Our yearly camping pilgrimage to “somewhere in the south” never fails to help validate what we’re doing, organically growing real food for real people. This year’s adventure has taken us to Florida where we stay in her beautiful state parks, get some sunshine, and bike and hike as much as we can.
Our first “farming stop” was to the Parkes Farm Market near Plant City where thousands of acres of beautiful strawberries are growing under beds covered with plastic. The whipping cream drenched bowl of freshly sliced and sugared berries tasted incredibly delicious, just as good as ours. But a little research showed that each bed is chemically “sterilized” before planting. They used to use bromine gas (which has been prohibited) only to be substituted with another of the many USDA allowed chemicals. And all of the strawberries are hand-picked by teams of migrant men and women, many living in abodes that made our little camper look like a castle.
Leaving the strawberry growing region, we drove past hundreds of acres of frost-blackened tomato plants. Even though conventionally grown, I felt a little “teary” realizing all the thousands of hours of labor that was put forth only to yield no crop. The beds were covered in plastic, the transplants machine-planted into the chemically treated and fertilized beds, and the plants were staked and tied up, only to freeze right before harvest. This is another situation where monoculture of our food crops puts us all in jeopardy.
Do we really need to eat those green orbs that are selected for uniformity, hardness, and transportability? Farther south, I was astonished by what looked like gravel trucks loaded with Granny Smith apples. But no, they were “tomatoes” heading for the fresh markets. No wonder they never turn red and juicy, even when artificially gassed with ethylene in warehouses somewhere in the distribution chain. Most of us are trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, but those grown out of season are warehoused and enter a long-distance transportation chain before being presented in our grocery stores. They are not grown for flavor, which equals nutrition. The precious tomatoes, both heirloom and hybrid, that we grow and harvest red-ripe, are bred for taste and nutrition. Some are even appreciated for their “ugliness” and uniqueness, which knowing consumers recognize as nutrition and taste.
Sure, research has been done by the USDA comparing grocery bought organic and conventionally grown veggies and fruits. And surprise! They came out nearly equal in nutrition. They have both been subjected to the same green-picking, warehousing, and 1,500 miles of shipping. The government research doesn’t recognize the nutritional wallop and flavor of fresh locally grown produce.
The incentive is with us all. Grow as much food as we can, organically, using no petroleum fertilizers or chemicals. Pick your produce at peak ripeness and enjoy its peak nutrient package. Backyard gardens can make each family healthier and more food independent. For those who have no good garden spot or time or inclination to grow their own, the wait for local markets is well worth it. And now is the time to sign up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) delivery or for a local U-pick for the 2012 growing season.
Choose local. Choose health.
Jill Beyer is a member of the Local Foods Work Group at the University of Illinois Extension–Winnebago County. She farms at Harrison Market Gardens, a U-Pick community supported agriculture farm in Winnebago. She blogs about local foods at blogs.e-rockford.com/gogreen.