being done right,” he said.
THE LOVE AND LABOR BEHIND LOCAL FOOD
Tantré Farm, a certified organic farm in nearby Chelsea, is one of Grange’s sources that has gotten food production right. Stationed out of a small white house straddled by shadowy willows and softly rolling fields of yellow soybeans, Tantré Farm is a 40-acre experiment in community-sponsored agriculture. Customers purchase shares in the farm and receive regular deliveries of produce in exchange.
The farm’s business model is a direct affront to the near-monopolies that reign over a food industry that is riddled with social justice and health issues. At Tantré Farm, no factory walls hide travesties against humanity, animal rights or common health that would make you lose your appetite. Instead, a family of three, a handful of live-in workers, part-time help and volunteers cultivate a diverse array of organic crops.
“We’re into the post-industrial model,” Tantré Farm co-owner Richard Andres said.
Tantré Farm produces as much as 8,000 pounds of peppers, parsnips, lettuces and tomatoes every week. During other times of the year, the farm also cultivates its high hedges of berries, melons and mushroom patches, an herb and flower garden, goats and 50 chickens.
Hard Michigan weather serves as more of a benefit than a drawback for Tantré. When feebler crops die off in the first frost, Andres and his team have more time to devote to maintenance, refurbishing, and finishing projects that “dangle all summer” while crops are more diverse and abundant.
“Then we can focus on making the operation run smoother and more efficiently,” he said.
Tantré sells hardier crops that survive the cold to restaurants throughout the winter. Andres said that there are about 15,000 pounds of potatoes, 10,000 pounds of squash and 5,000 pounds of onions already saved up. They also cut firewood, milk cows and make cheese.
Kale, carrots, Kohlrabi and collard greens can stay alive and in the ground until January, because they benefit from the cold, too.
“They just taste better when it freezes,” Andres said. “The frost sweetens them.”
Tantré also grows greens in five hoop houses, which are a series of tall metal or wooden half-hoops covered in greenhouse plastic and heated by the sun.
A smaller farm like Tantré can focus on different methods to reap a healthful crop in winter. But standards come at a cost — forsaking shortcuts to grow organic means making up for the protection afforded by those chemicals through vigilant attention.
“No herbicide means you need to pay three people to weed for three hours, keeping an eye on things to know what the crop needs,” Tantré Farm employee Paul Ryda said.
Higher costs of production mean higher costs in the grocery store, something many Americans have a hard time accepting after being spoiled by an economy where businesses compete to offer the absolute lowest price. But the low prices come at the expense of quality, which the workers at Tantré Farm said shouldn’t be a point of compromise in something as essential as food.
“Flavors are compounds,” Ryda said. “Chemicals and extra water make vegetables develop compounds that are less palatable. It’s not as good for the body.”
Andre said people are experiencing a natural shift away from the massive, anonymous monoculture that has come to characterize agriculture. Burgeoning environmental concerns, combined with the desire to invest in smaller communities that care for their citizens, has promoted a healthier, more communal attitude toward food.
“Globally, economically, it seems that things are grossly out of balance and correcting themselves,” he said. “It’s a financial time of correction where we’re hitting the skids. Environmentally, you can take charge of those imbalances.”
THE VALUE OF KNOWING YOUR FARMER
The product of a community centered on food is a buzzing epicenter like the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, which allows local producers to sell their goods outside the Kerrytown Market every week.
Johns said that his quest to supply Grange with local ingredients has led him to make many friendships with other Ann Arborites who are interested in the same thing.
“I was at the Farmers Market today, and it took me two hours,” Johns said. “I didn’t have a whole lot to get today, but you talk to people, you see people, you ask them what’s coming up, what’s going to leave, how long those tomatoes are going to be around — just shoot the shit, weather, football.”
Such familiarity with local producers helps Johns feel confident about the quality of the ingredients he buys.
Even in the shadow of food production powerhouses that have come to take over the American food industry, community farmer markets grew over the decades. Fifty years ago, there were only 100 farmers markets in the United States, according to the book “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” In 1976, though, the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act helped to fund the re-emergence of local farmers markets. Today, there are 4,600 farmers markets in the country, 900 more than in 2004. Likely, the increased allure of “eating local” has bolstered community marketplaces.
Ann Arbor’s open-air Farmers Market is open all year long. From May to December, the market is held from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday and Saturday, but from January to April, it takes place only on Saturday and starts at 8 a.m.
While the number of participating vendor reduces from 90 to about 20 during winter, the variety doesn’t suffer: apples, cider, baked goods, honey, maple sugar, jam, eggs, meat and bread can be found there year-round.
“We actually have more things than you would think,” said Molly Notorianni, the manager of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. “It’s definitely a small market in the winter, but it’s still pretty busy. Vendors said last year that it was the busiest winter they could remember, especially given how cold it was.”
Frequenting the Farmers Market means planning ahead to go grocery shopping. It doesn’t allow for midnight mass purchases like Meijer, but it does lend itself to buying only as much produce as you need. Working a weekly visit into your schedule would be an easy way to become a better locavore.
AVOIDING PHONY LABELING
A big challenge in trying to eat with a conscience anywhere is discerning whether food labels really mean what they say. Everything at the Farmers Market is from close enough of a distance for farmers to drive their goods there themselves. But when it comes to the grocery store, “local” is subjective.
Bloomfield Hills resident Charlton Burch said he shops local because it tastes better and “seems like the right thing to do,” but doesn’t know for sure where his local foods come from or exactly how they benefit the environment.
“Who knows, you know?” he said while examining bulk granola at Ann Arbor’s People’s Food Co-op. “I’m not sure there’s a watchdog in play, exactly, but I feel like there’s some vigilance here.”
At the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Christine Lietzau coordinates the Select Michigan program, which provides locally made products a label that says, “Select Michigan.” The program has specific criterion for qualifying as Michigan-made: for produce, 100 percent must be grown in-state; 51 percent of ingredients in processed foods must to be from Michigan, and never can any part of any ingredient come from outside the United States.
“The whole issue of ‘what is local’ is what’s local to me is not local to you,” Lietzau said. “The typical—the locavore people—usually stay within 100 miles of where it’s grown. But nothing legislative is ever done. It would be very difficult to monitor all that.”
She said the program came to be after members of the MDA noticed misleading “made local” labels, such as state-bottled Coca-Cola being tagged as a Michigan product. That a large soda company wants to jump on the “eat local” bandwagon speaks to how big the movement has gotten.
“It’s grown huge,” Lietzau said. “That’s why everybody’s labeling it, because the consumers are asking for it.”
A year after the Select Michigan program began in 1999, the sale of local foods by retailers participating in the program increased by an average of 111 percent and has seen a 10 to 20 percent increase every year since, Lietzau said.
“Why should we be bringing food in from other states and other countries when we’re the second most agriculturally diverse state in the United States?” she said.
RED MEAT: A GUILTY PLEASURE
You can take pleasure in a dish’s low number of “food miles,” the odometer reading on food delivery truck. But as far as greenhouse gases go, local meat is only marginally better for the environment.
Food travels at least 1,000 miles to get to the market where you purchase it, according to a Carnegie Mellon study in 2008. But the study found that delivery food miles make up 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by fruits and vegetables, and only 1 percent of those produced by red meat.
Catherine Badgley, a University ecology professor and self-proclaimed 100-mile locavore, said that food production and processing, as well as meat-heavy diets, are more harmful to the environment than a truck hauling citrus fruits from California to chilly Michigan.
“Local is one of many considerations,” she said. “One of them is how high you eat on the food chain, because animal products take more resources than plant products.”
Of the greenhouse gases produced by food, nitrous oxide, used in some fertilizers, is the most prevalent. Chemical and manure soil treatments far outweigh carbon dioxide in environmental damage, which is multiplied in the keeping of livestock. Research compiled by Earth Save International found that a pound of beef requires 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil and 2,500 gallons of fresh water.
There are many ways to reduce or increase your carbon footprint, but the Carnegie Mellon study found that reducing your red meat intake by a quarter would be just as beneficial to the environment as a diet with no food miles at all.
And no matter how nearby the hormone-free beef served at Grange was reared, it is obligated by law to take some kind of road trip. Jennifer Holton from the Michigan Department of Agriculture said that restaurants can only serve meat that has been slaughtered in a USDA facility.
“That’s probably the biggest obstacle in doing things like this,” Johns said. “So if I were to buy a pig from Ernst Farms, which is probably five miles from here, it’s gotta be taken to (Hillsdale, Mich.) to process it.”
With all the negative consequences of the meat industry, it can be disheartening enough to throw in the towel for eating with a conscience. This is especially true in a state like Michigan, where the long, bitter winter leaves kale one of the only local things you can eat once meat is out of the picture.
But of course, no one should be expected to be a 100-mile locavore all the time. If a box of Swiss chocolates crosses your path, have a piece. If you’re not a vegetarian, don’t stop eating meat — just maybe eat less of it, especially in the summer when other foods are available to diversify your diet.
“We’re all having to face the consequences of our habits, and we’re going forward into a slightly different set of circumstances,” Badgley said. “People are aware of the rising cost of fossil fuels, no more polar bears. Those are things we’re facing. All those things make people realize how food is engaged with all this.”