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November, 2011

There's No Such Thing as an Ugly Radish

By Dennis Linden

In the commercial produce industry, there is a saying that marketers and shippers have coined, a phrase based on the natural bias familiar to all mothers
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Basil

In the commercial produce industry, there is a saying that marketers and shippers have coined, a phrase based on the natural bias familiar to all mothers: A grower has no ugly babies. Meaning, the person who has tended a crop from the planting of the seed through the months of growing and then harvest, is usually a very poor judge when it comes to separating out only “the best” of his or her crop for the marketplace. This truism was very much in evidence as I strolled through my own local farmers market on a brisk, mid-October Saturday not too long ago. Though I had not been to this once-a-week market since August for one reason or another, I went there on a mission to procure two ingredients, basil and broccoli rabe, for a dinner party menu. I had been impressed by the quality of both the last time I was there and this was a special dinner. The nice thing about my community farmers market is that all fresh produce sold by vendors is required to have been grown by those same vendors. Conversely, the not-so-nice thing about my community farmers market is that grower-vendors do not seem to have the ability to recognize that all good things must come to an end, including the harvest/selling season and especially the marketability of fresh produce items.

The aforementioned ingredients that I was looking for were in abundance at several produce stands. Unfortunately, all were competing with the same loose, yellow-tinged, tired looking broccoli rabe that was ready for the soup at best, not proudly displayed as the “fresh” vegetable it used to be. Everyone’s basil had gone to seed so long ago that the sprigs were flowering. I overheard one inventive vendor hawking his bunches of herb as having value-added edible flowers! As the saying goes, he was certainly making lemonade out of a sour situation. Did I mention that prices had almost doubled from my August visit? Another truism about the perishable produce business, whether it be a national retail outlet or a small booth at a farmers market on an island in the Pacific Northwest: as quality goes down, the price goes up. In the real world of the wholesale produce business this is understandable. If a bad storm blows most of the fruit off acres of orange trees in Florida and causes serious damage to the fruit that survived, the price of those survivors will go up, as there is not enough fruit to fill demand. The chain store pays more to keep oranges on the shelf and simply pass the increase on to the consumer. Ma Nature and the law of supply and demand kick in.

I expected more from my neighbor growers, I guess. They advertise a different way of doing business, without the greedy middle men. However, no weather calamity had affected their production, beyond the end of the season. And, more importantly, it was not as if these vendors had cornered the market on a crop that was not available in good supply and quality across the street at the local supermarket. When I inquired about having anything less mature on hand, I was told by several that it was late in the year so that was all their fields were capable of producing right now. I am all for supporting local producers, but not regardless of quality. Should we consider it a privilege to buy inferior quality just because we have the honor of handing the money directly to the person who grew that poor quality? Is there no professional pride or objectivity to simply know when it was time to end the season?

Then I remembered the baby picture rule. These crops were grown by the man or woman who was literally standing right behind them. There was no commercial inspection and acceptance process, like what is required at all supermarket warehouse distribution centers for example. These fruits and vegetables were in someone’s barn, located only minutes from here, just long enough for a quick prep of bunching or bagging, and then loaded in the back of pickup truck for transport to market. Since I am developing my own commercial garlic patch, I can empathize with how much work just a few acres of mixed vegetables can be for the market gardener to supply a once-a-week produce stand. Stare at your garden long enough and it all starts to be seen through a pair of basil-flowering, rose-colored glasses! Karma comes quick. Fast forward two days later and I found myself sitting at my own sorting table going through a pile of garlic for a special order. The chef had emphasized that she needed the bulbs to be “almost flawless in appearance” because of what she planned on using for them for; it was ugly baby time! Though I approached the process with Solomon-like objectivity and a resolve to disconnect myself from the hours of work the pile of garlic represented, it still took three sessions of sorting to finally separate all the wheat from the chaff, so to speak!

The initial cull was easy. One does not have to be an Olympic diver to know a belly-flop and I had some of those, garlicky speaking. The obvious weeding out of decay, misshapen and/or extremely blemished heads took little deliberation or time. The second go-through was much more methodical; inspecting each head with fashion runway scrutiny. This resulted in a small pile of perfectly shaped and perfectly polished heads that each epitomized “garlic-ness” from every angle. That is, until I decided to go through the batch one more time after taking a couple of hours break to rest my eyes. Admittedly, this final inspection was really just an excuse to admire the crème de la crème of my crop. Surprisingly, this turned into another long and tedious process as the time-out I gave my eyesight also provided some distance that enabled me to spot obvious flaws that should have been caught on the first or second check if I had been able to be more non-partisan! Apparently, I was still as partial to my “adorable babies” as any other over-tolerant parent.

The consistency of quality that consumers have come to expect in a traditional retail produce department is because of a standards system developed by the produce industry that is, in a way, a reaction to this “farmer factor” bias that has been around since Eve polished her first apple. In 1937 the Perishable Agricultural Act was created by Congress, setting up minimum standards for condition and quality of fresh produce traded interstate. For the first time, a buyer in New York could purchase a truckload of zucchini from a seller in California and they both knew what the box of vegetables would look like no matter who grew, sorted or packaged it.

Many who frequent farmers markets object to the uniformity that these criteria have created in the conventional marketplace. I would agree that when cosmetic perfection becomes the goal above taste, as in the Red Delicious Apple, standardization can go too far. On the other hand, unless you really like basil blossoms, there are times when more objective standards are appreciated – like around mid-October for summer vegetables!!