Feb 8, 2019
While working at the farmers market one weekend, I engaged in a conversation with a local farmer. He’s not a big operation, but he and his wife run a family farm that has been feeding the local area for over 100 years. The topic of conversation was how farming has changed, not just in practice but in what he grows and how much. It was during this conversation that he said something that I’ve often thought about, but just didn’t know how to put into words. I’ve often found a level of wisdom in people that are salt of the earth that isn’t found in a book, or in a fancy quote on the internet. Joe was no exception.
As a child, I helped in my father’s small garden, that’s were I got my start. We had a neighbor, who was an older gentleman from Southern Georgia. Inman had been on a farm his entire life, and despite working at the local plant, he spent a considerable amount of time growing his own food. From Inman and Frankie, his wife, I began to learn through my labors while working along side him in his considerably sized garden, what it was to plant by seasons. I also learned what it was to put up food for the coming months or year. In the spring, seeds would be started inside, and gently cared for until it was time to turn the soil, make the rows and place the starts. Throughout the spring, we’d raid the worm beds for castings and spread them on the rows. As the days grew longer, the plants began to yield more than anyone could eat in a week. Then the work really began. We shelled bag after bag of peas, snapped bag after bag of green beans, and eventually as the corn came ready we’d spend hours on the porch shucking and scraping the corn from the cob to make creamed corn or jarred corn. They were preparing for winter. During these months though, we enjoyed strawberry’s as they came ready, then blueberries, then the melons would come in. An ever-present supply of fresh fruit, but only in the time it was ready. Some fruits were made into preserves and stored for future use, and others frozen for cobblers in the fall. As soon as the spring and summer gardens were played out, compost was spread, castings applied and fall root crops were set in for potatoes, radish, turnips, and of course, collards.
The way Inman and Frankie worked their food and prepared for the coming days was something different than I learned at home. At home we ate what was ready when it was ready, and when it was gone, it was done. I learned lessons from both gardens and styles though.
What Joe shared with me that day at the market was that what I experienced as a child was no longer the norm. There was a time when his family would plant 50 acres of sweet corn. When it came in, there would be lines of trucks filling their beds with the corn for families to take home, shuck and scrape just as I had as a child. Now, people buy 2-4 ears and are done. Collards, are very southern fare, have lost their popularity, he now plants far less than they used too because they just aren’t eaten as often. Even melons are tough to offload when they come in. “Food isn’t special anymore….” What he meant by that, is food has no seasons. If you want Zucchini in January, you can walk into a grocery store and get it. If you want Strawberry’s for Thanksgiving, no problem. At one time, an orange was considered the best of Christmas gifts for kids all across the country. Now, they are commonly found going bad on kitchen counters all year long.
Global flattening is a term typically applied to economics and technology, but it applies to food as well. Global Flattening means is that the advances in communication and technology have leveled the global playing field or even tipped the balance in favor of poorer nations. The ability to move food from country to country quickly has created a constant season for just about everything. We no longer covet the week when the first fruits of spring are yielded and enjoy them in succession. We can pick up small packages of them anytime of year. Local farmers are no longer competing with just each other, they are competing with the world. Competing with farmers in other countries that don’t have the same regulatory practices, environmental rules, weather patterns, or labor costs.
With the global flattening of our food sources, gaining access to local markets is even more difficult. There are very stringent buying rules placed on farmers, often making it impossible to do direct sales. The more common method is for markets to only buy form large third party food vendors. Everyone has to make their money right? I’m all for it, but cutting out local growers does a great disservice to all, and based on the number of recalls of lettuce last year,22 recalls in 2018, it does little to make it safer. If anything, it makes it worse. More food passing through single points causing a greater spread of the problem. To further the problem, many today have a phobia of locally grown foods because it doesn’t come from a storefront. People being removed from their food sources has created a emotional fear that what they find at road side markets and farmers markets isn’t clean or healthy because there isn’t a little lot number sticker on it. I’ll never forget the look of horror on a family members face when I pulled fresh eggs from my chicken coop and made breakfast from them. “How do you know they are safe?” I couldn’t even answer. She had a similar fear of fresh fish brought home by her husband, caught in the nearby sound. She’s better about it these days but it took years to deprogram the idea that only foods from stores were safe.
Seasonal eating is also beneficial for the body, the types of crops grown in specific seasons feed the body what it needs at that time of year. For example, oranges in winter, boost our vitamin C needed for immune support, root crops from the fall stored for winter hold their nutritional value and provide a good base for soups and stews that warm and nourish the body. Spring greens are heavy in minerals and antioxidants to help purge the body of winter sluggishness. Summer fruits are loaded with moisture for hydration, and high in beta-carotene’s that help protect against sun damage as well as adding some flavorful zest to summer dishes. A quick search of the internet will turn up dozens of articles, all relaying the importance of seasonal eating recounting facts from environmental impact, to nutrition, to local economy, and safety.
There are many reasons to help make food special again by partaking in seasonal eating. Learning how to store food, whether it be via canning (jarring) or freezing, allows you to capitalize on the local market growers and obtain the freshest ingredients for future use as well as immediate table fare. Joe was absolutely right, we have largely forgotten how to eat and nourish our bodies and our souls with “special foods.”