Tag Archives: food sourcing

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!

Composting Greens into Green in San Francisco

finished-compost

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.

Win-win-win-win-win-win!

bin-interior

(More images associated with the article availible here.)

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.

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.

Fruit Harvesting in the City

Free peaches in Santa Cruz, CA

Free peaches in Santa Cruz, CA

I’ve learned about several more urban fruit harvesting groups since my first post on the topic back in March, and my excited discovery of a prolific mulberry tree on my block in June.The charming and thoughtful Sage turned me on to another urban foraging group, this one in Portland, Oregon.

Carly of Urban Edibles leading a edible plant walk in Portland, OR

Urban Edibles is a collaborative, community based project to make good use of the abundant urban fruit trees and other food sources that would otherwise be underutilized. As their website states, “Urban Edibles is a cooperative network of wild food foragers. By creating awareness of what is in our neighborhoods, we hope to re-establish the connection between people, environment and food.”

They way they do this is really cool: their website functions as a community database, where anyone can add a source of wild food, or search by category, ranging from acorns to walnut trees, with everything from cherries to dill to hops to grapes to mangoes in between. There’s a guide to the ethics of harvesting from (potentially) private property, and a wiki. The Urban Edibles people lead regular community scouting missions and some guided identification walks. The best part, is that all of these food sources are also searchable by location on a well-done map

Another very awesome group I just learned about is Toronto’s not far from the tree, organized by Laura Reinsborough, which harvests fruit from trees in the Toronto.

Volunteers picked over 100 pounds of apricots on July 21

not far from the tree ensures that Toronto’s fruit doesn’t go to waste. When fruit tree owners can’t harvest their bounty, we dispatch teams of volunteers to harvest it for them. One third goes to the fruit tree owners, another third goes to the volunteers for their labour, and the final third is distributed (by bicycle or cart) to community organizations in the neighbourhood who can make good use of the fresh fruit.

2008 is our first full season of fruit harvesting, beginning in the neighbourhood of Ward 21/St. Clair West. After the fruit tree owners and volunteers split 2/3 of the harvest, we donate the remaining 1/3 to food programs in the neighbourhood. In Ward 21, fresh fruit is delivered to NaMeRes and Wychwood Open Door. As we expand, we hope to become a network of neighbourhood-based fruit tree initiatives around the city, with our combined efforts encompassing education, training, mapping, preserving, and celebrating.

So far this year they have picked an astonishing 1340 pounds of fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste, just from the one neighborhood of Ward 21 and St. Claire West. Unpicked, lots of fruit just falls to the ground to rot.

And they have beautiful photos!

Some cherries from the July 2 pick

Some cherries from the July 2 pick

Picking pears on August 21.  Photo by Clayton Turner

Picking pears on August 21. Photo by Clayton Turne

All of the fruit looks superb, and those volunteers look like they’re having lots of fun.

The benefits of this kind of organization are really kind of hard to overstate.

  • Community food programs, like homeless shelters get beautiful fresh fruit.
  • The owners, who may be busy or elderly, get their fruit harvested, in exchange for not far from the tree keeping two thirds of the harvest.
  • The volunteers get to keep one third of the harvest.

On a more macro level, everyone involved learns a little bit more about where their food comes from, and what a ripe apricot looks like, the most effective cherry-harvesting methods, or how delicious a fresh pear can be. You learn to look at your neighborhood with fresh eyes, knowing that many of the trees have an edible bounty.

Moreover, this is a great way to build community: the tree owners meeting the organizers and the volunteers, people interacting with the food programs and the homeless shelters, and explaining to curious passers-by that this tree being harvested is actually an apricot tree, overflowing with ripe apricots. As I learned when I was harvesting mulberries on my block in Brooklyn, people love to come up and ask what you’re doing, or tell you the story of their grandma’s mulberry tree. The people in not far from the tree have met a lot of their neighbors on their harvests and scouting missions, and they’re the richer for it. And I can’t wait for their map to go live!

Water or Wheat?

A melon farm in Toshka, Egypt.

Much of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and other countries in dry climes are facing this dilemma. They have too little water to farm intensively and be food-sufficient, and yet are getting hammered by rising food prices, which have caused the prices of imported staple grains to as much as triple. Add in rising unrest and food riots and the political volatility of many of these countries, and it is a very tense situation indeed.

To recap, there are basically two radically different choices:

Option 1: Stop growing what entirely, or cut way back to preserve your water. Rely on your foreign income to purchase as much wheat as you need. This is the path that Saudia Arabia is taking. While this seems pretty safe for the Saudis, due to their large reserves of cash and oil, this is a lot more problematic for poorer countries.

Option 2: Grow your own wheat. Don’t rely on a global supply chain or risk astronomical prices; ensure that you will have your staple grain by growing it yourself. Worry about water later.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, it looks like Egypt and several other middle Eastern countries are pursuing this latter choice. Smug though I am to have beaten the NYT to this issue, I’m glad they’re writing about it. This is a big, big deal, particularly when you factor in the politics at play in the region.

Global food shortages have placed the Middle East and North Africa in a quandary, as they are forced to choose between growing more crops to feed an expanding population or preserving their already scant supply of water.

For decades nations in this region have drained aquifers, sucked the salt from seawater and diverted the mighty Nile to make the deserts bloom. But those projects were so costly and used so much water that it remained far more practical to import food than to produce it. Today, some countries import 90 percent or more of their staples.

The problem with importing such a huge percentage of your food is that you become incredibly vulnerable to disruptions in supply and price increases. The governments who, like Egypt, subsidize wheat imports are spending a lot more on those subsidies. Fears of supply disruptions and rising prices have sparked food riots in dozens of countries worldwide. In some cases, such as Egypt and Pakistan, the army has been mobilized to maintain control of the grains and prevent looting.

“The countries of the region are caught between the hammer of rising food prices and the anvil of steadily declining water availability per capita,” Alan R. Richards, a professor of economics and environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said via e-mail. “There is no simple solution.”

Several countries are starting or reviving huge irrigation and agriculture projects, while others are looking at developing agriculture. “You can bring in money and water and you can make the desert green until either the water runs out or the money,” said Elie Elhadj, a Syrian-born development expert and former banker with a Ph.D. in Islamic history and political economy from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Dr. Elhadj actually commented on this topic back in June, posting an excerpt from his article Saudi Arabia’s Agricultural Project: Dust to Dust, published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs [MERIA], Vol. 12, No. 2 June 2008.

The New York Times article continues:

Djibouti is growing rice in solar-powered greenhouses, fed by groundwater and cooled with seawater, in a project that produces what the World Bank economist Ruslan Yemtsov calls “probably the most expensive rice on earth.”

Several oil-rich nations, including Saudi Arabia, have started searching for farmland in fertile but politically unstable countries like Pakistan and Sudan, with the goal of growing crops to be shipped home.

“These countries have the land and the water,” said Hassan S. Sharaf Al Hussaini, an official in Bahrain’s agriculture ministry. “We have the money.”

In Egypt, where a shortage of subsidized bread led to rioting in April, government officials say they are looking into growing wheat on two million acres straddling the border with Sudan.

Economists and development experts say that nutritional self-sufficiency in this part of the world presents challenges that are not easily overcome. Saudi Arabia tapped aquifers to become self-sufficient in wheat production in the 1980s. By the early 1990s, the kingdom had become a major exporter. This year, however, the Saudis said they would phase out the program because it used too much water.

Egypt is intensifying efforts to ramp up agricultural production with the Toshka Project, also known as the New Valley Project. Started in 1997, the project involves diverting water from Lake Nasser (created by the construction of the Aswan dam) to create 558,000 new acres of arable land in the Western Desert, part of the Sahara.

From the New York Times article:

When the Toshka farm was started in 1997, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, compared its ambitions to building the pyramids, involving roughly 500,000 acres of farmland and tens of thousands of residents. But no one has moved there, and only 30,000 acres or so have been planted.

The farm’s manager, Mohamed Nagi Mohamed, says the Sahara is perfect for farming, as long as there is plenty of fertilizer and water. For one thing, the bugs cannot handle the summer heat, so pesticides are not needed. “You can grow anything on this land,” he said, showing off fields of alfalfa and rows of tomatoes and grapes, shielded from the sun by gauzy white netting. “It’s a very nice project, but it needs a lot of money.”

Egypt’s increasing population is also cited as one of the motivations behind the need to expand domestic food production:

Mr. Mubarak calls his country’s growing population an “urgent” problem that has exacerbated the food crisis. The population grows about 1.7 percent annually, considerably slower than a generation ago but still fast enough that it is on pace to double by 2050. Adding 1.3 million Egyptians each year to the 77 million squeezed into an inhabited area roughly the size of Taiwan is a daunting prospect for a country in which 20 percent of citizens already live in poverty.

The Toshka Project is not the only effort to increase agricultural production in Egypt. According to this website from Egypt’s State Information Service, Egypt will increase its arable land by 3.274 million acres in 2017 from 8.159 million acres in 2006, a 40% increase in arable land.

The website, which emphasized the technological marvels at hand and details how important agricultural exports are to Egypt’s economy, also lists several other massive projects. The Toshka project and the Al-Salam Canal are listed as adding over half a million acres each to Egypt’s agricultural land. Both are to be fed with water from the Nile. East Uwaiynat and Darb al-Araba’in, both smaller projects irrigated from underground aquifers, would add 45,000 and 11,000 acres, respectively.

Essentially, Egypt is trying very hard to increase its amount of arable land, relying on the mighty Nile and underground aquifers to do so. But rivers can be overused, as the Colorado River is, and aquifers, once depleted, can take thousands of years to recharge naturally.

In this situation, there aren’t really any good options. You can import food at ever-higher prices, and risk supply disruptions and food riots. If the food is subsidized, you also risk depleting currency reserves and draining the government treasury. And yet attempting to become more nationally food self-sufficient and rely on domestic production, you risk totally depleting your non-renewable water resources.

Naturally, the Times suggests a free-market, capital-intensive solution: abandoning subsistence agriculture to focus exclusively on low-water cash crops for export, exploiting the law of comparative advantage, and then using the proceeds to buy staple foods.

Economists say that rather than seeking to become self-sufficient with food, countries in this region should grow crops for which they have a competitive advantage, like produce or flowers, which do not require much water and can be exported for top dollar.

For example, Doron Ovits, a confident 39-year-old with sunglasses pushed over his forehead and a deep tan, runs a 150-acre tomato and pepper empire in the Negev Desert of Israel. His plants, grown in greenhouses with elaborate trellises and then exported to Europe, are irrigated with treated sewer water that he says is so pure he has to add minerals back. The water is pumped through drip irrigation lines covered tightly with black plastic to prevent evaporation.

A pumping station outside each greenhouse is equipped with a computer that tracks how much water and fertilizer is used; Mr. Ovits keeps tabs from his desktop computer. “With drip irrigation, you save money. It’s more precise,” he said. “You can’t run it like a peasant, a farmer. You have to run it like a businessman.”

Israel is as obsessed with water as Mr. Ovits is. It was there, in the 1950s, that an engineer invented modern drip irrigation, which saves water and fertilizer by feeding it, drop by drop, to a plant’s roots. Since then, Israel has become the world’s leader in maximizing agricultural output per drop of water, and many believe that it serves as a viable model for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Already, Tunisia has reinvigorated its agriculture sector by adopting some of the desert farming advances pioneered in Israel, and Egypt’s new desert farms now grow mostly water-sipping plants with drip irrigation.

The Israeli government strictly regulates how much water farmers can use and requires many of them to irrigate with treated sewer water, pumped to farms in purple pipes. It has also begun using a desalination plant to cleanse brackish water for irrigation.

“In the future, another 200 million cubic meters of marginal water are to be recycled, in addition to promoting the establishment of desalination plants,” Shalom Simhon, Israel’s agriculture minister, wrote via e-mail. Still, four years of drought have created what Mr. Simhon calls “a deep water crisis,” forcing the country to cut farmers’ quotas.

I don’t love this option; I’m skeptical of any solution that puts so much risk (of price collapses, dips in demand, crop failures) on the people who are relying on this to buy staple foods. Moreover, technology required to move to computerized drip irrigation and greenhouses represents a huge capital investment, an enormous barrier to poor farmers and an incentive to centralize and scale up farming operations.

But is a greenhouse running on recycled wastewater more sustainable than relying on the aquifers? Certainly. There’s no easy answers to this one.

Last Chance for Strawberries

In the midst of a lot of dismal news about food prices and food shortages, there remains a bright spot: I managed to catch the tail end of the local strawberry season. I thought that all of the recent unseasonably hot weather meant that I missed my chance, but the u-pick-it strawberry place near my parents’ house is open until July 4, later than usual. So I went on down, drawn, like the others, by the strawberry balloon floating high above the fields.

The strawberries were perfect: abundant, sweet, juicy, and a perfect fire-engine red. I set out with my four quart basket and set to work. There were so many berries that it didn’t take long at all before I was carefully perching the last few berries on top of the pile in the basket and heading back to the farm stand to pay up. Ten dollars for four quarts- not bad, and half the price they would have been if I hadn’t picked them myself. Strawberries from supermarkets, trucked in from California are both more expensive (Fresh Direct has 1lb for $3.99) and mainly tasteless.

Even in this little idyll, food issues raised their head. As I was picking, I had a brief conversation with a local gardener named Jeff, who told me that the price of fertilizer had doubled, going from $300 a ton to over $600 a ton. He also pointed out that the price of 4 quarts of strawberries had gone up by $1.25 since last year. Not such a bad increase, really, but I don’t think that we’re really seeing the full extent of how much input and production costs for the farmer have increased since last year. If I had more storage space, I’d seriously consider coming back out and picking a whole mess of strawberries for jam and freezing. Lacking that option, I’m just going to gorge myself on strawberries this one part of the year where they’re available, tasty, and (relatively) cheap!