Friday, June 22, 2007

The Bounty of Local Harvests: Part One

I was recently at a friend's house on Long Island for the weekend, and I bought some carrots for my dinner salad. As I was chopping the baby carrots, I found myself sampling the goods. First of all, the name baby carrot is a misnomer, as the baby carrot is pulled from the ground at an early age, while these carrots are pulled out once mature and then whittled back down to "baby" carrot size. Much to my chagrin, I found that much of the flavor also seemed to have been whittled away. Perhaps it was the fact that we had just purchased fresh, local fish, or maybe it was the lingering memory of the organic strawberries we had inhaled for breakfast, but I was ready for some savory produce to complement these summer flavors. Unfortunately, those carrots were some of the worst I had ever eaten.

The offending batch of carrots

In order to understand their lack of taste, I decided to examine the origins of these carrots. Apparently, the little orange sticks had been cut down to baby size in a land far far away, probably California, by a mythical green giant. Since I had recently been eating only carrots from a local organic farm, I must have become spoiled and expected my carrots to taste like, well, carrots. When I contacted General Mills, the parent company of Green Giant, I was told by a nice woman that they have "sources from all over the world" for their vegetables. According to the Green Giant website, their products come from "the Valley [note the singular here], where goodness grows and great tasting vegetables are picked at the peak of perfection." Okay, that sounds enticing, but then the products are shipped to points "all over the world!" How can they still be at the "peak of perfection" once they reach me?

This innocent, yet time consuming process got me thinking about the food we eat and how far it must travel to get to us. My usual carrot supply (when I can not get them at the farm), are the organic, bagged carrots from Trader Joe's. A look at the back of that bag revealed that my peeled carrots (at least they don't call them babies) come from CALIFORNIA. If these carrots are making the cross-country trek from California to New York, then I am certainly not eating them at the peak of perfection. And what about the fossil fuels used to harvest, package, and ship my carrots 3,000 miles? How many 18 wheelers on the road at this moment are taking California carrots to parts East? Are there carrot trucks passing each other in the night? If two carrot trucks leave, one moving West at 6o mph... well, you get the picture. It is clearly time to reevaluate my food supply and its sources. I am supposed to be a low-impact omnivore after all.

While pondering this increasingly complex consumer conundrum, born of a crappy bag of carrots, I came across Barbara Kingsolver's latest work, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The book chronicles her family's decision to move from Tuscon, Arizona to southern Appalachia where the entire family committed to a year of eating only food that they were able to grow themselves or that was produced locally. With the exception of one fair trade imported item each (Barbara chose spices, Steven coffee, Camille dried fruit, and Lily hot cocoa), the family agreed to live without anything that could not be obtained from a local source.

So you know I'm not lying about reading the book

After making this bold, and memoir-worthy decision, they embarked on a year of enjoying the bounty of locally produced food. The book highlights Kingsolver's gift for turning the mundane into the marvelous. Her narratives are playful and include vivid details about their agricultural adventures, while the informative contributions from her husband Steven and daughter Camille allow for a full perspective on their family's undertaking. In Kingsolver's capable hands, the personal quest of one family illuminates the increasingly universal quest for living lightly, yet enjoyably on the Earth. After reading this book, it is easy to see how and why we should all embark on a local food quest.

One particularly compelling entry by Steven early in the book explains the vast difference we could all make by eating locally produced food:

Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars.
We're consuming about 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen - about 17 percent of our nation's energy use - for agriculture, a close second to our vehicular use. Tractors, combines, harvesters, irrigation, sprayers, tillers, balers, and other equipment all use petroleum. Even bigger gas guzzlers on the farm are not the machines, but so-called inputs. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides use oil and natural gas as their starting materials, and in their manufacturing. More than a quarter of all farming energy goes into synthetic fertilizers.

But getting the crop from seed to harvest takes only one-fifth of the total oil used for our food. The lion's share is consumed during the trip from the farm to your plate. Each food item in a typical U.S. meal has traveled an average of 1,500 miles. In addition to direct transport, other fuel-thirsty steps include processing (drying, milling, cutting, sorting, baking), packaging, warehousing, and refrigeration. Energy calories consumed by production, packaging, and shipping far outweigh the energy calories we receive from the food (Hopp 5).

I'm certainly convinced, and I'm prepared to try the experiment myself. However, like many of you, I live in an urban area, and I have no access to a garden. The good news is that there are plenty of farmer's markets around, and I am excited to see what they have to offer. To find a farmer's market near you, check out:

Please post entries to the blog about the surprising culinary treasures or recipes you find on your visits to your local markets. Most farmers are happy to tell you how they prepare garlic scapes, kale, or rhubarb. We can create our own directory of Weekly Way-reviewed farmer's markets and recipes. It would also be interesting to hear which organically-grown non-local food product you would keep eating, if you were in the Kingsolvers' shoes. I've already decided that mine will be coffee. I am a writer and a caffeine addict, and these are codependent habits that I am not prepared to give up. I buy my fair-trade, organic, and bird friendly coffee at Coffee Labs in Tarrytown, NY.

Now that I've fueled up on coffee, it is time to get started. Yesterday was the summer solstice, so today is the perfect day to start. It is also Friday, and the weekend is one of the most bountiful times for farmer's markets. There is an outdoor market at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays that sells organic produce and meat. It is located about an hour north of New York City on the Rockefeller Preserve, and it is a gorgeous day trip with plenty of hiking, biking, educational programs, and farm animal gazing available on the premises and nearby. In fact, June is spring garlic and garlic scapes month on the farm. I'm off now to load up on some delicious vegetables that I may or may not know how to cook...yet. By the way, I think my next book is The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

Herb Gardens at the Stone Barns Center


Libuse Binder said...

Thanks to a friend of mine in the Pacific Northwest, we now have this great information about farmer's markets in and around Seattle -

In Seattle we are blessed with a variety of neighborhood markets, CSA’s, and nearby farms. Our own Pike Place Market turns 100 in August! All this access to local bounty allows us to share it with 150 friends and family at our upcoming wedding. Check out:

Libuse Binder said...

A Friend in San Francisco sent this link about their local market - they shop there every day!

Libuse Binder said...

Here are some more farmer's markets thoughts from my sister, who lives in Portland, Oregon. She includes good bi-coastal info. Read on for more about the scene in Portland, Vermont, and for some good tips in general:

Farmers' markets and local outdoor produce markets are definitely the way to go when purchasing not just produce but often cheeses, breads, meats (if you eat that sort of thing), and specialty items like jams, honey, etc. The food is fresh and delicious and you can feel good about supporting local growers and cutting back on the abuse of fossil fuels. In Portland, OR we have a pretty great network of farmers' markets. You can find out about locations and events at their website:
I also looked up farmers' markets in vermont as I plan to move back to my home state in a few years and so I have been doing a lot of research to help my boyfriend understand what he is getting into. We plan to grow most of our own vegetables/grains/fruits and possibly even care for our own chickens and cows eventually (i'm a lacto-ova vegetarian) but in the meantime it looks like we should be able to find some good farmers' markets wherever we settle in vermont. Here's a website that lists the various farmers' markets in vermont.