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March, 2008

By Dennis Linden

The recent emergence of the weekend Farmer’s Market in this country has given the consumer a great chance to meet local farmers and purchase produce directly from the hardworking individuals who grow it. It’s also a great way to spend a Saturday morning
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Heirloom Tomatoes
The recent emergence of the weekend Farmer’s Market in this country has given the consumer a great chance to meet local farmers and purchase produce directly from the hardworking individuals who grow it. It’s also a great way to spend a Saturday morning. Unfortunately, lately there has been a lot of negative campaigning at these venues from vendors claiming that the produce found at retail grocery stores is somehow an inferior product to theirs. One should enjoy the fair-like atmosphere at these events; however, the rhetoric needs to be picked through as carefully as a display of ripe tomatoes.

The most interesting concept being pushed by farmer’s market groups is that one should eat only foods that are grown within a one-hundred mile radius of one’s home to ensure maximum nutritional benefit, lower energy costs and support the local economy. It’s a cute sound bite with no teeth. In fact, for most of us, this rule would mean some very unbalanced diets. Many in Iowa would have to eat feed corn three times a day. Those in the Pacific Northwest would never know the taste of citrus and, yes, we would have no bananas.

The nutritional claim is based on a false notion that produce found in the traditional retail stores has lost some of its dietary value in transit from distant regions of the country. Using the longest distance possible, a California vegetable can be on a retail display in New York four days after harvest. The commercial produce industry is an amazingly efficient partnership of professionals in agriculture, transportation and marketing who pool their expertise to feed the world perishable goods in a timely manner. Most fresh produce grown in this country is on retail stands in 48 to 72 hours of being harvested. From the time they leave the field or orchard, fruits and vegetables are handled and transported under optimum temperature conditions with refrigerated equipment. The industry’s whole focus is to continually shorten the gap between harvest and table. There simply is no nutritional value lost under normal industry delivery standards and we are getting faster at it every day.

The economic support of local farmers is always a good thing, but should not exclude the production of hard working growers in other parts of this country and the world. Some farming operations are far from metropolitan populations in order to have enough land to grow crops that support their families and the families of their field staff. If a melon grower in Arizona could not ship to retailers in California, there would simply be no melons, no grower, no employees, and no economy.

Likewise, modern post-harvest handling and transportation systems have given small growers around the world access to the U.S. marketplace. While it is usually a large distribution company coordinating shipments of nectarines, for instance, from Chile in December, those shipments are made up of many small family farm orchards that now have access to a marketplace beyond their poor local economies.

While there are some who would argue against the very concept of a nectarine being available in this hemisphere in December; I would wager that the same folks turn on lights at night rather than respecting the sun’s absence. Enjoying a nectarine, summer and winter, and helping to support a farmer in another part of the world is also a good thing. This is fruit that does not compete with domestic crops since it is available at a completely different time of the year.

Farmer’s Markets not only increase the awareness and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, but also brings the community together and contributes to the local economy. A sense of community that stops at an imaginary line is a contradiction of itself, especially when there are like-minded growers in the next county or state or country working just as hard to survive. Mother Nature produces a diverse bounty of flavors unique to specific soil and weather conditions around the world; let us be thankful that we now have the technology that enables us to taste them all!