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Talking Crop Stories with Andre Gallant

Crop Stories is a quarterly magazine published by Athens Farmers Market that reveals the journey of seasonal crops from farm to table. The zine includes the story of crops, Athens Farmers Market farmers, and bring recipes from Georgia organic growers and talentedwinter squash
local chefs. The first Crop Stories was released in June 2014 and the blueberry had the honor to be the first magazine cover star while the current issue features the well known Winter Squash. You can find Crop Stories in Atlanta at Youngblood Boutique, Crafted Westside, Preserving Place, and Maiden South in Bainbridge, Ga. In Athens you find it at Avid Bookshop and at the Athens Farmers Market.

Crop Stories editor Andre Gallant will be supporting the magazine at the Expo of our 18th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Recipe for Change: Better Farms, Better Flavors, which will be held on Feb. 20-21, 2015, at the Classic Center in Athens, Ga.

We talked to Gallant about Crop Stories, food and farm journalism, and his new book that is coming up soon.

How did the idea of Crop Stories emerge? And can you tell us a little about the supergroup behind the project?  The idea for Crop Stories emerged out of conversations between farmer Caitlyn Hardy (who would become CS’s food editor) and Athens Farmers Market manager Jan Kozak (who serves as publisher of the zine). Theiroriginal idea was to create a cookbook using recipes from area farmers that highlighted a wide spectrum of crops. A meeting with Hugh Acheson about the project turned the focus, at the chef’s advice, from a larger cookbook to a small quarterly zine-type thing. This is where I came in. I’ve been writing about food and farming, around Athens and beyond, for a few years, and Jan approached me about spearheading the project. To find a designer, I turned to the UGA art school. That’s where we found Kylie Sawhill, who graduated with a graphic design degree in spring 2014. The final member of these super group is Melissa Kozak, the most highly-educated member of the team, and also the nicest. She works with Caitlyn to bring the recipes to life in the kitchen for styling, and makes sure all of our commas are in the right place and measurements are consistent.

How do you pick the crops, farmers, recipes, and chefs for the Crop Stories? Before each issue we decide which crop we want to focus on. The decision is partly logistical, like, what is available for us to test now but still be in season at time of publication. It’s also what’s the most interesting, what has the funniest, deepest backstory that we need to bring forward. We then figure which farmer has the best connection to the crop, and will make for an interesting story. Sometimes its a direct connection, like with blueberries – we have one major blueberry farmer in the Athens area; in future issues it will be a looser connection. To find our chefs, we connect with the chefs and bartenders who are already connected to the farmers market and local farmers. Athens is a small community, so farmers, chefs, eaters and bartenders know each other pretty well. The chefs send in their ideas for recipes, we might give some guidance like “Chef Tim is already making something with pork belly, what else can you do?” We also ask them to make a recipe that pushes the home cook technically, but not too far.

To what extent are farmers involved in each issue? Well, our food editor is a farmer. She researches and tests her recipes (the issue is about 60 percent her and 40 percent chef) after spending a day working in the fields. Our first blueberry issue has Rhonda and Chris Luther, our local blueberry farmer, heavily involved. They contributed recipes and helped with testing. The second issue featured the Brett family, and they were not involved with recipes, but contributed one of their own. They did open their lives to me, telling me rather private details of their farming life. It’s a story that would make Crop Stories less powerful if it weren’t there.

Do you have a formula for how to tell the story of each featured crop, or each issue is a surprise? So far we have not followed a formula. We are making this up as we go along, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s something I like to tell the team, who often turn to me to understand the rules of the journalism/publishing world. I say, “There are no rules to what we are doing.” We aren’t Bon Appetit or Modern Farmer. We’re inventing the identity of this thing with each issue. If this gets more successful, I see Kylie and I taking more risks in how we tell stories visually. I’d like to bring in illustrators. How we tell the story, at least at this point, is actually rather old school. I go out and do a reporter’s job: I research, interview and take photographs. I create what seems like the best story I can and then hand it over to Kylie, who, I think, has had the most influence on however the Crop Stories “brand” is perceived. And she’s knocked it out of the park.

What do you want readers to get from Crop Stories? We want people to become more comfortable in the kitchen with the interesting and varied crops produced by small farmers. We want to help expand their recipe database, their comfort with trying new things in the kitchen. We want a “know your farmer” story that goes well beyond platitudes. Jan has joked that I don’t tell happy stories about farming, which is partly true. Mostly, I want to pull no punches about the life of a farmer. Say a farmer is smiling when they sell you squash at the market. I hope the zine can shine a light on what’s going on behind that smile, all the planning, tinkering, worry, success.

What crop you are most excited to see featured on Crop Stories? I was really happy with our Winter Squash issue. The crop has such a connection to Georgia and the entire country dating back hundreds of years. The history was incredible. Our next issue is radishes, which I really don’t know much about, so digging into that will be a blast. They look beautiful, so I’m excited to photograph them, and their role in a farmer’s income and field will surprise people, so I’m excited to write that story. I really can’t wait to see how our chefs and Caitlyn can fill a recipe book with radishes!

How did you get involved with food and farming journalism? I started writing about gardening maybe six years ago because I was writing about immigration and immigrant communities. Writing about urban gardening in Athens, like in most cities, means you are writing about race, politics and more. Before I found my last job, working for a newspaper full time, I worked for Woodland Gardens for two years, writing stories on the side. I learned a ton about farming while there, and also was re-introduced to the drama of the restaurant industry. (I worked in restaurants from age 15 to 25). Once I was writing full-time, I immediately started writing about the farming and its connection to wider culture, then I added restaurants to that mix. Then added bigger farming stories to that, and then learned to recipe test, style and photograph food! It’s been a busy couple of years.

Your book about the Georgia oyster industry, “The High Low Tide,” comes out next year. Why does that topic enthrall you? Until a few years ago, I knew nothing about the history of oysters in Georgia. I grew up in Atlantic Canada, in a lobster fishing family, and near the Malpeque oyster beds that are world famous. So I come from a maritime people, but haven’t lived in that community in years, so in learning about fisheries in Georgia, I thought writing about the people who harvest shellfish would connect me back to maritime life. Georgia oysters are at a really interesting point right now. There’s a lot at play and a lot of potential. And there are characters galore. The marsh is also now one of my favorite places in the world. I’m obsessed. Also, I’ll be lucky if I get it out next year. Hustling!

 

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