Tag Archives: local food

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!

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.

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!

Back in Action

I’m back, after much traveling and many adventures, with a surprising amount of maps and local foods goodness involved. More about that will be up soon, as well as my commentary on a lot of food-related news.

In the meantime, one of my first stops when I got back to the city was the Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market, where there was a super-abundance of delicious things to eat. Pastries, peaches, nectarines, pork, wine, cheese – it was stupendous.

And this photo doesn’t even include the corn on the cob, pork belly, tuna, squid, half and half and ice cream that I also picked up. Mmmmm, August! Tomatoes, peaches, plums and corn!

Oh, yes. More to come soon.

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!