A Virtuous Cycle: Slow Food’s Ark of Taste Helps New Farms Thrive and in Return, Farmers Promote the Ark

Slow Food correspondent Kim Bayer explores relationships that are helping farmers who are passionate about history and taste find success, providing good, clean and fair food for their community.

It’s chilly spring and I’m standing in a humid hoophouse at the Tilian Farm Development Center north of Ann Arbor, Michigan (USA) with Program Manager Stefanie Stauffer. Her slender build and dark hair hint at her Italian heritage, while her hands curl maternally around sturdy baby plants.

A recent PhD from the University of Santa Cruz, Stauffer is in her seventh season of raising heirloom tomatoes and peppers for her farm and salsa business called Nightshade Farm Industries.

Her business is unique in part because her grow list includes over 20 varieties from the Slow Food Ark of Taste. These rare Ark foods, along with her organic certification, set Stauffer’s business apart and let her earn fair prices for her heirloom tomatoes.

Stauffer explains how her Italian family history and experience with Slow Food contributed to her passion for growing Ark of Taste foods saying “heirloom produce was my gateway to Slow Food, but I was drawn in further in 2014, when I was able to attend Terra Madre Salone del Gusto as a delegate representing Michigan farmers and artisan food producers. It was an amazing experience on so many levels, including obtaining seeds from Italian farmers and spending time with my cousin Michele who still lives in Tuscany.”

These days Michigan isn’t generally known for being on the cutting edge of positive change. But in terms of sustainable agriculture – it most definitely is. Young people are starting up small diversified farms and businesses all over the state, using their college educations along with the wisdom of historic agronomists to build soil and their fledgling businesses while feeding their communities. The Ark of Taste is one way small scale producers can grow the highest value crops, making their businesses economically as well as environmentally sustainable.

To propel her small business, Stauffer is growing every pepper variety in the Slow Food Ark of Taste catalog of place-based foods, and half of the tomato varieties. She says “I love the diversity, variety, geography, and history attached to heirloom varieties.” In control of her own supply and growing practices, Stauffer uses the world’s most distinctive peppers and tomatoes to make a line of totally unique, local salsas ranging from mild, fire roasted tomato to hellfire spicy.

Ark foods take many shapes, and are especially known for heavenly flavors and gorgeous colors. But Ark of Taste foods can be hard to identify in the mass marketplace and are in danger of disappearing forever from lack of knowledge and demand for them.

Because the industrial food system finds these foods, among the most delicious in the world, too challenging to bring to market they are commercially, if not biologically, extinct.

One of Stauffer’s colleagues at the Tilian Farm Development Center is also using the deliciousness of the Ark of Taste as a centerpiece of his business. Ryan Padgett is promoting the Ark of Taste through his CSA business, Radicle Roots Farm.

Many CSA farms in southeast Michigan grow at least a couple of Ark of Taste foods, but Padgett does an amazing job of calling them out and describing their significance in his weekly newsletter, and of explaining that history to his members when they come to pick up.

Padgett and Stauffer bring their produce into town weekly to stock the Argus Farm Stop, a small retailer selling only local products via consignment. Already promoting local farmers, now the staff at Argus knows about the Ark of Taste and is thrilled to tell customers about the best tasting tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and beets on the shelf.

The local Slow Food chapter, Slow Food Huron Valley, is also working to promote the efforts of these farmers and retailers by providing Ark of Taste signage to help customers identify and seek out Ark foods at farmers markets, stores and events like their annual HomeGrown Festival in September.

Padgett says “The idea that these varieties hold within their history and culture is what motivates me to grow them, share them, and their stories with the community. I feel compelled to help preserve these varieties because without them history is simply erased. For example, time seems to stand still for a moment while you look at a Speckled Head Lettuce and you realize that this Dutch variety dates back to the 1600’s and has somehow made it into the present and sits right there before my eyes. If the story doesn’t move you, the superior flavor will, and that is the magic of heirloom and Slow Food Ark of Taste varieties.”

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About the Author:

KIM BAYER is a strategist, communicator and project manager, as well as a veteran community organizer and coalition-builder with deep knowledge of local food systems. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan where she is starting a 187 acre Slow Farm. She works as a food system consultant and freelance writer, and is the current Slow Food Governor for Michigan. She is also a new beekeeper!