Food activist Susie Sutphin takes on Truckee Tahoe
Published in Moonshine Ink | May 2012
It started with mychorrhizal fungi. Truckee resident Susie Sutphin was reading a 2008 interview on Grist with Timothy LaSalle, the executive director of the Rodale Institute (a nonprofit dedicated to pioneering organic farming), who spoke of the carbon-storing fungus as a solution to climate change, when she had an epiphany. Right then and there, Sutphin knew that she had to quit her job and embark on a quest to discover, experience, and study our food system.
It was yet another pivotal moment in Sutphin’s life, not unlike the time she jumped up from her couch and knew she had to start a telemark skier magazine, or when she was taking her dog on a walk and suddenly felt compelled to quit her job at Patagonia and take the Wild and Scenic Film Festival on tour across the country. Sutphin’s mind was racing, and it wasn’t going to ease back until she made that left turn down the lesser-traveled road and followed her “foodlust.” She did not know where this new path would take her, only that she had to go down it.
“I wanted to get out on the front lines and get my hands dirty, literally,” Sutphin said.
Sutphin’s journey became her personalized and unofficial Ph.D. program. Today, nearly a year since her journey began, with plenty of lessons learned, she has graduated and is back home in Truckee/Tahoe, where she wants to see her vision for good, sustainable, local, and organic food unfold. Sutphin is working at the grow dome, where they donate year-round, fresh produce to Project MANA. She’s involved with Lisa’s Organics and its Gardens to Hospitals program. And she’s developing a business plan for a food hub, which would connect small farmers throughout the region to local restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and other organizations that want fresh food.
“If you feed your community, you’re going to feed the world one community at a time,” Sutphin said. “Everyone’s going to be taking care of their own people.”
Happy Cows and Green Pastures
Sutphin comes from farming genes — her mother’s extended family are farmers — and she has kept a garden of her own since she was a kid. But she was almost as green as lettuce when it came to actual hoeing, weeding, planting, harvesting, and all the farming fundamentals. So she knew that her journey had to start in the dirt, spending time with seeds and sprouts.
Abbondanza Organic Seeds & Produce, an idyllic farm in Boulder, Colo., was a natural place to jump-start Sutphin’s food adventure in June 2011. Abbondanza is a respected farm that operates a CSA, sells food at farmers markets, keeps 250 free-range chickens, and also sells seed to promote “organic, diverse, open pollinated seed cultivation.” She spent her days at Abbondanza planting rows of lettuce, transplanting broccoli and fennel starters to their field beds, saving baby green onions from encroaching weeds, hoeing for hours, feasting over lunch with the other farm workers, and getting the veggies ready for the farmers market. Over four weeks, she worked 160 hours and fully immersed herself in the romanticized life of a farm.
“Abbondanza was a very wax-on, wax-off ‘Karate Kid’ kind of thing,” Sutphin said. “You can really see what all that hard work is for when everything is thriving.”
An experiential learner, Sutphin looked to take away something from each leg of her journey. At Abbondanza, the lesson centered around the farm-to-market concept.
“Organic food is out there — and more of it could be out there — but getting it to market is not always easy,” Sutphin wrote on her blog, the Food Chronicles. “But to really get the local, organic food out there, we need more grocery stores, restaurants, schools, and employer-owned cafeterias ordering up this fresh flavor.”
Sutphin’s next learning stop was at the U.C. Santa Cruz Sustainable Living Center where she took a two-week course on agroecology. In Santa Cruz, Sutphin was surrounded by likeminded students who were also passionate about what they put in their mouths. She absorbed herself in lectures and field trips and conversations with her classmates. She visited ALBA Organics, a business incubator for aspiring farmers that helps farmers get on their feet by leasing them subsidized land. She learned about food policy councils, which ignite discussion in a community about its food, and foodshed assessments to take a strong look at a region’s food production capability. After the course, Sutphin’s brain was swimming with ideas about applying a truly sustainable, local, organic food system to a community.
“I could immerse myself in this school of thought,” Sutphin said. “I wrote a whole notebook of information within that course.”
After Santa Cruz, Sutphin went home to Ohio, the heartland of America’s agriculture, where she grew up. She had planned to spend three months working on a student-run farm near Oberlin College, but she cut her time short at the farm after realizing that her time would be better spent traveling around the Midwest in search of more inspiration from the superstars of the food movement. Sutphin traveled to hear Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, who was interviewed in the documentary “Food, Inc.” and in Michael Pollan’s bestseller “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” preach about our responsibility to the earth. She hitched a ride to the Fighting Hunger Summit with keynote speaker Oran Hesterman, author of “Fair Food.” She took a road trip to visit Gene Logsdon, a prolific writer in farming. She celebrated Food Day in Cleveland, Ohio, with Pollan, who also wrote “In Defense of Food.” And she took a soil class at the Rodale Institute with Dr. Elaine Ingham.
“I just knew I wanted to meet these people,” Sutphin said. “And not necessarily knowing where it was going to go, until having that conversation and then going back and sitting down and writing the blog post.”
Home Sweet Home
After six months, Sutphin came home to Truckee in November a sponge full of inspiration and knowledge. She hit the ground running trying to connect with anyone and everyone in Reno, Tahoe, and the foothills who is involved with food. She found some local allies who are invested in the same cause. “It’s encouraging,” Sutphin said. “The time is right. I think we can really galvanize our community around this [food].” Sutphin is helping Bill Kelly of Kelly Brothers Painting with his grow dome, which might be the answer to year-round growing in Truckee (see sidebar).
“Her and I have a lot of similarities in regards to food, in that it has to do with being healthy,” Kelly said. “We truly are a team. We both bring things to the table. I’m a dreamer and I’m a business man … She’s got more of the practical, hands-on, marketing — the food background.” Sutphin is also working for Lisa’s Organics in Carnelian Bay, which distributes frozen, organic veggies to Whole Foods and Trader Joes, and is spearheading a Gardens to Hospitals program, whose goal is to raise awareness for the importance of nutrition in health care by installing edible gardens at hospitals.
“She had offered to see where she could be involved” in the program, said Mark Griffin, owner of Lisa’s Organics. “She has really developed this and evolved this into an incredible program with a tremendous amount of progress.”
Sutphin spoke in front of invested local eaters this winter about what a sustainable food community would look like in Tahoe. She signed up for a leadership program and a permaculture course in Reno. And with Kelly, she is developing a business plan for a food hub, whose purpose is threefold: It would create a market for small farms and deliver regionally grown food to local buyers, it would be a space to host cold storage for Project MANA, and it would have a commercial kitchen to encourage local specialty food producers. The ball is rolling; now all it needs is to pick up momentum.
“What’s going to rise to the surface?” Sutphin asked. “I’m talking to everybody and anybody with the hopes that one of those is going to rise to the surface.”