TURIN, Italy -- There is a rapidly growing movement in America that brings together producers of quality food and consumers who want to make sure those producers remain viable. The American arm of Slow Food (as opposed to Fast Food) International sent a delegation of close to 600 to Turin October 20-23 to take part in the world's largest ever gathering of small-scale farmers, ranchers, nomadic herders, fishers, foragers and food makers, known as Terra Madre. Jim and Mary Rickert, representing the Prather Ranch of Macdoel and Fall River Valley in northern California, were two of the American delegates.
Each of the 5,000 participants in Terra Madre represented a particular "food community" such as Cordoban prickly pear growers, or artisan bakers of Alsace. The Rickerts were part of The Savory Center community-a group of livestock producers who not only produce meat, but restore and enhance their land at the same time.
The Prather Ranch is a completely vertically integrated hay and cattle operation that has embraced several unconventional practices to produce a branded beef product that is sold in northern California and southern Oregon. The certified organic portion of the cattle herd is based in Fall River Valley and is considered the largest organic beef herd in the Western United States.
The purpose of Terra Madre was to highlight the contributions of a diverse range of producers to the global food system, to celebrate their value, and support their empowerment. Far too many are isolated from the eventual consumers of their products or those who can assist in their marketing and distribution. Many are vulnerable to takeovers, or simply overwhelmed, by large-scale agribusinesses.
The Italian government picked up the tab for the meals, lodging and transport once in Italy for all 5,000 delegates, many of whom had never traveled far from home. Over 130 countries were represented and there were seven official languages translated via earphones. Delegates took part in two days of workshops covering environmental issues linked to agriculture, such as desertification and the effects of pesticide use, political issues related to sustainability and production of individual crops and products, such as corn, beef, and coffee.
In one room delegates from Bulgaria, Kazakstan and Spain talked about the challenges of supporting or reviving nomadic herding cultures. In another, a man from Cuba talked of the organic agriculture revolution in his country. A woman from India told of her community's struggle to promote and protect their environmentally-sensitive region through a special "designation of origin" label for their products. A Colorado heritage turkey producer explained how he had quickly developed a market for his turkeys with the help of a Slow Food group in Denver.
A few of the Savory Center delegates, including Center founder Allan Savory, gave presentations on their experiences using livestock to create healthy and productive landscapes, and impressed the delegates with their results. (The Savory Center is an international nonprofit organization based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that works to restore deteriorating land and the quality of life of the people dependent on that land). As thought-provoking and rewarding as the workshops were, most delegates, including those from The Savory Center, found the most satisfaction in simply connecting with people from around the world who shared the same challenges and occasionally the same victories.
The keynote speaker at the closing of the conference was Prince Charles, the Duke of Wales. An organic farmer, Prince Charles supports the goals and objectives of the Slow Food philosophy.
Until a few months ago, many of the delegates had never heard of Slow Food. In the 18 years since its founding in Italy, the organization has spread to about 80 countries with 81,000 members. In the U.S. there are close to 200 "convivia," or chapters, where good-food-loving urbanites build relationships with producers, campaign to protect traditional foods, encourage chefs to use local foods, and occasionally go to bat for producers when regulations or legislation need changing. The Slow Food movement's stunning growth in the U.S. since 2000, when Slow Food USA was founded, attests to the fact that these producer-consumer partnerships are much needed and greatly valued. And they are already beginning to have an impact on "the way we do food" in America.