Presidia in the USA

If unique, traditional and endangered food products can have an economic impact, they can be saved from extinction. This is the simple reasoning behind the Presidia; small projects to assist groups of artisan producers.

The Presidia program is coordinated by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, which organizes and funds projects that defend our world’s heritage of agricultural biodiversity and gastronomic traditions.

Loosely translated into “garrison,” Slow Food Presidia (Presidium, singular) are local projects that work to improve the infrastructure of artisan food production. The goals of the Presidia are to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods by stabilizing production techniques, establishing stringent production standards, and promoting local consumption.

Sometimes, it takes just a little to save an artisan food; it’s enough to bring together producers, help them coordinate marketing and promotion, and establish quality and authenticity standards for their product. Other times, when the production of an artisan food is closer to the brink, it takes more: building a slaughterhouse, an oven, or reconstructing crumbling farmhouse walls. Slow Food Presidia work in different ways, but the goals remain constant: to promote artisan products; to stabilize production techniques; to establish stringent production standards and, above all, to guarantee a viable future for traditional foods.

Current Presidia in the USA

Makah Ozette Potato View

In the 1980’s an unknown fingerling potato was recognized to be a staple in the diet of Pacific Coast Native Americans of the Makah Nation. The Makah occupy the region around Neah Bay, Washington, that is the most northwesterly point in the United States. Tribal lore reported that this potato had been used by these people for about 200 years. The Makah had named this potato the Ozette after one of their five villages located around Neah Bay.

All potatoes originated in South America and it was thought that all potatoes now in the Americas were first taken to Europe by Spaniards before they came to the Americas with the European colonization. However in 2004 phylogenetic analysis conducted at Washington State University showed evidence that the Makah Ozette potato was certain to have been imported directly from South America.

How did this happen? After their conquests in South America, the Spanish began a mission to further establish their empire on the western shores of North America. In the spring of 1791 they established a fort at Neah Bay and as was the custom, a garden was planted that surely included potatoes they brought directly from South America or Mexico. Over the winter of 1791 the Spanish found the severe weather conditions at the fort’s harbor unsafe for mooring their vessels, and abandoned the fort in the spring of 1792.

The Makah people, who were in need of a carbohydrate source, either traded or found volunteers of this rather weedy plant left in the garden of the abandoned fort. They quickly adopted the potato and became its stewards, growing it in their backyard gardens for over 200 years. Not until the late 1980’s was this potato catalogued and was seed grown outside the Makah Nation. To date there has been very limited commercial production of this potato, although it is noted to be grown by a few small farmers in several regions of the US.

The Presidium

The Makah Ozette potato was boarded to the Ark of Taste in September 2005 and a presidium application was submitted in November 2006. The partners in the presidium were Slow Food Seattle, the Makah Nation, several farmers who supply restaurants and sell at farmers markets, a laboratory which produces potato seed for the USDA at an Agricultural Research Station, and the Seattle chapter of the Chefs Collaborative.

In the early development of this project Slow Food Seattle used a portion of its treasury to purchase five hundred pounds of certified seed potato. One hundred pounds was sold to home gardeners and 400 pounds of potatoes that were sold to farmers interested in growing this crop. The growers sold to the fresh market in the greater Seattle area in the fall of 2006. Slow Food Seattle received enough potatoes to sell to cover the cost of the seed and to mount a public relations campaign that produced considerable press and demand for the Makah Ozette. In addition, nine chefs featured the potato on their fall menus.

2006 activities produced a significant demand for the potato but the primary seed growers had a crop failure and seed was very limited in the spring of 2007. This prompted the group to call upon Pure Potato, a laboratory who worked to certify the potato as virus fee. Pure Potato is beginning the three year process of becoming a local seed source. Based on the publicity campaign many small farms did a limited planting of the Makah Ozette for the 2007 harvest. In the fall of 2007 the coordinating group again mounted a campaign to further regional awareness of the Makah Ozette potato, featured it as a menu item at the American Heritage Picnic in Seattle (organized by Slow Food Seattle and the Seattle Chefs Collaborative chapter) and continued the development of a local seed source. This wonderful potato became an official presidia project in 2008!

Because of all the presidium’s promotional efforts, the Makah Ozette potato seed is in high demand. The presidium is focused on increasing seed production to bring more seed to market.

Production Area: Northwest Washington State
Presidium Coordinator: Gerry Warren

Navajo-Churro Sheep View

Navajo-Churro sheep are steeped in the history and culture of the Hispanic, Pueblo and Diné communities of the southwestern United States. They exemplify what we mean by the slippery term, heritage livestock; as Don Bixby (2005) has declared, “The Navajo-Churro is the oldest North American farm animal breed. Almost extinct in the 1970’s the breed has returned through the multi-cultural efforts of Native, Hispanic and Anglo shepherds around the US. They continue to remind us of traditional Native American and Hispanic shepherding, weaving and culinary traditions in the semi-arid Southwest, of a place-based heritage that has endured.”

For roughly four centuries, these sheep have been known as ganado menor churro by Hispanic herders in New Mexico and Arizona. Among the Diné or Navajo, they are called Tҡá Dibé ‘the true/original/the Number One sheep’ or Dibe’ Dits’ozi ‘sheep with long hair.’

For an animal that is considered in Dine tradition to be sacred, the Navajo-Churro sheep is also one regarded to be of great utilitarian value. It produces two distinct kinds of fiber, pelts, low-fat meat, milk, horns, and skulls. If carefully managed, it can also be used in brush control and fire risk reduction, and its manure can contribute to soil fertility renewal in fields, orchards and gardens. As Charles Towner and Edward Wentworth (1945) pointed out, these diverse products were what created “a shepherd’s empire” in the Southwest: “From the Rio Grande to the Golden Gate, not a mission was started whose domestic economy was not founded upon the flock… Of all of man’s domestic animals, only sheep could provide the community with both food and clothing… The back and belly of a living ‘woolie’ could contribute to the weaver’s loom year after year the stuff wherewith to clothe soldier, citizen, savage [sic] and saint.”

A seventy-two year old Diné elder from Smoke Signal, Arizona once said famously, “Sheep is life. Who can live if their life is taken away?” Indeed, as horrific as it seems, nearly all Navajo-Churro sheep were taken away from the Diné twice within the last century and a half. The first sheep holocaust was triggered by events in 1846 when US General Stephen Watts Kearny declared the Diné to be enemies of the United States. By the time the “Navajo War” ended with a treaty in 1868, and the Diné were allowed to return home, the US military had devastated Navajo-land, killing nearly all the Churro sheep and cutting down nearly all the Navajo peach trees they could find.

The second ovine holocaust began in 1933 during the Dust Bowl. The US federal government declared the Navajo grazing of Churros to be an ecological disaster and called for a forced reduction of all forms of livestock on the Navajo Reservation. Sheep numbers, which had been rebuilt, were reduced from 1.1 million to .06 million.

Background information on the Navajo-Churro is taken from The Return of Navajo-Churro Sheep to Loom & Table by Gary Paul Nabhan. 

The Presidium

Despite the tremendous obstacles to its survival, the Navajo-Churro has been championed (and revitalized) by many individuals and organizations over the last three decades, including Dr. Lyle McNeal of Utah State University, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association, Diné Be’ina, Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, and Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. Slow Food now joins a handful of these organizations and an esteemed group of shepherds to develop and support the marketing of Churro meat.

The Presidium’s initial work with the breed takes place on the Navajo Nation. The Presidium organizes a directory of producers of registered Navajo-Churro sheep who have access to appropriate processing facilities and are willing to direct-market their surplus lambs to individuals, restaurants, markets, and CSAs in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. The Presidium will also produce a guide to a “fair trade” business plan based on 200 head per year being produced by a geographically cohesive cluster of shepherds. Lastly, the Presidium will develop promotional events, dinners, taste workshops, and agri-tourism visits, designed to give producers and chefs feedback on the qualities and limitations of Churros being produced as a multi-purpose animal

Production Area: Navajo Nation lands in the far western part of the reservation and the Four Corners area of Arizona and New Mexico
Presidium Coordinators: Gay Chanler and Gary Nabhan

Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple View

Among thousands of California apple varieties, the heirloom Gravenstein is widely regarded as one of the best eating and baking apples. A fine balance of sweet and tart, its full-bodied flavor intensifies when made into sauce, juice, cider or vinegar. The apples also hold their shape beautifully in pies and tarts.

Warm, dry days, cool nights and Northern California’s mellow loamy soil provide ideal growing conditions for Sonoma County’s historic Gravenstein apple trees. The twisted trunk of a mature Gravenstein supports a 30-foot canopy laden with perfumed blossoms in the springtime. Some trees produce a prolific 2,000 pounds of fruit each.

Aficionados flock to Sebastopol during the Spring Apple Blossom Festival and again at the Gravenstein Harvest Festival in August.

As it ripens, the standard Gravenstein undergoes a pronounced change in color; from yellow or lime green, an intermediate light orange with red stripes, and finally to a medium orange with dark red stripes. Other apples oxidize after slicing, quickly turning an unappealing brown. Cut into a Grav and an orange tinge almost immediately blushes over the ivory flesh.

The Gravenstein was introduced to South Jutland, Denmark, in 1669, which is where it gained its name. German migrants brought the apple to North America in 1790 and Russian fur traders planted the first West Coast Gravenstein orchards at their outpost in Fort Ross in 1820, where the trees survived despite inhospitable conditions such as intense winds and salt air. It is likely that cuttings from theses trees were used to start the orchards in Sebastopol.

By the early 1900s thousands of Gravenstein orchards were established and the apple had become the heart of a major industry in Sonoma County as dryers, canners, apple cider and apple brandy producers took advantage of its suitability for processing. During World War II American troops were provided with applesauce and dried apples from Sebastopol Gravensteins, and this made the apple into an icon for the town.

The Presidium

Suburban development and the popularity of wine production have reduced the number of apple orchards in Sonoma County today. Some of the apple orchards grow on land that has been property of apple farming families for generations while others are operated by tenant farmers. These farmers rely on the support of landowners who could sell their land for grape production but have decided that the area’s apple tradition is more important than personal financial gain. Only a dozen commercial growers and two commercial processors remain in Sonoma County. Production in Sonoma County is now only a tiny fraction of its historic high levels, and continues to diminish as small farmers struggle to market their heirloom fruit.

The Presidium works to promote and protect farmers who nurture their apples from tree to table. Most of the Sebastopol growers farm land that has been in apple production for over a century. Their agricultural traditions yield sweet-tart, crisp, juicy and delicious Gravenstein apples.

Production Area: Sonoma County, California
Presidium Coordinator: Paula Shatkin

Wild Rice – Anishinaabeg Manoomin View

Wild rice is a misnomer, as it is not actually rice, but rather an aquatic grass similar to corn. This tall, aquatic grass has long blades that grow best in the shallow waters of the Great Lakes region of the US (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio). Wild rice is the only grain native to North America and comes in a myriad of colors in the darker hues – green, tan, brown.

The Anishinaabeg people – one of the rice’s American Indian custodians – also call wild rice Manoomin, which literally means “the good grain”. Other tribes in the Algonquin linguistic group such as the Menominee and the Sioux also care for the rice.

Manoomin tastes richly complex with subtle earthy notes of mushrooms and wood smoke. Manoomin is harvested today using many of the original gathering traditions. In pairs, the Anishinaabeg canoe through the autumnal fields, bending the blades of grass over the canoes and beating the seeds from the grass with their paddles. On a successful day of harvest, a pair can gather up to two hundred and fifty kilos of manoomin. Once harvested, the seeds are sun dried or parched over a slow fire and then threshed and winnowed in the wind – to ensure that the husks blow away.

The beauty of manoomin is its easy cultivation, as the rice grows naturally, with no need to be planted or tended, and provides a bountiful harvest that can be stored through the winter. Unfortunately, the existence of wild rice is threatened in three major ways. Firstly, biotechnology and the genetic manipulation of the wild rice genome jeopardize the rice’s originality. Secondly, almost 95% of the “wild” rice sold in the US today is grown in paddies, primarily in California, where American Indian traditions are not observed. Lastly, the recreational zoning and damming of lakes as well as agricultural runoff are all leading to the rapid devastation of the natural ecosystems of the Great Lakes and Minnesota lakes.

The Presidium

The Slow Food Presidium strives to save the livelihood of the manoomin. With Presidium backing, the manoomin is harvested in the remote lakes of northern Minnesota on the White Earth Reservation, which is inhabited by the Anishinaabeg people. The Presidium works in conjunction with the existing projects established by Native Harvest as part of the White Earth Land Recovery Project to promote consumption of traditionally harvested and prepared wild rice.

Production Area: Great Lakes Region, Lakes of Northern Minnesota
Presidium Coordinator: Winona LaDuke and Andrea Hanks

Creating a Presidium

Each presidium is implemented through a collaboration of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, the food’s producers, and others with pertinent expertise and shared values. Such relationships develop under consensual guidelines and use a variety of creative formats to assist growers, producers or harvesters in sustainably producing their foods and selling their food products at a fair market rate.

The Presidia are as complex and diverse as traditional agriculture itself; therefore it is best to evaluate each Presidium on an individual basis. A Presidium food or production technique should be good tasting and sustainably produced. It should also represent a sense of place or culture. Generally, a product should be as natural as possible. While a presidium food does not need to be organic, it cannot contain GMOs or involve animal husbandry contrary to the well-being of the animal.

Download the English version of the guide to establishing a presidium.

Presidia 101 Webinar (March 2017)

Download the Slow Food Presidia 101 Presentation and check out the notes section on each slide in the PowerPoint for more details.

New Presidia projects are approved by the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity in Italy. Visit the Foundation’s website to learn more about the nomination process and Presidia projects around the world.


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