Luigi Sison

10 10 2008

by  Jessica Ashley Nelson with edits by Megan Hines and Emily Larson

Luigi Sison - by Jessica NelsonDiffering from fast food dining where cars are lined up outside of a drive-thru window, every Sunday evening Luigi Sison promotes his community by opening his home in Northfield, Minnesota, to students who are interested in learning how to cook. Each week the meal is different, sometimes Ethiopian, Thai or Filipino. But no matter the cuisine, it is cooked using all locally sourced ingredients. Luigi treats the evening as though his guests are a part of his working kitchen, assigning each person a task, whether it be washing, cutting or cooking the food. Luigi also uses it as an opportunity to experiment with new recipes and to understand what is works and what does not.

I enter Luigi’s kitchen as if it were a museum, exhibiting the finest fruits and vegetables. Rich color extends across an assortment of bowls filled with tomatoes, squash, chilies and an array of green and red peppers placed upon the island in the center of the kitchen. The granite surface of the counter top serves as a pedestal, displaying the organic tone and shape of each piece of food. I see Luigi pull additional bowls from the cupboards above his head, pushing ingredients to the side in an attempt to make room for the food he has prepared for us. Looking past him I see a sink filled with cooking utensils, counter tops piled high with dishes, and pots and pans fighting for their spot on top of one another. Luigi dashes back and forth throughout the kitchen, tending to the stove where he is preparing several dishes.

Originally from the Philippines, Luigi has been cooking since he arrived in the United States more than 25 years ago. Although he spends his days in Rochester, Minnesota, working as a computer architect at the Mayo Clinic, Luigi finds his second passion in preparing food. “Meals are creations, beautiful things”, he says. For Luigi, the process of grocery shopping for the correct ingredients, the preparation of the materials, the visual splendor and aroma of the food, as well as the physical consumption of the meal are all equally important.

The "Plate" of Luigi Sison - by Jessica NelsonAs Luigi reaches for yet another dish to present a selection of cheeses to us, he announces, “I know where all of my food comes from! My cheese, my produce.” I am impressed and certainly inspired by this, for I wouldn’t know the first place to look up the producers of the raspberries or blocks of cheese I purchase from my local Cub Foods grocery store. He goes on, addressing farmers in Northfield by name, describing each of their fortes. As I take a bite into a piece of bread covered with Luigi’s own chili jam spread and a considerable cut of cheese, he announces that the Blue Cheese topping is from Steven and Jodi Ohlsen of Shepherd’s Way Farm in nearby Nerstrand, Minnesota.

As the free-range chicken is served upon a lovely bed of jasmine rice, and alongside a vibrant squash dish, Luigi expresses his support for local farmers. I watch Luigi move quickly about his kitchen as he prepares to distribute the final dish of the meal. “The timing has to be just right,” he says as he continues to throw out more characteristics of a cook, such as, “a good cook needs good knives” or, “you burn yourself a lot.”

Shopping at the local farmers’ market almost every week during the growing season, Luigi gets the freshest produce and helps support Northfield’s economy. He articulates the importance of shopping within one’s own community from a value and economic standpoint. “Local food is fresher, and environmentally better,” he states as he continues to explain the large amount of travel required to distribute food that is found in conventional stores. The bottom line: the less energy it takes for the food to get to the table the better.

Acknowledging the reality of American society today, Luigi directs attention to the issue of convenience. Yes, it is easy to run to the Super Wal-Mart across the street. There, one can see where they could get all of their shopping done in one stop with no need to worry about the amount of time needed to prepare a meal. Everything there is already packaged and prepared. However, the questions then become these: How does the convenient food taste? What is its nutritional value? What pleasure of making a meal from scratch have we missed?

Fresh, Local Ingredients - by Jessica NelsonConsumers today are raised to think with their wallets, where low prices trump value and quality in most minds, especially when it comes to food. On a national level, our government encourages farmers to grow as much corn and soybean crop as possible, which means taxpayers subsidize produce that is superfluous to our needs. Our western diet is primarily corn- based, carrying high numbers of carbohydrates and sugars, which contribute to health issues such as diabetes and heart attacks. Luigi says, “Although we are buying cheap food, we are paying for it in the end by risking our health.” Education is the key according to Luigi because consumers must make informed decisions about what they are buying and consider how their choices will affect them physically.

When asking Luigi what he finds most rewarding about the process, he describes his roots in cooking as a child. He grew up with homemade meals, learning through trial and error. He wants to keep with his heritage, and encourage his own children to do the same. “I want to encourage family life,” he says. “Sit down and talk to each other. So many kids grow up on McDonald’s because families don’t think they have time to cook, or they are too lazy. We’ve given up one of the few basic pleasures of living. And for what? Convenience? Although we are one of the richest countries in the world, why have we lowered our standards of food?” Spending the evening with Luigi, I felt a new appreciation for where my food comes from and reevaluating what my standard of food should be.

To view more photos see the Luigi Sison Slideshow


Shepherd’s Way

10 10 2008

Edited by Emily Larson

Jodi at Shepherd's Way Farm - by Peter HunnerI didn’t have to travel far to find where the cheeses Luigi used were made. Less then 12 miles away is Shepherd’s Way Farms, owned and run by Jodi and Steven Read. After I arrived, Jodi and Steven laid out an array of fresh cheeses for me to sample. From the first bite of the Friesago and the Big Woods Blue, I was in love. Until my visit to Shepherd’s Way Farms I didn’t know what good cheese tasted like, having lived off of Kraft Singles and Happy Cow wedges for too long.

Shepherd’s Way is an artisan farmstead sheep milk cheese farm. When they are in full production, Shepherd’s Way Farms gets all the milk for their cheeses from the sheep they raise on their own farm. The process to make their cheeses uses minimal mechanization, holding true to the hand-made, small batch tradition of cheese making. When you taste one of their perfectly crafted cheeses, you will understand the important difference made by the artisan farmstead cheese process. It is no surprise that Steven and Jodi have won multiple awards for their cheeses.

Located in Nerstrand, Minnesota, this 43-acre farm is home to 250 sheep, 20 hens, one rooster, two gilts and multiple cats, along with the Read Family. Jodi and Steven started farming in East Union, Minnesota, in 1994 with 40 sheep and a dairy ram. At first they just produced and sold milk though the Wisconsin Dairy Sheep Cooperative, but when they ended up with more milk than they could sell, they decided to make a batch of cheese. After a successful first batch, which they sold to Surdyks, they made more batches until they switched to full time cheese production and moved to their present farm in Nerstrand.

On January 24th, 2005, a horrible act of arson devastated the farm. More than 400 sheep were killed and all of the animal housing, more than $250,000 worth of facilities, burned down. Shepherd’s Way Farms was practically put out of business. This tragic event hurt the Read family financially, but also personally because of their relationships with the sheep that died. Because they feed their sheep by hand from birth, the Reads develop an intimate relationship with their animals and know them as individuals. After the fire, there was a national response of donations and volunteers determined to help the farm recover. Four years later, Shepherd’s Way continues to build itself back up while producing world-class cheeses.

Shepherd's Way Cheese - by Peter HunnerCheese making is an art form. It takes as much love as skill to produce a prize-winning cheese. From the animals to the aging process, everything is a factor, and no one knows this better than Steven and Jodi. It all starts at the milking stations. Up to 48 sheep are milked at a time for less than 10 minutes each, twice a day. At full production, 500 sheep are milked, which takes four hours including clean up. The sheep milk is pumped to a spotless milk room where it is kept cool and stored in large tanks. From here it is pasteurized. Jodi mentioned, “What’s important to me is the quality of milk and the cheese making, pasteurized or not it can make good cheese.” Though raw milk yields better tasting cheese, Shepherds Way Farm’s pasteurization processes and cheese making produce fantastic cheeses. After the 17-second, 170-degree pasteurization process, the milk is placed into vats where selected bacteria and cultures are added to the milk to create the specific types of cheeses. The acidity is measured to ensure quality and readiness, then an enzyme is added to set the curd. The curd is cut with special cheese knives specific to the type of cheese. After hooping and draining in stainless steel forms, the cheeses are prepared for aging. Shepherd’s Way uses three types of aging processes, which depend on the type of cheese. They range from simply waxing and aging to washing the curd with brine every day. The aging time varies for each type of cheese. Most is sold by the wheel, wholesale or in smaller portions at the Mill City Farmer’s Market.

Shepherd’s Way’s cheese-making process is not only artisan but also sustainable. They do not use pesticides or herbicides, and the farm is pasture based, meaning the animals feed in the pasture and they in turn fertilize the earth; there is no need for synthetic manure or fertilizers. Their process goes from land to grass to sheep to milk to cheese, so a pasture-based farm is very important and yields a clean, natural product.

Shepherd’s Way Farms is very active in the surrounding community. Jodi and Steven give farm tours to schools, senior groups, and the A Sheep Shepherd's Way Farm - by Peter HunnerYMCA to educate about cheese making, agriculture and sustainability. They donate cheese to local organizations and events as well as work with students from the nearby of St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges. The farm also produces numerous other products that are sold locally and nationally. They breed and raise endangered heritage buckeye breed chickens. The broilers and eggs are sold at the Mill City Market in October while some of the buckeyes will be bred to help support endangered heritage breeds. The sheep’s wool goes towards making products such as comforters, pillows, and mattresses. This next year they will also be raising heritage breed pigs for meat.

Thanks to operations like Shepherd’s Way Farms we can still enjoy the comfort of naturally produced cheeses and food. Local gems like this farm keep communities united by offering quality homemade products that are unique to the community.

To view these photos and more see the Shepherd’s Way slideshow.

Rural Enterprise Center

10 10 2008

by Michelle Manslee with edits from Megan Hines

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin - by Michele MansleeAfter indulging in the much appreciated Albo chicken dish prepared by Luigi Sison, a plate-to-source quest brought us to a gravel road where hundreds of chickens pecked at the open ground and sounds of cooing and clucking filled the air. Next to it all, working with an intense concentration and devotion was the creator, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin. Originally from Guatemala, Reginaldo followed his girlfriend, now his wife, to the United States in 1993 when she was accepted into the University of Minnesota.

A successful entrepreneur in Guatemala, Reginaldo learned to use his skills within the systems of the United States. Initially, they had planned to return home but after a rough three years of acclimating, he saw opportunities here that were not in Guatemala. His first project was the development of Peace Coffee, a fair trade coffee company sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis, which is beneficial to both bean growers and the environment. In 1996, Reginaldo was named one of the Twin Cities’ International Citizens of the Year. His most recent project, The Rural Enterprise Center (REC), is a tool for Latino immigrants to help build relations with their new communities.

The program focuses on business building and planning for existing or new entrepreneurs by utilizing skills that Reginaldo recognizes as specific and unique to many Latino families. From his personal experience, Reginaldo knew that many Latino immigrants grew up farming and know how to work and care for the land. Conceived in the fall of 2007, REC is a poultry production and marketing operation. “It is a simple idea,” Reginaldo notes. When immigrating into a new country like America, it is very rare that a Latino will receive a position for which they are qualified elsewhere. When talking to Reginaldo about the current state of our nation, he did not seem worried. “The poultry operation is not complicated, but it is hard work. This is the real money right here,” he said as he pointed to his chickens. “People can stop doing many other things but they can’t stop eating.”

Rural Enterprise Center - by Michele MansleeReginaldo views the REC as an experimental project designed to act as a training center, working to create the initiative to support local families. To begin, a family locates a section of land on which to farm. The soil is then rented outright or a partnership is created between the two parties. If neither alternative is an option, the REC aids them in finding local financiers. REC founded its own cooperative, Hillside Farmer’s Co-op, to assist the families in paying for the start up production costs, namely birds and feed. Hillside Farmer’s Co-op also acts as a financial and supportive resource for developing farms. Additionally, the Hillside Farmer’s Co-op helps with larger investments and provides newcomers with examples on how to properly begin and maintain their farm while making their own business decisions. After the property is fenced and the chickens are fed, the family works the land until harvest.  When the meat is sold, the families keep 100 percent of the earnings because they are their own proprietors, which separates them from other bird operations.

This makes REC a non-profit organization, because their sole concern is that of the family, not profit like most other related businesses. For example, a human resource representative at Gold’n Plump said in an interview that “We own the birds, [they] own the building.” A fair deal at first, Gold’n Plump pays for all of the upkeep required to raise chicken, such as electricity, bedding and feed costs, while the farmer is solely responsible for the labor. The human resources representative quoted start up at $450,000.00 because the farmers must use their contractors to build the facilities, so in order to make a profit, the farmer must stay in business with them for at least 20 years to pay off the mortgage.

The structure of REC recycles money back into feeding the family, paying off investment loans and purchasing means to continue their own business. Ethically and financially, the partners involved receive what is best for them and are ensured a quality of care that is given to all aspects. “We learn from our mistakes so we don’t make the same one twice,” said Reginaldo. “If it isn’t good for the land, it isn’t good for the food.”

The Inquisitive Foul - by Michele MansleeUsing this approach benefits the environment and all other parties involved. As free-range and naturally grown meat, the chickens have generous room to roam and peck on locally grown feed as nature intended. In the process, the resident farmer is put to work, which circulates money throughout a community. Transportation costs are cut and consumers are liberated from all the harmful pesticides that are integral to commercially raised meats. Last season Reginaldo planted 450 hazelnut bushes to diversify the land. Not only do these plants have the potential to provide a supplementary income, but they also provide environmental benefits. The bushes provide shade for the chickens, which in turn fertilize the plants while roots work nutrients into the soil to prevent erosion. This way everyone involved is healthier, happier and doing their part to help, globally and locally.

REC mirrors only such morals, making them a strong benefactor in the rising appreciation and need for sustainable living. To make their product more available to consumers, the poultry farm received the Department of Agriculture food handler’s certificate, which opens the marketing channel to restaurants and other retailers. This is a considerable step for the farmers, hopefully telling of a significant increase in demand. Six families are currently involved with means to support themselves without having to worry if they are going to get laid off, or if their place of employment is going to go bankrupt.

It is uncomplicated projects like these that are going to solve the economic and environmental crisis. Breaking down the larger issues into smaller, more manageable ones can change the world. For their efforts, the Rural Enterprise Center has been given much deserved praise. They were recently published in The Compost, a Northfield publication, and Reginaldo was invited to eat lunch with the judges from America in Bloom, an organization that gives out awards and information to help improve quality of life in rural communities. Along with that, this past September, the Rural Enterprise Center hosted a business-training program for Latino’s in the southeastern part of Minnesota.

To view more photos, see the Rural Enterprise Center slideshow.