Locavores rejoice: we’ve finally hit the peak of local season! This is the wonderful time of year when the majority of our vegetable offerings, and quite a few of our fruits, are locally grown. You’ll find a vast array of local produce on our shelves this month: from watermelon and muskmelon, to basil, green beans, cucumbers, eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, zucchini and much more.
While we have literally tons of local produce to choose from, there are a few things that you won’t find on our shelves this month.
Cool Season Crops
While many veggies and melons love the hot August weather, there are others that prefer the cooler temps of spring and autumn. These include salad greens like lettuce, spring mix, and spinach. Also in this category are radishes and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower. In a cool year, you may find some of these available all through the summer; but in a hot year like this one cool weather veggies usually take a mid-summer break. Don’t worry, many of them will be back when the temperatures start to drop in September and October.
Long Season Crops
These are plants that like hot weather, but take a long time to mature. Some of them may come into availability in late August, but most will finish their growth in August and come available in September. These include many of the vegetables traditionally eaten in the autumn: winter squash, Brussels sprouts, pumpkins, cured onions, and root veggies like turnips, rutabaga, and parsnips.
The absence of this local Wisconsin staple is perhaps the most dearly felt in our Produce department. Many people wonder how on earth a Produce department that does local so well can have such a gaping hole in our availability.
While it’s true that local sweet corn is available on every street corner during the late summer months, it’s extremely rare for that corn to be certified organic. Why? Sweet corn is very difficult to grow organically. It takes up a lot of space on a small farm, and without synthetic pesticides and herbicides it can be very expensive and time consuming to successfully raise a crop that’s suitable for the fresh eating market. Weeding is a huge challenge that often has to be done by hand, and though there are organically approved pesticides for sweet corn, they are quite expensive and take a lot of time to apply.
If they do manage to get a crop of nice looking corn, it’s tough for a small organic farmer to charge enough to cover their cost of production. When you can get local conventional sweet corn for $3/dozen at a corner stand, it’s tough for folks to stomach $10 or $12/dozen for organic corn, and it’s just not feasible for small organic farmers to produce the crop for much less than that.
There are a few growers in Wisconsin that produce huge amounts of organic sweet corn for the frozen and canned corn markets. These farmers produce such large quantities that they are able to take advantage of advanced growing technologies and economies of scale. They also usually have contracts that stipulate their entire crop will be purchased by a processing company, which means that none of it reaches small retailers like us.
One of the first questions I always ask our new growers is if they would consider growing organic sweet corn for Willy Street Co-op. Most of them consider for a moment, and then decline; it just takes up too much land, money, and time for too small a return, even when I offer a premium price. A few farmers have taken on the challenge, only to have crop failures. Many local organic CSA farms grow corn, but usually just enough to satisfy their CSA, and only because CSA members demand this local staple, not because the farmers really want to grow it.
So why not just carry local conventional sweet corn? That’s a tricky question. We carry very few non-organic items in our Produce departments, and we’re very picky about what we bring in. Not only is conventional sweet corn a chemically intensive crop, but the issue of genetic modification is a huge one. Corn is one of the most common crops to be genetically modified. Part of organic certification entails that farmers use non-GMO seed, but if the corn is not certified organic, we have no way of being certain that it’s not GMO. Since many of our Owners (and also many of us staff) don’t want to eat GMOs, we’ve chosen not to carry conventional sweet corn.
There is one farm in our region that produces large amounts of organic sweet corn for the wholesale market, and you will likely find that corn on our shelves this month. Gardens of Eagan is a small organic farm located in Minnesota, just South of the Twin Cities. This farm is owned by The Wedge, a Minneapolis Grocery Co-op. While it’s not technically local, it’s the next best thing—and it sure is tasty! Sweet corn from Gardens of Eagan gets to us quickly after harvest and is always fresh and sweet. Without a doubt it’ll be on my family’s dinner table this month!