Meatless Monday: Organic Matter

All November, Meatless Monday focuses on things good and things meatless, the things that make our lives worthwhile and worth saying, "thanks." Today, a big thanks to organic farmers.

During this summer's drought, Brenton Johnson's well ran dry. Then two weeks ago, he got hit with a sudden freeze. "Basil, eggplant, mint, sweet potatoes, green beans, even our fall potatoes -- all that stuff, totally dead." And yet the owner of Johnson's Backyard Garden
in Austin, TX feels "really, really fortunate." Clearly, the man is certifiable -- certifiably organic.

Johnson and his crew grow organic produce for over a thousand community shared agriculture members on the 200 acres he converted from a historic dairy farm. On the day we spoke last week, Johnson and his crew were out there building a barn. Barnraising is a time-honored community-builder, where everyone comes together for a central purpose. It's a time of both work and party, and you end up with something solid and real at the end of the day. It's a nice metaphor for organic farming.

At a time when we're all trying to find signs of economic life and bemoan the dearth of green jobs, organic farming is what we've been waiting for. In addition to growing the food we eat in ethical, sustainable ways and without chemicals and environmental toxins, organic farmers like Johnson help grow the economy and the community. According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, farmers markets are the fastest growing job opportunites in communities and municipalities, and organic farming has grown in this sluggish job market by eight percent.

Maureen Wilmot is "an organic believer." The executive director of Organic Farmers Research Foundation, Wilmot has a background in biology and ocean conservation, but "you don't have to have dirt under the fingernails to really appreciate organic farmers," she says.

When she became part of OFRF three years ago, Wilmot applied her background in policy and research to organic farming "and had a real aha moment. I support ocean conservation -- I didn't know organic produce is helping the ocean. If we converted every acre along the Mississippi basin to organic farming, we would reduce nitrogen runoff by fifty percent and clean up the dead zone. My son has asthma; I'm working for cleaner air. I didn't realize organic farming leads to cleaner air," she says. "It's all interwoven."

It's true -- many positive things spring from the same fertile, organic soil. If you care about your health or the health of the planet, you will have an organic awakening. In the same way, at some point, you're going to have to come to terms with how much meat you eat. Even Mayo Clinic, not exactly the bastion of woo-woo new age stuff, is touting the health benefits of a meatless diet. And if you're into protecting the planet, the fact that raising livestock takes up more than double the acreage and consumes double the resources plus pumping out a lot of environmental nasties is going to make you question cow. It will, I hope, encourage you to eat food that's luscious, real, unprocessed, organic, healthy, and good for you, your karma and all of mankind.

Some organic farmers may be jerks, but I haven't met any. The people I know who work to produce the organic food we eat are like Johnson. He's running a business, sure, and by any measure it's been a sucky year, but he's an optimist and as he puts it, "it's not about work and money. What's important is family."

Johnson is not crazy, not that I can tell. He's a farmer, a husband and a father of four. "I'm thinking about the future, paying for their college and providing security for them, but I realize it's also important to spend time with my kids and my wonderful wife. I'm so grateful for them," he says. "And for the crew we have -- I couldn't ask for a better group of people. I want to do something I love, create a place where people can work and do something they believe in and make a living at it. That's what makes sense to me."

Makes sense to me, too. Call me selfish, I want to make sure organic farmers like Johnson get to keep doing what they're doing. OFRF feels the same way. In the same way Johnson and his crew are building a barn, OFRF is "building the infrastructure so an organic farmer can succeed," says Wilmot. "OFRF has a 21-year history of championing for organic farmily farmers. Let us rally the troops in your district, do the work so farmers can still farm."

Lentil and Brown Rice Soup With Lemon and Mint

Light, brothy soups have their place. It's called spring. Come winter, it's time for something with soothing substance and serious nourishment, like this beany, grainy soup rich with vegetables and spiked with lemon and mint.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 stalk celery with leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon allspice
1 pinch red pepper flakes (or 2 teaspoons fresh jalapeno, minced)
¾ cup brown rice
¾ cup lentils
4 to 5 cups vegetable broth
2 tomatoes, chopped (or 1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes)
½ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
½ cup fresh mint, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
4 cups spinach leaves, loosely packed

Heat olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add minced garlic and chopped onions, carrots and celery. Cook, stirring, until vegetables start to soften and become burnished from the oil, about 5 to 8 minutes.

Stir in coriander, cumin, allspice and pepper flakes or minced jalapeno. Then add brown rice and lentils. Stir to combine, then pour in 4 cups of vegetable broth and the tomatoes.

Stir and bring to a boil.

Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 45 minutes, or until soup has thickened a great deal and lentils and brown rice are tender. Season with salt and pepper and taste till you get it as you like it. If soup is too thick for you, adjust by adding some or all of the remaining cup of broth until you've reached your soup sweet spot.

Just before serving, stir in lemon juice, mint and parsley. Taste again for salt and pepper.

Add spinach by the handful. Stir in spinach leaves and cook until they wilt but are still bright green, about 5 minutes.

Serves 6 to 8.

Keeps covered and refrigerated for several days, and like many soups and stews, the flavor deepens and improves over time. We should all be so lucky.

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