Throughout the region, farm stands as well as farmers markets are opening. This is a good thing. While it is certainly easier to shop as you usually do at the grocery store for all your food needs, here are some good reasons for making the switch to farm stands and farmers markets.
Summer is on us. If you are old enough to remember a time when summer meant something in relation to the food we eat, then this is happy time.
Summer used to be the season when we could get almost any fruit or vegetable we desired. Food was fresh and it was something special. Now, we can get everything all the time. Our kids take it for granted. But something is lost with this total access food. Produce comes in from all over the world. If nothing else, it feels different because we used to associate a season with eating certain foods.
But it’s more than that: The produce really is different. Varieties are developed for their shipping characteristics, not their eating quality. Older varieties, which may have had short spans of maturity, were soft or not uniform in shape or sizes, have been replaced by varieties specifically bred to be firm and uniform in shape and size. These new fruits and vegetables are usually picked before they are mature (ripe) and then they never really develop the natural sugars that fully mature produce possesses. Fresh, local foods just taste better.
Buying local supports your local economy. This is where you live, so why not support your neighbors?
No one needs to be reminded about the economy. To a certain extent, local produce might be a little more expensive than what you can get in the grocery stores. It seems ironic that something that has been shipped in from a long distance is cheaper, but economy of scale is at work here. Industrial farms are usually many thousands of acres. Here in eastern New York, your average farm is way under 500 acres. Local farmers live on their land, pay local taxes and buy their supplies locally as well. Farmers make their living from what they produce. You have to sell a lot of lettuce and tomatoes to buy a new truck or afford a new television.
Also try to look at farms as a resource, equivalent to trees, iron ore or even oil. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. We should do everything we can to keep agriculture where we live. Do you really want to depend on other countries to supply our food? Less than 2 percent of the United States’ population is farmers. Farmers are a pretty endangered species.
It is not only trendy to speak about energy conservation. The average distance your food travels is 1,500 miles. When buying a car, a major consideration is mileage. Why not buy your produce the same way?
When buying produce at a farm stand or farmers market, you are building a relationship. It’s personal. You can ask about the farmer’s kids. You can learn about a specific variety. You can give feedback to the grower on what to grow next season. It feels good and it’s genuine to deal with another person.
Farmers are environmentalists. If you make your living from the land, you have to take care of it. Growers are constantly doing good things for the land. They rotate crops, plant crop covers and generally take care of the soil so it will take care of them. Besides providing open space for livestock and wild animals, farms provide green space to keep our water and air clean. In the long run, it is much better to have land in farms than development.
The food safety issue has probably done more to bolster local agriculture than anything else. Since 9/11, we’ve all become more aware of our personal safety. There have been a number of food scares in the last couple years. They have all been a result of the lack of “controls” on big industrial farms.
Lots can go wrong on a big operation. Just think about the number of times produce is handled between when it is picked, packaged, stored, loaded, shipped, unloaded, stored again, repackaged, trucked and then handled again before you buy it. Local produce is handled minimally, maybe two or three times. The people selling the produce are the ones who picked and transported it. You have a personal connection to the produce in the field. This is good.
So what is the take-home message? To me, food is personal. You can tell when fruit and vegetables are fresh. You know a local peach when you need two or three napkins to soak up the juice on your face. You know a local tomato because there’s a difference between the taste of cardboard and goodness.
Eating locally grown fruits and vegetables is really a pleasure that cannot be experienced year round. That’s what makes it a pleasure.
Visit your local farm stands and farmers markets more often. If you do go to the grocery store, always try to find something locally grown. Look at the label and make sure your produce is grown as close to home as possible. If you don’t see a label, ask where your produce comes from. Demand more locally grown food.
Having fruit and vegetables that I know are really fresh is good. Knowing I can buy locally grown food is good. Restaurants serving locally grown food is good. Having the potential to visit where food is grown is good. Having a relationship with the person who grows food is good.
To me, we have a responsibility to go out and actively purchase and demand locally grown food. This is one of those things where we cannot just take the easy way. We have to support locally grown food. We really, really have to support locally grown food.
John Mishanec is a vegetable educator for the integrated pest management program at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Albany. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.
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