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Why Local Produce is Better

Aug 17, 2007
Today's food buyer has choices which previous generations never dreamed of. At any given time of the year, they can go to the wholesaler and buy produce that was once only seasonally available. You can have strawberries in November and corn on the cob in February. One is tempted to throw restraint to the wind, offering a year-round menu of unlimited potential.

The problem with this, is your offering will be homogenized, mediocre, and bland. To say nothing of not being as healthy as it could be. With produce more than anything, you can taste a very pronounced difference between an item fresh off the tree and something that's been frozen and stored in a bin for six months. True, you can't tell the difference at a steam table restaurant in the middle of the desert - but you aren't that kind of restaurant, are you?

Produce is at its peak nutritional value when it is fully ripe. But fruits and vegetables that will be packed to travel long distances to the market point aren't picked when they are ripe, but instead before ripeness. While the produce may gain color and softness on its journey to the wholesaler, nutritional value comes directly through the stem from the living plant. Once harvested, a vegetable is as nutritious as it is going to get. Furthermore, nutritional value actually decreases every day past the point of harvest. So, when the item comes off the tree or vine, it has a set amount of nutritional value, and the clock starts ticking as it loses a little bit each day.

For large commercial vegetable farmers, nutritional value isn't even at the top of the agenda . In the long-gone days when all produce was local, horticulturists who were developing new strains of fruits and vegetables only had to consider taste and nutritional value.

With much of the growing and harvesting today handled by machines and with produce being shipped around the world, several other criteria take priority with taste and nutrition taking a back seat. the focus is instead on how sturdy it is, how easily it can be shipped, and the eye-appeal. When today's farmer may never even actually touch the produce, things that make it easy for machine handling like uniformity of size even come into play.

While all of these new criteria are important to the grower's profits, they add nothing to the health of the consumer. If anything, they may detract from it. Sturdy produce that stands up to lengthy shipping will be shipped over long distances, taking many days on its journey to your kitchen, and losing nutritional value and flavor with every day that passes between harvest and serving.

An excellent hobby for a chef is gardening. Raising a little home plot of backyard produce is good for getting you out of the kitchen and in the nature environment. And there's no comparison when you harvest - you will never forget your first bite of a tomato fresh off the vine, and from then on store-bought tomatoes will taste like licking a brick to you. You make little discoveries - fresh strawberries retain enough of their sweetness that you don't pucker when you taste one, blackberries fresh from the vine actually taste juicy, and yellow squash on its first day has a skin that isn't leathery.

Spinach tastes rich and crunchy, not like the canned slime you see some places serving. Broccoli tastes so wholesome, even President Bush would eat it. Chives have a sharp, assertive flavor instead of tasting like peppered chalk.

Lacking that, the next-best thing is the farmer's market. Products at farmers' markets are renowned for being locally-grown and as fresh as just-picked this morning. And the farmers' market has all kinds of side benefits. Since locally-grown produce does not travel as far to get to your kitchen, the difference in mileage saves on fossil fuels, allows farmers to pick produce at their peak of flavor, and preserves the nutritional content of the fresh produce.

Furthermore, the produce can be organically grown, since it isn't being boxed and shipped half-way across the country. Farmers who sell direct often introduce innovative little enterprises of their own, like humanely-raised and kosher meats, handmade farmstead cheeses (Do yourself a favor and taste one of these! The best cheese you ever tasted from a store will forever taste like plastic compared to a fresh farmstead cheese!), eggs and poultry from free-range fowl, as well as "heirloom" produce (as opposed to genetically-modified) and heritage breeds of meat and fowl.

Farmers' markets help farmers stay in business as well as preserve natural resources. Wholesale prices which farmers get for their produce are very low, often near the cost of production, and the wholesaler marks it up before passing it on to you. Farmers who sell direct to the public without going through a middle man get a better price for their produce, while you still save money. It can be shown that the preservation of farmland is important for the health of the environment and the water supply. Sustainably-managed farms conserve soil and clean water in our communities and provide a natural habitat for wildlife.

Of course, in the practical real world, we don't always have time to take a leisurely stroll through a farmers' market maze of stalls when we could just have the computer order X number of boxes from the shipper. But even if your business is firmly attached to the industrial teat, you can still supplement your stock with locally-grown produce whenever you can. The change will make an occasional nice surprise for your diners.
About the Author
Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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