A 21st Century Forager


Photo by seantoyer/Flickr CC

Ian Pocock, Yale University's forager, just finished his first week on the job. When I asked him how it was going, he said, "It's cool. Most people think I'm gonna be out in the forest gathering mushrooms."

In my imagination a forager is a mythical being. He appears at the back doors of restaurants bearing wild delicacies secured from a secret woodland location. Depending on geography and season, he might have baskets full of morels or chanterelles, truffles wrapped in handkerchiefs, or boxes bursting with fiddleheads and ramps. The forager is at one with the woods.

These days, the forager tends to be a hobbyist or someone who sells to upscale restaurants that can pay the price of the treats he unearths. I was excited to learn that Wikepidia's entry for forager is a 1972 DC Comics superhero who hangs out with bugs. Sadly, the Forager seems to have enjoyed less success than Superman.

Ian's job, from my viewpoint, is less like that of the high-brow restaurant forager and more like that of the old-time village matchmaker.

Ian is not your average forager: He is likely to be the first one ever employed by a university. His position is the result of a fruitful collaboration between the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, Yale Dining, and the Yale Sustainable Food Project. It's an example of just one of the many ways schools can use existing USDA or state grants to build a new regional food system.

Ian's job, from my viewpoint, is less like that of the high-brow restaurant forager and more like that of the old-time village matchmaker. Over the next year, he will match farmers to institutions and match agricultural seasons to the school year.

After all, we don't want morels: we need to match our dining hall menu--600 pounds of potatoes for dinner!--to the crops Connecticut farmers can produce. And we need those crops to be grown in a way that's good for the land at a price your average school can afford. We'll match farmers with local processors who will preserve, pickle, and freeze summer's harvest for us to eat year round, and we'll find farmers who are game to extend the growing season through crop selection and hoop houses. Sound like a superhero's job?

We experimented some with foraging before Ian came on board. To make Yale's salsa---a dining hall standard--we pulled together a farmer, a processor, a printer, and a distributor. Our farmer, George Purtill, from Old Maids' Farm, put five additional acres into production. He grew 24,000 pounds of tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and onions. We found sources for cilantro, salt, black pepper, and vinegar. A local processor received the harvest and turned it into salsa, using a recipe we created. A New Haven printer made the label. And in doing so, he used recycled paper and soy inks for the first time. These matches require patience and creativity, collaboration and communication. Yet they are good examples of how existing infrastructure and grant supplements can be combined to help build a regional food system that serves our nation's schools.

Everyone wins. Ian will help us meet our goals of sourcing local, seasonal, and sustainable food. Farmers have a guaranteed high-volume buyer year in and year out, because schools are more recession-proof than restaurants. Connecticut benefits from a surge of spending in the regional economy and from the preservation of agricultural land. We all get more tasty, healthy, local fruits and vegetables on our plates.

So maybe Wikipedia has it right. Maybe Ian, the farmers, and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture are all superheroes.