Our Heroes: Tom Philpott of Grist.org, Maverick Farms

Photo courtesy of Bart Nagel.

In 2011, Tom Philpott moved from Grist to Mother Jones, where he continues in his excellent practice of thoughtful, investigative food and agriculture writing.

A path that led from a restaurant kitchen in Austin eventually took Tom Philpott -- by way of Mexico City and Brooklyn, New York -- to North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, where he now serves as co-founder/core group member at Maverick Farms, while also dishing out what may be the most consistently awesome food policy reporting in the blogosphere. Along the way, then-NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani inadvertently helped him decide to make the jump from a successful career in financial journalism to food writing.

Back in late December, Tom and I huddled up with our laptops, each of us shivering, and chatted via Skype from our respective kitchens. He kindly agreed that day to be the test subject for a new endeavor, and for the first time, we are publishing an audio recording of the weekly Our Hero interview. We hope to do more of these soon. Below, the first few questions. Consider them a taste test, and for the whole enchilada, click on that AUDIO button in the upper left, or download the podcast.

Q. Lots of people know you from Grist, but not everyone knows that you're not only a farmer but a cofounder at Maverick Farms -- and this is a quote from your website – “an educational nonprofit farm dedicated to promoting family farming as a community resource and reconnecting local food networks.” Tell us about Maverick Farms.

A. Well, we started Maverick Farms in 2004. It started on my girlfriend’s family’s land – my girlfriend is Alice Brook Wilson – and we were living in New York City, in Brooklyn in fact, and her father decided to retire, and there weren’t a lot of options for keeping the land in the family. We decided to move back down here with some friends and pick up the project. I grew up in Austin, probably two or three generations off the land, and my biggest farming experience up until then was on an 8 x 4 foot plot in New York City, in Brooklyn at the beautiful Hallenback Garden. So, you know, we came here, and really, most of us knew more about cooking than we did about farming, and so one of the first things we did was start doing these farm dinners, where we would turn the farmhouse into kind of a restaurant for a weekend a month. And we used food that we had grown, and would bring in stuff that we didn’t grow from other farmers around here, and really tried to generate and maintain community through cooking and farming.

We always, from the start, saw the project as kind of a laboratory for, you know, a lot of different things: making an interesting life for yourself on a farm, for rebuilding a local food economy in this part of the country, which in a lot of ways is really kind of tragic. It’s a beautiful part of the country in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The economy is really geared toward tourism, and it creates kind of a two-tiered economy where you've got a lot of wealthy people moving in here, putting in second homes and destroying mountainsides, and then you've got a huge population of locals who are not exclusively, but for the most part kind of “services class” for these second-homers.

And that was creating this dual food system, where most people, their best option, they couldn’t grow food for themselves, was shopping at Walmart, and then this sort of wealthy class of people, they had country club restaurants and things like that, and most of the small-scale farming was geared toward selling to those country clubs. And so our goal, from the start, was, you know, “How can we broaden the food system here, the alternative food system. How can we make it more accessible and broaden it?”

So we basically did a bunch of experiments over the years. And some of them stuck, and some of them didn’t, and the thing that really stuck for us, after all this, was the CSA model. Started the area’s first CSA in 2005, and have kept it going, and just in 2009, we saw a need to broaden it and expand it and include other farms in it, so we started the area’s first – and you know, one of the country’s, I think, first – multi-farm CSA. And that is pretty much what we're doing now.

Q. Wow. How has your experience farming informed your work at Grist, and for that matter, vice versa?

A. When I first started writing for Grist, which was back in 2006, the challenges of trying to make a living off the land were very much fresh for me. And the challenges of – the various aspects of running a farm; marketing and things like that, were very fresh in my mind, so that really gave me a perspective when I would write about issues. And I think that there are a lot of people out there writing about these issues and doing a great job at it, but you get a different perspective of the challenges of it when you're actually in the field, and it kind of de-romanticizes it for you, and the difficulties of something like a farmers' market model, which is a wonderful model, but it can be very hard on farmers, because you've got to run a retail stand for six or seven hours on a Saturday, all of those things informed my writing.

You know, the other thing, on a practical level, it was actually – especially for the first couple of years, when I was writing part time and in the fields more or less full time -- you know, when I was out in the field, say, harvesting or weeding or something like that...you're out there in this beautiful setting, and you're working hard with your body, and something about it really helped me think about story ideas, think about ways of turning phrases, ways of explaining things, and then I'd get back into the farmhouse and write about them and spend hours and hours writing, and get to feeling kind of squirrely, and then I'd get to go back out in the field that afternoon or the next day, and so it was a fantastic combination but at a certain point, it was basically seven days a week and it really started to wear me out. And so, for practical purposes I went fulltime at Grist in 2008, which has cut way into the time I can spend in the field, but I do miss that time. I do get out there as much as I can, but Grist is more than fulltime job.

Q. So you said that you grew up in Austin, tell us more about that, and can you think of any early experiences that might have led you toward the path that you're on now?

A. Well, you know, the thing is that, growing up in Austin – I went to University of Texas there – and while I was there, I got really into food and in fact, I worked my way through high school and college as a cook, as a line cook in a restaurant – in a steak house, in fact. And I was too young and dumb – I mean, I wasn’t really into cooking yet – it was kind of a job, but I learned a lot of skills, a lot of cooking skills, that I would take into later life, while I was doing that.

And actually, I got really into political writing in college, and actually did a lot of investigative journalism in college, though nothing really at all about food. And kind of simultaneously to that, I got this real interest in cooking, and the history of food, and cookbooks, and these two things were sort of separate things in my life for years and years, and about the time I was in New York City, kind of getting involved in the community garden movement there, politics and food really intersected and came together for me. And that’s something I can actually thank Rudolph Giuliani for, because he made his attack on the community gardens in the late 90s, and that really illustrated for me that there is this political economy for food that I'd never really thought about, and that opened it up for me and kind of set me off on the path I'm on now.

Q. So while you were in New York though, you had quite the career in traditional media, in the financial field, before making what looks from here -- from where I'm standing -- like a pretty radical transition to environmental blogging. What led you to make that jump?

A. Well, basically, Maverick Farms was my impetus for jumping. I worked as a financial journalist, starting in Mexico City, for I don’t know, six or seven years, and I kind of went into it…like I said, I've always been political and interested in political economy, and thinking hard about the way the economy works, and I had this opportunity to get into financial journalism, and I took it with the idea that I'd be learning about how – learning more or less, from the inside, how Wall Street works. So I did it for five or six years, and actually, I learned a lot, and there were parts of it that I actually loved. It was the first time in my life, starting in Mexico City in 1998 and going through to New York City in 2004, that I was actually paid, full time, to write. And that was fantastic.

But you know, as I got more and more into food, and started thinking about the politics of food, I was feeling more and more like I'd learned all I was going to learn writing about Wall Street, probably by 2001 or 2002, and around that time was actively seeking ways to get out of finance and into food writing, and you know, it was very difficult. I didn’t have any contacts in that field, and then moving to Maverick Farms in 2004…at that time, I was working for Reuters as a remote writer and writing every day about the stock market, and I was on a contract for a year for Reuters that ran into the time at Maverick Farms, so for awhile I was farming more than full time and trying to do a more or less full time job for Reuters, and it was crazy. I wasn’t getting any sleep, and was just working like mad.

In that time, I developed this discipline for writing every day, because I was writing for Reuters every day, and then when my contract came up, and I didn’t renew, probably because I was spending so much time farming and cooking instead of obsessing about the stock market, when that contract ended, I still had this discipline to write every day, but I had no outlet for it, and I had no contacts in the food journalism world, so I started a blog, kind of a personal blog, and it was the winter, January of 2005, and there wasn’t very much to do on the farm, so my way into food writing was through food blogging.

Editor’s note: Later in this interview, Tom mentions his old personal blog,Bitter Greens Journal, which is now defunct but still quite good and can be found here. Also, I'll be adding a link to the written transcript of this entire interview soon but for now, check out the podcast to find out who Tom’s Heroes are and what keeps him feeling hopeful about the future of food and farming.