Lessons from a Year of Eating Locally

A little bit more than a year ago now, I started a subscription to TD Willey Farm’s CSA, as part of the Locavores’ May 2006 Eat Local Challenge.

Though I undertook it, I didn’t think I had that much to learn or that much to change as part of the challenge. Being part of a CSA was a new habit I had wanted to make for a long time and it made sense to make it part of the month’s activities; getting back to shopping at the farmers’ market was an old habit I wanted to rekindle. I ended up carrying those two changes through the entirety of the past year.

In doing so, I found I was right, in the larger sense, that there weren’t major lessons I learned from the Locavores’ challenge. Most of the big stuff was already under my belt. I already understood seasonality; I could already name off the groups of vegetables and fruits that were at their best in any month of the year, and I already mostly followed the seasons when planning what to cook. I was pretty well versed in food miles as well and had no shortage of information about the practices of American agriculture.

As the year wore on, it turned out that there was a lot to learn, but it wasn’t the larger lessons that were waiting for me. Not the kind of knowledge you’d find in the text, but the notes written in light pencil in the margins, the synthesis that you come to when new experience meets up with old. They were, in short, the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know about until I found them.

Tomorrow, thoughts on apricots are the first of the series; I plan to write more on this subject in the weeks and months to come.

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The Eat Local Challenge: Looking Back

It’s been a while since the May Eat Local Challenge ended. Frankly, most normal people have probably written their reflection posts by now. But I, Ms. Chronic Fatigue, sitting here with my head resting on my shoulder because it takes too much energy to hold it up, am getting around to it about two weeks into June.

So what came out of it for me?

My daily habits changed. I stopped eating frozen blueberries on my cereal (antioxidants, you know…superfoods…) and started taking a few moments in the morning to cut a local peach, nectarine or handful of strawberries into my bowl of plain puffed rice instead. It tastes like a great treat, like a light version of fruit and cream once I pour the soymilk over it.

My shopping habits changed. My goal had been to buy more of my produce from producers, and to do so with sources as close to Fresno as possible. I got my CSA subscription started, and I couldn’t be happier for it. I got back into the habit of going to the farmer’s market, and I’ve been on enough consecutive weeks now that I’m starting to be welcomed instead of just greeted by the farmers I buy from.

The produce is delicious, but that’s probably what feels best about the whole thing. Fresno has been such a struggle for us – the heat, the pollution, my illness, our disconnection from friends and family, the difficulty we’ve had making new friends here. Going to the market, and being recognized as a person, a member of a community, as a member of this community, with something to contribute that’s of interest, is where the real reward came from for me.

And I really do feel privileged to be welcomed by the farmers I buy from, because they do something amazing, something risky, something altruistic, by committing to feed others in their community.

Agriculture is inescapable in my day-to-day life – farmers pay my wage, they sit in restaurants at tables next to mine, they climb out of pickup trucks to check the trees along the road while I’m driving to work; crews kick ladders open and climb into trees, or weed strawberries, or bag onions, or pack grapes while I have the great fortune to sit at a desk in a cool office.

Hard work. Tom Willey said on the farm tour about his full-time 60-member staff, “Well, I guess I’m just a sucker for someone who’s willing to do an honest day’s work.”

It’s hard and amazing work, making stuff grow. So few of us do it now, as compared to how many did just a couple generations ago. We used to feed ourselves more, and more within our communities. I grew up with and still have farmers in my family, but most Americans don’t any longer, and the more time I spend close to agriculture, the more I think we all need a better connection to it.

It grounds us. It reminds us what raw materials really are. It removes us from the world of manufactured products a little bit and reminds us – or reminds me at least – that we are not unlike the living things that sustain us. We need sustenance, and we need farmers to provide it; they nurture plants directly and us indirectly by feeding us, by allowing us to grow, to thrive, to be protected from disease, to satisfy our stomachs and our palates.

I’m grateful to be cared for that way. I’m grateful to be fed.

Signs of Harvest

I know that the fruit harvest is starting where we are.

Leaving work last night, by the time I was a mile out of the small town where my office is, I had seen five white passenger vans carrying workers, each with two big yellow-and-red Igloo water coolers attached to the front grille.

Two miles out of town, well into the stretch of road entirely lined with vineyards and orchards, I saw that there had been harvesting going on in an orchard that day. There was a taco truck parked along the orchard, and some yards down the road, a pickup truck with a trailer with a porta-john on it.

In the morning, I had seen the latest two in what sums to an uncountable number of semis carrying boxes from the local box factory to a local packinghouse. The trailers are always double-stacked with pallets, with clear plastic sheeting over everything. Each pallet of unconstructed boxes has one flat box displayed on its side, to show what the pallet contains. This makes spotting the trucks fun, because if you know a few fruit labels, you usually know where the boxes are going. If you don’t recognize the label, just knowing who’s down the road in the direction the truck is going will often tell you.

There are refrigerated trucks leaving the packinghouses, too, pulling out with wide swings onto the road, the first turn of a long trip to Somewhere Else where people also want fruit.

In the winter, there are four-by-four plastic bins of oranges stacked on the tractor-trailers, looking like some sort of agricultural Legos. In the summer, those bins hold peaches, nectarines or grapes. In the fall, you see processing tomatoes in big open hoppers on their way to canneries. Carrots by the hundreds of thousands travel the highways in metal-mesh sided trailers.

Sometime soon, there will be a morning when on my way to work, I will get stuck behind a farm tractor hauling a long, low trailer with two steps on each side, each step full of buckets that are precariously full of peaches. The driver will be taking it very easy, not wanting to bruise the fruit. I will not mind being stuck behind this tractor.

I will not be able to help but smile at the swaying, jiggling buckets of juicy peaches, and I will hope that none of them fall off on their way to be packed.

The First Peach

The last couple months before stone fruit season are the worst.

The fruit is on the trees, growing bit by bit; you can pull over on just about any road south of town and pretend you’re a farmer doing an orchard check, looking at how the fruit is sizing, farmer-ese for “How big is it getting?” (Likewise, if you want to ask about the organoleptic properties of the fruit, you don’t say “How good does it taste?” you say, “How does it eat?”)

At the end of March or so, we fruit nuts start talking about how much we want a peach right now, standing around in the kitchen, getting our lunches out or peeling an orange. Some of us entirely forgo the Chilean stone fruit season, either for ecologic or gustatory reasons.

Especially for those of us who have eschewed the winter crop from the Southern Hemisphere and not had a peach since October, this conversation and the waiting itself are a pleasant sort of torment, knowing we must wait, and knowing that most years we’ll probably eat our first peach before we should, not being able to resist the first one we see.

I love apples, but around the beginning of May I cease to see them as apples eaten and begin to resent them as the spare and utilitarian fruit they feel like, as I’ve been eating them almost every day since October. They feel like the embodiment of the economic principle of opportunity cost; every apple eaten is a peach forgone.

And I desperately want change, once the spring vegetables start to roll in. Apples’ virtue is their very steady sameness. They are hardy and taut and crispy, everything a peach, nectarine, plum, cherry or apricot is not.

This week was the first peach.

The early stuff has to grow and mature quickly; it gets less time on the tree than the fruit in the later parts of the season does. Stone fruit is bred for timing in addition to flavor and appearance. Because each stone fruit variety is only ripe for seven to ten days, there are hundreds of varieties that make up the season’s progression.

It’s tougher to breed fruit for the start of the season, so early ripeness and flavor necessarily take first priority in the season-leading fruit, and appearance is slightly less important than it would usually be. You’ll notice that these peaches have a prominent point and are a little mottled rather than having an even brush of color.

The point is a trait fruit breeders try to avoid encouraging, as it makes it easy for the peaches to inflict wounds on each other and receive them themselves, but when breeding for the early season, good flavor and the right timeframe trump the point. As far as the mottling goes, these pieces of fruit don’t get the same measure of sun on their shoulders as later fruit will to develop a smooth wash of color. It takes time to develop, and early peaches don’t have the luxury of that.

I sliced one of these fruits into quadrants last night. It was soft, almost alarmingly so, and the knife and flesh made a nearly imperceptible wet zipping sound as I bisected it. I nudged a quarter away from the pit with the blade and a gentle tug, handed it to Chimp, and loosed another for myself. We bit into it.

I made a noise. It was the best first peach I’ve ever had.

I’m hoping that Mother Nature has just been testing our patience this year with the wet spring and its accompanying delays, and that she’s getting ready for a great payoff. Honestly, if what I have here is the first peach of the season, there’s a lot of great flavor to come.

Today’s Agriculture Moment: Crop Damage

I was sitting at my desk about three weeks ago during one of the uncharacteristically rainy days of our uncharacteristic spring, and the soft sound of the rain on the flat roof of our office began to turn to a hard, snapping noise. I looked up, as if I would see anything besides the dropped ceiling marked with the concentric stains of a winter’s worth of leaks on the acoustic tile from the roof of the old former grocery warehouse building we occupy.

Hail?

Within seconds, the tapping pings had grown to a furious roar, and everyone in the office was out of their chairs and on a dead run to the front of the building. Being in a former warehouse, there are windows only in the lobby, so we all converge there whenever there is Weather.

And indeed, it was hailing, marble-sized and shooter marble-sized rounded chunks of ice, pounding down on the pavement in a deafening cacophony, covering the road with a solid blanket of white, something you’ll see only with hail in central California, as there’s no snow to speak of in the Valley. Leaves were flying off the Bradford pear trees in the bank parking lot across the street. We were all thinking the same thing.

The fruit.

There are a lot of things that grow in Fresno County that hail is bad for; pretty much any fruit that grows on a tree can’t be said to benefit from it, plus almonds. Hail can wholesale knock fruit off a tree. If the fruit is hit but not dislodged, a small scratch on a tiny piece of fruit early on becomes a big scar on a fully-grown piece of fruit much later, and there’s not a whole lot to be done about it until the scars are big enough to see.

It only hailed for a few minutes, thank goodness, but this spring has been a real pummeling from Mother Nature for Fresno County. Yesterday, the Bee led with a story by Dennis Pollock, who covers agriculture, that Fresno and Tulare counties have experienced an estimated $34 million in crop damage. $21 million of that was Fresno County.

(The other story above the fold was about three pit bulls attacking a herd of goats, resulting in 88 of them having to be destroyed. Yikes.)

Anyway, it might rain a little bit tonight and tomorrow, which nobody is happy about, but after that it looks like we’ll finally start to get into at least some of Fresno’s famous blazing-to-the-point-of-frightening sunshine, which should help everything get dried out and on its way, maybe a little later than usual, but on its way nonetheless.

So hold your horses, everybody (and guard your goats); the fruit’s coming.

Today’s Agriculture Moment: A Tangerine

Okay, I have to get back to work momentarily here – I’m working on an analysis this evening – but wanted to share today’s Agriculture Moment.

After a meeting today, I was chatting with a grower. We had been talking about raisins and started talking about tangerines, which are rapidly gaining acreage in the San Joaquin Valley. I hadn’t known it until today, but it turns out the guy I was talking to has 20 acres of tangerines.

“Speaking of raisins,” I said, “I had the most incredible tangerine this week – it had a beautiful pink-tinged pith, a really floral smell and a dried fruit note in its flavor that was sort of raisin-like. It was a Murcott, I think – is that right?”

“Yep, that’s right. That’s a really nice one. Unfortunately, it’ll make seeds if there’s other citrus anywhere near it.”

“This one did have a couple seeds. I found them at Whole Foods – they were labeled as being from the Schellenbergs’.”

“Oh yeah, Rick has some of those,” he nodded. He raised a hand, gesturing to the northwest. “They’re over behind the gym.”

Two blocks from our office, there is a gym.

Behind the gym’s parking lot, there is a chain-link fence.

On the other side of the chain-link fence, there is a citrus orchard.

That is where my snack was grown, though it had to travel to Fresno to be sold and then back to where it grew – in my lunchbag, in my car – before it got eaten.

Having grown up Not In California, I still usually think of the food I buy as coming from Somewhere Else, and am always momentarily surprised when I’m reminded that much of what I eat comes from Pretty Nearby or Right Smack Dab Down The Street.

The first year we lived here, I saw an orange sitting by the side of the road and thought to myself Who threw a perfectly good orange out the car window? What a waste. The next day I drove by again, saw the same orange, but looked up and realized Oh my goodness, it fell off that orange tree that’s growing right there by the side of the road!

Agriculture! Bizarre!

Trees in Training

Coming into the produce business with plenty of food knowledge but no agriculture background to speak of, I’ve learned a bit on the job. There’s not much agriculture knowledge required for what I do, but it’s nice not to be completely ignorant when you spend at least some time talking to farmers, so I’ve been on a few field tours and I try to ask good questions on occasion. I love to observe, and I learn a lot from just noticing practices and then asking an expert if what I think I’m seeing is correct. Here’s a recent one like that.

These trees are tied down. It’s not to keep them from blowing or washing away (although with the sixth-wettest March since record-keeping began in 1878 – 4.73 in., with normal being 2.2 in. – this would be the point at which you’d start to worry about things washing away, even in the basketball-court-flat San Joaquin Valley).

This is an orchard of plum trees that are tied to stakes in the ground for training. Plum trees have a strongly upright growing habit. (Peaches and nectarines have a spreading habit.) Training plums this way helps them grow a little more spread out, in what’s called an “open vase” or an “open center” style.

These trees, planted last year and now on their “second leaf,” have four or five branches (technically called “primary scaffolds”) that will eventually support the weight of the tree’s fruit. These long branches will probably be cut back this year to between two and three feet, and two secondary scaffolds will be allowed to grow from each primary scaffold.

As with just about every agricultural practice, there are other ways to accomplish this. One other I’ve seen, and haven’t had a chance to take a picture of yet, is the use of lengths of wood – sometimes prunings taken straight from the same orchard – in the center of the small tree to prop the future scaffolds apart. This takes less time than staking, but is also less secure.

Either method achieves the same result: it makes the trees easier to manage as they grow and need to be thinned, harvested and pruned. However, training is not simply for the sake of convenience. Having a tree with an open center allows more sunlight to reach the fruit, which helps the plums gain color better as they mature. Additionally, an open tree enjoys better air circulation, reducing the risk of fungal diseases taking hold.

Though if left to their own devices they might produce a small crop of plums, these trees will likely not be harvested this year. The fruit will probably be knocked off the tree – in order to allow it to put more energy toward growing the structural framework that will make it a strong bearer in its third leaf.