A Farmer's Laments

Aug 31 2011 Published by under Farm Market Foodapalooza!, Gardening For Life

Tomato season, no matter how long it lasts, always seems painfully short to me.  Real tomatoes, with all their juicy flavorful delight, are an incomparable treat.  I've been making sauce, tomato juice, a fancy tomato-and-melon soup, a simple and amazingly good tomato-and-green bean dish, tomato sandwiches, BLTs, and of course, just plain old sliced tomatoes with a little drizzle of olive oil and balsamic, and maybe some mozzarella and fresh basil.  Tomorrow I'm going to concoct a roasted heirloom tomato Bloody Mary mix for a friend of mine.  I know the tomatoes will be gone soon and so I eat as many as I can now.

I eat through the seasons courtesy of the wonderful farmers who come each week to the markets I frequent.  I eat what they are growing and have to sell; the Z-table features whatever they've got.  Today one of my favorite farmers asked me if I was a vegetarian.  No, I said, it's just that when there's so much good stuff available, we tend to eat more of it and go lighter on the meat.  (Side effect: cheaper, and better for our health. Mr. Z asked me once, "Am I becoming a vegetarian?"  Ha ha!  Veggie by stealth!)

At the market

Today at the farm market I got into a conversation about farming's travails with one of my favorite farmers. They did not suffer too badly from Irene.  Many young fruit trees were blown over by the wind and had to be restaked; the corn was blown down, but could still be harvested.  (He feels for the farmers with large corn crops that are normally harvested mechanically.  It will be much more difficult, if not impossible, to run a mechanical harvester across the blown down rows.  For sure they will only be able to go in one direction, not turn and go back and forth across the field like they normally do.  They'll have to make one pass, then turn and go all the way back up the field and start over.) Peaches took a beating, and the cantaloupes may be done, but the watermelons are harvested and will keep for awhile.  The blackberries came through unscathed.

Irene was not the main aggravation on his mind, however.  Stinkbugs were, and a new devastating invasive pest, the Asian spotted wing fruit fly.  Stinkbugs poke into ripening fruit and leave only a small blemish - the fruit could still be saleable - but the punctured skin leaks scent and juices that attract hornets and yellow jackets. The fruit fly, however, is a real nightmare.  Normally fruit flies are attracted to rotting fruit but these flies come to ripening fruit on trees and vines and lay their eggs, which mature and decimate the fruit.

The farmer said his raspberry crop was infested.  He had to pick off every fruit and discard them, spray thoroughly, and continue to discard ripening fruit for a week.  He said this new pest, combined with the stinkbugs, is making him rethink the whole idea of organic farming.  His family has tried to do organic farming, partly because they believe in it for the good of the land and partly because customers want it, but he is sickened by seeing the literal fruits of his labor ruined just before time to go to market. There was anger in his voice as he spoke about this, and about people who want to buy fruits and vegetables shipped from China because they are cheap, or because it's something interesting.  Every time you bring a fruit or vegetable in this country from China, he said, you are taking the chance to bring in another pest, and you are hurting me, and you are hurting agriculture in this country.  I wouldn't eat anything from China, he said.

He also talked about GM corn.  Worms get in to his corn, of course, and they do light spraying to control the worms, even though some of the "organic only" crowd fusses about this and hesitates to purchase oh noes! the lightly sprayed wormless corn.  He looked into a type of GM corn that is resistant to worms, but ended up deciding against growing it for three reasons.  (1) Lots of his customers don't want to eat GM crops. (2) They make you sign all kinds of paperwork to get the seed and grow the corn, and you are not allowed to save seed.  You have to buy it again each year, and it's just too expensive.  (3) It simply doesn't taste as good;  "Who wants to eat cardboard?"  He's not opposed to GMOs on principle, but is unwilling to compromise on flavor, and dislikes losing the autonomy of being able to save his own seed.  On this latter point: he talked about the issue of some GM soybeans that are designed with self-terminating seeds - they cannot reproduce.  He thinks this is madness, and is worried that making seed sterile is a trait that might spread into the wild population.  All in all, he doesn't see GMOs as providing any value for him at this time.  One of the main points of his operation is to provide the markets with locally grown food with a taste far superior to that in the supermarkets, which helps justify the somewhat higher price that allows him to make a living and keep going.  GMOs that resist pests but have no flavor are of no real help.

Time and again I am staggered to realize how hard the farmers work, constantly, day in and day out, to bring their produce to the markets.  The food they grow is wonderful.  It takes more time (and the money, and the utensils)  to prepare and cook fresh produce than, say, ordering take-out, or heating up a tv dinner in the microwave.  Everything in our lives is stacked against us devoting that time to food prep.  We are pushed toward the baguette dispenser and away from the bakery, but we owe it to ourselves and to the farmers, and to the kind of life we would like the children of today to have when they grow up, to resist that push as much as possible.  In some parts of Philadelphia, there are young kids who have never seen fresh vegetables and cannot identify them by sight. A world in which young children do not know what a tomato looks like, let alone how good a true fresh tomato tastes, is one we should feel shame to inhabit.



4 responses so far

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    In Venezuela, there was a guava bush in the back yard. The included fly larvae were simply regarded as extra protein, by those few who thought anything about them.

  • Ed says:

    I concur entirely with everything except for the baguette dispenser hatin' parts. I have in past lives (not this one though 🙁 and I understand a lot of people have not so it's very important to get the appreciation -and the food- out there for people) known good garden fresh food so I understand the benefits, and indeed enjoying your food is part, in fact of a healthy diet according to all the authorities like Marion Nestle. But I don't think it's incompatible with vending machines.

    Technology gets a bad rap when applied to food, but I think that's corporate phychopathy rearing it's ugly face, not the technology so much... In Japan you can buy vegetables from a vending machine, and given that they can be stored in the same way as in a grocery store I assume they can be just as good. If the farmer stands were automated I'm sure there are downsides to less human interaction but I bet the farmer has lots of other stuff to do than staff the stand. I don't think it has to reduce the quality of the food though. Indeed the atmosphere inside the machine can be controlled (reduced o2, controlled humidity and lower temperature) more easily to reduce spoilage etc. than an open stand in the sun or fridge with a big door type deal because the gas cannot exchange as easily with the outside.

    So it's not a normal vending machine, you have to restock it every day and clear out the old stuff just like a farmer's stand but...

    Some bread machines make pretty crappy bread but some make bread that is even better than the artisanal breads you can get in the store (seriously, it's awesome). I seriously wonder why they don't just plonk a bunch of these machines in the back of the grocery store modified to be fully automatic, and just have them churn out a loaf of bread every 3 hours, instead of buying the dough like they do for the crappy in store baked bread. I haven't tried this baguette machine but I think if you did it right it could make good bread and also a wide variety of breads.

    A while ago I read up on vending machines, dreaming of open source (so it actually serves the people not the corporations) vending machines of this type that actually served fresh food , but there has been apparently no attempt to do implement a fresh food vending machine of any sort in english speaking countries.

  • Ellen says:

    Small time farmer here - yeah, stinkbugs are a problem with raspberries and with tomatoes. Don't have the fruit fly up here in the frigid north (Adirondacks) yet.

    My market table looks a lot like your photo. It's reassuring to see others doing what I'm doing, and to hear the feedback from a customer. Growing veggies is not a way to make a living, but it is a way to live.

    • Zuska says:

      Sorry to take so long to reply - life has been crazy - but I'm thrilled to hear from you and many thanks to you for the farming you do, small time or not. Every bit of farming done is crucially important to saving the land and saving ourselves. In a locale near where I live, the citizens are in a fight to defend their zoning ordinance that are designed to prevent development and preserve farming land - part of the zoning specifies that if the soil quality is of a certain level the land cannot be developed. And the developers are crying bloody murder because we soooo need more condos and townhomes.