Homily to the Homely

September 8, 2017 in Food

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 12.09.17 PMWherever there’s spray-free produce there’s also an abundance of ugly produce…it’s a fact. Things often go sideways when you grow without pesticides and chemical fertilizers. A little nutrient imbalance in the soil, a few hungry bugs, and you’ve got a recipe for homely produce.

I’ve always tried to keep the ugly veggies for myself. Consumers are used to the picture-perfect produce found on grocery store shelves, not oddly shaped or bug-bitten goods. The problem with spray free growing is that the perfect looking produce makes up a very small part of what actually comes out of the ground. In order to bring perfect veggies to market, an awful lot more end up on the “we’ll eat what we can and give the pigs the rest” pile.

One of the main reasons I choose to grow spray free is my concern for the environment. Most other spray-free growers will say the same thing. That causes a bit of a conundrum, though. In order to grow without sprays and produce something consumers will buy, a LOT more land has to be planted so that the small amount of perfect produce resulting can meet demand. This means it takes more land to feed people, and that more land has to be cleared for agricultural use. That might still be better for the environment than dousing the earth in pesticides, but it’s definitely not a perfect solution.

In a report released by the US-based National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) it’s estimated that in the USA 52% of produce grown is discarded because stresses such as insects and drought, or damage during transport renders it “unsuitable” for sale. The same report cites examples of  a tomato packing plant that discards 22,000 pounds of tomatoes every 40 minutes during the high production season, and a cucumber farmer who claims that 75% of what he culls is perfectly edible but deemed unsaleable for cosmetic reasons.

The answer? We as consumers need to adjust our expectations. Scientific studies have shown that various mechanisms of stress actually cause plants to produce enhanced levels of some of the disease-fighting nutrients and chemical components that make them good for us. In short, ugly vegetables may actually be much better for us than the pretty ones. As a devout foodie, I’ll be the first to admit that how things look on my plate is important. That said, once an ugly veggie is peeled, chopped, or otherwise prepped, it’s often no different to look at than the beauty queen sitting next to it. Beauty is skin deep, and that goes triple for vegetables!

It’s hard to change attitudes, but as farmers I think we have some responsibility to ease consumers away from the expectation of perfection. I’m not advocating the sale of rotten, diseased, or otherwise potentially dangerous goods. I AM suggesting that maybe it’s not so bad to put a holey cabbage or a 3-legged carrot on the market table or in a produce box. By educating consumers about the benefits of ugly produce we can cut down on waste and environmental degradation, increase our profit margin and the nutritional benefits of the food we sell, and hopefully steer more and more growers away from pumping pesticides and synthetic fertilizers into the earth. It’s time that ugly gets a little respect.

Today’s lunch? A homely salad, and regardless of how it looks I’m sure it will taste just great.

Economies of Scale

October 4, 2012 in Food

Oooh, big scary E.coli is back on the radio again. Every half hour farmers and grocers are quaking in their shoes as Peter Mansbridge wannabes dramatically interview food inspectors, feed lot owners, or one of those people we pay a lot of money to sit in Parliament and make sure things are right with the world.

Blame is being tossed around on the news like a hand grenade with a broken pin. Blame the inspectors, blame the government, blame the big box stores, blame the workers at XL Foods. But hang on just a second. There’s one player in this puzzle that I haven’t heard blamed. Why aren’t we blaming the consumers?

We believe we are so entitled. We deserve 80″ flat screens and $15 sweaters and 10 pounds of chicken for less than the price of a Starbucks. Bigger is better is cheaper is better. But is it really?

We are willing to buy fish that has traveled half way around the planet if we can get it for less than something fresh off the boat at the wharf. We have no qualms about subjecting 6 year-old children to slave conditions, abuse, and ridiculously small wages as long as it means we can afford a fashionable pair of shoes. We will buy 10 pounds of beef for less than it costs to produce it, even if it means eating an animal that stood in shit for the duration of its miserable existence, crammed into a space too packed to move, and forced to eat everything from corn (that it was never designed to digest), to other cattle, and a battalion of antibiotics designed to neutralize the bacteria-laden environment where it eats, sleeps and breathes. Sure, that is cheap meat, but why are we surprised when it suddenly makes us sick? You’d be sick if you stood in that environment too, let alone eating something that lived in it!

Factories that produce meat don’t deal in individuals. They grind up animals and mix them together. Time is money, and workers are certainly not paid to notice or acknowledge problems. Animals go in, meat goes out. Humans are part of the machine, and sometimes, oops… so is E.coli.

This is the price we pay. We are willing to destroy the environment, to abuse animals, and to take health risks just to save a few dollars. Most people, when accused of such a thing, would either outright deny the damage, laugh it off, or insist that they can’t afford to do the right thing.

But can you afford not to?

Ask any 3-year old what cows eat. You’ll hear the tale of a contented animal munching on lush, green grass and spending it’s days in field and pastures. Unfortunately that is now what we call “alternative farming”. It grows beeves too slowly to remain the norm.

I predict that in 20 years we will face one of two potential fates and those fates will be entirely dependent upon our spending habits.

If we continue to buy cheap products that use unimaginable amounts of fuel to get from point A to point B, we will, quite simply, become extinct. We will shop ourselves into oblivion and die happily sprawled on our giant-sized recliners in front of our giant-screen TVs with a giant Coke and a giant MacBurger on our laps while bacteria eat our guts and global warming cooks us alive.

But there’s also option B. We can start buying everything locally, supporting small farmers, artisans, craftspeople, buying objects that can actually be fixed when they break, and giving gifts that support a sustainable economy instead of supporting the slave trades in foreign countries or the chemically-enhanced food processes of our own. If we take option B there just might be hope, but more than ever we need to think locally… the global part will naturally follow.

Do yourself a favour. Go to your local farmer’s market or butcher shop and buy something from the person who knows where your meat spends its days. Go to a craft store and purchase a sweater that was knit with fingers instead of machines. And next time you’re in the supermarket, if the label says that an item was made or grown in any place more than 100 miles away, put it back and take the time to find a closer alternative.

Even if locally produced goods look like they cost more, the real cost of not making that choice could be everything. Just ask the Canadians currently battling with E.coli. There’s a good reason that some places sell toilet tissue in bulk just a few aisles down from their meat.