April can be a tricky month in the Produce department. Spring is finally here. It’s easy to catch spring fever and imagine that all sorts of local produce will be arriving immediately. Unfortunately that’s just not the case. It takes time for those first seeds planted in April to come to harvest—it can’t happen overnight no matter how nice the weather is.
There are some local veggies starting to be harvested from hoop-houses (unheated greenhouses) this month, but the majority of this precious early produce goes to farmers’ markets and CSAs. It just doesn’t make sense for many of our farmers to sell us their limited supply at wholesale costs when they could be getting a well-deserved premium by selling directly to consumers.
Despite that, we should see a few local items trickling in this month. Look for herbs from Troy Gardens, sorrel from JenEhr Family Farm, Swiss chard from Keewaydin Organics, and if we’re lucky some morel mushrooms and asparagus by the end of the month. Beyond this, we’ll still be largely dependent on growers in California for the produce we sell in April.
Though there are many exciting California grown fruits and veggies that become available in April, there’s nothing that says spring like strawberries.
Last year, in the month of April alone, our Eastside location sold a total of 6,080 pounds of fresh strawberries. That’s equivalent to 760 flats; an incredible volume which will only increase this year with the addition of our new Middleton store. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to find a local producer who can supply us with this amount of berries even when the local season is in full swing in June (if you know someone, let us know!). Instead, we rely on California-grown strawberries.
Of all the organic berry growers in California, we’ve found that only one has the consistent high quality and great taste that we demand: Driscoll’s. You’ll find this label in both of our Produce departments this month, and you won’t be disappointed by their quality, flavor, or price.
I’m usually a die-hard locavore. I primarily purchase my strawberries at farmers’ markets and u-picks, but I’ve had the opportunity to tour Driscoll’s farms both in California and Mexico and speak to a few of their farmers; after all that I don’t feel a bit guilty about occasionally splurging on a package of California strawberries in April.
Driscoll’s is a huge company that supplies berries to both the organic and conventional market. The secret to their success lies in the genetics of their plants. All the varieties grown by their farmers are “proprietary,” which means that they were developed by and for Driscoll’s. The company owns the sole rights to grow these varieties. I’m not a plant geneticist, but I do know that Driscoll’s berry varieties are exceptional. They have somehow managed to develop fruit that meets the dual test of tasting great and also holding up to long distance shipping. No other berry on the market does this as well. Because they are certified organic, we can be sure that no genetic modification went into developing these varieties, just good old fashioned plant breeding.
Driscoll’s works with independent family farmers in California, Mexico, and even Chile. The farmers retain full ownership and control over their land. As growers for Driscoll’s, they enter into a unique agreement with the company. Driscoll’s gives plant starts to the farmers, the farmers grow them to maturity, harvest the berries, and then sell the fruit back to Driscoll’s at a pre-agreed price. Although the farmers care for the plants, the plants (and their genetics) are always considered property of Driscoll’s, and are more-or-less leased to the farmers.
The drawbacks to this agreement are that the farmers do not have rights to propagate the plants, and they can’t sell the berries to anyone except Driscoll’s (not even farmers’ markets!).
For the farmers that I’ve talked to however, the positives far outweigh the negatives. These are generally farmers who live in large agricultural regions who don’t have access to large population centers to sell their berries directly to. They are able to concentrate on growing and harvesting their crop without worrying about marketing or distribution. They have a guaranteed buyer and a guaranteed price for everything they produce—that comes as relief to many farmers. Driscoll’s operates state of the art warehouses to ensure that their berries are handled in the best possible way, and that’s something most small farmers could never manage on their own.
So don’t feel guilty about indulging this April in a package or two of fresh strawberries from California. Just remember to save some of your berry cravings for June when the local crop starts coming to a farmers’ market near you!