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Posts Tagged ‘produce’

The phrase used by optimistic economists for the last year is starting to come to life. But I’m not going to talk about the economy, or politics, or even Team Blue (which, by the way, needs a mascot, I think … but Blue Devils is taken and I don’t think Blue Balls would go over well for either side, so I could use some input on that). With the Ides of March just around the corner and spring soon to follow, I’m talking about real green shoots, the kind full of chlorophyll that push up from the soil into the sun when the frost leaves and the ground starts to warm.

The resurgence of the “Victory Garden” over the last couple years has been nothing short of amazing. Some seed suppliers are finding themselves overrun with orders and the busy season is just getting started. Widely popularized during World War II, the Victory Garden is essentially a small vegetable patch for a family or similarly sized group of people, providing a source of wholesome food for very little monetary investment. With a less-than-stellar economic situation for millions in the U.S. over the last few years, these gardens have again become popular. For a few dollars worth of seed, a family can enjoy a supply of fresh vegetables for months to come. I’m joining the bandwagon this spring with big plans and elbow grease on stand-by … because one way or another there will be a garden outside my door.

I realized last summer how disgusted I was with the produce offered at local supermarkets. What hasn’t been dropped, crushed, bruised, poked, or otherwise beaten half-unidentifiable costs an arm and a leg. And if it happens to say “organic” on the label, just go ahead and triple the price, no matter how puny, shriveled, or misshapen the items might be. But price aside, that produce has also been doused with god knows what all kind of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and – I’m quite certain – people-icides. A few years ago I researched just what went into the classification systems of food products and was astounded at the lack of regulation in what we eat.

To begin with, the vast majority of fresh food in this country is imported, and not just exotics like bananas and mangoes but boring old staples like lettuce and tomatoes. Remember the spinach scare a few years back? Tons of produce tainted with E. Coli were shipped all over America and had to be recalled after people fell ill and some died. It had been imported. The government assured its people that it was an isolated incident. But food marketing in the U.S. is essentially an honor system. If Company A claims its goods are organic, they can market it as such with almost no oversight. Although there are reams of laws and stipulations that should be followed, the chances of enforcement are miniscule. No one is out there testing produce to see what chemicals it has come into contact with. No one is randomly sampling imports (or even U.S. produce) to see if it carries pathogens on its merry way to your plate. Caveat emptor indeed.

And what does all the spraying and genetic engineering and hybridization supply us? Judging from the local supermarkets, rubbish. Most of the produce is picked so green it could sit on display for a month (for those of you who may not know better, “fresh” produce should go off much quicker than that) and has all the subtle flavor of a cardboard box. In an age when I can fly halfway around the world in less than a day, including plane changes and layovers, why is my produce almost old enough to legally drink?

So this year I’m growing my own. Not a lot, but a good variety. And though I’ve a poor history with plants, I sincerely bet the result will be exponentially better than what I find at the store. Surely it can be no worse.

And in an effort to both encourage local business and “stick it to the man,” I’ll be using all heirloom seeds from a small supplier. (Gurney’s and Burpees be damned; I could never get a decent tomato out of them anyway.) When I’ve finalized my plans I’ll post them here just in case anyone should care to join the Victors with a garden of their own.

Oh, and you know what, if you’re tight on funds and worried about getting enough fertilizer for your garden … just use some of that bullshit Washington keeps shoveling at us. Lord knows there’s plenty of it. 😉

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I believe agriculture has failed us. Or, more aptly, that we, as a species, have failed the practice of agriculture.

I picked up a few melons from a farm stand. It being summer, and having a penchant for melon-meat anyway, I could not resist the lovely array of melons the stand offered. I picked a quintessential seasonal trio of watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew, each which I was assure was “ready to cut and eat” as early as that very evening. They looked wonderful. They smelled wonderful. I could hardly wait to dig into the soft flesh and find out whether they also tasted wonderful.

Long story short, they didn’t. Not one of them. Even after picking the ripest of the lot, the only one actually “ready to cut and eat” was the watermelon, which turned out to be very juicy (a good thing) but almost flavorless (not a good thing). But watermelon is finicky, I understand, and depends a great deal on both rainfall and soils (similar to the grapes of vineyards, I suppose, which is how some connoisseurs can hone in on what region produced a wine from a single taste). So okay, no harm no foul, on to the next melon.

The cantaloupe aged three days before I cut it, even though it already had a large soft spot on one side (which allowed me to get it for a fraction of the asking price). Again, after picking through the lot and going with the ripest one, it simply wasn’t ready. But after waiting as long as I dared, I cut it with a watering mouth and eager taste-buds, ready for that sweet soft orange flesh to practically melt on my tongue. The first sign that my plans were going awry came when the melon fell in two halves and I stared at its white innards. White, not orange, like every other cantaloupe I had ever cut that was even remotely near ripeness. Uh-oh. It wasn’t soured (my primary fear from that large soft spot on the side) but was, again, almost flavorless. The hue of the heart deepened to a pale peachy color and tasted as though someone had lightly drizzled it with the juice of an actual ripe cantaloupe … and the rest was bland. Not sweet, not sour, not bitter, nothing. And the meat itself was actually tough. For the first time in my life, I fought to scoop bites of it out with a spoon. “Well,” I reasoned, “the farm also grows gourds so maybe this one accidentally crossed with one of them.” I try to play devil’s advocate, but it was disappointing. Ah, but the honeydew still awaited. I love a good sweet honeydew and I thought if it were a fraction as good as it should be, all would be forgiven.

I waited 10 days on the poor honeydew and it never did ripen. Ten days! But it, too, was developing soft spots so I reluctantly cut it and discovered … a multi-color melon. The green around the rind was still three-quarters of an inch thick (which I take to mean it would actually have needed another week or two to fully “ripen”), and that layer was topped with light orange region comparable to – guess what – cantaloupe. The third layer, the heart, was indeed the pale greenish-white expected of a honeydew. And the flavor was non-existent. Half a dozen bites of the heart had a faint trace of something like honeydew and cantaloupe mixed and the rest was simply wet. And tough. So tough I eventually gave in and used a knife to carve the meat up. I was disgusted and ate only one slice; the rest was cut and thrown to mulch.

You can say it was just one farm, just one stand and a bad year and maybe all kinds of produce were cross-pollinating … but I don’t believe it. I haven’t had a good melon from grocery stores in years and roadside stands are hit-and-miss at best. I had hoped a farm stand, from a commercial farm, operating only a few scant miles from the farm itself, open daily, would have melons picked within a few days of being full ripe. Silly me. Why pick them ripe when you can gather them green and let them lay about for weeks on end while endless streams of gullible customers file by?

But more than that is the meat. Granted, the toughness of those latter two melons was unprecedented, but ignoring all that for the moment … where is the sweetness? Melon is a fruit, a sugar-laden fruit at that, and should taste so. It’s called a honeydew because the flesh is supposed to be sweet as, you guessed it, HONEY! What in god’s name have these melons been crossed with and genetically modified by that they can barely be eaten, let alone enjoyed?

I was never a great gardener, by any means, and can in fact unintentionally kill just about any plant known to man, but even I grew better melons than that from volunteer sprouts that came up at the edge of our garden for years. They weren’t great melons but they were good. And sweet. And we enjoyed eating them. And I know if I can (unintentionally) do it from the seeds of store-boughten cantaloupes past, these large commercial farms should have no problem at all producing a worthwhile melon. I realize that the produce needs to be picked green enough to withstand shipping and then lay on display in a store for days for potential customers to browse … but come on. Seriously. This is getting ridiculous.

When I go to the store, the tomatoes are hard and generally pink at best and subsequently all but tasteless. The apples can sit on the counter for weeks and still be bitter when you bite into them. The bananas are so green I’m afraid I’ll die of old age before they ripen. Why are third-world countries eating better produce than we are?

I have fresh-grown tomatoes in the refrigerator, right alongside my fresh-grown onions, and I’ve decided that next year I’m growing my own melons, come hell or high water. And then if they turn out gourd-tough and dirt-bland at least I’ll have tried.

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My local grocery store offers only “organic” produce.  Nice, right?  Yeah, except that they charge three times more for anything with that little label that says “organic.”  And guess what, an organic label by no means ensures the item is truly organically farmed.  With all the loopholes we expect of traditional tax law and political affairs, “organic” is a loose term indeed. 

First off, the grocery store is not legally bound to investigate whether or not an item they receive for sale is labeled in accordance with federal law.  (No retail establishments are.  Including restaurants.)  I understand it could be an expensive and time-consuming effort but doing nothing seems almost … negligent.  I would think one random test sample each month, or even quarterly, of the major suppliers’ produce would not be too taxing and may even qualify for some kind of government grant. 

But no, the responsibility falls to the supplier.  Of course the supplier and also the store (or eatery) are never supposed to “knowingly” alter labeling or re-label items or otherwise mislead consumers, but that’s also a rather gray legal area.  It’s quite easy for a bin of regular bell peppers to “spill over” into the organic bin at the store, or for a crate to be mis-labeled in shipping, or even for an entire shipment to go awry without anyone noticing.  Retail work can be chaotic even when honestly attempting to maintain accuracy; with a plethora of opportunity, a bit of “see no evil, speak no evil” could do wonders for a bottom line.  In addition, small suppliers do not have to conform to federal standards and can presumably label their products as they please since they are not regulated.  Larger suppliers – and the middle men – rely on the claims of the original producer.  (See “Washing of the Hands,” Article 62, Passages 11 – 16, of the Criminally Legal Handbook.)  

So we’re all the way back to the farmer now, and trusting his operation to participate fully and accurately maintain all the federal precedents of organic production.  I’m sure a lot of farmers do their very best to accomplish just that.  And I’m sure many don’t.  Even for those attempting “honest” organics, an entire year crop can be affected by one non-organic treatment to adjacent land, or the impossible-to-prevent cross-pollination with non-certified produce (like those genetically modified).  The results of these interactions would, by law, revoke a producer’s ability to label any crop “organic” … except that the USDA has stated that it will exclude such results from the labeling regulations. 

Huh?  There’s a nice breeze and the field upwind gets cropdusted but my field is still “organic” because I didn’t pay for it?  Their mutant potatoes won’t cross-pollinate with mine because you say they shouldn’t?  Way to go, Washington.  You’re absolutely right; regulatory paperwork in a filing cabinet in an airtight office a thousand miles away is 100% effective at blocking those particles from tainting my crop.  Excellent work. 

Moreover, imported produce (which constitues an interestingly large percentage of what we consume) is expected to be correctly labeled before it crosses the border and does not need to be tested prior to hitting the retail market stateside.  That said, imports from European countries worry me a great deal less than say, Columbia.  Not that I have anything against Columbia, but it occurs to me they might be more interested in our business (and their profit) than whether or not what they produce meets our organic standards.

Also, as consumers, we often associate “organic” with “natural” when, legally, nothing could be further from the truth; it may occur naturally but just as likely may not.  Perfectly acceptable “organic” compounds in direct contact with unharvested produce and/or feedstock animals include hydrogen peroxide, copper and ferrous sulfates, ammonium, sodium hypochlorite, calcium polysulfide, and – my personal favorite – “liquid fish products.”  (Whatever that means.)  Some of those are totally, completely, 100% synthetic. 

Because, of course, “organic” doesn’t mean “naturally-occuring organic.”  In fact, by their very definition, some of these compounds exist only as products of human experimentation, so wholly unnatural that nothing remotely comparable to them exists outside the laboratory.  Which makes them unique.  So they remain USDA certified 100% organic.  In one of my favorite quirks of the laws and acts laying these regulations out, hops (the kind they put in beer) are entirely exempt regardless of how they are modified, treated, handled, or marketed. 

Why?  Because hops are like grapes:  their tastes differ based on treatment and location.  This attribute makes them too unique to synthesize and vulnerable to a potential change in taste under different treatment (i.e. “organic” treatment).  According to the USDA, that is enough to exempt them from regulation.  (Grapes, however, are not exempt, though the regulations are somewhat more lenient than for other produce.  Apparently the bouquet of wine is not as delicate as that of beer.  That and … I don’t recall an Anheuser-Busch-sized lobby on behalf of the wine industry.)

So perhaps Columbia could hardly do worse than we do to ourselves already.  After all, a box of any food product can be labeled “organic” – in bold, with neon flashing lights if the producer so desires – if even 70% of the contents conform to USDA standards.  Meaning the other 30% could be … anything.

And my point to all this, oh gentle patient reader, is simply … why bother?  If what the USDA regards as “organic” in no way matches the consumers’ understanding, why even introduce it into the mix?  And with all the fine print involved (which I didn’t even scratch in the writing of this), wouldn’t it be easier to label the non-organically farmed products instead?  And of course, there are no answers, only more questions.  But It seems like just one more confusing tactic to mislead the public.  One more governmental half-truth.  Well here’s a personal opinion, my bloated greedy hopelessly corrupt representatives of Washington…  

Leave my goddamn carrots alone.

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