Seed To Table

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One of the greatest discoveries of my journey through many gardens and kitchens is the joy of preparing simple meals from freshly harvested produce. I invite you to join me in the challenge to eat as much as possible from local, seasonal ingredients and from seed to table.

Why Is Organic Important?
Why Is Local & Seasonal Important?
Why Are Heirloom & Open Pollinated Varieties Important?
But It’s So Expensive!
Resources

Why Is Organic Important?

Conventional agro-chemicals contaminate our air and water; poison and destroy habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, and other wildlife; introduce toxins into our diet; and often demand a huge amount of energy and extraction to be produced and used. Organic growers avoid the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in favor of holistic practices that nurture the health and fertility of the soil and the ecosystems that sustain us. In addition, several studies demonstrate that organic produce contains higher levels of nutrients. Learn more.

Why Is Local & Seasonal Important?

Most of the food in grocery stores is grown on large industrial farms, merged with produce from several other growers, then stored in warehouses and shipped around the world. Farmers receive only a fraction of the price you pay, which is often kept low by the exploitation of undocumented migrant labor.

Eating locally and with the seasons means you enjoy produce at its prime. Local produce can be bred for taste rather than how well it ships and holds up on the shelf, and harvested at its peak of ripeness. Fresh and naturally ripened = more flavor and nutrition. Local food requires far less energy to transport, store, package, and market while reducing food waste from spoilage and the risk of contamination along the way. It also supports small producers in your community and provides opportunities to get to know the place, people, and growing practices that feed you. Find out all you can — local food is not always grown ecologically or with just labor practices, and produce at farmer’s markets, especially in large cities, has sometimes been trucked in from hundreds of miles away.

Why Are Heirloom & Open Pollinated Varieties Important?

Heirloom varieties have been cherished, preserved, and improved through careful breeding for generations — for flavor; vigor; resilience and resistance to pests and disease; adaptation to different climates; and a delightful array of sizes, shapes, colors, and quirky characteristics. However, this diversity is threatened by the consolidation of seed production into the hands of few large companies, who offer a limited selection of seeds primarily geared towards conventional industrial agriculture. Some of the traits of central importance to large commercial growers, such as uniform ripening and ability to withstand shipping and spraying, are not relevant or even desireable for small-scale farmers and gardeners. Major seed companies are often also involved in developing and marketing agro-chemicals, and so focus on crops heavily reliant on chemical inputs.

Many of the seeds offered by seed companies are hybrids (F1), which are either sterile or do not produce true to type in the next generation, requiring growers to buy new seeds each year. Producing hybrids is a time honored method of plant breeding that allows us to benefit from the best qualities of two varieties, along with the consistency and vigor that results from the cross. However, relying exclusively on a limited selection of hybrids leaves us vulnerable to seed crop failures, disease and pest outbreaks, and the vagaries of the market. The Irish potato famine is the most drastic and well-known example of the dangers of depending on a single crop variety.

Open pollinated seeds, meanwhile, can be saved and replanted year after year, preserving the legacy and genetic diversity of a multitude of unique crops. They also allow for the continued development of varieties adapted to shifting local conditions and small-scale organic production.

But It’s So Expensive!

Organic growing practices are labor-intensive, and small-scale growers generally do not benefit from the economies of scale and government subsidies (i.e. tax dollars) that permit large industrial growers to keep food prices artificially low. Unfortunately, chemicals and fuel are currently far cheaper than labor, at least without considering their environmental and political cost. When you buy ethically grown food from small local producers, in contrast, you pay more of the true cost directly to the grower.

At the same time, living on a tight budget, there have been plenty of times when I’ve had to nix an item from my list or compromise because the price of the local/organic/fair-trade/environmentally-friendly option was sky-high. Eating healthy, local, organic food doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive, however. There are several ways to make it more accessible and affordable:

1. Choose more whole ingredients over processed and convenience foods (crackers, mixes, pre-chopped vegetables, frozen dinners, etc.) This is better not only for your wallet, but also for your health, since many processed foods — even “natural” or organic — contain an alarming amount of sugar, salt, fat, and dubious additives. Most of us don’t have the time or desire to make everything from scratch, of course, but there are plenty of tricks to preparing meals from simple ingredients even with a busy schedule.

2. Buy food in season and preserve some of the abundance. Food is not only at its best at the peak of its season, but also most abundant and affordable. Learn what is in season, stock up when prices drop, and preserve some of the bounty so you can enjoy it later. Ask around — sometimes growers will offer special discounts on a bumper crop if you order larger amounts for preserving.

3. Check out the bulk bins. Many food co-ops, natural food stores, and even some mainstream grocery stores sell a wide variety of ingredients by weight — from staples like flours, grains, and beans to specialty teas, spices, and snacks. Buying in bulk can be a great way to stock up on items you use frequently, and also to buy just the amount of an expensive ingredient you need for a special meal.

4. Explore your options. Beyond the familiar aisles of the grocery store, you might be able to find a wider selection or lower price at food co-ops and farmers’ markets. Can’t find an item? It can’t hurt to ask the store where you do most of your shopping to carry it. Independent grocers in particular may be happy to oblige.  Ordering online can also be a great resource for staple items that are not available or reasonably priced where you live.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is another great way to support local growers and enjoy affordable farm-fresh products. Arrangements vary, but generally entail regular payments to a specific farm or network of farms in exchange for a “share” of their bounty throughout the growing season. In addition to fruits and vegetables, some farms also offer their CSA members flowers, eggs, nuts, and value-added products like breads and canned goods.

6. Grow Your Own. I was seduced into gardening by my love of food. Nothing compares to watching seeds poke above the surface and grow before your eyes, and there are few things as rewarding as a meal prepared with food you just harvested out of the garden. With a little care each week, even a tiny space can produce a surprising amount of food. Even if you don’t have a yard, you might be able to grow a few herbs in pots on a porch or windowsill, making it easy to brighten up a dish without having to buy a large bunch that fades before you can use it.

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Don’t be afraid to start small – I couldn’t believe how much salad my tiny (4×6 ft) backyard garden produced last winter. Plenty to share with friends!

Gardening equipment and materials can quickly get pricy if you let them; seek out inexpensive local alternatives instead. Some waste management facilities offer free woodchips and compost, and stables are usually happy to give you as many loads of manure as you can take. Cardboard boxes and newspaper are perfect for sheet-mulching, and egg cartons work well for raising small seedlings inside. Seed and tool-lending libraries can be a great source of free seeds and equipment. And why not save seed from some of your favorite plants for next year?

7. Barter and Share with Neighbors and Friends. No space to garden? No time to spare? Slugs ate all your lettuce? Chances are you have a friend or neighbor with a green thumb who would be happy to off-load some of the windfall from their over-exuberant zucchini plants and persimmon tree. Or perhaps you have a skill or resource that you could offer them in exchange for some fresh fruits and veggies. If you do garden, you might be able to exchange some of your harvest for crops you didn’t plant or have success with, and share tools you only need on occasion. And, of course, since perennials usually require regular pruning or division, they lend themselves naturally to passing along to neighbors.

8. Helping Hands. There are a multitude of organizations working hard to increase access to healthy food for people of all income levels. Food assistance benefits, including EBT and WIC, are accepted at many farmers’ markets, often with incentives for using these benefits to purchase fresh produce.  Food justice organizations around the country establish community and backyard gardens, along with sliding-scale farm stands and farmers’ markets in low-income “food deserts” where there is little access to quality organic produce and whole foods. Some farmers and gardeners donate a portion of their harvest, and a growing number of food banks have set up their own gardens to offer a continual supply of fresh, organic produce. Some farms also offer sliding-scale CSA shares, which adjust members’ contribution based on what they can afford, or “working shares,” which enable members to pay for some or all of their share by volunteering on the farm. If you or someone you know are struggling to make ends meet, please don’t hesitate to seek out help. There are many resources to help get fresh, healthy, organic food on the table.

Resources:
Know another great resource? Please share it in the comments!

USDA Farmer’s Market Search – Nationwide database of farmers’ markets.

Sustainable Table – Find out what’s local and in season, and locate farmers’ markets near you.

EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides – Information on pesticide levels of different produce to help make informed decisions when you can’t afford to buy everything organic.

Seed Savers Exchange – Organization committed to preserving and empowering others to grow, save, and share heirloom, open-pollinating varieties. Great resource for buying and trading seeds, along with a useful guide to saving your own.

Smart Gardener – Free online garden planning and record keeping tools, along with informative articles on many aspects of organic gardening.

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Homescale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway – A gem of a book, which was my first introduction to permaculture. Far more than just useful food production techniques, it completely transformed my philosophy and approach towards gardening. Well worth the read!

Top Image courtesy of Kat Wilcox, talented artist, fellow farm intern, and dear friend.

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