Raise your hand if you have been the unwitting bystander of a rather uncomfortable exchange at our market table when someone complains about the price of our vegetables. The comment is often accompanied by a recitation of how much they could buy the “same thing” for at Stop & Shop, or Walmart, or Big Y. One market day in particular, I remember being very discouraged by how much of this negative feedback we were getting, and went to commiserate with a good farmer-friend to ask his advice. An eternal optimist, he smiled and said “Well that’s easy! Tell them to go to the grocery store!”
He was right in a way. Some people should just take their negativity and go to the proverbial grocery store. Often we find those people are frustrated about other things and there is really no answer that will appease them anyways. But there are times when it is an honest question, and so deserves an honest answer. Part of which is that, frankly, most of our vegetables are not actually any more expensive than the organic produce you can buy at the grocery store (ok,ok, maybe Walmart has us beat). A few of the more labor-intensive, high-convenience crops (like the hand-cut, double-washed bags of baby greens) are a bit pricier, but we always try to have a less expensive equivalent option (lettuce heads).
BUT! Here I am, comparing our veggies to the sad, limp, bland grocery store fare as if they were actually comparable! The point of this piece is to address a few of the ways in which freshly picked, organically grown vegetables are indeed very different from the norm. Honestly, there are so many I can’t address them all here, but there are a few differences that have been on my mind lately.
First and foremost is the nutritional content. Most produce that is grown on a mass scale for wholesale distribution is harvested mechanically. This is not a gentle process like hand-picking, and because this produce needs to be wrangled from the vine by a machine, and then sit on a truck or plane across en route many hundreds of miles, it is picked under-ripe so that it is hard and therefor more resilient to the beating. There goes the flavor. It then sits on said truck/plane for up to a week before sitting on the shelves of the grocery store for 1-3 days, and then at home on your counter for a good few more. The loss in nutritional content over this odyssey is significant and begins the moment the vegetable or fruit is removed from the plant.
Then there is the attention we pay to the soil. This is not an organic vs. conventional issue. Not all organic farms – especially not those producing on a mass scale for wholesale distribution – pay attention to anything more than the “big 3” macronutrients: Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. These are essentially all you need to produce a lot of big vegetables quickly. Adding and monitoring only these 3 chemical elements in the soil leads to massive imbalances in other important micronutrients like calcium, magnesium, manganese, and boron to name a few. Many people (including us) would argue that much of the produce available at the grocery store is no longer “whole” when it is lacking in so many nutritional components.
In Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food (Yes, I’m still reading it!), he concludes that this dilution of the nutritional content of our food is a kind of “nutritional inflation” in that you have to eat more vegetables to get the same amount of nutrition that we used to get from just one eggplant/tomato/pepper before industrial agriculture was the norm. In tracking 45 different food crops since the 1950’s, the USDA has found a decline in Vitamin C by 20%, Iron by 15%, and Calcium by 16%. Because we don’t pour massive amounts of nitrogen into our soil, our vegetables take a little longer to size-up, and their root systems are more robust, searching deeper in the ground to access a wide range of minerals.
My final fun-fact on this topic does have to do with organic vs. conventional methods. Because organically grown crops are not sprayed with harsh chemicals that kill insects and disease, the plants have to defend themselves against these scourges naturally. In doing so, they produce higher amounts of phytochemicals like carotenoids and polyphenols that have been shown to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in humans, according to Pollan’s research.
When we began farming, we had never taken a class on soil biology. We have learned by doing over the last 6 years, and each newly acquired experience and piece of knowledge adds another level of excitement and interest to an occupation that can sometimes feel like a grind. With experience and knowledge under our belts, we also become more comfortable having the tough conversations with the tough customers, all with a big smile and the sincere hope that we’re getting through to some of them.