Global Organics: Christmas Every Day?

To everything turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn....

I was reading the latest edition of the Agrarian Advocate and came across an interesting speech given by Dr. Gail Feenstra, food systems coordinator for the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. She was encouraging the audience to take an interest in local food systems. Her research showed that consumers are increasingly unaware of where their food comes from, how it is grown, and how to prepare it. She noted that food has become seasonless; people take for granted the year-round availability of food. Because her research also showed that most food items travel over 1,000 miles, she was concerned about our food security.

When I was a produce manager, I shared many of these same concerns. I struggled with whether I should carry the new off-season organic produce items that were being made available. I noticed that many people who attended fresh food awareness seminars were so removed and disconnected that they had lost or never experienced the simple joy that comes from eating fresh, ripe, in-season produce. Many had never known what a great tomato, peach, or cucumber tastes like before we shared them.

Have we created a "Christmas Every Day" scenario'? In William Dean Howells' story, a girl wishes it could be Christmas every day and soon finds that the holiday has lost everything that made it special. Sometimes the anticipation and preparation of something is half the enjoyment. What should a produce buyer do'?

I spoke with Bu Nygrens, purchasing manager with Veritable Vegetable, an organic produce wholesaler. Bu reminded me of the important role we all share in providing our customers with the freshest, best tasting produce we can. If we provide the choices along with education about the benefits of organic seasonal eating, then our customers can make decisions based on knowledge. While it is important that we don't become numb to the experience of seasonal food, it is also important to strike a balance, so that we can choose to buy blueberries in January or cherry tomatoes in November without being made to feel guilty. "After all," she noted, "every acre of land farmed using organic practices is better for all concerned."'

Ron Sharp, produce coordinator with North Coast Cooperative, buys produce for the Eureka and Arcata co-ops. He told me he loved being able to bring Fujis, one of his favorite apples, fresh to his customers when local ones are not available. He also recognizes the benefits of global organic agriculture, including the ability of workers to grow food without being poisoned! His comment led to my next questions. How do you know what's going on in Mexico, Chile, New Zealand'? Are the local workers communities benefiting from global organics? I feel we need to hold global growers and their projects up to the same scrutiny we give our local farmers.

Ron uses Veritable Vegetable as a main supplier and says they do an excellent job of staying on top of this kind of information for him. Many other wholesalers also do an excellent job. But there are some that are just moving produce as a commodity, which means we need to stay on top of some details ourselves.

One of the first off-season projects I chose to support as a produce manager was one started by Larry Jacob in Baja. He recognized that the market for high quality off-season organically grown specialty crops was also an opportunity to help the local community of farmers. The Baja farming collective that started in the I 98Os with just a few growers now supports 150 families whose income has gone from $2-3,000/year to $15,000/year. And the farmers from this project, Del Cabo, are teaching their neighbors and providing a resource for transition to organic production.

I was proud to know that as a retailer I could help such a wonderful project. My customers also appreciated great tasting tomatoes, basil and cucumbers, and were glad to know their purchases made a positive difference from the growers.

As our industry expands, the ministries of agriculture from countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Argentine have become very interested in supporting organic programs. They have come to recognize its economic opportunities and ecological value. With more players becoming part of global organics, sometimes interested only in the bottom line, it will be even more important that we know who and what we are supporting.

Remember that your customers are relying on you for correct information. They also want us to provide the best tasting, highest quality organic produce we can. I believe we should not compromise our quality standards just to have a produce item on the shelf, in season or not. So when we choose, let us choose wisely and maintain the joy of eating fresh food grown organically for generations to come.

See other articles from this issue: #083 July - August - 1999