It’s vitally important to know your growers and suppliers. Here are several correlates if you want truly great-tasting, fresh food. Like all generalizations, there are exceptions, but for the most part these rules hold true:
The Smaller the Farm, the Better the Food
Chances are that at small family farms, more care will be taken with the produce, the meat and milk animals, and the farm itself. At very large factory farms, produce and animals are commodities. There’s a machine designed expressly to machine-harvest every crop. Things are done by a schedule, including the application of agrichemicals. Small farmers, on the other hand, are much less regimented. They get “up close and personal” with their crops and animals. Their chickens are more likely to live in a pen by a henhouse, eat vegetable scraps and insects they find by scratching in the soil, and enjoy their lives than to live crammed together into cages under round-the-clock lights like agribusiness chickens. Which eggs do you think make the best omelets?
The Closer the Farm to Your Table, the Better the Food
The more local the food, the better, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s going to be fresh and in season; it’s going to exhibit all the flavor it’s capable of. Because it doesn’t have to sit in trucks and railcars and on supermarket shelves for weeks, it can be one of those delicious but fragile varieties that doesn’t ship well. It can be picked ripe, instead of harvested hard and green and then gassed into obtaining color (but not flavor) on the long journey to the supermarket.
Also, the shorter the distance from the farm to your table, or at least to the market, the greater the chance you’ll meet the person who actually grew the food. You’ll be able to ask him or her questions about how the food is grown.
The Smaller and Closer the Farm, the Better the Effect on the Environment
There are environmental benefits to shortening those supply lines: Less fuel is used in transporting and storing the food. And local small farmers tend to be organic because they’re farming their own land, and they don’t want to expose themselves and their families to noxious chemicals. They also tend to be your neighbors and can be held accountable for their practices by their fellow citizens. If your neighborhood dairy is polluting the local creek by spreading raw manure on frozen soil (which allows it to run off into the local watersheds), you can do something about it. If your milk comes from cows penned on a thousand acres a thousand miles away, you won’t even know about its environmental problems.
Small farmers who own their own land also have a deep relationship with that land and a regard for it. They know where the pheasants nest and may decide not to plow there during those times of year when the birds are raising their young. They can see the effects of their husbandry on the ecology of the natural world and the farm world as these worlds intertwine and affect one another. Factory farms tend to plow every inch that can be plowed, from fencerow to fencerow, without regard for the niceties of nature. Small farmer can be held accountable if there’s something wrong with their produce. If there’s something wrong with the crops from factory farms, and you try to talk to the person responsible, you’ll be passed up the ladder of command until you reach someone who’s either unavailable or surrounded by platoons of PR people to smooth-talk you or lawyers to sue you if you get too close.
The Shorter the Time from Harvest to Eating, the Better the Food
Although you may want to age your beef, cheese, and wine, and hang your game, most foods taste best and have the most nutrients when they’re just picked or freshly killed. They taste better and have the most nutrients when it is allowed to develop fully on the plant it grows on. If you could graph the flavor development of a tree-ripened peach on a bell curve, the very highest point of the curve would be the moment it’s picked dead-ripe from the tree. If that moment closely coincides with the moment you bite into it, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. This doesn’t hold true for every food. But we all know from experience that vine-ripened tomatoes taste better than supermarket tomatoes, and people who plant tomatoes in their gardens know that a tomato picked ripe and eaten on the spot tastes even better than a vine-ripened tomato from the store. Consumers put a premium on freshly picked corn because the moment an ear is snapped off the stalk, it begins to lose sweetness and flavor.
Enzymes are the catalytic agents in fruits and vegetables responsible for these swift changes in flavor after picking. But enzymes are evanescent molecules without a great deal of persistence, especially after their work is done. One of the reasons fresh food tastes so bright and complex compared to food that’s been trucked around for many days is the presence of enzymes, phenolis, and other plant substances that will wither away with every passing hour.
One of the best ways to shorten the distance and time from the farm to your table is to visit local pick-your-own operations. In Connecticut, a typical northeastern state, about 30 percent of the state’s fruit and vegetable growers have pick-your-own plots. The crops from these plots are usually sold at reduced prices because the farmer doesn’t have the expense of picking the crop. Over the past twenty-five years, there has been a gradual move by small farmers away from sales to wholesalers, who offer low prices for their crops, to direct-to-consumer marketing, where the growers get a fairer price (although higher for you, the consumer). A recent survey by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture identified about 560 state growers who market their produce through farm showrooms and roadside stands.
Visit PickYourOwn.org for a list of such farms in every state.
Organic Radish Salsa Recipe
Makes about 1½ cups
The radish adds a different kind pf pungency to the peppery heat of a typical salsa. It also adds a nice crunch and color when red radishes are young and crisp.
Use for a topping for chicken, pork, or fish tacos; as an addition to meat, rice, and beans in burritos; or eat with chips.
½ cup finely diced organic radishes
½ cup seeded and diced ripe organic plum tomato (1 large tomato)
¼ cup finely chopped scallions (white parts only)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon minced jalapeño or serrano pepper
2 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Gently stir all ingredients together in a serving bowl.
See also Jeff’s Why Organic Food?
Jeff Cox is author of The Organic Cook’s Bible and The Organic Food Shopper’s Guide and lives in Sonoma County, California.
Image Credit: © Milosluz | Dreamstime.com
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