Thursday, September 10, 2009

Local produce, my dollar, my vote

I am a farmer's market addict. I have a weakness for beautiful local produce in it's prime. I walk past large unblemished heads of snow white, cheddar orange and purple cauliflower, tomatoes of every size, shape and color, cumbers, herbs, red and gold beets with their vibrant greens, baskets of turnips, rutabagas, celery and onions, leeks, cabbages, potatoes and carrots! I reach out a hand to caress a winter squash and can't resist the urge to pick it up and then another and another, putting them on the scale. Walking to the truck carrying as much squash as I can and dreaming of roasted squash, steamed squash, squash soup with shallots and sage, squash pie, maybe a whole squash as a Thanksgiving center piece with soup inside. The squash was a dollar and fifty cents a pound, I bought one sweet meat, two sweet mamas and some sort of orange sweet mama looking thing for about fifty bucks. Was it a good deal? It wasn't a steal. Last year squash at Fred Meyers was priced about the same. I'm sure I'll be able to find squash for less money a pound at Wall Mart some time this winter. Will the Wall Mart squash be comparable in quality to the local squash? Undoubtedly no. Winter squash serve as our only fall decorations, adorning a shelf or table with their lovely shapes and colors. They last well into the winter sitting at room temperature. If they are not keeping I move them to a cooler floor location or cook them.

I do like a bargain. We do not have extra money to throw away. I know that locally grown produce is fresher, healthier and tastier, better for my family, farmers and the local economy in general. Many of the vegetables are grown organically, although only one farm that I know of is certified organic. Choosing where my dollars go are in my power. My dollar is my vote, and when I can I'll vote for the Alaskan Farmers any day. If you compare prices at the Farmer's Market to those at the local supermarkets bargains are hard to find, but you can find them if you shop often and early. Some of the better deals I saw this summer were large garbage sized bags of broccoli for fifteen dollars, and beets in bins without their greens by the pound as opposed to those sold in bunches. The Spinach Creek Farm carrots are always a score, especially the big bags of ends and pieces. The best deals of the summer are found during the last few weeks when you can find fifty pound bags of potatoes vs. five pound bags and so forth.

Tomatoes are available beginning in mid June at six dollars a pound. Initially I was daunted by the price. Who wouldn't be? For those of you far away, produce prices are much higher here in general. Standard tomatoes usually run two to four dollars a pound at the supermarket. Putting things in perspective, I know what it takes to grow a ripe tomato in interior Alaska. These tomatoes are started by hand in January or February and transplanted into greenhouses heated by wood or fuel. The farmer's selling these tomatoes are not trying to rob the innocent consumer. They are making a living. The more succesful farmers are full time farmers with down time in the winter, but most have full time jobs away from their farm. On another note, I sure don't have tomatoes by mid June. Although in some years I have had tomatoes by the end of July.

Some folks I know abstain from buying tomatoes until they are harvesting their own. I'm just not that patient. I want to eat what is in season when it is in season whether I've grown it or not. I also must say that some winters we have gone without store bought tomatoes, enjoying the local tomatoes and then our own. Often our own tomatoes ripen up all fall into November indoors off the vine. Last year I dried a gallon of sun-dried tomatoes for winter eating. I do confess that last year we bought organic heirloom tomatoes at the supermarket throughout the winter. They were like jewells, orange, white, green striped, black, brown, purple and yellow, coming in all shapes and sizes and guess what, they were six dollars a pound. They were not local, not in season, but they were tasty and we relished them. I'd rather pay more money for a quality product or go without, than purchase the regular tomatoes that line the supermarket shelves. I don't need that slice of red on a sandwich if I can't even taste it.

We try to eat locally when possible. I play a little game with myself in the summer where I try not to buy any vegetables from the store. We eat out of the garden or buy it at the market. A couple of exceptions that we made this summer were for corn on the cob and a couple avocados. I went without shallots for a couple months, but I bought a few the other day. We've been eating our own onions and garlic for the last couple months as well as potatoes, carrots, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, beans, peas, greens, herbs, zucchini and a couple exotics like eggplant and a few cucumbers. All summer I've been buying tomatoes and cucumbers at the market. Last week I bought a couple cauliflower and some bulk beets. Dustin was giving me a hard time as we have a long row of beets and some nice heads of cauliflower in the garden. But it is not like we aren't going to eat them all. And I can't pass up a good deal. The heads of cauliflower were three and four dollars a piece and big! Ours are still growing so I've been holding out on harvesting them until the last minute. We can't have enough beets. I think I spent eight or ten dollars and filled to gallon Ziplocs and stuck them in the fridge. We've been eating beets for a while but they are doing so nicely in the cool weather. I've just been harvesting the big ones and leaving the rest to fill out. I know how much labor I put into growing vegetables; starting them from seed, nurturing them along, prepping beds, transplanting, lots of hand watering, and then waiting and watching and more watering. Then some plants like cauliflower put out one head. You watch it grow trying to get as much as possible from the one plant. I do feel a little silly buying things from the market that I have growing in the garden. As long as it all gets eaten, then it is money well spent.

So wherever you are I'm guessing your local farmer's market is in full swing. Take advantage of the fabulous produce while you still can. And for those of you in interior Alaska I believe the Tanana Valley Farmer's Market is open for at least two more weekends. You'll see me there. Hopefully early in the day and looking for some good last minute deals.

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