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The View from my Farm

Epitaph of Small Farms

Our 30 acres bristles with life that changes with each season. Winter rains in coastal California bring cool season grasses and green hillsides. Grasses tall by March, beneath is a microcosm of life. A farmer, I see tiny germinated broadleaf weeds that will dominate summer’s vegetation due to their drought tolerance. Weeding becomes a constant chore. Some spring broadleaves – poppies, lupine, wild peas – adorn the hillsides with brilliant flowers, March to May. Glistening spider webs cover slopes and ravines, attached dew reflecting the sun, morning until mid-day. The call of the red-winged blackbirds and shrill shriek of the swallows dominate the air until the sun declines.

Alas, spring’s spectacle disappears quickly in the warmth of summer. Hillsides brown, we begin the months-long task of harvesting and selling produce started in the spring. Long days made worthwhile by enjoyable conversations with appreciative customers at farmers markets, there for the produce we grow and sell. Summer and fall pass quickly. Almost imperceptibly, the bounty disappears, cold weather and rain sets in, and it all starts again.

Customers, who delighted in superb and fresh local produce, go back to supermarkets. They

can buy virtually anything they want any time of the year. How and why is this miracle possible?

In Connecticut supermarkets while on a temporary assignment for two years beginning in 1981, I remember the bleak winter produce by California and today’s standards. There were potatoes, winter squash, carrots, onions and other crops that can be stored. Missing were peaches, pears or zucchini or avocados. Fresh herbs, or tomatoes couldn’t be found. Instead, shoppers found heavy, tough leaves of crinkly wintertime spinach. Also, broccoli and cauliflower from Florida, and stored apples that might have been grown locally. And bananas… food companies long before learned to pick Cavendish Bananas green in Central America and gas them with ethylene during shipping to complete ripening.

What’s changed then, to bring about this fabulous phenomenon of year-round produce? There are two main drivers. Cheap fuel and the disappearance of local diversified small farms. Let me set this up:

When you buy zucchini at the supermarket do you know how it got there? Was it grown locally or somewhere else in the U.S.? Is it from overseas? How was it treated? Were their pesticides used? Chemical Fertilizer? How far did it travel to get here? When was it picked? So many questions.

What if buy the zucchini at a farmer’s market? These questions go away, and, if you’re lucky, you can ask the farmer any others. But the issues with what you buy at the supermarket go deeper, much deeper. Since our farm sells Valencia oranges and their juice, let me use this as an example.

In her book, “Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice,” Alissa Hamilton lays out the transformation that has taken place in the commercial orange juice industry starting before the 21st- Century. OJ comes from Florida and California. Everyone knows that, right? No, no: the facts are that most of that juice you find in those ubiquitous half-gallon cartons on supermarket shelves comes from Brazil.

Juice squeezed there is either concentrated or pasteurized. If not concentrated, it’s deoxygenated so that it can be stored for up to a year, then shipped to the U.S. in multi-thousand-gallon containers before being put into cartons. Most of the volatile chemicals that give O.J. its flavor, texture and character are stripped off with the air or water. So, the big food companies add a cocktail of chemicals before packaging the old juice so it will resemble the original. This process and cheap oranges are one reason supermarket food seems like a bargain. There’s the start of a second moral hiding in this story.

When we bought our farm, existing groves of oranges and grapefruit were ready to pick. Only one packing house was interested enough to look at the fruit. The grapefruit wasn’t worth their while. Too far for too little. But they said yes to the oranges. A picking crew showed up a week later, and that night I watched a truck with about 30,000 lbs. of oranges negotiate our bridge over Santa Rosa Creek. Two weeks later I eagerly opened an envelope from the company. I was shocked to find a bill for the picking costs and a letter explaining that the price for oranges for juice was $0.00. Welcome to the industrial food system.

There’s much more to be said about the industrial food and the demise of small farms. Visit next week to start learning why small diversified farms have disappeared but are needed now to deal with the catastrophes caused by climate change.

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