In the 1840s, the population of Ireland was decimated by a famine caused by an outbreak of phytophthora that wiped out the majority of the potato crop on the island. While farmers grew other crops as well, Irish potatoes were a classic example of a monocrop: a single food that provided sustenance to the majority of the population. A million people died in the famine that resulted and several million emigrated to the U.S. and other countries to escape starvation.
Over a hundred and fifty years later, human societies continue to rely heavily on a handful of major food crops: Corn, rice, soybeans and wheat. Also troubling is the lack of diversity of variety in common foodstuffs. Most of the bananas grown in the world are a single variety. Seventy-five percent of the walnuts planted in California are as well.
Agriculture often gets the blame for the widespread standardization of food crops grown. And while it’s true that farmers have important considerations like yield, disease resistance and other agronomic factors, the bottom line is that they have to grow what buyers want.
Any farmer who grows fruits or vegetables can recite a litany of incredibly specific requirements that produce industry buyers make. While the general idea of these specifications (“specs” in the industry lingo) is to make sure that the produce is high quality, most of them have nothing to do with the experience of the final consumer.
A classic case involving a crop that we at Terra Firma do not grow: Artichokes that ripen in the winter develop a reddish tinge when they are exposed to frosty weather — a fairly common phenomena during that time of year. “Frost kissed” artichokes actually taste sweeter than ones grown during warmer times of year. But the produce industry pays growers less for them, if they will buy them at all, because of their appearance.
Over decades, the perfectionist obsession of the food industry has pushed farmers away from growing any crop or variety that doesn’t meet their narrow definitions. Avocadoes are a great example: there are dozens of tasty varieties, but most supermarkets only stock the Hass variety or others that look similar. As if consumers would somehow be unable to recognize others or be unwilling to buy them. The end result is a worldwide Avocado monoculture.
The good news is that farmers and consumers have been pushing back against the tyranny of the produce industry. Thirty years of small-scale direct marketing through CSAs, farmers markets and other outlets have broadened people’s experience of what foods are actually available and expanded farmers’ ability to grow a wider diversity of crops and varieties.
Educated and empowered consumers have expanded the demand for a more diverse array of foods, and traditional grocery stores have scrambled to meet it. The produce distributors that previously resisted increasing the diversity of their offerings have been forced to respond to the demand — or lose business. And this has given more and more farms an opportunity to grow a wider variety of crops.
Terra Firma started growing arugula back in 1995, at the request of a handful of chefs. We were thrilled to learn that it wasn’t just a tasty and nutritious food, but a crop that grew and produced extremely well for us. At the time, many of our CSA subscribers had never eaten it and didn’t know how to use it.
As you know, arugula is now ubiquitous on restaurant menus and is available 7 days a week in plastic clamshells at just about every grocery store in California.
I certainly don’t mean to overstate our success in this area — arugula is not going to feed the hungry if corn or rice crops fail worldwide. Commodity production has become even more focused on a narrow range of crops in the last thirty years, mostly due to GMOs. But farms like ours are islands of diversity, and by supporting our farm you are also supporting the network of seed companies and seed producers who make it possible for us to grow everything we do.