Were getting close enough to taste it! That is, close to the time of year when we can buy locally-grown produce from folks right here in the stateline area.
It wont be long before spinach, salad greens, peas, radishes, etc., will be coming out of nearby farms and gardens and heading directly for your dinner plate with a minimum of handling and a minimum of transportation.
Farmers markets in the area will soon be opening for business, and specialty food stores should begin sourcing local fare. However, living in the temperate climate that we are, many consumers still need to realize not all fresh fruits and vegetables are in season around here as soon as the frosts end and the first peas peek through the soil.
As much as we all want them to be, local tomatoes and sweet corn are not ready; as a matter of fact, theyre probably not even in the ground. Really, I am not trying to be condescending here. Many people understand the seasonality of produce, but many others have never had to think about it beyond what is or is not available in their neighborhood grocery store.
Well, I think its time we all think about eating seasonally, both the opportunities and the obstacles.
Eating fresh, in-season produce from local farms can be an absolutely wonderful thing. You get fresh-from-the-garden taste, peak ripeness and great flavor, all without having to use too much in the way of fossil-fuel energy; at least no more than it took to produce the crop and get it to wherever you bought it. You can ask the farmer (or the retailer who deals with the farmer) exactly what kind of production practices went into growing the produce. Is the produce organic, IPM, low-input, conventional? Prices tend to be reasonable because, generally, if one person has his crop ready, another person probably does, too, which makes for healthy competition. Even if prices are a bit higher than at a large grocery store or mega-retailer, you are much more likely to be supporting local growers, local communities and local economies with your grocery dollar, not to mention getting a higher-quality product.
However, in our globalized economy, it is not only possible, but pretty convenient to get access to fresh produce in many retail outlets, even when it is out of season in our climate. Grocery stores carry grapes from Chile, bell peppers from Denmark, tomatoes from Israel, and a whole host of products from California, all when we would have a pretty tough time growing them without many acres under greenhouses and huge heating bills. Granted, some of the produce was selected for shelf life rather than taste, harvested immature, and transported thousands of miles at huge expense of fuel, human resources and wasted food. Yet, one is even likely to encounter non-local produce at some farmers markets nowadays, especially if that market does not prohibit the re-selling of goods. Brokers do seem to be able to make a profit retrieving produce from the South or other warm climate, and re-selling it at markets farther north. Be sure to read signs carefully and ask questions if something seems extra early.
Still, I have to be realistic; the demand for produce out of season is firmly entrenched in our culture, and, barring any major catastrophe with world trade or the distribution infrastructure, is not likely to go away.
To be honest, Im not sure I would want it to go away. I am a fresh produce junkie, and if I have to go for more than a few days without a few staple crops, like carrots and broccoli, I get cranky and deficient.
Also, there would be an awful lot of things to which we in the Midwest would never get access: bananas, mangoes, coffee…I would really hate to see our society without coffee! Plus, I have to wonder whether the environmental benefits from reducing the global fresh produce trade would outweigh the nutritional costs to the people in climates as cold, or colder, than ours.
Americans as a whole already have such terrible eating habits that I would consider it unwise to eliminate the possibility of fresh produce in winter, simply because it might cause our diets to get even worse!
The advent of refrigeration and other food storage technologies is still roundly regarded as a major societal advancement, and I cant say I disagree. I like to think that buying produce in the offseason is still supporting a farmer somewhere, although I know they are seeing a much smaller portion of the profits than the middlemen. Nonetheless, you are going to get the most benefit for yourself, your family and your community by purchasing more fresh produce that is organic, if possible, and local as often as you can, especially during the growing season.
If you want to know what should be ready, join a CSA, shop at stores that sell local food, or, better yet, grow a garden! Eating in season will be more to your tastes, but there are certainly greater ills in the world than eating a nutritious food grown by a farmer somewhere else. As usual, be a conscientious consumer, and try to think about all the people and resources that your food represents.
Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the April 26-May 2, 2006, issue