Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Seeing Red

Eating Locally and Debunking the Red-Blue Divide

Early Girls, Dolly Partons, and the attack of the California tomatoes: When my family tried to eat local for a year, we learned as much about politics as we did about produce.

by Barbara Kingsolver (April 30 2007)

I've kept a journal for most of the years I've been gardening. I'm a habitual scribbler, jotting down the triumphs and flops of each season that I always feel pretty sure I'd remember anyway: that the Collective Farm Woman melons were surprisingly prissy; that the Dolly Partons produced such whopping tomatoes the plants fell over. Who could forget any of that? Me, as it turns out. Come winter when it's time to order seeds again, I always need to go back and check the record.

Over years, trends show up. One is that however jaded I may have become, winter knocks down the hollow stem of worldliness and I start each summer again with expectations as simple as a child's. The first tomato of the season brings me to my knees. Its vital stats are recorded in my journal with the care of a birth announcement: It's an Early Girl! Four ounces! June 16! Over the next few weeks I note the number, size, and quality of the different tomato varieties as they begin to come in: two Green Zebras, four gorgeous Jaune Flamme's, one single half-pound Russian Black. I note that the latter wins our summer's first comparative taste test - a good balance of tart and sweet, with strong spicy notes.

By early August I've shifted from numbers to pounds. We bring in each day's harvest in plastic grocery sacks that we heave onto a butcher's scale in our kitchen, recording the weight on a notepad before moving on to processing. At this point, we officially move beyond hobby scale.

Two years ago, when my family set out to eat only food grown close to home for a year, our quarter-acre garden figured prominently in our plans. How many pumpkins would we eat in twenty months? How many jars of pickles? My one area of confidence was tomatoes: We couldn't have too many.

When did we realize we were headed for a harvest of one-fifth of a ton? We had a clue when tomatoes took over the countertops end to end, front edge to backsplash. No place to set down a dirty dish. The sink stayed full of red orbs bobbing in their wash water. The stovetop stayed covered with baking sheets of halved tomatoes waiting for their turn in the oven. The cutting board stayed full; the knives kept slicing.

We process and put up almost every kind of fruit and vegetable in late summer, but somehow it's the tomatoes, with their sunny flavor and short shelf life, that demand the most attention. We wish for them in leisure, and repent in haste. Rare is the August evening when I'm not slicing, canning, roasting, and drying - often all at the same time. Tomatoes take over our life. When my daughter Lily was too young to help, she had to sit out some of the season at the kitchen table with her crayons while she watched me work. The summer she was five, she wrote and illustrated a small book titled Mama the Tomato Queen, which fully exhausted the red spectrum of her Crayola box.

By September, all those gorgeous, red-filled jars lining the pantry shelf make me happy. They look like early valentines, and they are, for a working mother. A jar of our spaghetti sauce, a box of pasta, a grate of cheese will save us come dinnertime. I think of canning as fast food, paid for in time up front.

That price isn't the drudgery that many people think. In high season I give over a few Saturdays to canning with family or friends. A steamy kitchen full of women talking about our stuff is not so different from your average book group, except that we end up with jars of future meals.

Canning is not just for farmers and gardeners, either. Putting up summer produce is a useful option for anyone who can buy local produce from markets. It is also a kindness to the farmers who will have to support their families in December on whatever they sell in August. They can't put their unsold tomatoes in the bank. Buying now, in quantity, improves the odds of these farmers returning with more next summer.

If canning seems like too much of a stretch, there are other ways to save vegetables purchased in season, in bulk. Twenty pounds of tomatoes will cook down into a pot of sauce that fits into five one-quart freezer boxes, good for one meal each. (Be warned, the fragrance of your kitchen will cause innocent bystanders to want to marry you.) Tomatoes can even be frozen whole; once they've hardened you can dump them together into large bags (they'll knock against each other like croquet balls), and withdraw a few at a time for winter soups and stews. Having gone nowhere in the interim, they will still be local in February.

In some supermarket chains in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, shoppers can find seasonal organic vegetables in packages labeled "Appalachian Harvest". The letters arch over a sunny, stylized portrait of plowed fields, a clear blue stream, and the assurance: "Healthy Food, Healthy Farms, Close to Home".

Labels can lie, I am perfectly aware. But the Appalachian Harvest vegetables really do come from healthy farms; I happen to know, because they're close to my home. Brand building in mainstream supermarkets is an exciting development for farmers here, in a region that has struggled with chronic environmental problems, double-digit unemployment, and a steady drain of young people from the farming economy.

But getting some of Appalachia's harvest into those packages has not been simple. Every cellophane-wrapped, bar-coded packet of organic produce contains a specific promise to the consumer. To back it up, farmers need special training, organic certification, reliable markets, and a packaging plant. A model nonprofit called Appalachian Sustainable Development provides all of these for a ten-county region of Virginia and Tennessee. In 2006, eleven years after the program began, participating farms collectively sold about $371,000 worth of organic produce to regional retailers, supermarkets, and farmers' markets.

The Appalachian Harvest packinghouse lies in a Virginia mountain valley every bit as gorgeous as the fairy-tale farm on the label. In its first year, a wing of an old tobacco barn served as headquarters. Now the packing plant occupies the whole barn, complete with truck bays, commercial coolers, and conveyor belts. Tomatoes are the cash cow of this enterprise, but they are also its prima donnas, quick to spoil in the sultry heat but at risk of losing their flavor in standard refrigeration, so the newest major addition is a 100-foot-by-14-foot tomato room where the temperature is held at 56 degrees.

Participating farmers (37 of them, at last count) bring vegetables here by the truckload, in special boxes that have never been used for conventional produce. Most of them have just an acre or two of organic vegetables, beside other crops grown conventionally. Those who stick with the program may expand their organic acreage, but rarely to more than five acres, since organic is labor-intensive. After planting, weeding, and keeping the crop pest-free all season without chemicals, the final step of picking often begins before dawn. The largest grower in the group, with fifteen acres in production, last year delivered 200 boxes of peppers and 400 of tomatoes in a single day.

The packinghouse manager labels each box as it arrives so the grower's identity will follow the vegetables through washing, grading, and packaging, all the way to their point of wholesale purchase. Appalachian Harvest takes a 25 percent commission, revenue that helps pay for organic training and organic certification as well as packing expenses. The project's sales have crept up, with a few more committed growers each year, and some families have been motivated to make their entire farms organic, from vegetable patches to hay fields. Their neighbors are watching, eager to see whether this enormous commitment to new methods will be salvation or disaster.

Tomatoes are a "high-value crop", but only in relation to a dirt-cheap commodity grain like corn; in season, even the highest quality organic tomatoes will bring local farmers no more than sixty to eighty cents per pound. (The lower end, for conventional, is twenty cents.) Yet even that can translate into a cautious living.

On a midsummer day in the packinghouse, vegetables roll through the processing line in a quantity that makes the work in my own kitchen look small indeed. Tomatoes bounce down a sorting conveyor, several bushels per minute, dropping through different-sized holes in a vibrating belt. Workers collect them, check for flaws and ripeness, and package the tomatoes as quickly as their hands can move, pressing the "certified organic" sticker on each one. Watching the operation, I kept thinking of people I know who can hardly even stand to hear that word, because of how "organic" is personified for them. "I'm always afraid I'm going to get the Mr Natural lecture", one friend confessed to me. "You know, from the slow-moving person with ugly hair, doing back and leg stretches while they talk to you". I know the guy too: standing at the checkout with his bottle of Intestinal-Joy brand wheatgrass juice, edging closer as if to peer into my cart to save me from some food-karma horror.

For the record, this is what organic looks like at Appalachian Harvest: Red Wing work boots, barbershop haircuts, Levi's with a little mud on the cuffs, men and women who probably go to church on Sunday but keep their religion to themselves as they bring a day's work to the old tobacco barn. If sanctimony is an additive in their product, it gets added elsewhere.

The tomato room offers a 56-degree respite from the July swelter, but it is all business in there too: full boxes piled on pallets, in columns nearly reaching the ceiling. Just enough space remains in the center for workers to maneuver, carting out pallets for grading, sorting, and then slapping one of those tedious stickers on every one of the thousands of individual tomatoes that pass through here each day.

Supermarkets only accept properly packaged, coded, and labeled produce that conforms to certain standards of color, size, and shape. Melons can have no stem attached; cucumbers must be no less than six inches long, no more than eight. Crooked eggplants need not apply. Every crop yields a significant proportion of perfectly edible but small or oddly shaped vegetables that are "trash" by market standards.

It takes as much work to grow a crooked vegetable as a straight one, and the nutritional properties are identical. Workers at the packinghouse are as distressed as the farmers to see boxes of rejects piling up. Poverty and hunger are not abstractions in our part of the world; throwing away mountains of good food makes no sense. With the help of several church and social justice groups, Appalachian Harvest arranges to deliver "factory second" vegetables to low-income families all summer. Fresh organic produce has entered some of their diets for the first time.

I grew up among farmers. In my school system in east central Kentucky we were all born to our rank, as inescapably as Hindus, the castes being only two: "farm" and "town". Though my father worked in town, we did not live there, and so by the numinous but unyielding rules of high school, I was farm. It might seem astonishing that a distinction like this could be made in a county that boasted exactly two stoplights, one hardware store, no beer joints, and fewer residents than an average Caribbean cruise ship. After I went away to school, I remained in more or less constant marvel over the fact that my so-called small liberal arts college, with an enrollment of about 2,000, was 25 percent larger than my hometown.

And yet, even in a community as rural as mine, we still had our self-identified bourgeoisie, categorically distinguished from the rustics. We of the latter tribe could be identified by our shoes (sometimes muddy, if we had to cover rough country to get to the school bus), our clothes (less frequently updated), or just the bare fact of a Rural Free Delivery mailing address. I spent my childhood in awe of the storybook addresses of some of my classmates, like "14 Locust Street". In retrospect I'm unsure of how fact-based the distinction really was. Most of us "farm" kids were well-scrubbed and occasionally even stylish. Nevertheless, the line was unimpeachably drawn. Little socializing across it was allowed except during special events forced on us by adults, such as the French Club Dinner, and mixed-caste dating was unthinkable except to the tragic romantics.

Why should this have been? How did the leafy, sidewalked blocks behind the newspaper office confer on their residents a different sense of self than did the homes couched among cow pastures and tobacco fields? The townie shine would have dimmed quickly (I now realize) if the merchants' confident offspring had been catapulted suddenly into Philadelphia or Louisville. "Urban" is relative. But the bottom line is that it matters. The antipathy in our culture between the urban and nonurban is so durable it has its own vocabulary: (A) city slicker, tenderfoot; (B) hick, redneck, hayseed, bumpkin, rube, yokel, clodhopper, hoecake, hillbilly, Dogpatch, Daisy Mae, farmer's daughter, from the provinces, out of Deliverance. Maybe you see where I'm going with this. The list is lopsided. I don't think there's much doubt, on either side, as to which class is winning the culture wars.

Most rural people of my acquaintance would not gladly give up their status. Like other minorities, we've managed to turn several of the aforementioned slurs into celebrated cultural identifiers (for use by insiders only). In my own life I've had ample opportunity to reinvent myself as a city person - to pass, as it were - but I've remained tacitly rural-identified in my psyche. It's probably this dual citizenship that has sensitized me to how urban-rural antipathy affects people in both camps. Rural concerns are less covered by the mainstream media, and often considered intrinsically comic. The policy of our nation is made in cities, controlled largely by urban voters who aren't well informed about the changes on the face of our land, and the men and women who work it.

When we walked, as a nation, away from the land, our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial. Now, it's fair to say, the majority of us don't want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints. Except as straw-chewing figures in children's books, we don't quite believe in them anymore. When we give it a thought, we mostly consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 81 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too - the processors, marketers, transporters, and so on. Less than one-fifth goes to farmers, and corporate "producers" get the lion's share of that. We complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might actually send back more than two dimes per buck to the humans putting seeds in the ground, harvesting, attending livestock births, standing in the fields at dawn. In the grocery store checkout corral, we learn all about which stars are secretly fornicating, but nothing about the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our carts.

There must be some reason why we don't want to think about or compensate these hardworking men and women. The psychic divide between rural working class and urban middle is surely a part of the problem. "Eaters must understand", Wendell Berry writes, "that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used". Eaters must understand, he claims, but it sure looks like most eaters don't. If they did, how would we frame the message to farmers suggested by today's food-buying habits? "Let them eat dirt" is hardly overstating it. The urban US middle class appears more immediately concerned about exploited Asian factory workers.

Symptomatic of this rural-urban identity crisis is our eager embrace of a recently imposed divide: the red states and the blue states. That color map comes to us with the suggestion that both coasts are populated by educated civil libertarians, while the vast middle and south are crisscrossed with the studded tracks of atvs leaving a trail of flying beer cans and rebel yells. Okay, I'm exaggerating a little. But I certainly sense that when urban friends ask me how I can stand living here, "so far from everything". (When I hear this question over the phone, I'm usually looking out the window at a forest, a running creek, and a vegetable garden, thinking: Define "everything".) Otherwise sensitive coast-dwelling folk may refer to the whole chunk of our continent lying between the Cascades and the Hudson River as "The Interior".

In fact, the politics of rural regions are no more predictable than those in cities. "Conservative" is a reasonable position for a farmer who can lose home and livelihood all in one year by taking a risk on a new crop. But that's "conservative" as in, "eager to conserve what we have, reluctant to change the rules overnight", and unrelated to how the term is currently (often incomprehensibly) applied in party politics. The farm county where I grew up had so few Republicans they all registered Democrat so they could vote in the only local primary. My earliest understanding of radical, class-conscious politics came from miners' strikes in one of the most rural parts of my state, and of our nation.

The only useful generalization I'd hazard about rural politics is that they tend to break on the line of "insider" vs "outsider". When my country neighbors sit down with someone new, the first question they ask is not "What do you do?" but rather "Who are your people?" Commonly we will spend more than the first ten minutes of a new acquaintance tracing how our families might be related. If not by blood, then by marriage. Failing that, by identifying someone significant we have known in common. Only after this ritual does the conversation comfortably move on to other subjects. I am blessed with an ancestor who was the physician in this county from about 1910 into the 1940s. From older people I'll often hear of some memorably dire birth or farm accident to which my great-uncle was called; lucky for me he was skilled and Hippocratic. But even a criminal ancestor will get you insider status, among the forgiving. The dark horse who moves here with no identifiable family ties is likely to remain "the new fellow" for the rest of his natural life, even if he arrives in his prime and lives to be 100.

The country tradition of mistrusting outsiders may be sometimes unfairly applied, but it's not hard to understand. For much of US history, rural regions have been treated essentially as colonial property of the cities. The carpetbaggers of the Reconstruction era were not the first or the last opportunists to capitalize on an extractive economy. When urban companies come to the country with a big plan - whether their game is coal, timber, or industrial agriculture - the plan is to take out the good stuff, ship the profit to the population centers, and leave behind a mess.

Given this history, one might expect the so-called red states to vote consistently for candidates supporting working-class values. In fact, our nation in almost every region is divided in a near dead heat between two parties that don't distinguish themselves clearly along class lines. If every state were visually represented with the exact blend of red and blue it earned in recent elections, we'd have ourselves a big purple country. The tidy divide is a media Just So story.

Our uneasy relationship between heartland and coasts, farm and factory, country and town, is certainly real. But it is both more rudimentary and more subtle than most political analysts make it out to be. It's about loyalties, perceived communities, and the things each side understands to be important because of the ground, literally, upon which we stand. Wendell Berry summed it up much better than "blue and red" in one line of dialogue from his novel Jayber Crow, which is peopled by farmers struggling to survive on what the modern, mostly urban market will pay for food. After watching nearly all the farms in the county go bankrupt, one of these men comments: "I've wished sometimes that the sons of bitches would starve. And now I'm getting afraid they actually will."

In high summer of 2005, about the time I was seeing red in my kitchen, the same thing was happening to some of our county's tomato farmers. They had learned organic methods, put away the chemicals, and done everything right to grow a product consumers claimed to want. They'd waited the three years and paid for certification. They'd watered, weeded, and picked, they'd sorted the round from the misshapen, producing the perfect organic tomatoes ordered by grocery chains. And then suddenly, when the farmers were finally bringing in these tomatoes by the truckload and hoping for a decent payout, some grocery buyers backtracked. "Not this week", one store offered without warning, and then another. Not the next week either, nor the next. A tomato is not a thing that can be put on hold. Mountains of ripe fruits piled up behind the packinghouse and turned to orange sludge, swarming with clouds of fruit flies.

These tomatoes were perfect, and buyers were hungry. Agreements had been made. But pallets of organic tomatoes from California had begun coming in just a few dollars cheaper. It's hard to believe, given the amount of truck fuel involved, but transportation is tax-deductible for the corporations, so we taxpayers paid for that shipping. The California growers needed only the economics of scale on their side, a cheap army of pickers, and customers who would reliably opt for the lower price.

As simply as that, a year of planning and family labor turned to red mush.

Our growers had been warned that this could happen - market buyers will almost never sign a binding contract. So the farmers took a risk, and took a loss. Some of them will try again, though they will likely hedge their bets with Delicata squash and peas as well. Courage, practicality, and making the best of a bad situation are much of what farming is about. Before the tomatoes all rotted away, Appalachian Harvest found a way to donate and distribute the enormous excess. The poor of our county were rich in tomatoes that summer.

"We were glad we could give it away", one of the farmers told me. "That's who we are. But a lot of us are barely making ends meet ourselves. It seems like it's always the people that have the least who end up giving the most. Why is that?"

In Charlottesville, Asheville, Roanoke, and Knoxville, supermarket shoppers had no way of knowing how much heartache and betrayal was wrapped up in those cellophane two-packs of California tomatoes. Maybe they noticed the other tomatoes were missing that week, the ones with the "Healthy Farms, Close to Home" label. Or maybe they just saw "organic tomatoes", and dropped them into their carts on top of the cereal boxes and paper towels. Eaters must understand, how we eat determines how the world is used. They either will or they won't. And the happy grocery store music plays on.


This article has been made possible by the Foundation for National Progress, the Investigative Fund of Mother Jones, and gifts from generous readers like you.

(c) 2007 The Foundation for National Progress

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home