One of the reasons most frequently listed to join a CSA or shop at a farmers’ market is to “eliminate the middleman”. This concept is most often thought of in economic terms: buying direct means that the farmer gets a much larger percentage of the value of their crop. But middlemen also prevent communication between farmers and consumers. And they have interests that are not only different, but often in conflict with, the grower and the eater.
Farmers want to grow the crops that perform best in their growing conditions, provide the best yields, get the highest prices, and cost the least to grow. They also generally want to grow food that they are proud of: crops that taste and look good.
Eaters want to buy food that looks nice, tastes good, and is reasonably priced. They may also put a value on things like convenience or innovation.
Enter the middlepeople. These are the folks who decide what fresh produce most Americans eat — the items that you see on the shelves of big box stores and supermarkets. For the most part, they don’t care (I would use a more colorful term but this is a family newsletter) what fresh produce tastes like. They base their decisions primarily on their own profit. And one of the biggest threats to that profit is spoilage — known as “shrinkage” in the produce industry.
Everyone who buys fresh produce experiences “shrink” themselves when they compost or throw away vegetables that have shriveled or rotted in their fridge. Every fresh produce grower is acutely aware of the problem as well. It is exceedingly difficult to know with 100% certainty how much produce to harvest, to stock on the store shelf, or to buy for your home.
The magic bullet in the war against food waste (“shrink”) is Shelf Life. Plant breeders have been working for years to identify ways to improve shelf life, perhaps most famously when they genetically modified tomatoes that stay ripe and red for 3-4 weeks without turning into mush — the Flavr Savr. While that product never caught on, they have continued their efforts to use both GMO technology and conventional breeder to achieve the same goal.
There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of reducing perishability in fresh produce. As a farmer, I try to identify varieties of vegetables and fruit that combine good flavor and reasonable shelf life, and we tend to avoid growing items that are overly delicate or short-lived.
But left unchecked, the push for more durable fruit and vegetables has led to many produce items that are simply bad. Until recently, my favorite example was “low acid, non-melting” Peaches and Nectarines. This is produce-industry code for Peaches and Nectarines that are as hard and sweet as Apples, with no other discernible flavors. These varieties now make up the vast majority of commercial stone fruit sold in the U.S.
Last week, though, I read about Long-Shelf-Life (LSL) Melons (Not watermelons). These are cantelopes that are bred to produce little or no ethylene gas, the natural agent that causes many fruits to ripen. They can literally sit on a store shelf for a month without breaking down. A number of big-box store corporations now only stock this type of melon, so melon growers who wish to sell to those massive outlets must grow them.
The Growers who produce LSL melons find them tasteless and unappealing, and have been pushing back on the plant breeders to create varieties with better flavor and texture. But it turns out that the aromatic flavor and texture that melon connoisseurs love actually comes from, you guessed it, ethylene. There is no way, according to the seed companies, that they can create great-tasting LSL melons.
In the end, these trends simply create more demand for the products grown by small farms like Terra Firma. But it gives me no joy to be able to take advantage of this niche market: it means that the vast majority of future Americans will never get to eat an aromatic, melt-in-your-mouth melon. Or peach. It makes me sad. And eaters aren’t the only ones who lose out; when people buy fewer melons, it means fewer sales for growers.
At Terra Firma, we are always trying to strike a balance, growing crop varieties that make economic sense for us while providing the best eating experience for you. We don’t always achieve that goal and it can be a struggle, because in the end we are ourselves at the mercy of seed companies. Almost every year, we lose one of our favorite vegetable or fruit varieties and are forced to scramble to find something to replace it. This can take years of testing out new ones.
As a CSA subscriber, you have a type of accountability that no supermarket or big-box store shopper enjoys. You have a direct line to the people that grow and harvest the crops in your boxes. We also eat the same produce every day.