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What's Native? (Get To Know Your Farmer) an essay by Laura Fisher, Apprentice

Posted 8/9/2011 10:08am by Laura Fisher, Apprentice.

What's Native? (Get To Know Your Farmer)

an essay by Laura Fisher, Apprentice

 

At Devon Point Farm, apprentices are doing more than just learning the mechanics of farming. Apprentices are exposed to the inner workings of the farm and are taught how to make a farm not only environmentally sustainable but also economically sustainable. Whether while weeding and planting together, or having dinner-table discussions, we have open dialogues about different issues relating to farming on a daily basis. This summer we hope to share some thoughts with you through a series of essays written by Devon Point Farm apprentices.


Many of us have heard the old saying that corn should be “knee-high by the fourth of July.” Among farmers, the saying meant that it had been a good spring, and a decent yield could be expected come late summer. While different climates and variations in soil make growing patterns vary widely across the country, here in Connecticut it still holds true that native corn is not ready until mid to late July, and given this year’s strange weather, even a bit later this season. So how does one explain these multiple “authentic” farm stands, with their earnest hand-drawn signs proclaiming “Fresh Native Corn” appearing as early as June? Despite my desire to trust anyone claiming to support local growing efforts, I have to admit it looks a tad suspicious. I begin to wonder what “native” really means anymore – is it a true indication of where food is coming from, or just a marketing buzzword?


Now, I am not saying that buying corn from other parts of the country and selling it in Connecticut is the most offensive crime one can commit. After all, where there is a market there is money to be made, and anyone who works in and around agriculture knows how hard it can be to keep up with the bills. The part that disturbs me is that once we begin to stretch the meaning of certain words, when do they lose their meaning in their entirety? After all, food that is touted as “local” but is in fact shipped across the country loses many of the benefits that encourage people to buy local in the first place, such as exceptional nutritional quality and lowered fossil fuel use, and not to mention the unmistakable taste of fresh food. Take tomatoes, for example – most of us relish slicing into that first ripe, juicy tomato of the season, blood-red and crying out for a little olive oil and fresh basil. It’s no wonder that markets have capitalized on that treasured moment, and are now able to offer fresh local tomatoes as early as – June?! Tomatoes can only be planted safely outdoors until all danger of frost is past, with chill damage occurring at temps below 50°F for many varieties. This year, because of a cold spell, we weren’t even able to put our tomatoes into the ground until mid-May. Once planted, tomatoes need anywhere from 60-90 days to grow and ripen. The math makes sense – the first week in August is when we had our first tomatoes ready this year, and our juice-stained grins were proof that it was worth the wait. So those local tomatoes in June found at your farmers market? Most likely carted in from warmer areas of the country, or grown in hot-houses (which, as most of us know, can’t hold a candle in taste to a field-grown tomato.)


Or what about meat that is branded “Grass-Fed,” when it is really only grass-fed for part of the year, and grain-fed for the other part? Much of the grass-fed beef found on the commercial market is, in fact, grain-finished for the last 90-160 days before slaughter to fatten the animals up and provide the marbling that most consumers are used to seeing in their steaks. During that finishing period, levels of saturated fat go up, and healthy Omega-3 levels decrease, thereby losing the health benefits that can be claimed only by truly grass-fed beef. While people who are used to seeing this “grass-fed beef” at supermarkets might not realize it, we are so proud of our 100% grass-fed beef here at Devon Point Farm because of its rarity within the market. And it is a totally transparent system - customers can come by, any day of the week, and see our cattle happily munching away on grass and hay (and the occasional kale bunch when they manage to sneak into the CSA fields!).


The point here is not to vilify farm stands and farmers markets, but to stress the importance of finding accountability and traceability within your food system. We are all aware of how marketing is used to trick and cajole consumers into making certain decisions, so why do we expect it to be any different when it comes to agricultural products? The only way around it is to get to know your local farmers – go visit where your food is grown, where your beef is being raised, and see how it is produced and handled. Join a CSA – our members come and pick their own peas, beans, and cherry tomatoes throughout the season. It doesn’t get any more “farm fresh” than that. Most importantly, be a critical consumer, and don’t be afraid to ask questions to validate your food source. Decide for yourself – what does native mean to you?


About Apprentice, Laura Fisher...

 

    
         
Laura Fisher just finished her Master's Degree at NYU in environmental conservation education, with a concentration in sustainable food systems and urban agriculture. She previously worked with 'Green Guerillas' a non-profit community group that uses a mix of education, advocacy, and organizing to help people cultivate and sustain community gardens. In addition, Laura has interned at the NY Coalition of Healthy School Food, has taught English as a second language in both the Galapagos and in Ecuador. Her hobbies include reading, cooking, hiking, and horseback riding.