All week long, the news and the nation have been in the grip of horrendous stories about Hurricane Katrina’s deadly toll on a great American city and surrounding areas.
As fellow citizens of the suffering residents, we can only stand by and watch and fume as relief efforts stumble along, and cheer for those who are helping and being helped.
The Wednesday farmers’ market was visited by a ten-foot inflatable buffalo, which was there to promote public awareness of the Yellowstone bison herd. The buffalo had been booked months in advance, yet his appearance was oddly juxtaposed in a setting that may have been better served by a Red Cross table. (Red Cross donation tables are being set up at Santa Monica farmers’ markets beginning on September first.)
As was customary, however, the farmers’ market provided a space for consumers and farmers to meet and greet and discuss the news of the day in addition to engaging in commerce – and additionally to get their own trials and tribulations into some sort of perspective in the face of the catastrophe of Katrina. Higher gas prices are only the prelude to what will certainly be a major realignment of personal priorities. In spite of the fact that today Californians are safe and dry, national events have rendered us all a little more vulnerable, and made us realize that hardships in any part of the country – or the world – make us all a little less secure.
Much has been said recently in the media and elsewhere about food security, and of the vulnerability of a food supply that stretches for thousands of miles and requires huge inputs of energy to transport from producer to consumer. In the event of a national emergency, how accessible is one to one’s food supply? Would it be possible for individuals to feed themselves if ports were inoperable and highways were impassable? Where does our food come from and how can we be sure we will have access to it if it is not delivered to our doorstep?
Fortunately, farmers’ markets have been models for a direct link between consumer and producer. Farmers who depend on farmers’ markets for their livelihood load up trucks with produce and head out in the wee hours of the night from farms and ranches all around California to bring fresh crops to their urban customers. Very little – including road closures and mud slides – can stop them from arriving at markets. During winter’s heavy rains, farmers from the central coast from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo drove out of their way east to Interstate 5 to bring produce to Los Angeles area farmers’ markets. Some spent six hours one way to arrive on time at their markets.
All this is to say that the bounty that we customers have come to expect at the farmers’ market comes as a result of planning and initiative on the part of California farmers. As dependent as farmers are on the forces of nature to grow their crops, they are at least connected with an understanding and appreciative customer base that will allow them some leeway when price and availability begin to waiver. Just recently, customers have noticed that the supply of late stone fruit, particularly peaches and nectarines, has rather abruptly come to a stop at certain stands. Farmers will tell them that the early rains, and especially the mid-season rains, created a condition where brown rot was able to take hold in mature fruit causing it to develop brown tips and drop from the trees.
Organic fungus treatments like sulphur dioxide were not very effective in curbing the fungus’ spread so tons of peaches and nectarines were lost. Farmers are hopeful that the later season varieties will escape the same fate, but exceptionally hot temperatures in the central San Joaquin valley have affected the August tree fruit harvest. Farmers are also complaining that adverse weather conditions have affected their grapes this year as well. Mildew has been a prevalent problem due to late rains and excessive heat, and some farmers note that their red grapes have not sufficiently “colored up.” Many Thompson seedless grapes, the prime raisin grapes, have already been laid down on paper to start the drying process. Fortunately for Thompson growers, the raisin price again this year is high, so they can expect to make some gains after several years of below-cost prices.
A quick inventory at the weekend markets this week yielded a plethora of end of summer fruits that are a testament to the skill of farmers who prevailed in uncertain times. Kennedy farms had some heirloom Elephant Heart plums, along with two sweet prune plums and some yellow-fleshed peaches and nectarines. Olsen Family Farms, organic tree fruit growers, had two plum varieties, both a yellow and a white nectarine and a full-flavored September Sun yellow peach. Mike Cirone from See Canyon had a table heaped with tasty apples – a Cox Orange Pippin, Johnalicious, Honey Crisp, McIntosh, Tomb Empire (dark red skin and very sweet), the huge green Mutsu and a yellow Gala. Stehley Ranch had huge MacArthur avocados – similar in shape to the long-necked Pinkerton but with a creamier flesh. And Garcia Ranch had the biggest selection of figs to choose from, all conveniently sized – a green-skinned, white, seedless Garsey or “honey” fig, the green skinned, red fleshed Genoa, a petite Black Mission, and a large Brown Turkey.I shopped till I dropped, and I was grateful to have the abundance and variety to choose from in spite of the difficult weather conditions that have made this particular year so trying for California farmers. I shop to support them and to ensure my local food supply. Now I can send a check to the folks in Louisiana whose lifeline has been cut off by the devastating hurricane Katrina.