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.

What’s “Too Expensive”?

July 9, 2015 in Food, Uncategorized

imageOver the past month it seems I’ve been overhearing more comments than usual about the price of food – in particular the price of local and organic foods. Those comments bounce off my radar somewhere between  irksome and downright aggravating, but then I have to stop and remember that before I was in a position to call myself a “producer” I thought the same way.

So here’s why chemical, antibiotic, hormone, steroid, and abuse-free food costs more, and why you should dig deep and buy it, despite the price tag.

The easy answer is that it costs more to produce food without syntheimagetic chemical assistance. If bugs decide to make lunch out of a crop, the easy way out is to spray the heck out of them with poison. Often you can apply the pesticide once and the problem disappears for the rest of the season, but even if the infestation requires multiple sprayings, it’s a heck of a lot less time-consuming than the alternative. What’s the alternative?

Hand picking.

Non-spray growers have a limited tool kit for dealing with bad creepy crawlies, and hand picking is near the top of the list. While organic pesticides do exist, so do studies that show these may actually be more harmful in the long term than conventional pesticides. The only way to get rid of bad bugs and have absolutely no impact on the good ones is to pick them off the plants, with your fingers, one by one. Last year I picked hundreds (if not thousands) of squash bugs and cucumber beetles. It takes a lot of work. Covering plants with agricultural fabric before the bugs become a problem can save a lot of trouble, but then there’s the problem of monitoring for maturation so the plants can be uncovered at just the right times to let good bugs come and pollinate. Then everything gets covered up again, hopefully before anything bad gets in.

Diatomaceous Earth is another popular way to combat bugs. It consists of fossilized algae shells ground into a fine powder, and it’s abrasive to some bugs, cutting them as they crawl over it when dusted onto their favourite plants.That dusting is also labour-intensive; in order to be effective, leaves must be dusted top and bottom, and the DE has to be reapplied every time it rains.

imageSuccessfully growing produce without harmful pesticides require good soil- in other words, soil with an appropriate pH level for the particular crop in question, soil that retains moisture but also drains well, and soil with lots of nutrients. This miracle soil is easily attained by pouring on chemical fertilizers. Unfortunately, such fertilizers are often highly acidic and therefore kill the bacteria in the soil that help make nitrogen available to the plants. Organic fertilizers take longer to feed the plants, and are required in higher quantities to achieve the same results. Organic fertilizers are usually things like manure and kelp – things that take time to compost before they can even work as fertilizer. Unlike synthetic chemical fertilizers, however, organic fertilizers actually help to build good soil rather than simply providing an instant growth hit. Building good soil, like everything else about organic and no-spray growing, takes time.

imageAs if the intense labour required to grow no-spray food weren’t enough to raise prices, there is also a much higher rate of discarded product when growing without chemicals. When pesticides are implemented all the potential bad bugs (and most of the good ones) are killed, so there is no opportunity for an insect to cause blemishes or damage to the produce. Ugly produce doesn’t sell, so if bugs have the slightest opportunity to cause blemishes, that food will likely end up in the garbage instead of shopping carts. For this reason, a lot of organic and no-spray produce never makes it to the table, even though it’s perfectly good and nutritious food. I was told of a local broccoli producer who discards up to 60% of their crop each year because it doesn’t look perfect and the chains won’t buy it.

The typical supermarket peach is like a person who’s had a little too much plastic surgery. Sure it may look good, but those looks come at a cost (not a financial cost so much as a cost to the environment and personal health). Looks aren’t everything, especially when it comes to food. Unfortunately we’ve been conditioned to believe otherwise. The local no-spray peach that you get at a farmer’s market may not be as pretty, but it will likely taste fresher, every insect in a 5-mile radius won’t have died to put it in your basket, and you’ll be able to eat it without wondering what other things you’re ingesting at the same time.

Why is it that a plastic clamshell of “Spring Mix” lettuce which traveled from California or beyond, can easily fetch $6 at the grocery store, yet if someone at a farmer’s market asks $3 for a head of no-spray lettuce, pulled from the ground that very morning, they are accused of trying to rip the consumer off? With a shelf life of about 2 days before slime starts setting in, California should be paying us to take their lettuce. I have bags of greenery in my fridge that I harvested over a week ago and they still look as good as the day I picked them.

Yes, buying locally produced products costs money. Buying anything costs money. The difference is that the money spent on local products goes right back into the community instead of getting transferred to California or Mexico. If people supported the small businesses in their communities they might not have to fly to Alberta to get a job. They might not have to ask why rural economies suck. They might not have to wonder why businesses are closing and forcing them to drive further and further to get what they need.

Next time you think a spray-free cucumber is a rip off, think of me on my knees between rows of plants surrounded by hundreds of beetles which I’m squishing between my fingers, one at a time. Think about how many hours you’d be willing to do that to avoid blasting your plants with poison. How much would you be willing to pay NOT to spend time doing that?

Probably more than the price of an organic cucumber.