The Practical Gardener

Jasmine and I were home alone this weekend; Eleanor and Laurel were attending an out-of-town soccer tournament. On Saturday afternoon, the red-headed daughter and I had our backpacking excursion rained out. As we made our way home, smelling of wet socks and soggy packs, we stopped off to pick up a video.

Periodically, I choose classic flicks to watch with 15-year-old Jasmine; I take perverse pleasure in renting in black-and-white films because the fact that they’re not in color seems to irritate her. I’m sure it has to do with her generation being raised with a channel changer and too many channels to choose from. But I digress.

The movie I picked (alas, it’s in color) was East of Eden, with James Dean. It’s a Cain-and-Abel story set in 1917 in Salinas, Calif. Adam, the James Dean character’s father, is obsessed with the idea of loading lettuce from his farm onto freight cars filled with blocks of ice and shipping it halfway across the country to places willing to pay a premium price for nearly fresh lettuce. Adam has the right idea about shipping, but his technology is flawed, and he loses a fortune when the lettuce goes bad as it sits on ice.

To say that Adam had the “right idea” is really only partly true. Eventually, refrigerated freight cars did make it possible (and profitable) to ship produce. And for about 75 years now, the bulk of America has had access to tomatoes (and every other summer veggie) in January, compliments of California and Florida growers. What a concept! You can eat darn near any fruit or veggie your heart desires, any time of year. What progress!

Now here’s the dark side of what overland shipping has wrought: That fresh food ain’t fresh when it gets here. I don’t care what you do to it. You can pound it with radiation to make it keep. You can genetically engineer it to ship well and look good (with taste necessarily taking a back seat in the process). You can hire spin-doctors to tell the public that tomatoes from California are just like the ones Grandma used to grow. But they’re still not fresh. They’ve also most likely lost 50 percent of their nutritional value by the time they hit your plate. And regardless of what the folks in the ad department tell you, they don’t taste like Grandma’s tomatoes.

At a gardening conference a couple of years ago, I heard the Warrior God, Eliot Coleman, say that food should travel from the field to your kitchen in the same amount of time it takes to travel through your digestive system. That can’t happen when the lettuce in your salad comes from Salinas, Calif.

Studies show that most of the food we eat travels about 1,200 miles before it gets to our mouths. A lot of this has to do with the fact that 7 percent of the farms in America receive almost 75 percent of the revenue from all agricultural products sold in this country. It’s that lethal cocktail of size, corporate accounting and lobbyists in Washington that has brought us to the point where so many Americans don’t have a clue what a good tomato tastes like.

But there’s something new out there that’s reinvigorating the local farming economy and returning craftsmanship to agricultural production. No, local farmers aren’t taking over grocery stores; those who want it can still buy California produce in the same old places. But for the rest of us, the good folks at the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project have come up with a way that we can support local agriculture.

From Sept. 6-14, ASAP is sponsoring “Savor the Flavor — Appalachian Harvest 2002.” The project’s partners have agreed to buy more local, sustainably grown produce. Some of these participants are markets and co-ops; most are restaurants that will be showcasing particular locally produced veggies on their menus. The important thing is that local people are eating locally produced food, and they’re getting it the same day it’s harvested.

The second edition of the “ASAP Local Food Guide” is now available. It lists about 25 different places where you can buy or dine on food produced here in WNC; it also profiles local farmers.

“Our goal is to produce two guides a year,” says Charlie Jackson, the fellow in charge of this endeavor. ASAP is part of a national movement in which people who care about what their food tastes like have joined forces to take back a piece of their local economy.

The guide is available on-line (www.buyappalachian.org) and at participating restaurants, grocers, tailgate markets and independent bookstores around town. The Web site is a good place to find out all about the folks who display the “Get Fresh — Buy Appalachian” sticker in their windows. In the process, you’ll also learn a good deal more about the movement to support local agriculture — and return good, fresh food to American tables.

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