Farmstands vs. Big Brands

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An article on the choose local movement from the Ad Age perspective. It mostly focuses on food but touches on other categories as well.

Some nice details on what some major chains, including Supervalu, are already doing to support and promote the local products they carry. It’s a pretty even-handed piece, with the exception of the somewhat charged remark in the last sentence of this paragraph (emphasis mine):

Granted, a few hundred people in a relatively small collection of towns isn’t a massive buying block that could take down a Kroger or K-Mart. In fact, no true statistics on the might of the buying-local phenomenon exist. Yet, taken together, these disparate efforts could signal the beginning of a consumer revolution that in time could become as pernicious as anti-consumerism.

I knew I’d been feeling different lately and I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it. Turns out it’s not just that I’ve been eating too much stone fruit: in addition to my longstanding subversiveness and perspicacity, I’m now pernicious too. And I’m clearly not the only one if Ad Age is writing about it.

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Foods I’ve Come to Love: Apricots

This is the first in what I intend (best laid plans of those with CFS, of course) to be an occasional series of lessons from a year of eating locally.

There were quite a few fruits and vegetables that I came to a new appreciation of this year because of the Eat Local Challenge – items I saw new sides of, new parts of what they have to offer, things I had never had a love for that I came to adore – things I had never known before. Here’s the first of them.

Apricots.

I once put together an alternative Easter basket filled with dried fruit instead of candy for a friend who was trying to eat healthier. I put dried pineapple rings on dried papaya spears to make flowers to go in the plastic grass. It was silly fun.

There were some unsulfured dried apricots in the basket too. Dried was primarily how I knew apricots at that point. I never had liked fresh ones very much – my East Coast experiences with them had pretty consistently delivered wan flavor and mealy texture. And it was usually a lot of money for something that didn’t taste very good.

But as I’ve found with so many fruits, once you land in California, you suddenly understand what all the fuss is about. It was some apricots I got from Fred at Savage Island Farms early last summer that changed my mind.

Apricots come on after all the other stone fruits – cherries, peaches, plums and nectarines – have already begun. “Hey guys,” they say, walking in when everyone’s already ensconced in conversation and well into their second drink, “I came to the party too!” The peaches, plums and nectarines are going to keep on coming well into the fall, though, and the cherries and apricots are going to run their season’s course by July.

So, in deciding what fruits to make yourself sick on when, I’d suggest you start with the cherries, move on to the apricots, then shift to the other stone fruits. It’s a strategy that works for me.

This was Fred’s first weekend of the season with apricots. The market crowd parted when I was about a dozen paces away from his booth, and I spotted the pink-blushed golden fruits beaming in their little green baskets. By the time I got to the table I was smiling from ear to ear.

Fred saw me coming. I think he thinks I am crazy.

I bought five pint baskets of cherries last week – and Fred doesn’t skimp on packing the pints – and had eaten them all by Friday night without devoting any of them to a pie or a tart. “I finished all those cherries,” I told him. I’m not sure if I was expecting praise or admiration or a comment on the apparent robustness of my digestion. He gave me that smile that I can never decide if it’s pleased or wary. But he keeps selling me fruit, and that’s all that matters.

Fred’s apricots – how can I explain them? They’re sweet and dense and perfumed and carry the barest note of tartness, just enough to smooth out the fruit’s sweetness. It’s not the super-sweetness of cherries, nor the exuberant brash tartness of a traditional yellow peach. What the fruit is really about is that floral note that the meaty flesh conveys as it separates cleanly from the stone as you bite into it. It calls out to be combined with raisins, or walnuts, or basil, or honey, if you can restrain yourself long enough to come up with a recipe idea.

I restrained myself in terms of how much I bought, anyhow. I got two pint baskets each of apricots, Ranier cherries and Tulare cherries from Fred.

But my restraint is not holding. I have already eaten six apricots in the last two hours. Okay, now the count is up to seven.

If you can manage to stash some in a folded-over paper bag or a fruit bowl for a day or two, you will really be rewarded. I’m one of those people who likes really ripe stone fruit – a “leaner,” as we say, for the posture you’re forced to adopt to try to avoid being dripped on – and really ripe apricots are incredible. The tartness starts to wane as they ripen, and the fruit’s cell walls weaken until it really does taste like you’re biting into some sort of mythical ambrosial fruit plucked from the heart of a magnificent flower.

Which you are, I suppose – but it’s a tiny pink unassuming-looking apricot blossom.

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.

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.

T & D Willey Farm Tour, Part 2

I managed to resist diving headlong into the basil, thank goodness, and had my wits about me again by the time we got to the tomatoes.

(One thing I forgot to mention yesterday – my father-in-law took these shots, as my camera batteries died within the first five minutes after our arrival.)

These were slicers, big tomatoes that we’ll see later in the summer for just a little while, Tom noted, but we’ll be getting cherry tomatoes for much longer. Those were down further, he said, along the edge of the property. On the other side of the road at that moment was the strawberry patch.

“What you’re looking at there,” he noted, “is probably the only organic strawberry patch in the Valley.” They’re a hard crop to grow without pesticides, and there are quite a few organic growers along the coast, but none of the patches in the Valley are organic. Tom described a number of learning experiences at this point in the tour. Part of the problem, he said, is that they grow so many crops, and so much of the local agriculture is comprised of just a few, that he doesn’t have a potato or strawberry or onion grower whose shoulder he can look over or who he can call up to ask advice about varieties or practices.

Lots more after the jump…

Continue reading “T & D Willey Farm Tour, Part 2”

T & D Willey Farm Tour, Part 1

Or: We Find Out Where Our Food Comes From

On Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, we headed up to Madera with Chimp’s parents for T&D Willey’s farm tour. It was a beautiful temperate sunny day, even a little cool that morning, with the wind blowing – definitely un-Valley-like.

We found the place without any trouble; as we came rolling up the road, we saw a couple dozen cars neatly parked head-in to a zucchini field with a crew already working in it. Chimp’s folks let us out close as they went to park the car.

I clamped my hand over my wide-brimmed hat against the breeze as we walked up the line of cars. Tom Willey was standing near the packing shed. We introduced ourselves.

“Oh, so you’re the blogger, then,” he said. I had sent them a link when I put up the picture of our first box.

“Yes!” I said. “I hope you don’t mind. I thought I’d take a picture each week throughout the year so that people can see what we’re getting and what I’m cooking with.”

He didn’t seem to. We parked ourselves in the shade underneath the shed and watched the process of pallet packing as we waited for the tour to begin. I’ve unpacked so many pallets in my life but never really think about how much it takes to put one together. There was a mixed lot of greens, chard and onions going together in front of us, and a finished pallet of potatoes nearby.

Much more follows behind the jump….

Continue reading “T & D Willey Farm Tour, Part 1”

The Food News Roundup

How Eating Local Changes Food Distribution

The May Eat Local Challenge is over – while it was wrapping up, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran this story about local food resources near Philadelphia.

Marion Nestle Helps Us Choose

Marion Nestle has a new book, a guide to good food choices. Weirdly, I had a dream last night that we were moving to NYC because I was going to start grad work in Dr. Nestle’s department. The L.A. Times followed her around a Vons in L.A., with predictably hilarious results (at least to healthy-food advocates like myself).

Television Everywhere!

Meijer, a Midwest chain that I otherwise generally have respect for, is rolling out special “TV Kiddie Karts” in all of its 175 stores. The carts cost a dollar to rent and come with a selection of videos for kids to watch while parents shop.

Now, having worked in a supermarket for five years, even a more-interesting-than-average supermarket like Whole Foods, I can vouch for the fact that many kids go bonkers at the grocery store. However, I learned a great deal of food and nutrition lessons from my mother while sitting in a grocery cart, and I sure wouldn’t have been tuned into that if I had been watching a screen.

Coverage from Grand Rapids station WZZM, with video of the golf-cart like contraptions (I assume – I tried five browsers on our Mac and none of them would show the video) pretty much sums it up with this quote from a Meijer store director: “…they can put their kids in here and the kids can watch the DVDs as long as they are shopping to keep them quiet and occupied.”

Thank goodness kids have another place to watch television.

Pictures of Chocolate Cake

A new study finds that differing levels of “trait reward drive” are correlated with differing levels of brain activity in response to images of food. The conclusion being drawn here is that some people are likely more susceptible to food advertising than others.

John Mackey on 60 Minutes

Tune in on Sunday night to hear the Whole Foods CEO interviewed by Dan Rather. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the Whole Foods chain or John Mackey’s particular kind of vegan libertarianism, tune in just to see whether he still has the wild mustache.

First Crop: Figs

Love this story from the NYT on a discovery from the West Bank – figs, planted as scions, may have predated wheat, barley, and chickpeas as the first crop raised by humans.

Michael Pollan Weighs In on Wal-Mart

Michael Pollan says everything I wanted to say about Wal-Mart’s move into organics.