Producing our solution: An edible journey through seasonal products

IIt’s early Saturday morning. As Efren Avalos unloads large crates of potatoes, his eyes wander Center Street in search of customers. Each week, Avalos drives about two hours between the Avalos Organic Farm and downtown Berkeley to set up his stand at 10 a.m. so he can make enough sales to keep the farm going.

“I was basically born into a farming family,” Avalos said. “My parents and my brothers, all of them are farmers in Mexico, so since I was little I worked on a farm and I still do.”

Like most vendors who line the streets to sell produce at the Downtown Berkeley Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, Avalos has a deep and in-depth knowledge of the land. Knowing when to plant, what is in season, how to care for plants, how to harvest and when to harvest are just basic knowledge for these farmers.

Even without the wax coating typically applied to supermarket produce to make it attractive to the eye, fresh tangerines stacked in crates glisten in the morning sun. The Mediterranean-style climate we enjoy allows our farms to produce a wide variety of fruits and vegetables all year round.

Our food system is a massive food supply chain: stocks are planted and grown into crops, which are harvested, exported, delivered and sold; these crops are then processed into food that is ultimately consumed. As consumers, it can be difficult at first to visualize the complexity of this process; it is even harder to see the flaws in our food system.

“We take (our food system) for granted…until the vulnerabilities are exposed,” said Joanna Normoyle, farmer and co-owner of Orchard X, a small perennial farm in Esparta, California.

Armed with a passion for the outdoors and fruit, Normoyle and her partner took over Guru Ram Das Orchards just over five seasons ago and renamed it Orchard X. Like Avalos, Normoyle comes from a family of breeders and uses its in-depth knowledge of ecology to harvest and sell products over the seasons and adapt to major environmental and social challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Around March 2020, shortly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for food far exceeded supply, prices soared, and food – one of the most basic needs of all – quickly became unaffordable for many. This exposed the many vulnerabilities in the systems our society relies on, especially our food system which was set up to sell in bulk and to large corporations.

Our supermarkets were quick to adapt when COVID-19 hit. When everyone was at home, our system had to bend without breaking to keep up with the constant feeding of consumers.

“What matters is having farms that can respond with some kind of resilience,” Normoyle said. “The only way to do that is to have institutions like farmers’ markets that help support farms that are resilient and can be small and nimble.”

“(Most) grocery stores are open every day,” said Allison Williams, a dynamic and welcoming salesperson for Smit Farms. “Especially when selling all these products, it can go wrong very quickly.”

There are nine Safeway grocery stores within a five-mile radius of UC Berkeley. Unlike farmers markets, supermarkets are open to the public every day and have their produce on the shelves 24 hours a day. When produce spoils on farms, crops return to the ground to nourish the soil and create compost. However, if the supermarkets deem the food bad, it is thrown away.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting a farmers market, you’ll know that the flavor of the fresh produce sold there is unmatched. Grocery chains simply cannot compete with the crunch of syrupy stone fruits in the summer or the sweetness of freshly picked carrots in late fall. “The food you get from farmers is unprocessed,” Avalos said.

If the difference in taste is so drastic, then why aren’t we supporting small farmers and eating seasonally?

Quite simply, our food system is not built in a way that encourages us to do so. Americans are used to getting our food quickly and cheaply. McDonald’s is the number one restaurant chain in the world, which shows how fast food has become a fundamental part of global food culture. Fast food companies allow us to pay far less than it costs to produce our food by taking shortcuts at several stages of the process, including paying low wages and keeping a limited menu. However, we must bear in mind that the cost of food production is much more than monetary. There is the cost of our current food system on the environment and on our health.

However, we must bear in mind that the cost of food production is much more than monetary. There is the cost of our current food system on the environment and on our health.

Our food system focuses on maximization and high performance. The United States produces the highest yield of corn and soybeans in the world, achieving this largely through monoculture. Monoculture, the cultivation of a single crop, reduces initial costs, but there is a trade-off between the resulting soil erosion, lack of biodiversity, and resulting reductions in soil fertility. This method of farming also risks wiping out an entire crop due to the lack of polycropping or intercropping, i.e. planting and growing multiple crops at the same time.

As a single person within this system, it’s easy to feel helpless, but it’s important to remember that systems are ours to create and remake.

“Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned,” wrote Donella Meadows, a key proponent of the idea of ​​systems thinking, in her article, “Dancing with Systems.”

The systems that govern our daily lives, be it our economic system or our food system, are bigger than us and cannot quite be controlled. However, they can be influenced. With slow changes, there can always be a push towards beneficial advances.

Just start by trying something new. Go to a grocery store like Berkeley Bowl or the Farmer’s Market on Center Street and choose an unfamiliar fruit or vegetable. Try it. Ask your friends to try it. Add variety to your diet and broaden your perspective on how you view your food.

“It makes me happy to eat local, seasonal, fresh food,” said Sarah Deck, a local farm lover who sells produce for Solano Mushroom. Deck has been working with local farms for over 15 years, selling their products at Bay Area Farmers Markets. His knowledge of mushrooms and vegetation allows him not only to sell mushrooms to consumers, but also to cultivate his own garden.

As students, many of us are overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge thrown at us every day. Learning small bits of information about our environment and our food can allow us to take small steps towards a better understanding of our food system.

Even equipped with the best information, however, the decision to choose cheaper produce options at large grocery chains over more expensive items from our local farmers is extremely tempting. We often find ourselves on a budget and can’t help but wonder if buying an organic apple from Smit Farms instead of one from Walmart really makes an impact. While it won’t change the world right away, it’s definitely a start.

Bay Area farmers have supported local restaurants for years. Smit Farms, which sells its produce weekly at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market, also delivers fresh fruit to restaurants like Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse was founded by Alice Waters, a talented chef who wanted to cook only with seasonal produce from local farmers. Its objective is twofold. His restaurant supports these ventures, and the quality of the produce lends itself to the unparalleled flavor of the food that Chez Panisse is famous for. When restaurants started closing due to the coronavirus, local farmers lost some of their business. In these unstable times, the people who frequent farmers’ markets have become more crucial than ever.

This new reliance on selling to farmers’ markets has changed the way these farms generate their income. Buying your Fuji apples from Smit Farms instead of Walmart now helps that farm thrive in the future.

“It’s important to me to know where my food comes from and to have as much of it as possible near my home,” Deck said. His sentiment is one that many might not echo: most of us don’t know where we get our food from. We trust an unreliable system to constantly supply us with food and never really question it.

Most of us don’t know where we get our food from. We trust an unreliable system to constantly supply us with food and never really question it.

Now that you might want to step up your support for vendors at Farmers’ Markets, you might not know what to do with their produce. Over the next few weeks, I’ll walk you through what’s in season and what to cook with ingredients from farms that sell in the Berkeley area. Together we will educate ourselves, learn to be flexible and adapt to the seasonal changes that influence our diet.

“I feel really committed to regional food systems,” says Normoyle. “For me, that means having places to get food when big disruptions happen in the world; knowing that you have access to resources from a network near you is really important and will become increasingly important as the climate changes.

I hope you will join me on this edible journey.

Contact Isabelle Bollinger at [email protected].

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