By Dayna Macy
It's Friday, farm-box day in my house. I grab my box of fresh produce from a local pickup place and open it. Broccoli rabe—hallelujah! Blue kuri squash—beautiful! Onions—useful! Turnips! Uh—turnips?
As a member of Full Belly Farm, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm located in the Capay Valley, about 100 miles from my home in Berkeley, California, I'm often cooking something I've never seen at a store or at least never thought to buy. I give Full Belly $15 a week and, in return, receive a box of wildly fresh fruits and vegetables of the farmer's choosing. Each week, I hope to get what I love: stone fruit, chard, or corn, depending on the season. What I don't love—parsnips, rutabagas, and the like—well, I hope the crops won't be too bountiful.
Try as I might to be open minded, I think of turnips as a subsistence crop, a tuber whose main culinary claim to fame is that it was once eaten to prevent scurvy. But never mind. Turnips are what I've got; turnips are what I'll eat. I plow through my cookbooks and find a decent-sounding soup recipe. I'm betting that the ingredients, which include butter, onions, celery, apples, and curry powder, could transform even the most humdrum root vegetable into something edible. They do. And I won't have to worry about scurvy.
When you get a CSA box, you have to figure out what to do,says Judith Redmond, one of Full Belly's four owners. It can be an exciting and creative process.
Indeed. For me, the unanticipated gift of a CSA box is that food is no longer a commodity but a creative challenge. No more ratatouille in the springtime—tomatoes and eggplant are summer crops. You cook with what grows in this place and time. Your box gave you turnips? Go figure it out.
When I first heard of weekly veggie boxes, I thought the idea sounded cool. I figured I'd be supporting a small farm (indisputably a good cause), I'd learn what grows nearby, and I'd be introduced to stuff I wouldn't normally buy. I didn't know how profoundly I was departing from the standard practices of our food supply.
A tomato can travel thousands of miles before it lands in a grocery cart. Most often, it's a hybrid that was bred to survive the trip rather than to taste great, and it may have been picked before its prime, in order to last days if not weeks in the supermarket. It used up plenty of the earth's resources as it was packaged, refrigerated, and trucked from farm to distribution point to store. Poor tomato. Poor you.
Those turnips in my box traveled just 100 miles (about the limit for most CSA produce), and they were an heirloom variety chosen for outstanding flavor. They were harvested about 24 hours before I ate them; plus their arrival at my house put money in the hands of a farmer who, by cutting out middlemen and the costs of transportation, just might stay in business. (Nationwide, farmers typically receive 19 cents of each dollar a consumer spends on food. For a CSA farm, the number is close to 100 percent.) On top of all that, the turnips prompted me to rethink dinner!
I didn't ask for all this when I committed to the weekly deliveries, but I'm grateful to have found it. As the poet farmer Wendell Berry wrote, "Eating is an agricultural act...Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true. They think of food as an agricultural product, perhaps, but they do not think of themselves as participants in agriculture."
Eating locally—which you can also do by frequenting farmers' markets or grocery stores that carry locally grown produce—does a lot more than save gas: It can improve your diet. The shorter the time and distance between the farm and your tummy, the fewer nutrients your food loses; the more varied your diet, the broader the range of nutrients you get.
Supporting local farmers protects genetic diversity, too. Corporate farms (even of the organic persuasion) generally grow dozens or even hundreds of acres of a single crop, and they only plant produce for which there's wide demand. In effect, distributors decide what farmers grow—and that means only a few rugged varieties of the most common fruits and vegetables are planted in any given year. CSA farms, though, have a captive audience and can take more chances growing unusual crops and heirloom produce. One farm might plant crops like kohlrabi and purple broccoli, or might cultivate a dozen hard-to-find varieties of tomatoes over the season.
Julia Wiley, co-owner of Mariquita Farm, a CSA farm in Watsonville, California, proudly grows heirloom vegetables. She says: "The varieties are older and more interesting. And it keeps these heirlooms alive." But Wiley saves her most unusual produce like nettles, lamb's quarters, cardoons, and purslane for restaurants and the famed Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. (Some of her CSA clientele are less enamored of odd produce.) The balance between the CSA and the farmers' market, she says, works quite well, and everyone wins. She gets to grow diverse crops, which keeps heirlooms and biodiversity alive, and consumers get to experiment and eat a wide array of produce.
Eating only locally grown food can be a challenge, and Jessica Prentice, the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, literally turned it into one. Last summer she posted a challenge on her Locavores website (www. locavores.com), asking people to commit to eating only locally grown food for a month as a way to get to know their "foodshed."Some four hundred people spent last August doing so.
Prentice, who is planning another challenge for this May, found last summer's experiment a huge success. "People learned to pay more attention to what grows here," she says. "When I did the challenge, I found that most of the foods that were bad for me left my diet. I stopped eating sugar and ate raw honey. I stopped drinking caffeine [coffee doesn't grow in the Bay Area] but replaced it with medicinal teas."The point of the challenge, she said, was not to disdain foods that come from far away (where would we be without cumin or coconut milk?), but to raise support for locally grown food.
Prentice counts as her biggest coup hooking up local baker Eduardo Morell, who sells his artisan breads at the Berkeley Farmers' Market, with Full Belly Farm, which grows wheat. After some experimenting with the local wheat, he created a bread that he felt was good enough to sell—in fact, it continually sold out. This is just one example of how demand can create supply: Ask for locally grown food, and you just might get it!
But there's another benefit to eating locally. When we eat food that's grown near us, by people who live near us, we eat according to the rhythms of nature. In a culture that has become removed from food production and seasonal cycles, and resents limitations of any kind, eating locally is not only an agricultural act but also a radical one.
"Our culture is profoundly disconnected from the earth," Prentice says. "When you eat food grown locally, it brings alive your connection to your place, to the people who grew it, to the seasons, and to the cycles of life. You realize just how interconnected we really are."
I know what she means. Last October, I took my family for a visit to Full Belly.
We parked the car and were immediately greeted by a full dog escort of four boisterous canines. Judith showed us the fields of autumn greens—kale, chard, mustard, and bok choy. We checked out the peach trees, the watermelon patch, and the pomegranate trees, and walked past bright ornamental sunflowers and flowering amaranth. We marveled at the pumpkin patch; my children were overjoyed when Judith handed them two giant carving pumpkins. We met the farm pig, Cinco, whose enormous girth and lusty grunts delighted my boys endlessly.
I fell in love. I felt deeply connected to the farm and grateful to all the farm workers who've worked so hard to provide gorgeous produce to my family year after year. As we drove out, I felt as if I had left a part of my heart behind.
Luckily, though, I never have to fully leave the farm. There's always Fridays and my weekly box. Just yesterday I picked one up. Melon! The last tomatoes! An insanely buoyant crop of mustard greens!
July 28th, 2009 By MK Wyle
I have an entire cookbook devoted to tomatoes. Admittedly, I have a lot of cookbooks, but tomatoes are the only vegetable in my kitchen with an entire cookbook singing their praises. But then, they are tomatoes, the crown of the summer growing season and the crop that can make or break a small vegetable farm. Every strange vegetable from kohlrabi to escarole has its devoted fans, but tomatoes are as much of an American summer institution as baseball and 4th of July fireworks. Tomatoes are the crop that everyone is waiting for.
For those of us living in the Northeast this year, if could be a long wait. Earlier this summer, tomato transplants sold in Lowes, Walmart, and Home Depot carried the spores of Phytophthora infestans (literally “plant destroyer” in Latin) into the Northeast, where a cool, wet summer provided ideal conditions for an epidemic. Phytophthora infestans, more commonly referred to as late blight, is an incredibly contagious plant disease, which can knock out entire fields of tomatoes and potatoes in a matter of days. Late blight was the cause of the infamous Irish Potato Famine of the nineteenth century—this is a plant disease which means business.
Normally, late blight does not affect the Northeast, as cold winters prevent any spores from wintering over. In the south, where late blight can survive winter, the high heat of summer holds the blight in check and prevents the total crop loss that Northeastern farmers now dread. What happened this year is the worst case scenario only possible in an industrialized food system. The disease overwintered in an Alabama nursery, which then shipped infected plants to the Northeast and spread the blight far more quickly and ubiquitously than the disease ever could have traveled on its own.
At the farm where I am working, late blight has been creeping ever nearer for the last two weeks: first it was in all the states surrounding Massachusetts, then it was in nearby counties, then it was here, in Berkshire county, until Friday, when my boss, Don, found the first blighted tomato on our farm. We had eaten our first cherry tomatoes on Monday.
I’m sure that to a non-grower, this all seems a bit histrionic. And it is true, no one has died, nor has the farm been hit by a catastrophic natural disaster. Many of our other crops are flourishing, despite the seeming perma-cloud that has been draping our state as of late. And we’ll get a harvest of potatoes, albeit a much smaller and less storage-worthy one. But remember this: we’ve put more hours into these two crops than any others: we built an entire hoop house for tomatoes this spring, showered our transplants with attention, mulched 2800 feet of tomato beds with straw, trellised all of the tomatoes at least three times, and in the potatoes, we’ve spent hours scouting for Colorado potato beetles and picking them off by hand. Our crops are thriving, or were, before Friday. All of our plants were uncommonly healthy and robust, flowering and fruiting with verdant abandon.
With the blight in our fields, though, we know what comes next. Brown spots and downly fungus on the leaves, black spots on the stems, rotting green fruit, and a lot of empty space on the farm. Every document from every extension office, no matter how green, is sending the same message this summer: spray something (organic or conventional) or lose your tomatoes and potatoes. There is literally nothing else we can do. Conventional growers have a number of spraying options; organic growers are permitted to use a copper spray. On my farm, we won’t spray anything, ever.
For the first time, I can truly understand the desire to spray. Last year, when bean beetles decimated our green beans and edamame, the thought flickered through my mind, but now, poised on the brink of losing the entire harvest of a crop that on many diversified farms generates 20 or more percent of the annual revenue, I can see what drives a farmer to don a backpack and a mask and start reading chemical warning labels.
For me, however, it was the warning labels that helped me make peace with our decision not to fight. Here is how one extension service bulletin describes copper fungicide, the certified organic choice (which is only a stopgap measure in terms of effectiveness):
“Corrosive. Causes irreversible eye damage. May cause skin sensitization reactions in certain individuals. Do not get in eyes or on clothing. Harmful if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. Avoid contact with skin. Avoid breathing dust. Personal protective equipment that applicators and other handlers must wear when using copper is: long-sleeved shirt and long pants, chemical-resistant and waterproof gloves, shoes plus socks, and protective eyewear. First aid information is also provided on labels for accidental exposure, know this in advance to avoid delay in treatment.”
I recently received an email from a friend apprenticing on a nearby farm, where they had chosen to fight the blight by spraying. “Ethically, I’m opposed to spraying “ she wrote, “yet I helped [my manager] initiate a spray plan and spent ten hours with a mask and backpack. That felt like sin. At some point I spotted infected potatoes. That was hard to break to her…”
Farmers who spray preventatively—once a week, or more often if there is rain—stand a chance of wringing a harvest out of this terrible season. As the only folks with local tomatoes, they’ll be able to charge unheard of prices for them. At the same time, those sprays will be slowly nurturing stronger, more virulent strains of the blight. My farm is a CSA farm, so the loss of our tomatoes won’t mean financial ruin (unless angry shareholders boycott next year due to this season’s tomato failure). Other farmers depend on the tomatoes for financial solvency. They are good farmers; they have done everything sustainably, with sweat and skill and passion. Do they spray, against everything that they believe in, or accept a massive financial hit in an already challenging year?
On Friday night, after receiving the bad news, I walked down to our plum tomatoes, to the small empty spot where my manager had removed the first telltale plants. The neighboring tomatoes still stood tall and strong, and a heady tomato perfume hung over that section of the field. This is a tragic reality check for young farmers, that our path is not always hard work leading linearly to good eating. But it need not spell the end of our dreams or indeed of the local food movement. Now more than ever, Northeastern farmers need the support of their customers. They need CSA members with the grace to accept why their tomatoes are missing this year and market-goers who understand the devil’s bargain many farmers were forced to make. This is a year that can teach young agrarians humility and restraint and gratitude, if we can bring ourselves to seek it.
Ask a child where their food comes from and they will probably tell you “the grocery store.” For most people, adults and children alike, the grocery store is the sole point of access to food. Little thought is put into its life beyond the shelves. Vegetables don’t come from the Earth; they come from the refrigerated truck that delivered them. Crackers, chips, and beans materialize magically and are presented, neatly packaged. Most of us don’t know a farmer, but we may know someone who stocks the shelves.
With less than two percent of U.S. residents employed in farming, and the vast majority of our food controlled by a few enormous companies, there is a great divide between the masses and the food they consume. That is why I believe we should declare our independence from grocery store chains. Shop at the farmers market, join a CSA, grow a garden! In doing so, we can reclaim our independence and choice concerning one of our most basic necessities.
In a 1785 letter to John Jay, who was then serving as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else.” But employment they lacked, and converted they have been. While some have been lured by the glitz and glam of urban life, many have simply been unable to sustain their farms against fierce competition from large, monopolizing businesses.
Our current condition does not reflect the agricultural and culinary habits of our past. When this fine nation was established, we were all farmers. Our founding fathers and mothers raised corn, beans, and many varieties of wheat and grain. Nearly everyone had a kitchen garden as there was no grocery store to drive on down to. In 1790, 90 percent of the U.S. work force was involved in agriculture. A century later, it had halved to just 43 percent. Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. labor force farms for a living.
Granted, we have come a long way in agricultural production methods. I’m not speaking of chemical fertilizers and pesticides - which hardly represent progress - but it is obvious that we would have fewer farmers with the advent of tractors and modern irrigation. That said, many who wished to remain farmers have been forced out - not by mechanization - but by the competition of massive corporations subsidized with our tax dollars. Meanwhile, small independent farmers struggle to pay the bills and most work additional jobs off the farm to make ends meet.
Whether or not your sympathies lie with small farmers, our self-interest is firmly at stake in the massive takeover of agriculture. Large corporate farms making over $250,000 a year make up only nine percent of the nation’s total number of farms - yet produce 63 percent of the nation’s food. That leaves us, as consumers, little choice over what foods are produced and how they are raised - in essence, big agribusiness has a stranglehold on our food supply.
Large chain grocery stores - vast, impersonal warehouses filled with chemical-laden food - have been a force in pushing farmers off their land. But they weren’t always this way. At one point, each small, local store carried a specific group of items. There was a store for baked goods, another for cheese, a butcher, a fish monger and a green grocer. In many parts of the world, this is still the case. However, the United States, unfortunately, has been a leader in the quest for faster, cheaper, factory-produced food - a trend that continues to spread throughout the developed and developing world, although not without resistance from some communities.
Today most grocers search far and wide for the cheapest product possible, whether it comes from right down the street or from thousands of miles away. In Barbara Kingsolver’s tremendous book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” she recounts the story of a group of tomato farmers in Virginia who worked for several years to produce an organic crop for a grocery store chain, only to have the order cancelled when the tomatoes were harvested, packaged and ready to ship. The grocery left the farmers with tons of beautiful, quickly rotting fruit - they had arranged to buy cheaper tomatoes from California.
Many grocery chains have developed methods of seducing customers into buying more products than they actually need. Think about the many winding rows involved in getting to the necessities such as eggs and cheese. The most expensive items are placed at eye level while the cheaper goods are hidden at your feet and above your head. Sugar laden children’s cereals are placed at their eye level where they will be more inclined to see the happy characters hawking the brand. Many stores pipe in canned smells in order to make you hungry and persuade you to buy more. Other sales-increasing techniques include manipulating lighting and music.
While grocery store chains seem to offer a wide variety of food, the options are actually quiet limited. Since fruit and vegetables generally travel a long way, they have been bred to be tough and sturdy, not tasty and nutritious. Farmers who want to sell to big distributors are forced to grow these inferior products, which markets value due to their long “shelf life.” Forcing farmers to grow just one or two varieties that travel well not only cuts down on consumer choice, it results in higher use of harmful chemicals and fertilizers because large swaths of land growing only one or two plants are more vulnerable to destructive pests. Shopping at a farmer’s market and buying the heirloom varieties many small independent farmers are growing today encourages them to grow more, preserving the biodiversity and wonderful flavors that are everyone’s rightful heritage, while eliminating the middleman, and leaving more of a profit for the farmer.
This country was founded on the idea of free choice and independence, but our most common activity, eating, is shackled to big business today. It’s time to reclaim our food democracy, reclaim more choice in what we eat, and get back in touch with America’s original profession, farming, so that we can start to close the divide between the American consumer and the farm.
By SUSAN SAULNY
CAMPTON TOWNSHIP, Ill. — In an environmentally conscious tweak on the typical way of getting food to the table, growing numbers of people are skipping out on grocery stores and even farmers markets and instead going right to the source by buying shares of farms.
On one of the farms, here about 35 miles west of Chicago, Steve Trisko was weeding beets the other day and cutting back a shade tree so baby tomatoes could get sunlight. Mr. Trisko is a retired computer consultant who owns shares in the four-acre Erehwon Farm.
“We decided that it’s in our interest to have a small farm succeed, and have them be able to have a sustainable farm producing good food,” Mr. Trisko said.
Part of a loose but growing network mostly mobilized on the Internet, Erehwon is participating in what is known as community-supported agriculture. About 150 people have bought shares in Erehwon — in essence, hiring personal farmers and turning the old notion of sharecropping on its head.
The concept was imported from Europe and Asia in the 1980s as an alternative marketing and financing arrangement to help combat the often prohibitive costs of small-scale farming. But until recently, it was slow to take root. There were fewer than 100 such farms in the early 1990s, but in the last several years the numbers have grown to close to 1,500, according to academic experts who have followed the trend.
“I think people are becoming more local-minded, and this fits right into that,” said Nichole D. Nazelrod, program coordinator at the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., a national clearinghouse for community-supported farms. “People are seeing ways to come together and work together to make this successful.”
The shareholders of Erehwon Farm have open access to the land and a guaranteed percentage of the season’s harvest of fruit and vegetables for packages that range from about $300 to $900. Arrangements of fresh-cut blossoms twice a month can be included for an extra $120 — or for the deluxe package, $220 will “feed the soul” with weekly bouquets of lilies and sunflowers and other local blooms.
Shareholders are not required to work the fields, but they can if they want, and many do.
Mr. Trisko said his family knows that without his volunteer labor and agreement to share in the financial risk of raising crops, the small organic farm might not survive.
“It’s very hard for them to make ends meet,” he said, “so I decided to go out and help. We harvest, water, pull weeds, whatever they need doing.”
Under the sponsored system, farmers are paid an agreed-upon fee in advance of the growing season, making their survival less dependent on the vicissitudes of the market and the cooperation of the elements. The arrangement involves real farms and real farmers and is distinct from community gardens and other forms of urban farming, where vacant or public land is typically put to agricultural use by residents.
The average share price is $500 to $800 a season across the country, Ms. Nazelrod said, though community-supported agriculture seems most popular on the coasts and around the Great Lakes region. The states with the most farms, she said, include New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and California.
“The C.S.A. provides a base that’s certain, and we get the money when we need to spend the money,” said Beth Propst, who farms the fields at Erehwon, using the abbreviation for community-supported agriculture. “Having the money upfront and guaranteed, that gets us through at least the beginning of the season.”
The operations are as diverse as they are numerous.
Erehwon — the word “nowhere” spelled backward — started with two shareholders, reached its goal of 140 last year, and now has raised its target to about 200 members. Another farm in the Chicago area where the community sponsors the crops, Angelic Organics, makes weekly deliveries to more than 1,400 families in Illinois and Wisconsin.
At least 24 vegetable farmers serve an estimated 6,500 members throughout the five boroughs of New York City, said Paula Lukats of Just Food, which connects farmers with residents there. In 2005, there were 37 C.S.A. groups in the city; today, there are 61.
The Golden Earthworm Organic Farm, on 80 acres on the North Fork of Long Island, grew from 10 members in 2000 to about 1,300 this year, according to Matthew Kurek, one of the owners. About half of the members live in Queens, he said, and the farm delivers their weekly shares to six different sites there, mainly churches and community centers, 26 weeks a year. The farm grows arugula, strawberries and sugar snap peas in the spring; watermelon, eggplant and tomatoes in the summer; and broccoli, potatoes and carrots in the fall.
At the Cattleana Ranch in Omro, Wis., Thomas and Susan Wrchota offer grass-fed meat and organic produce through a community-supported arrangement. They have 55 members, and a seven-month meat membership costs $715.
Mr. Wrchota developed a taste for grass-fed beef while working for the Peace Corps in Costa Rica in the 1970s. When he returned home, he said, he was at a loss for that particular flavor and eventually decided to raise animals himself, starting with just one cow.
“We don’t do millions in revenue, but we make a living, which is rare,” he said. “Our goal is to provide a full portfolio of products for folks who want sustainable products. Up until about five years ago, we had to do a tremendous amount of guerrilla marketing. The consumer who is interested now, they’re doing their homework. They know the health and taste benefits.”
Teresa Crisco is one such consumer in Little Rock, Ark. She is a member of the community-supported agriculture program at the Heifer Ranch, an international humanitarian relief organization that is experimenting with how to make such arrangements more popular and profitable for farmers around the world.
“You feel like you’re doing more than one thing: you’re helping the project and you’re helping yourself,” said Ms. Crisco, a document specialist at a mortgage company who heard about the program from a friend. “The whole premise is really neat.”
Here in Illinois, Erehwon sold out of shares last year and had to turn people away.
Tim Fuller, Ms. Propst’s longtime companion and business partner in running the farm, said: “People are coming to us. We do very little marketing except for explaining what we do. It’s amazing.”
With a wry smile, Mr. Fuller said he considers himself both personal farmer and personal trainer, because shareholders under his direction are going to break a sweat.
“There’s always pressure on,” he said. “This is a complicated business, growing so many crops. We do everything by hand for more than 100 different crops.”
The farm expects to gross between $80,000 and $90,000 this year.
Some shareholders said they found the arrangement a bargain compared to grocery shopping, while others considered it a worthwhile indulgence. Most agreed that the urge to buy and spend locally — to avoid the costs and environmental degradation that come with shipping and storage — was behind the decision to join. Shareholders can pick up their goods at the farm or at a store across the street.
“From a ‘going green’ standpoint, it’s an appropriate thing to do,” said Gerard Brill, a musician who bought a share of Erehwon. “Like everything organic, it’s not a bargain, but what price do you put on being healthy? Considering all things, it’s actually a very good deal.”
The downside for people who are used to grocery shopping comes when they want fresh blueberries in January or, as was the case at Erehwon last week, the tomato plants needed more time in the ground because of a cold spring.
“We eat with the seasons, and there’s no guarantee that Mother Nature will cooperate,” Ms. Propst said. “That’s all part of the deal.”
Catrin Einhorn contributed reporting from Chicago.
Noticed how tomatoes don't taste the same as they used to? Experienced strawberries that seem to be just insipid bags of water? Do apples seem to be more acidic and less flavorsome than in bygone years to you?
As we get older, our taste buds certainly do get less sensitive, but there is a more insidious reason for fruit and vegetables not tasting anywhere near as good as they once did. They've been engineered not to.
Taste appears to be the least important factor to the companies that produce the seeds for most of the world's fruits, vegetables and grains.
Even the fruit and vegetables we grow in home veggie gardens don't stack up against what we remember as the seeds come from the same stock as mass agriculture, but by using heirloom and heritage seeds, you can return to the delightful tastes of yesteryear.
Extinct fruit and vegetables
In the USA, only 5% of the apple varieties that existed 200 years ago still remain. In the UK, 90% of vegetable varieties have disappeared over the last century.
Today's tomatoes - nice to look at, but where's the taste?!
We are basically driving many of our food resources to extinction on purpose. Market control, aesthetics and shelf life reign over diversity and taste these days.
Hybrid varieties are developed by companies for pest resistance, fast growth and uniformity; then marketed to a such a degree that traditional varieties lose popularity and disappear. They are also are bred for qualities related to easy machine harvesting, long distance transport and refrigeration.
The seeds you buy at your nursery, even the fruit and vegetables you purchase from organic farms are likely to be these hybrid varieties.
Another disturbing issue is just a handful of companies control the majority of the world's seed production and as a result, farmers and home gardeners are basically held to ransom.
The Monsanto Seed Monster
One of the largest players in the seed industry with the most control is Monsanto - a leading biotechnology company and pioneer in genetically engineered seeds. Based on 2005 figures, here's just how huge their reach was:
Beans - 31% of the global seed market
Cucumbers - 38% of the global seed market
Hot Pepper - 34% of the global seed market
Sweet Pepper - 29% of the global seed market
Tomato - 23% of the global seed market
Onions - 25% of the global seed market
Corn/Maize – 41% global market share
Soybeans – 25% global market share
(Figures from The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration)
To tie farmers to the company Monsanto makes the farmer sign an agreement promising not to plant seeds their crops produce. The gathering of seeds from a successful crop for the next year's planting is an age old practice.
Suicide and zombie seeds
Monsanto is also the company that bought rights to "suicide" or "terminator" seed technology some years ago. This is where the seeds produced by a crop are sterile; helping to ensure that the farmer does have to pay for more seed. Thankfully, global backlash and a UN treaty in 2000 prevented these suicide seeds from entering the marketplace. There was great concern of contamination of other crops resulting in normal seeds acquiring the terminator traits, causing crop failures and giving Monsanto even greater control over the seed industry.
In a recent twist on terminator seed technology, it seems that "Zombie" crops are being developed in the EU and the research is being funded by the British taxpayer. The seeds are called zombies as they have been engineered to produce sterile seed that can be made viable again with a chemical treatment. The chemical treatment will of course likely be sold by the company that markets the seed.
Less seed diversity threatens food security
Without genetic diversity being maintained, food production is at risk from epidemics and infestations. For example, over 70% of the corn acreage grown in the U.S.A. was planted with just six varieties of corn back in the early 1970's. When a new strain of southern leaf blight fungus emerged in 1970-71, many corn fields across the country were wiped out. An estimated 250 million bushels of corn was lost to the blight in Illinois alone.
Heirloom and heritage varieties
If you grow fruits and vegetables at home, there is something you can do to get away from the major players and grow the truly tasty vegetables of yesteryear - after all, isn't that one of the reasons we establish home veggie gardens in the first place?
Consider cultivating heirloom and heritage varieties.
Heirlooms are open-pollinated plant varieties. If the seeds are saved, they will produce the same variety. Hybrids are the result of a cross between various varieties. Seeds from hybrids often do not sprout and if they do, the resulting plant can experience problems as they being to revert to the traits of the parent plant used in hybridization.
Heirloom and heritage varieties are usually considered those that are at least 50 years old; although some vintage varieties have a traceable history dating back hundreds or thousands of years.
Heirloom varieties do have good disease resistance and the yields are often higher than hybrids. Heirloom varieties also tend to produce over a longer period each season - so there's less problems of waste if you don't have people to give away surplus to.
If you'd like to find suppliers of heritage and heirloom seeds, probably the best way to locate them is via your favorite search engine by simply typing this query- heritage seeds country name or heirloom seeds country name
By growing heirloom and heritage varieties, not only will you have tastier produce, you'll be playing an important role in maintaining genetic biodiversity!