Seasonal Thoughts on Food

Pam Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Give Julia Smith a high five. How many raspberries can you eat is a popular game at our house, but the taste is even sweeter if they are locally grown. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

I love fresh berries. Black raspberries and blackberries grew wild along the roadsides of my youth.

Many a sundrenched summer day was spent heaping berries into half-gallon plastic pails. With my mouth tattooed purple from taste tests and red, briar-scratched arms, I would dangle the haul from the handlebars of my bicycle and pedal home to turn the juicy gems into jams, jellies and an occasional pie.

Most of those fencerow patches disappeared over the years with wider spread use of farm chemicals, but my hunger for the fresh berry has never waned. Today, my garden serves up more domesticated offerings of blueberries and multi-colored raspberries -- when the birds or other critters don't overindulge. I buy from local farmers when I don't get enough or want to freeze more for later.

The produce section of the grocery store will occasionally lure me in during long winter months. Raspberries are favorites of the grandchildren, as the photo accompanying this blog attests. However, those of us who grew up on fresh from the garden goodness know that nothing --- nothing -- compares to gorging ourselves on something in-season.

That's why I had to hold myself in check when a friend ranted on Facebook when there were no peaches available at the local farmers market in early July. She therefore deemed that market a waste of time.

Everyone who knows anything about food production is now allowed one collective eye roll. Get it out of your system because there's so much educating to be done about food and it goes way beyond whether something is genetically modified or organic.

The market she visited is one that made the decision to allow only goods grown by the vendor to be sold. It means that when that farmer has a tough year, as we have had this year, those farmers can't supplement with products purchased from another farmer in another region. The upside is those of us who frequent that market know exactly where that product was grown and have opportunities to know that grower and their practices. The down side is sometimes having to wait for the meal to ripen.

My first reaction to this Facebook post was to blast off a response railing about the weather this year and hammering home that, by the way, Illinois peaches aren't typically in-season in early July.

But mama said (and still preaches): Don't say anything if you can't say something good. So I replied in a kinder gentler fashion by making some clarifying points about the seasonal nature of her quest.

My friend's instant reply was to ask where she could get them ASAP. Obviously, the menu was set and understanding why it might need to change wasn't up for negotiation. I wanted to send a snippy response: "That is what grocery store produce is for." But, I didn't.

I had a similar near knee-jerk reaction when attending a workshop in June with a group of book authors. We had lovely locally sourced meals and each night the chef would describe the dishes in detail. One evening the desert menu was presented as strawberry shortcake made with ... non-GMO strawberries.

Hold the berry bucket -- I desperately wanted to inform the entire group that all strawberries are "non-GMO."

Then, I mentally took a deep breath and realized the chef was technically correct. Which of course is the sour taste most farmers get when they see non-GMO labeling because much of it has everything to do with marketing and little to do with informing or clarifying choice.

What does all this have to do with crop production? That's where eating and writing about it gets confusing, complex and downright emotional. I wrote about commodity farmer reactions to consumer concerns in a blog earlier this spring after attending an event in North Carolina sponsored by BASF called Dinner is Grown. Read it here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

In that post, I took what I thought was a fair, but admittedly critical view, of how agriculture sometimes responds to consumers. In short, we often expect them to understand us and get downright defensive when they don't.

So it seems only fair to admit it is easier to have a hot head than a cool one in some of these situations.

Instead of confrontation, I try to remember advice picked up from Janice Person, who works in social media and consumer advocacy for Bayer. She has often advised me, and others, to make difficult consumer discussions about them and not you.

I didn't call the chef on the carpet about the strawberries, but instead used the comment to have some good dinner conversation with a handful of people at my table that evening.

Defensive or know-it-all reactions don't win friends and influence eaters, according to Person. Instead, she suggests asking a few questions about how the concerned consumer came to those conclusions. Eventually, hopefully, you get to share how you came to your point of view.

So, yes -- consumers can be fickle and frustrating. In today's world they (we really) have become accustomed to eating whatever we want, whenever we want it -- whether it is a berry or a burger.

The blurring distance between farm and fork adds to the lack of understanding. To make all of this even more complicated, some of the consumer impatience we see today can be placed directly on agriculture's plate for making food so accessible.

Person will also tell you that some minds will never change, no matter how much fact or science is served up. Savoring the small victories when you move the knowledge needle can be sweet. But as I learned, it requires a huge helping of patience.

Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN

(CZ)

Pam Smith