The sun is shining and temperatures are in the 50s. Sometimes it is hard to remember that we are in late February and not in late April and that we should temper our expectations from our farmers to the New England growing environment.
I spend every Saturday at the Concord farmers’ market at Cole gardens and every Sunday at the Amherst open-air market. The produce that farmers bring to farmers’ market in New England this time of the year is very similar. It is either storage crops, meaning root vegetables or pumpkins that were grown during the summer, harvested in the fall and stored in a root cellar or a cooler, or greens that can be seeded in the Fall and grown all Winter in a high-tunnel. There is no need to warm the greenhouse to produce greens here in the winter, but light is essential. In mid-January, a couple of weeks after the shortest day of the year, we always suffer from a shortage of greens, but as the days get longer the bounty is growing and in mid-March we enjoy a bounty of arugula, Asian greens, lettuce, and spinach. The cold temperatures combined with the bright light of the winter sun create sweet leaves.
I am a huge supporter of eating a local-food diet that is appropriate for the season. I think our body creates a special relationship with the soil, sun, air and micro-system of the area where we live and that the food that we eat is able to nourish us best when it comes from local resources. I am also a great believer in “eating with the season”. We have four seasons in New England, hence we are supposed to have four different diets: soups and stews in the winter, lots of green in spring, fruits and flowers in the summer (brassica, cukes, tomatoes), and pumpkins during the fall.
At the same time, I acknowledge that we got used to having access to fruits and vegetables year-round, regardless of the season. We are also used to be able to buy vegetables and fruits like avocado, pineapple, and bananas that can be grown only in warmer and more humid climate. I do not suggest that we stick to a very strict regimen of only local and in season; I find this expectation unrealistic for people who live in North America in the 21st century. I believe in moderation and informed decision-making.
Let us take tomatoes as an example. In the Mediterranean diet, our “home diet,” tomatoes are a staple. Each Summer I preserve tomato paste for sauces and soups to last me for the year. But we are used to adding sliced tomatoes to our sandwiches and add tomatoes to our daily salads. After we moved from Israel, a country where tomatoes grow year-round, to Pennsylvania and then to New Hampshire, we had to adjust our diet. We tried to eat no fresh tomatoes in the Winter, but we found it to be very challenging. So we try to eat tomatoes occasionally and in moderation and we look at the fine print.
Most of the tomatoes that you can buy around here in the Winter were grown in South America or California. There are many problems that are connected to transporting food from far away, beginning with environmental issues like water usage (in California) and usage of fuel and roads to transform huge amounts of food across the world, to social issues such as the farmers’ compensation. The price of the tomatoes needs to cover not just the farmers’ compensation, but also the middle man and transportation. When you buy cheap tomatoes that were transported from far away, it means that the farmer was not fairly compensated.
The tomatoes that arrived in the supermarket or the farm stand in the winter were not harvested today or yesterday. We all understand that the shelf life of a fresh tomato is very short, so how do you harvest a tomato in Chile and transport it to New Hampshire and still have it looking fresh and beautiful on shelves?. If you ever tried to pick up green tomatoes and let them ripen in a bowl in your kitchen, you probably discovered that they spoil before they become shining, beautiful red tomatoes. To solve this problem, tomatoes are picked just as they are ripening, and are sprayed with a chemical that stops the ripening process - even organic tomatoes! If you look at the stickers on the organic products in the supermarket, you will find that they are marked as “organically grown.” there are no claim made as to what these fruits and vegetables endured in order to make them ready for transportation.
Lately, I came upon local tomatoes that are grown in New England in the Winter. To the average consumer, that sounds like a miracle and an answer to all the problems that I have mentioned above, until you start to ask questions. Tomatoes are a gentle plant that is frost-sensitive. If frost hits any part of the plant, it will die. While you can warm the air in your greenhouse, warming the soil is very expensive, which makes it not just environmentally unsustainable but also uneconomical. The new solution for this problem is hydroponics. You can find local hydroponic greens and now local hydroponic tomatoes in the market.
If you look at pictures of farms that grow hydroponic vegetables, you will find that they resemble factories much more than farms. Between concrete paths, tomatoes are “planted” in big water buckets. For those of you who know something about growing vegetables, you know that if your soil is poor, meaning it does not have enough minerals, your yield will be poor and its nutritious value will be very poor. Since water by itself does not have the minerals that are required in order to grow tomato plants, hydroponic farmers add them artificially. They will claim that they cannot be considered “organic” because they grow in water and not in soil (which is a prerequisite for organic designation.) but they tend to omit the fact that they need to add a lot of chemicals to the water in order for the plants to grow.
If we go back to the beginning of the idea that our body is part of the ecosystem of where we live or in other words, part of the culture of soil, worms, insects, weeds, wind, sun, and rain, then you get the picture that hydroponic farming is not really an agri-culture. It is actually a factory or an agri-business.
By now I have lost my craving to eat tomatoes during the winter. Tomatoes are a high-profit crop, meaning that there is a lot of demand for them in the market and a lot of people are willing to pay a little more for them than other vegetables. But if you look into sourcing any other vegetable that you cannot grow around here in the winter or store it in your root cellar, you will find yourself dealing with similar problems.
We carry a car magnet that we give our new CSA members every year. It says “KNOW YOUR FARMER KNOW YOUR FOOD” There are so many details that are involved in growing clean, nourishing food that most consumers are not aware of, that the only way to ensure the quality of the produce that you buy is to buy directly from the farmer through a CSA, a farm stand, or at a Farmers Market. When you meet your farmer, you can engage in conversation and learn how your food was grown.
We tend to ask many questions when buying a computer or a car, but we trust blindly when it comes to the food that nourishes our families. I believe that our food system is in a crisis and that the reason for this crisis is the move from agriculture to agribusiness, which creates a distance between the food producer and the consumer. We do not know what is in our food and we got used not to question it. That leaves too much power in the hand of the greedy forces of the market.