Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Do You Know Where Your "Jersey Fresh" Corn Comes From?

I have to say right away that I enjoy going to farm markets. I go to one of the few in my area in the winter, held monthly, where several bakers offer treats and farms bring their winter store of goods - grass-fed meats and such produce as apples and root vegetables and greens that like winter cold like spinach.

I go to another farmstand not far from where I live, where the goal is to teach the lower-income people in the neighborhood where food comes from (not "from the store"). A wide variety of herbs and vegetables is grown here and picked for you (with you showing what you want), all moderately priced. What isn't sold is used in the local schools or donated to a food pantry. You can walk around and pick flowers and people talk to each other and trade recipes. I find it extremely relaxing, especially watching the bees and hearing the birds.

Those are not the type of farm markets I mean.
(Margo D. Beller)
I know farms are trying to survive. When they are not bringing their goods to a network of weekly markets throughout the state, they offer visitors (mainly city dwellers trying to remember a simpler time) pick-your-own berries and fruit, hay rides, corn mazes and petting zoos. They are part of what has become agritourism, which sprang up as states worked to drum up interest in farms and help them survive rather than sell out to "developers" that build condos and housing all over them.

Before the farmstand I mentioned above came into being, I would go to the farm markets in my town and several other towns if they were held on a Saturday or Sunday, or at the ones located near wherever I happened to be working at the time. (One of the biggest, held all year, is in Union Square, New York City, where many of the local restaurants buy the goods in bulk as part of a drive toward "eating fresh and local.")

People are willing to pay a lot for local, especially if organically grown.

The problem is, not every fruit or vegetable is available when you want it. That is part of the reason you can find blueberries from halfway around the world at your supermarket in winter but not those from New Jersey, which have a limited season in the late spring/early summer.

Most people just presume fruits and vegetables are available when they want them. Farms know this.

So when the farm market in my town opened for business in June, I was surprised to see warm-weather crops (peppers and tomatoes, among others) along with the cold crops (spinach, garlic). I was not surprised to learn from one of the farm people that this north Jersey farm has an arrangement with a farm in North Carolina to get produce shipped north for those early market days.

You may think you are paying for local but you're not.

I've gone into New Jersey farmstands when the corn or other produce is marked "Jersey Fresh," the marketing slogan of the state agricultural department. That means it comes from a New Jersey farm, just not the one you might be buying from.

Again, I understand the farm's need to make a buck and survive. If Joan Jersey wants a "fresh" tomato off the farm in May, what are you going to do? You get her one. Otherwise, she goes to the local supermarket, which is also catering to the "farm fresh, buy local" craze by contracting with local farms for produce - in season. The rest of the time, those fruits and veggies can come from halfway around the world.

One of the beauties of buying off the farm is knowing where the stuff comes from. But do you really know where the stuff comes from when you see the farm staff opening boxes of tomatoes and offering them for sale, even when marked as "Jersey Fresh?" I don't think so.

Hazel St. farmstand, Morristown, N.J. (Margo D. Beller)
So I've gotten what's known as hyperlocal. I know what I can get in summer from my favorite local farmstand (greens, herbs, peppers and fresh tomatoes), where I can buy freshly cut asparagus in early spring and fruit grown in the fields, and where I can get corn I can see growing picked and put on a table for sale. That happens to be three different places, none of which is the farm offering goods in my town.

It means a bit more travel - and using fossil fuels to get there - but I know where the food really comes from.

As with everything else, buyer beware.