Tri-County Produce Market Update!

The produce auction barn

The produce auction barn

This morning, my friend Geoff sent me a link to a new article he wrote about the Tri-County Cooperative Produce Auction, which we visited in September.

It’s great news:  in addition to doing the weekly auction and direct sales, the co-op is adding a CSA!  They don’t necessarily call it that, but that’s what it is.  Local families pay $25 a week for 20 weeks to get a crate full of whatever veggies and fruits are moving through the auctionhouse – tomatoes, green beans, peaches, corn, peppers, and so on.

From the article:

North Hanover Mayor James Durr has sold produce from his 1,200-acre farm at Tri-County for 13 years.

”The advantages to the auction are fairly apparent,” he said. “If the program is successful and does distribute some volume of produce to consumers, it’s another customer to growers that make up the co-op, and additional customers are always a great thing.”

Buyers, he said, will benefit from the “variety of locally grown fresh produce” they will receive.

Ms. Ballister-Howells [the co-op manager] said “it’s a pretty fair bet” Mr. Durr’s produce will make its way to CSA customers.

”Jim Durr is a very important grower of ours,” she said. “He brings in both fresh produce as well as magnificent cut flowers.”

Ms. Ballister-Howells said this new method of delivery will be more accessible to locals.

”The average family has no use for an entire crate’s worth of lettuce,” she said. “We never had a way for people to leave with just two heads of lettuce before. But if you participate in the CSA, you get a full crate, but it will have a diverse number of things in it.”

She touted the advantages of buying food that will be eaten just a stone’s throw from where it was grown.

”For one thing, it doesn’t get any fresher,” she said. “Because it doesn’t have to be transported, it is picked at the right time; at its peak. When produce has to be transported, it is picked before it’s ripe.”

Ms. Ballister-Howells said she hopes the current economic crisis will help fuel a resurgence for the co-op, which has experienced some decline over the years. Thus far the year is off to a promising start, as sales have exceeded the start of last year’s season, she said.

This is fantastic for a couple of reasons:

1. Local families have another source of getting delicious, local, healthy fruits and vegetables.  When Geoff and I went to the auction in September, the food was being sold and auctioned in larger quantities than we could really use – like a 20lb box of Hungarian wax peppers, or 20 pounds of ripe tomatoes.  I was too nervous to bid, worried I’d somehow end up with boxes and boxes of produce instead of the small quantity I wanted.  Breaking up those boxes of one type of vegetable or fruit into a crate with lots of fruits and vegetables makes it much more accessible for a consumer, as opposed to someone running a restaurant or farm stand who can use 100 pounds of tomatoes.  And $25 a week for a huge box of produce is a great deal!  Its much, much less than you’d spend at a grocery store.

2.  More customers for the Co-op auction.  When we were there, a lot of the produce was fetching very very low bids – often lower than the farmers’ break-even point.  Though all the produce sold for the break-even point in the end, not a lot of it sold for more.  Bringing more buyers for the produce helps the farmers make enough money to stay in business, and continues to make it possible for the local area to get delicious, local, high-quality produce, rather than stuff picked before it was ripe, or trucked in from California.

Go Tri-County Cooperative Auction!


Farmers’ Market Bounty

The spring foods are definitely here, and the summer ones are coming in. This is what I got this week:

raspberries, $8


strawberries, $2.50.  There’s been strawberries for about a month now.


cherries, $8.  This is the second week for cherries – the stone fruits are coming.


baby bok choy, $2


pattypan squash, $2


an onion, $0.50


apricots, $2


peaches, $2


shelling peas, $3




Composting Greens into Green in San Francisco


Yesterday’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted a key part of both food and sustainability – what to do with organic waste.  The solution, working remarkably well in the Bay Area – composting!  (And this was on the front page yesterday!  Exciting – or maybe the economic news is just too depressing.)  The comments to this article are particularly good – generally thoughtful, and often providing a lot of interesting info.

Food scraps are collected by residents and businesses, then put in the green bin for pickup with the garbage and recyclables.  Made into compost, it’s then sold to area farmers for $12 a cubic yard.  Because area resisdents and businesses pay for trash, but not compost or recycling pick-up, this system benefits everyone – less trash is put out, costing residents and businesses less.  This drop in business is off-set by the income the companies get from selling the compost – and diverts about 105,000 tons of compostable matter from the waste stream each year.

105,000 tons out of landfills is a huge amount, and this is with far from everybody participating.  Mayor Gavin Newsom is advancing an ordinance to the City Council making composting and recycling mandatory.  How much organic matter would be prevented from going to landfills, if 105,000 tons is diverted with only 50,000 residential and 4,080 restaurants and large buildings are currently participating?

Best of all, this compost is apparently exceptionally rich in micronutrients and health fungi and bacteria.  The crops fertilized with it have grown extraordinarily well and vibrantly, producing a bounty of vegetables to be sold and eaten within the Bay Area.

To re-cap:

  • significant progress towards re-using the food scraps that make up about 1/3 of San Francisco’s solid waste
  • less food waste in landfills means less methane emitted in its decomposition
  • cheaper garbage  pick-up for participating houses and businesses
  • green practices making a profit for the waste companies – sustainable for businesses, not just the environment
  • exceptional compost, produced and sold locally, and very well-suited to Bay Area conditions
  • delicious vegetables grown from the compost, sold to restaurants and individuals around the Bay.



(More images associated with the article availible here.)

The Future of Food in Japan – Video

Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has put out a charming  video about the way food consumption, food choices, international trade, the environment and global warming interact.  It’s the best short video summary I’ve seen to date.

Bonus- It has dancing animated cows!

Occupation at NYU

This isn’t quite on topic, but it is local:  NYU students occupied parts of the Kimmel center for most of the last 2 days.  They are protesting NYU’s refusal to allow teaching assistants to unionize or collectively bargain, demanding transparency in NYU’s accounting and endowment, and a fair labor contract for all NYU employees.  This is not a random occurrence – it’s part of the Take Back NYU Campaign, which has been advocating for these goals, among others, for over 2 years.


My friend Sarah, a grad student at NYU, was part of the group occupying the student center, and let me know about it.  It’s also been picked up by the New York Times, was well as the NYC Indymedia.  NYU Local was liveblogging it here.

As a TA, I’m really glad we have a union – without it, I wouldn’t have health insurance, and the university wouldn’t be paying for my in-state tuition.  They keep trying to reduce the wages and benefits of the TA’s, and it’s only due to our union negotiations and solidarity with other unions that they haven’t succeeded.

Sorry for the long absence – in the time balace between blogging and grad school, grad school comes out on top, but I’ll have some California-local goodies for you soon.

The Edible City

I recently stumbled across this trailer for Edible City, which looks to be a well-crafted, detailed look at urban farming in the Bay Area.  The trailer is a bit long, at just over nine minutes, but is well worth watching.

I know there’s a lot of really wonderful urban food organizations in the Bay Area (as well as other places), and it’s great to see the topic treated so well in film.  The movie should be released in Fall 2009.

Putting it all together: local food, agricultural policies, and the environment

There’s all sorts of reasons to eat and enjoy local foods:  taste, the satisfaction of contributing to your local food economy, health, opting out of agribusiness.  In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemna guy) knocks it out of the park with a detailed and lenthy essay about why our agribusiness food system is bad for us and bad for the planet, and what we need to do to change it.
Titled Farmer in Chief, the essay acts as an open letter to the presidential candidate elected on November 4th.  The style is a little affected, with lots of second-person and references to ‘sun-food’, but the content is right on.  The basic premise:  “We need to wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.

On the environment:

After cars, the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy — 19 percent.

The 20th-century industrialization of agriculture has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.

On health care:

Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent.While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health.

On foreign policy:

In the past several months more than 30 nations have experienced food riots, and so far one government has fallen. Should high grain prices persist and shortages develop, you can expect to see the pendulum shift decisively away from free trade, at least in food.  They will now rush to rebuild their own agricultural sectors and then seek to protect them by erecting trade barriers.

He also provides a good brief history of the industrialization of the U.S. food system. It’s good reading, but repetitive if you’ve read the Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Most usefully, Pollan provides a fairly concrete list of things that can be done to improve our current food system, if not transform it.  FUndamentally, he argues that we need to:

1. encourage polyculture farms with a variety of crops and animals on the farm, farmed with far fewer chemical and petroleum-based imputs, with less soil depletion.

2. re-regionalize the food system by doing things like establishing more year-round farmers’ markets, encouraging instutional food buyers to buy locally, and rationalizing the FDA rules regarding small producers and small farms to that they make sense, rather than the one-size-fits-all rules oriented towards industrial agriculture we have today.

3. change the American culture of food.  This is vaguest part of Pollan’s essay, but he argues for a revived victory garden movement, educating kids about healthy eating, and public health campaigns about diabetes and obesity.

Many these ideas are excellent, and would go a long way to encouraging a more sustainable, healthful, regionalized economy of food.  The big obstacle?  The money and power of the agrobusiness lobby.  Monsanto, ADM, the Cattleman’s Association, the grain lobbyists, the hog lobbyists; they are going to work as hard as they can to shut down any kind of reform like this before it becomes a serious threat to their profits.  Reform of the federal farm subsidies and CAFOs, in particular, are going to be a very uncomfortable, protracted battle, if it happens at all.

Many, many senators and representatives have been treated very well by the agriculture lobby, and have received a lot of money and favors.  Reforming the food system in such broad strokes would go a long way to reducing our greenhouse gas emissisons, reducing pollution that makes living near a hog farm unbearable and causes the huge and growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, getting Americans to eat more healthily, support small farmers and local economies and communities, and improve our national security.  But achieving it will require the same kind of battle against the lobbyists and vested interests that transforming our healthcare system into a single-payer federal system would.

The good news is, you don’t have to wait for a federal reform to start changing the food system.  Stop buying CAFO meat.  Get your fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets, as much as you can.  There’s more of them then ever before, and they’re growing.  Many of them have meat, dairy and eggs, too.  If you can’t afford to get the majority of your food from the farmers’ market, still go pick up a couple things, whatever you can afford.  Even if its only $2 of apples, thats still $2 that’s going to a nearby farmer, rather than a big company.  Maybe there’s a CSA near you.  Many CSA’s offer subsidized low-cost shares to those who can’t afford a full-price share.

See if your grocery store carries anything made or grown nearby.  Ask the produce manager where the apples or cucumbers come from, and ask them to carry vegetables grown closer than Chile.  Sure, you probably won’t see a display of local apples next week in place of the ones from New Zealand, but it’s another reminder to the big corporations that people care where their food comes from.  Start a garden, and give your extra zucchini and tomatoes to a neighbor who will put them up, or do it youself.    Even if it only happens an inch at a time, each of these things helps to build a local food economy rather than one build around chicken factories in Maryland and  Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans of Monsanto.

Tri-County Cooperative Produce Market

The produce auction barn

The produce auction barn

Driving through Hightstown, NJ to visit my friend Geoff last month, I saw a sign for a Produce Auction.  The sign proclaimed that the produce auction occurred every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 7pm, but otherwise was inscrutable.  I had to know what this produce auction was. Luckily, it was a little before 6pn on a Friday.  I all but dragged Geoff and Mike with me back to the auction.

One of the trucks at the Tri-County Cooperative Produce Auction

One of the trucks at the Tri-County Cooperative Produce Auction

As it turns out, it was exactly what it sounds like.  A live auction, for produce.  There were a bunch of pickup trucks waiting in line of either side of the auction building, with samples in the back.  Buyers walked around, checking out the produce, getting ready to bid.  The two women in charge, Peggy and Debbie, were very kind to us, even lending me their bidding number.

Alfred Finocchiaro, auctioneer

Alfred Finocchiaro, auctioneer

The auctioneer, a man named Alfred Finocchiaro, knew what every type of squash, every apple was on sight.  He’d rattle off the variety and quantity available, and the bidding started.  Twenty 20lb boxes of medium red tomatoes.  Eight enormous snake squash.  Fifty pound sacks of fresh corn on the cob.  His patter was thunderstorm on a tin roof fast, nearly unintelligible.   A lot of the bidders were old-timers; Alfred knew their bidding number by heart.

The prices were unbelievable:  where else could you get 8 canteloupes for $8?  Or a 20 pound box of perfect, deep red tomatoes for just $12?  Or fifty enormous watermelons for two bucks apice?  Although I was moving to California in just under a week, I was very tempted to round up a bunch of canning jars and start putting up vegetables; peaches in 20 pound flats, tomatoes in 25 pound boxes, 25 pounds of hungarian wax peppers going for $8.  There were new-dug potatoes, squash, apples, melons, and more tomatoes than you could shake a stick at.  Here is the way to be a locavore:  fresh veggies direct from the farmer, cheaper than the organic produce at the farmers’ markets in New York city.  Its certainly much less effort, space, risk and time than growing everything yourself – local food outsourcing in action!

Most of the buyers were farmers themselves, with the occasional restaurateur thrown in.  They were buying for their farm stands:  Silver Queen corn when their corn crop was over for the season, golden Jersey peaches to lure in the drivers, even though they didn’t have an orchard themselves.

Pumpkins for fall

Pumpkins for fall

I was too afraid to bid and wave my card around – I didn’t want to accidentally end up with 10 twenty-pound boxes of tomatoes when I only wanted one.  Nor did I want to bid to win the auction and make sure I got a box of whatever, only to leave the other 19 boxes to languish at too high a price.  So no bidding for me.

Fifty enormous watermelons, $2 each

Fifty enormous watermelons per box, at $2 each

I did manage to get an ginormous watermelon for $2, though, thanks to the intervention of a kindly farmer named George.  George interceded for me with the guy who had bought fifty of the big watermelons, and he agreed to sell me one at cost.  I became the proud owner of a watermelon that must have easily weighed 25 pounds, and was as big as a toddler. And as delicious.

Delicious watermelon!

Delicious watermelon!

The only problem with the market is, I don’t know how much the farmers were able to make, with prices that low.  A couple of times it looked like some lots weren’t going to get any bids before someone stepped in.   A few other times the farmers were getting bids that were too low:  $2.75 for a box, when they needed to get $4.50 just to break even.  Their prices eventually were met, but nothing over the break-even point.  And you’ve got to sell- what can you do with 400 pounds of unsold ripe medium-sized tomatoes?  That’s too few to try and sell to a wholesaler, and if no-one if the produce auction wants them, you’re stuck, and they’ll start going bad pretty quick.

Apparently the market used to be a lot bigger, with six warehouses, and hundreds of boxes of produce, and dairy and meat, too.  A lot of farms have been turned into housing developments, and there’s not as many buyers as there used to be.  Peggy said that this was the only co-operative farmers’ market left in the state, when they used to be all over New Jersey.  Now it’s this one, a small market in South Jersey, and the huge industrial markets in Philly and at Hunts Point in the Bronx.

For all that I like to snark at the New York Times, they beat me to this one.  They wrote about the produce auction and its history, on August 22nd of this year.

An Apology and a Relocation

Alas, I have fallen victim to the scourge of so many bloggers and so need to apologize for my extended absence.  I have relocated from Brooklyn, NY to Santa Cruz, CA, and have been busy settling into my new environs.

Santa Cruz is postively bursting with local food.  It’s part of the Eat Local!:  Cental Coast division, has a waiting list for several of the five or so local CSA’s, has an abundance of local (within 2 counties) produce in the regular supermarkets, and three awesome farmers’ markets.  It’s a very hippy dippy crunchy earthy local kind of place, which is a total change from the hustle and bustle and citiness of New York.  But I’m adjusting.

Santa Cruz has a crazy growing season:  it’s mild mediterranean climate, and many things grow nearly year-round.  Walking around town, you can easily spot figs, lemons, oranges, limes, and grapefruit hanging off trees, as well as mysterious cherry-like fruits and something that looks kind of like a pomelo.  In the summer, there’s peaches and plums in super-abundance.  Frankly, this place is almost begging for the kind of local fruit-harvesting program not far from the tree is pioneering.

In other news, I’ll be posting more regularly and more scheduled-ly, hopefully every Thursday.  Food issues are still big, even in light of the recent economic panic/meltdown/crisis.  A Minnesota farmer got a MacArthur genius grant!  Exciting things are ahead, folks.

The New York Times Finally Gets it Right

Now, I know I’ve snarked a bit on here about the Times.  It’s an easy target:  the “paper of record” that takes itself so seriously and is always late to the trend-party.  The Times has sometimes failed to grasp the structure of a CSA, claiming that the shareholders were joint owners of the farm.  Perhaps they confused the farm shareholders (also known as subscribers) with company shareholders?  Regardless, the Times’ coverage of the shift in farms and farming hasn’t always been stellar.  It hasn’t been bad, just a bit clueless.

But on one shining day in August, the Time’s New York and Region section was just bursting with well-written articles about farms and local foods that did a great job of talking about what local food means to people and how it works.  Seriously, each area the Times covers (Westchester, New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut) had at least one article about local farms.  Some had two!  It was amazing.

David Hunsinger for the New York Times

Tomatoes being added to CSA boxes; David Hunsinger for the New York Times

The big piece was “After the Harvest, Claiming the Bounty,” a light article about the Honey Brook Organic CSA in Hopewell Township, NJ.  It’s really a nice little introduction to what a CSA is, what the different membership models are, and how the farm and the whole process works, told from the point of view of this semi-skeptical writer.  By the end he’s been won over by the farm, particularly by the sense of connection to his community and the food he’s eating, as well as how much cheaper the farm veggies are to comprable produce from Whole Foods.  The slideshow is rather charming, and a good bare-bones introduction to how CSA’s work.

Most excitingly, there’s lists of local CSA’s for NYC, with farm locations, prices and membership information.  There’s also links to Local Harvest‘s website, the most comprehensive resource for finding local food in the US.  Here are the lists for:



New Jersey

Long Island

There were also several other articles in the “In the Region” section, each portraying farms and farming positively.  In Connecticut, “New Milford Makes a Statement:  Farming is Staying,” the town council pased an ordinance preemptively protecting the few reamining farmers from nusciance complaints about the practicalities of farming, including early morning machinery and barnyard smells.  Calling it a “right to farm” measure, the ordinance

cautioned home-owning arrivistes that this is farm country, son, though it put it a little more formally. “Agriculture is a significant part of the town of New Milford’s heritage and a vital part of the town’s future,” the preamble read.

“New Milford is making a statement that they support agriculture, that they support the farming industry, which is not a position a lot of communities take,” said Jeremy Schulz, who farms 200 acres of corn, tomatoes, pumpkins and other vegetables that he and his wife, Willow, sell from a stand on Route 7.

This is really great:  the Times is spotlighting small farmers and local food and taking it seriously, and small towns are being pro-active about preserving the ability of farmers to farm.  Whether you’re coming at this from the local food side, or want to preserve rural character and charm or enhance food security,  or feel at “farming is part of the American character”, or heck, even share the “frivolous lawsuits are ruining America,” viewpoint, this is great news.

It’s because of developments like this that more and more peole are thinking about working at a small farm, or even starting one themselves, like Josh Levine above, in this article, another from the same day about local farming .  It’s supportive actions by town councils that really makes local farming possibe, rather than prohibiting noise or chickens or what-have-you.

It lets people like the Villano family, in this article, who have a market garden on their property in Lebanon, Conneticut, consider getting a cow.  More importantly, it lets the people at Local Farm in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, maintain a working cow farm and teach cow newbies the ins and outs of dairying, preserving a vast amount of agricultural knowledge.

The White Hart's own herd of beef cattle

The White Hart's own herd of beef cattle

And having local working farms of course provides the produce and meats for restaurants that feature local foods, like the White Hart, in Salisbury, CT, profiled in this article.  While these restauranteurs actually bought their own beef farm, that’s a bit more in-depth than most people go.  In general, restaurants that feature local foods, with their steady, bulk ordering, can provide a crucial source of reliable revenue to the small-time local farmer.

All in all, a great day for both the local farming movement and the New York Times.  Well done!