by Andy Johnston, Produce Manager
[Editor’s Note: This article was written before the recent flooding. To hear about its effect on our local growers, read next month’s Produce News.]
September is here—summer ends; fall begins. Many celebrate the kids returning to school; others patiently await the spectacular colors of autumn. Although it probably doesn’t show up on most calendars, September is National Organic Harvest Month. It may have taken awhile, but finally producers of organic goods get an entire month of recognition!
Willy Street Co-op has long been a supplier of local, organically grown foods. In the Produce department, it is what we do best. We take pride in our efforts and ability to source and supply our membership with the highest quality, certified organic, local produce. Looking at the big picture, I enjoy the sense of fulfillment knowing that I am contributing to something I truly believe to be good. As Produce Manager, I have the privilege to support our local economy, the environment, and the health of our community.
Despite a general lack of precipitation in our area this season, this year’s harvest has been great! Organic farming practices help retain soil moisture, and most of the farmers we work with have some method of irrigation. This year’s morel and asparagus harvest was good while it lasted, but was certainly cut short due to the lack of rain. Jen Ehr strawberries and West Star’s sweet corn didn’t much care for the dry conditions. A big thanks to the Avalanche crew out in Viroqua! Although we did not arrange a strawberry contract with them, they had a bumper crop and came through for us.
Other crops fared much better, and many came in at least a couple of weeks earlier than usual. It’s like we’ve moved from zone 4 to zone 5 (the country is divided into growing zones based on frost dates; zone 4 is a little cooler), which is not necessarily a good thing, but it certainly produced some excellent quality product. Cooler temperatures in June provided a steady supply of excellent lettuce and greens. Tipi melons came on in mid-June, and may have been the best ever! Hot weather and lack of rain cause high sugar concentrations in melon. I’m guessing sugar content in the yellow doll watermelon was off the Brix chart altogether. (The Brix chart measures the nutrient levels of produce.) Jen Ehr came through with a steady supply of excellent quality broccoli, cauliflower, and romanesco for the better part of June and August. Tipi’s peppers have been great. This year’s tomato crop is incredible. Per plant yields are better than ever, and plants have remained healthy due to the dry conditions.
In fact, it’s been such a good year, our back room and cooler have been busting at the seams. Holding enough inventory to get through the weekend becomes one of our biggest challenges. Staff need to mentally prepare going into a weekend. We’ve got product packed into every nook and cranny we can find.
Even though it may cause a little stress in our back room, good years like this provide us the opportunity to offer you some good deals. We try to plan our specials with the farmers around the peak season of individual products. You’d think our sales would go up, but they don’t. However, if you look at the volume of product sold, it’s a different story. High crop yields means a good price. We cut our profit margin, run a sale, help the farmers sell their crop, and offer you a great product at a fair price!
Not that I want to battle with finding room to hold more product to support sales, but as consumers, I hope you take advantage of our specials. If you’ve got the time, you can save a lot of money buy purchasing local products during peak season and preserving them. Obviously, fruits and vegetables of any kind included in your diet are better than none, but local, organically grown are the best, especially when they are as affordable as their conventional counterparts. You can freeze, can, and dry pretty much any produce item! Last year, for the first time, I froze red peppers. I was able to go an entire year without purchasing a single red pepper. Whether they’re from the Co-op, farmers’ markets, or your garden, preserving local fruits and vegetables provides you the highest quality foods at an affordable price year round.
September is a great time to celebrate the local harvest. For many, the concept of local harvest is a remote one at best. With advances in technology and increased scale, factory farming and super retailers have almost entirely eliminated any connection between the food source and end purchaser. Thankfully, that is not the case here at the Co-op.
Historically, entire communities participated in the harvesting of their food source; it was a means of survival. As long as we’ve been sowing seeds and cultivating crops, we’ve been celebrating the harvest. Every culture, ethnic group, and society has at least one unique ceremony or ritual to celebrate a bountiful harvest. Celebrations lasted for a single day, or an entire month, and reflected the culture’s primary crops that sustained it. Ceremonies and rituals centered around spiritual beliefs, and included offerings, prayer, and dance to give thanks and ensure future harvests. Traditional harvest celebrations are still recognized around the world. In India, Pongal is the celebration of the rice harvest. In Africa, nations celebrate with the Yam Festival and Kwanzaa. Canadians celebrate the Harvest Moon. And of course, in the States, we celebrate Thanksgiving. Components of various celebrations include food and drink, music and dancing, elaborate clothing, prayer, arts and crafts, and special activities. As diverse as they are, all harvest celebrations have common themes: giving thanks, acknowledging the value of hard work, appreciation of the land, and the bringing together of family and community.
Almost every one of the local farmers we work with has some sort of on-the-farm harvest celebration. Many of them have several throughout the season, and invite their employees and CSA members to participate. Some celebrations are as simple as a potluck; others include live music, hayrides, pig roasts, cider pressings and other activities. Sounds like a good time!
For those of you in education or with children, incorporating the theme of local harvest into lessons and meals is an opportunity for kids to learn. Use locally harvested goods to enhance lesson in history, farming, environment, nutrition, and culture. Pick a local product to incorporate into a dinner, and trace its origin. Arrange a visit to a local farm. Organic farmers are enthusiastic individuals, and have a wealth of information I’m sure they love to share!
In the Produce department, we’ll be celebrating local harvest in the store with Organic Harvest Week, September 14th–20th. We’re hoping to get a couple of farmers in the store to talk about their farms and offer samples of they’re products! Don’t forget, local produce items have purple price inserts, and our sales items have red or green signs. The Produce department will also be offering 10% off selected farmers’ entire product lines! It’s a great time to come in, visit with the farmers, eat some good food, and get a deal. It’s also an opportunity to say thank you to the people who provide us with all of the wonderful, locally grown organic food that we love so much.