Tag Archives: fruit

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.

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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!

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!

It’s Mulberry Season!

I don’t know this because I am a font of horticultural knowledge. Rather, I know this because on my way to the library Monday I ran into a very kind fellow called Jeff who was out harvesting mulberries from a tree near my apartment. We got to chatting about food and the co-op and free markets, as well as the intricacies of mulberries. Intrigued and delighted, I convinced Jeff to let me tag along on his next urban foraging expedition.

Apparently, mulberry season is in full swing here in New York city, and will be for about another two weeks. Mulberries are like a sweeter, more oblong, more intense blackberry, with fewer pits (but an edible stem!) and a slight hint of blueberry flavor. In other words, completely delicious. The easy way to identify a mulberry tree is to look for the mess underneath it, along with the sweetish odor of crushed and rotting fruit. Most mulberries are ripe when they’re black (they gradually change from white to red to purple to black) and release easily from the tree.  There are quite a few mulberry trees in New York city, mostly planted decades ago.

This is particularly exciting as fresh ripe raspberries are very difficult to come by- I’ve never seen them for sale. This is probably due to the extreme fragility of the fruit; they are far more delicate than the blackberry or raspberry. Consequently they aren’t often used for cooking, though they are delicious eaten out of hand. Joy of Cooking, whose 1973 edition discusses fruits like the litchi and the even more exotic akee, acerola and mangosteen, has only the following to say about mulberries:

The mulberry, despite its close resemblance to members of the Rubus family, is not in the least related. As everyone knows, the leaves of the white-fruited tree make up the traditional diet of the silkworm. Purple-fruited mulberry trees are best suited, in our opinion, for varying the diets – and flexing the muscles – of marauding schoolboys.

Despite the disapproval of Joy of Cooking, Jeff and I set out to harvest mulberries this Wednesday. As we got started, we attracted a lot of attention, and many people stopped by to chat and enjoy the fruit themselves.

This last fellow is Muhammed, a charming builder who saw us harvesting, ate his fill, and lent us a very capable hand. Below is our very high-tech harvesting technique:

After about an hour of thwacking and catching, we had amassed quite the tidy pile of mulberries, from just the one tree. I’m excited about the haul; in addition to just eating them and putting them on ice cream, I’m going to attempt a mulberry compote.

If you spot a mulberry tree, do try some mulberries, as they are intensely delicious. But be careful, as they do stain terribly!

Pick-Your-Own from the Greenmarket

I learned today that a number of the farmers who sell at the Greenmarkets also let you go and pick-your-own at the farm. Strawberry season is coming, and the stonefruits and other berries aren’t far behind!

Here is a link to that Google map, as well as a list of all the u-pick-it Greenmarket farms.

When Local Doesn’t Work: Orange Juice

Here in New York, local orange juice isn’t possible. Local grape and apple juice, or raspberry, apple, or pear cider you can find at the farmers’ market. But oranges and other citrus fruits simply won’t survive this far north.
So what do you do when you want orange juice? There’s 5 choices, and a recent-ish article in Slate debated the environmental merits and demerits of several.

a. do without

I don’t drink a lot of orange juice, but I do love it. I enjoy eating locally and I eat a lot of my diet locally, but I’m not going to give up EVERYTHING that isn’t locally grown. Winter strawberries from Chile, yes; but not orange juice. So this option is out.

b. squeeze your own

That would probably be pretty easy with one of these neat automatic juicing machines, common in Spanish cafes. But unless you’re making a LOT of orange juice, it’s not practical. And very expensive!

A smaller mechanical juicer seems destined to be used infrequently, and take up valuable counter space in the meantime. A hand juicer takes a lot of time and you end up with a lot of leftover pith and peel. Moreover, I can’t regularly find juicing oranges (different from regular navel oranges!) in my supermarket, and when I can they tend to be quite expensive. And were the oranges flow in from Spain? Did they use a lot of pesticides? It takes a lot of oranges to make a decent amount of juice.

c. buy it fresh

This is what I do. I buy the Florida’s Natural in particular because the over 1,000 farmers behind the brand are actually part of an enormous co-operative business association. According to their website, this co-op started in 1933, right in the middle of the Depression, and has been thriving ever since. On that basis alone I’ll choose it over Tropicana every day. It’s made from 100% Florida oranges, and is also sold as Growers Pride, Bluebird, Texsun, Adams, Vintage, and Donald Duck (with Disney).

The U.S. is actually a net orange juice exporter, and most of that juice comes from Florida. I don’t have the hard figures for how much U.S. juice is from Florida, but Florida grows 70% of American citrus, so I’m assuming the majority of OJ is also Floridian. Here are some nifty charts about U.S. citrus production in 2007 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Since my juice comes from Florida, I don’t feel too badly drinking it in New York. Sure, it’s not local, but it often gets shipped via rail, in these massive liquids rail containers, so at least the transportation costs aren’t as high as they could be. And I have no interest in being a local foods purist or vigilante, but it’s nice to know that all of my orange juice is from Florida.

However, according to the Slate article, my assumptions about the provenance of OJ in general may be inaccurate; some of it could be from Brazil!

Virtually all of the OJ consumed in the United States contains oranges produced in Florida and Brazil; these two industry players produce half of the world’s oranges, and 95 percent of that fruit ends up as juice. Environmentalists have long decried the recent proliferation of orange groves in Brazil, citing the crop’s insatiable thirst (up to 129,000 cubic feet of water per acre annually) and the heavy use of pesticides (though juice oranges require less spraying than those intended for direct consumption)

d. buy it frozen in concentrate

You can also buy one of those frozen tubes of orange juice and mix it with water at home to reconstitute it. At first glance, this seems great. You use water at home, so you’re not shipping heavy liquids all around. The frozen tube of OJ concentrate takes up little space, so it’s more efficient to ship. Aside from the taste issue, it looks like a winner.

But things aren’t quite that easy. You have all of the same issues of regular orange juice: distance, pesticides, water usage, and energy use in processing. Plus, as I learned from the Slate article, frozen orange juice is evaporated using heat until it is concentrated, which uses an immense amount of energy:

Concentrate can be stored in industrial freezers for several years. Running those freezers takes a lot of energy, but not nearly as much as operating the evaporators; approximately 90 percent of an orange juice plant’s energy goes toward thermal processing. So, there’s little question that creating FCOJ [frozen concentrated orange juice] requires a lot more fuel, usually in the form of natural gas, than producing NFC [not-from-concentrate orange juice].

This diagram of how frozen concentrated orange juice is made demonstrates what an industrial, energy-intensive process it is:

My assumptions about transportation also look a little optimistic. As the article continues:

According to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, making juice uses more energy than getting it into stores. In 2001, for example, it cost a Florida manufacturer roughly 20 cents to process a pound of frozen OJ, but just 7 cents per pound to truck it to the northeastern United States. And when Florida’s Natural Growers closed its Bartow, Fla., manufacturing facility in 2005, it cited the soaring cost of natural gas as the reason. (Based on its 7.5-million-gallon capacity and its projected 2006 natural-gas tab of $2.1 million, the Bartow plant would have been responsible for approximately 9,129 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—about the same as 1,700 cars.)

The author does make the mistake here of conflating the amount of energy used and the price of that energy, but it is startling how much CO2 orange juice processing emits, even for not-from-concentrate juice that doesn’t have to be evaporated or stored in freezers.

d. buy it reconstituted

This is definitely the worst option, taste-wise. It doesn’t have the same pulpy, rich taste that fresh orange juice has, and the taste is thin, watery and kind of artificial.

It turns out that it’s also the worst choice for the environment: orange juice from concentrate is just orange juice that has been evaporated (using a huge amount of energy), shipped or flown to a processing center, where a bunch of water is added to it. Then, the reconstituted orange juice, just as bulky and heavy as fresh orange juice, is shipped to its final destination. Port Newark, actually has two “orange juice concentrate storage and blending facilities.” Port Newark, combined with the adjacent Elizabeth-Port Authority Marine Terminal, is about the 15th busiest port in the world. Can you imagine how much orange juice they must reconstitute to have TWO buildings dedicated solely to reconstituting orange juice? The scale, and the amount of energy used in the processing, transportation, and reconstitution, blows me away.

Essentially, you get the same loss of taste as in the frozen concentrate, but with a much heavier environmental burden. No thanks!

So, the take-away? I happen to like orange juice, and I will still drink it, though probably less often than I did before I found out how energy-intensive the processing is. When I do, I’ll stick to Florida’s Natural, so I can be sure the oranges are at least from this country, and I’ll be staying far, far away from reconstituted “juice”!

Orchards in the City

apple-tree.png

As well as nascent re-emergence of the the ‘back-to-the land’ movement, there’s also a parallel ‘back-to-my-tiny-city-plot-or-planter’ movement. People are increasingly moving beyond a few tomato plants and some herbs in some pots, and are increasingly putting in gardens, even orchards, in sometimes truly tiny spaces. In addition to the older, established city fruit trees, more city gardeners are branching out into orchards, as a recent New York Times article demonstrates. Fruit tree sales have increased substantially, around 12 to 15% annually, as more people plant mini-orchards. While that’s not exactly an overnight transformation of each patch of yard in cities into orchards, it’s a big step towards not only delicious and local food, but also neighborliness, as people have more extra fruit to share.

Who is going to eat all of this fruit? Fruit trees, like zucchini plants, can make a lot of food.

silver-lake-fruit-map.jpg

Several small groups have sprung up, mostly in California, which make community maps of publicly accessible fruit trees. These maps enable people to go harvest some fruit that would otherwise have gone to waste. The first to articulate these ideas and provide maps (including the above map) is a group called Fallen Fruit, a Los Angeles-based “activist art project.” They encourage “everyone to harvest, plant and sample public fruit, which is what we call all fruit on or overhanging public spaces such as sidewalks, streets, or parking lots.” Their guidelines on the maps for harvesting public fruit are to “take only what you need; say ‘hi’ to strangers; share your food; take a friend; go by foot.”

Jamie Juantara has also made an excellent map of Echo Park, complete with a color-coded key to identify the various types of tress.

echo-park-fruit-map.jpg

Local Ecologist and Walking Berkeley have also discussed public fruit trees here, here and here.

Languishing fruit trees are also being put to good use by Village Harvest, a nonprofit suburban harvesting cooperative based in the Santa Clara Valley. They schedule regular harvesting of fruit trees in the Santa Clara Area, helping homeowners with too much fruit on their hands channel that extra fruit to local anti-hunger organizations. Village Harvest also provides education on fruit tree care, harvesting, and food preservation.