Evangelists for local food

Even in winter on their Montana ranch, the Sabos eat local, and they encourage others to do the same

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    Will work for food: Jenny Sabo hauls hay to a pasture for the cattle on the family's 500-acre Montana farm.
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Bozeman, Mont.

Driving onto the Sabo ranch, I go back and forth between marveling at the backdrop of white-capped mountains and veering to miss the wandering chickens and the dog that’s trailing my car. When I pull up, Mark Sabo is standing in the driveway chatting with a moose hunter. I find Jenny Sabo in the kitchen, cooking up breakfast.

As soon as I sit at the kitchen table, food is presented: pork sausage from one of their pigs, flavored with locally grown organic herbs, a thick slice of rich local bread, and a variety of homemade spreads to slather over homemade butter. I wash it all down with a glass of creamy milk fresh from one of their cows.

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“We have gourmet flavors every time we sit down for a meal,” Mrs. Sabo says, digging into her French toast.
The Sabos – Jenny and Mark and their two boys, Riley, 8, and Kiril, 5 – are extreme locavores. Almost all of their food is produced locally; they purchase only 5 percent commercially at grocery stores. On their 500-acre ranch, 50 miles west of Bozeman, Mont., the Sabos grow many of their own vegetables. They raise free-range chickens for meat and eggs, grass-fed pigs and cows for meat, and other cows for dairy. Mark, an avid hunter, fills their freezer with wild game. What they don’t produce themselves, they trade or buy from area farmers.
The Sabos follow other sustainable practices as well. With solar panels on their roof, small windmills, and a wood stove for heat, they’re living “off the grid,” with no electric bill.

They’ve set up their self-proclaimed “ministry” here in Montana, where they preach about the benefits of local eating from a pulpit surrounded by mountains and hayfields. Although they stay busy working their land and home-schooling the two boys, a good portion of Jenny’s time is spent teaching others how to eat locally to promote healthy bodies and a healthy community by supporting local farmers. And they practice what they preach.

“It means consciously paying attention to the season, and then purchasing or raising [the food we eat] ,” Jenny says. “It’s a lifestyle shift, saying ‘I’m going to embrace the plenitude of the season and enjoy the activity that comes with preserving it.’ ”

The effort that goes into each meal has become part of their daily routine. Jenny wakes each morning before dawn to feed the animals, water the garden, and milk the cows. Mark handles the kids in the morning and oversees the cattle operation. Jenny spends an average of two hours a day preparing or harvesting food, either for storage or for their daily meals.

“It’s all about setting aside the time,” Jenny says. “Most people won’t make this lifestyle happen; it’s purely a matter of choice. People choose to sit in front of the TV or shop on eBay. That’s where their life energy goes.”
The Sabos keep up their locavore lifestyle throughout the long Montana winters.

“December through February is not a green time of year,” Jenny explains. “But how did we survive through centuries with no Visqueen greenhouses and before canning? We had crocks of sauerkraut and pickled vegetables.”

The family’s winter diet includes cabbage-based foods that store easily, along with a root cellar full of turnips, carrots, beets, leeks, onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables.

“Our diet is really seasonal,” Mark adds. “We definitely don’t have as much fresh vegetables in the winter, but we have a lot stockpiled in the freezer down at the barn.

And I can’t help wondering if they ever cheat, if their kids ever beg for McDonald’s.

The kids say that fast food makes them feel sick, Jenny explains. They sometimes stray, Mark says, but always feel better when they return home to their local food diet.

• • •

Although Jenny has the classic characteristics of a lifelong rancher – a tanned, freckled face; a strong, athletic build from years of hard labor; a warm, hearty smile; and dry, weathered hands with a touch of dirt under the nails – her life before the farm was quite the contrary.

Raised in suburban Ohio, Jenny is the daughter of an English professor father and a homemaker mother. She is a Harvard graduate with a degree in English literature. After a divorcing her first husband 11 years ago, Jenny took a class on permanent sustainable agriculture (permaculture) in California.

“I came back from that course and set a goal for myself: Five years from now I’m going to raise as much food as I can,” Jenny says. “I had never raised a carrot or planted a vegetable in my entire life.” Using an inheritance that still helps support the family, she bought 500 acres in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.

Soon after, Jenny met Mark, a carpenter working on her house, and they married a year later. Mark laughs about how Jenny was on a “candy and pasta diet” back then. He went along with Jenny’s vision and helped build much of the farm’s infrastructure.

“Over the next five years, each decision had to pass through the screen of, ‘Does this move us closer to eating more locally?’” Jenny says. “Now we’re at the end of 11 years, and we’re backing off on what we actually raise, because we recognize that we can support agriculture in a different way: through my efforts to coordinate with other producers and interested families to create venues for obtaining local foods.”

They are continuously educating themselves about sustainable agriculture and regularly share their knowledge. “At least once a week we have a two- to four-hour visit from somebody,” Jenny said. “If we don’t take time to mentor each other, where would we be?”

Their lifestyle is an anomaly in today’s fast-paced, fast-food culture, but Jenny believes anyone can embrace the locavore lifestyle. “We all have the ability to grow stuff if we want to. We can also make a commitment to support the farmers who live around us.”

• • •

“I’ve got some organs,” Jenny said to an approaching couple. “The liver, tongue, and tail.”

“Do you have any heart,” the woman asked.

“Not today,” she said, handing over the wrapped beef parts.

I met Jenny at a private local food club gathering near downtown Bozeman on a cold November day. It felt like a black market for local food, and Jenny was the ringleader. Buyers join by paying a $1 membership fee.

“How are the chickens?” another customer asked while buying eggs.

“The birds are doing great,” Jenny said. “They’re out roaming free and eating what green grass is left.”

I checked out the root vegetables, homemade breads, eggs, quiche, goat cheese, and Montana-raised organic lamb. The farmers are bundled up as the sun sets behind the mountains.

“Any time you can shake a farmer’s hand, you’re supporting a healthy community,” Jenny explained. “I know the people who are eating my food; they have become my friends. I make sure they’re getting the cleanest, best-tasting food, and that just doesn’t happen on large commercial farms.”

As I walked off into the dark evening after paying my dollar, I felt good knowing where I’ll be buying much of my food well into the spring.

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