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August 30, 2013

STAWAR: Farm Fresh

— This time of the year if you ask  people what season it is, you’ll probably get a lot of different answers — like Indian Summer, baseball season, or perhaps even “back-to-school.” Of course, there will be some folks who say, excitedly, that it’s “Tomato Season” — that  time of the year when tomatoes  reach their peak of perfection. [Others might argue for peaches or blackberries, since these seasons tend to overlap.]  You can also tell that it’s tomato season because this is  when a lot of people bring their surplus tomatoes to work or church in order to share them with others.

My mother was a tomato connoisseur and was addicted to the fresh vine-ripened variety. She grew her own all summer long and by November was usually experiencing withdrawal. She was always highly critical of store-bought tomatoes, which she considered tasteless and worst of all “mealy.” I never was quite sure what “mealy” meant, but I knew it was bad. The dictionary says that “mealy” means granular or having the consistency of meal [grain]. When it comes to tomatoes it also seems to mean having a bland mushy texture. Some people blame moisture, while others point to temperature as a possible culprit. Robert L. Wolke, a chemistry professor from the University of Pittsburgh, says that tomatoes can suffer from a “chilling injury” if kept in a refrigerator below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. It all depends upon their type, ripeness, and the length of time they are cooled.

My mother never refrigerated tomatoes and we always had a kitchen window full of them in various stages of ripening. A tomato may look perfect, but still be mealy. They’re sort of like people. You have to get to know them, before you can find out what they’re like on the inside.

People eat fresh tomatoes in a variety of ways. Most folks have them with salt, but my mother always sprinkled a little sugar on hers, which I’ve heard called the “old country” way. I’ve also heard of other people using pepper, vinegar, or even mayonnaise. My wife Diane describes how, as a child, she would sometimes eat a whole tomato like it was an apple, with the juice running down her chin. She also has a story about how she and her Aunt Betty once ate an entire watermelon by themselves, with the juice running down their chins, of course. A chip off the ole block, our daughter always seemed to enjoy eating particularly messy things best. I am not sure I understand all this fascination with dripping juice? It sort of reminds me of Hardy’s odd new slogan, “Eat like you mean it.”

I grew up in a small town, where most people bought their  produce from  a big beat-up green truck that came to the neighborhood once a week. Stereotypically the produce truck was  driven by Hank, an Italian immigrant and expert greengrocer. I remember  being fascinated by Hank’s  supply of Indian apples, perhaps better known today as pomegranates. In late summer, every year my mother would insist that we drive to the small farming community of  Poag, also known as “The Muskmelon Capital of Southern Illinois.” There we would stock up on fresh vegetables, cantaloupes, and watermelons,  at one of the many roadside stands. By Labor Day watermelons were often as cheap as five melons for a dollar.   

Even farm fresh produce can have certain risks. In 2012 Chamberlain Farms in Gibson County, Ind., was found to be the source of a cantaloupe-related salmonella outbreak that  made 261 people ill across the country. According to Charles Hall, the executive director of  the Eastern Cantaloupe Growers Association, cantaloupes are  often prone to bacterial contamination due to their filigreed or netted exteriors, which provide more surface area where microbes can attach  themselves and which makes them more difficult to clean. According to experts, cantaloupes, which are America’s most popular  melon, should always be carefully washed before they are cut open.   

Diane’s mother had been raised on a farm and although she liked the urbane sophistication of convenience foods and living in town, she still craved the fresh produce of her childhood. To get farm fresh or home-grown produce today, most people look to seasonal roadside stands, or farmers’ markets. We are fortunate that Southern Indiana has a wealth of both. Health concerns, interest in heritage food, and the “eat local” trend, have turned these into big business. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has called the practice of selling directly to consumers “an important opportunity for small and beginning farmers to become financially secure.”       

Sue Weaver, a freelance writer and hobby farmer from Arkansas, says, “In 1980, there were 15,000 roadside stands in the United States. By 1995, that figure almost doubled and it continues to grow.” Weaver cites a 1994 survey of Ohio residents in which 55 percent said that they shopped at a roadside market  within the last year and two-thirds of that group  said they shopped there at least four times. About half  of the non-shoppers said that farm markets were too far away,  but  more than  half of them  said they would shop at such a market, if it  were conveniently located.  Almost all respondents [98 percent]  thought that they received higher-quality produce at these stands and 88 percent said that they preferred to buy their fruit and vegetables this way. According to the Ohio  and other surveys,   sweet corn, tomatoes and melons are by far the most popular items sold in roadside stands, followed by other produce such as  apples, beans, peaches, peppers, cucumbers, etc.      

 A University of Tennessee survey  found that 74 percent of shoppers  used highway signs exclusively to find roadside produce stands and very few people paid attention to advertisements in various media outlets like the newspapers or radio. Marketing consultants  have also found that  customers believe that pricing that rounds  to  fives [45 cents, 75 cents, $1.25) is more “farm like”  than the standard  $1.98 pricing method. The consultants  believe that such pricing  is thus especially appropriate for roadside stands. They also advise stand owners to sell things by the basket or item, rather  than by the pound, since selling by the pound is associated with supermarkets and not very “farm like.”  They are convinced that “country” sells.   

Besides roadside stands, the United States Department of  Agriculture reports there are currently more than 4,685 farmers’ markets across the country. This includes New Albany’s Farmer’s Market which opened on May 11th this year at 202 E. Market St., and the  Jeffersonville Farmers’ Market, which is open Saturday mornings at Chestnut & Locust streets and the 10th Street entrance to Jeffersonville High School. Roadside stands and farmers’ markets  offer a great  opportunity for you to talk to some of the people who actually produce grow food.

The produce sold in these places may or may not be organic and these days you also have to be careful since some folks have taken to reselling imported, rather than locally grown, produce. Make sure that you aren’t just buying recycled grocery store goods. The best advice is to just ask the vendor about the origin and growing conditions of the produce, but also take time to carefully examine each product. You can also look for other subtle hints, like dirt clinging to the roots, familiar looking supermarket boxes, attached UPC codes, and, of course, those little stickers that say  “Product of Mexico.”

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

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