Newsday, NY 08-14-06 Local farms delivering freshness Besides saving on trucking costs, small LI growers find a rising demand for tastier, more healthful produce BY BECKY AIKMAN Newsday Staff Writer At the Green Thumb Organic Farm in Water Mill, farmer Bill Halsey cracked open a rough green pod with his dusty fingers to expose a row of delicate fava beans inside. "People have to realize that they have to search for this," he said. "They can't just go to the supermarket." The next afternoon he delivered beans from that batch, along with snow peas, lettuce, beets and onions, to a drop-off point in Astoria, where some wound up in the hands of Eric Miller. Miller belongs to a Community Supported Agriculture program that provides him with produce from the Green Thumb for $14 a week. He traveled three stops each way on the N train to pick up those fava beans. Then he spent 65 minutes preparing them in a summery Mediterranean sauce with tomatoes, onion, lemon and parsley. These days, a typical fruit or vegetable often travels thousands of miles over several days between farm and supermarket - and often winds up tasting like plastic foam. Given that, Miller said he was happy to get food that was not only "organic," but picked just the day before. "If you enjoy food that tastes good, you have to take the time for it," he said. "If you're enough of a foodie, you will." Miller and others who share a passion for food also share a new mantra: Eat local. For a while now, foodies have been seeking out produce that's organic, meaning it's raised without the use of conventional pesticides. But now that standards for organic foods are growing more lax and retailers as big as Wal- Mart are offering more organic choices from national distributors, it seems that, for healthy eaters, "local" has become the new "organic." 'Accessibility is the issue' Anyone who has ever bought tender, sweet corn or perfectly soft peaches at a farmers' market knows that, organic or not, food from nearby farms is typically fresher and tastes better than the average supermarket fare. But as Miller can attest, eating local requires effort. That's true even on Long Island, still home to 650 family farms, according to the Long Island Farm Bureau. Most supermarkets throughout the country don't buy much from local farmers. They rely instead on distributors, who in turn rely on distant industrial agribusinesses out West and abroad, even for organic crops. As a result, locally grown food makes up less than 1 percent of the $900-billion food industry. "Accessibility is the issue," said Rich Pirog, leader of the marketing and food systems program at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. He released a study in 2001 that showed produce grown in the United States traveled an average of 1,500 miles in three days to reach stores in his state. He estimates that consumers in New York eat food that travels even farther, in three to five days. And his study didn't include the fast-growing supply of foreign produce from countries such as Mexico and even China, now a major source of organic crops. From 2002 to 2004, 16 percent of the vegetables sold in the United States came from abroad, up from 4 percent three decades ago. And 44 percent of fruit is now foreign-grown, up from 21 percent. That means U.S. consumers enjoy an abundance of produce year-round, but it also means produce is not as fresh as food from closer sources. Although a bunch of grapes from California might take three days to reach Iowa, Pirog said, a bunch from Chile takes 15 to 17 days. Why would local grapes be better? Aside from the question of flavor, they might offer better nutrition. Studies show that levels of vitamin C drop quickly once produce is picked, said Jennifer Wilkins, a fellow in food and society policy at Cornell University. And produce from distant sources is often harvested earlier in its ripening cycle than fruit and vegetables delivered locally. "When you allow tomatoes, for example, to reach their full maturity on the vine, they reach their peak of ripeness and flavor," she said. "They also reach their maximum vitamin C content." Most consumers seem aware of the advantages of local food. Miller, who works for a stock photography company, said he's been unhappy with produce at his local supermarket. "A lot of its food is bred for durability as opposed to flavor, so it can be shipped and stored a long time," he said. So why can't he find more local produce there, even in season? Why are so many peaches in the supermarket from California, even as peach trees in New York and New Jersey are bearing fruit? Reasons range from price to supermarket buying practices. "We can't compete with Third World farms and the agribusinesses on the West Coast," said Green Thumb's Jo Halsey, a member of the family that has owned the farm since the 1640s. Community vs. commercial Today, the farm earns 70 percent of its revenue from a roadside farm stand on the 100-acre property along Montauk Highway. The rest comes from Community Supported Agriculture programs like the one in Astoria, as well as others in Huntington, Brookhaven, East Quogue and Cobble Hill. Such programs allow the farm to collect payment in advance. In Astoria, for example, members pay $378 a year for 27 weekly deliveries from June through December of whatever produce is in season. On a tour of his fields, Bill Halsey explained that volume is also an issue. "We're growing small amounts of a large variety of things," he said as he hopped out of his truck onto a field lined with heads of lettuce. At his feet were more than a dozen varieties, from a leafy green romaine to pale round Bibb to frizzy red, almost purple, Lolla Rossa. Halsey had planted four rows of each, only about 1,000 heads. "A big commercial farm might have 100 acres of Romaine," he said. Next he walked to a field planted with five kinds of string beans, from French- style to yellow to flat-podded Romana, enough for a few bushels of each. "The supermarket is not going to want three bushels of a type of bean," Halsey said. "The supermarket wants 20 or 50 bushels all in one shot." And the supermarket wants low prices. Green Thumb can sell a bunch of carrots for $2.50 at its farm stand, Halsey said. But a supermarket would pay him as little as $1.25 for a bunch it could resell for $2.80. King Kullen supermarkets have inquired about buying Green Thumb products, but the price was too low, he said. At King Kullen, the director of produce, Richard Conger, said that unlike other chains, he makes an unusual effort to reach out to local farmers. During the summer, 4 percent of his produce comes from Long Island, and at the height of the season up to 30 percent of the vegetables are locally grown. But it's a challenge. Small farms can't supply large enough quantities of produce on a predictable schedule. And they don't have refrigerated trucks to deliver it. "A lot of people think local should be cheaper, but it's a little more, because of all the hoops we have to go through," Conger said. Normally, King Kullen gets its produce for Long Island stores trucked by a distributor from a warehouse in Connecticut. In the summer, after the trucks unload, Conger arranges for them to make pickups from Long Island farms rather than return empty. The trucks take the produce to Connecticut, where it's sorted and placed back onto trucks to the stores. Produce picked up on a Monday might wind up in supermarkets by Wednesday. Growing popularity Conger said he worries about the disappearing farms on the East End. "It's a tough industry," he said. "The small farmers have a tough time of it." But consumers seem to be seeking out more local food. The number of farmers' markets in New York State has risen from 270 in 1998 to 335 now, according to the Farmers' Market Federation of New York. "It's more than fruits and vegetables - it's a great community event," said Diane Eggert, the executive director. As for Community Supported Agriculture programs, there are now 41 in New York City with up to 10,000 members. On Long Island, there are more than 20 programs, including one in Huntington with 90 members. Many, but not all, offer organic choices. Starting with foods like asparagus and baby lettuce in April, the Huntington sites now offer such produce as tomatoes, summer squash and corn. By fall, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts and kale will turn up on the folding tables. Members can't always be sure what they'll be getting, and that leads to some improvisation in the kitchen. Lori Carlin, a publishing executive who lives in Huntington, hesitated over a choice of herbs - rosemary, dill or sorrel - on a recent Thursday. She picked the sorrel. "I went online to find a sorrel recipe the last time it was here, and it was very good," she said. Her creation, a sorrel cream sauce that she paired with salmon, offered a contrast between the mild fish and the bitter herb. "Sometimes I find it difficult to find enough time to cook all this," Carlin said, hoisting a couple of heavy plastic bags. "But local is fresher, and organic tastes better. Every day that food ages it loses something." Ron Rudaitis, another member from Huntington, joined the program in part to support local farms. "It's important to be connected to the earth, to support the local economy," said Rudaitis, who produced a documentary last year for WLIW called "Farming the Future: Farm Life on Long Island." "It's a nice community here, too," he said as he lingered to chat with volunteers. "It's nice to be around people who care about the same things you do." That would include Suzanne Zoubeck, who founded the Huntington program nine years ago. Aside from the fact that it allows her to "eat like a queen," she said, she sees the promotion of local food as a cause. In particular, she points out the fuel that's saved by buying food that hasn't been shipped across the country. As the last members straggled in to pick up their bounty, Zoubeck looked on approvingly and said, "This is part of the yummy revolution."
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