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picking apart apple picking

Posted Dec 03 2008 12:16am
Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day
When trying to decide what to blog about for Blog Action Day and the environment, I mulled over quite a few ideas. More ideas than I could fit into one blog post, which is why I'll probably re-visit the theme throughout this week. However, one issue in particular has been in the forefront of my mind ever since last week, and that is the relationship of eating locally to sustainability and justice. I understand, of course, that eating locally is not the only answer when trying to navigate the maze of environmental problems, and I believe that there is room for dialog on the matter. However, what I can't understand is self-satisfied journalists who would do away with the very notion that there may be something to be gained by trying to engage with the food (and the farmers) of your own region, that there is something irreducibly nourishing about, say, picking your own apples in the Fall.

Slate re-published an article by a journalist with just such a mindset last week, and so I decided that my action for today would be to take the time to refute this article word for word. Here is the article, entitled:Rotten to the Core: What pick-your-own apple orchards tell us about the American economy(published last year under the more innocuous title,Cider House Rules)[My comments are in orange]By Daniel GrossA few weeks ago, theNew York Timesran a poignant article about anguished fruit farmers in California. Because of a crackdown on illegal immigrants, they couldn't find workers willing to pick their pears, even at $150 per day. And as a result, perfectly good fruit rotted in the fields.[Ok, I'm with you so far. It is a shame that immigration policy in this country does not reflect the real need for migrant farm worker labor, not to mention that we are all so used to rock-bottom cheap food that the idea of paying farm workers a living wage is unworkable]

Perhaps the California farmers, who depend on migrant Mexican labor, have got the wrong business model. Instead of paying workers to pick their fruit, they should try another strategy: making customers pay to pick the fruit themselves. Savvy farmers all over the country have discovered a practice that might not work as a nationwide agricultural policy, but that has allowed some economically inefficient orchards to thrive [what exactly is your definition of 'economically inefficient'? I guess we'll soon find out]: Encourage yuppies and their progeny to come pick your fruit—they'll pay handsomely for the privilege, buy more than they'd ordinarily consume, and then shell out for all sorts of other value-added products. It's the best use of child labor since Manchester's early 19th century textile mills. [I'm a little confused- so due to the fact that pick-your-own orchards draw people like tourist attractions, they are taking advantage of peoples' labor? More so than those who underpay migrant farm workers? Or, is the fact that some people are guilty of over-consumption somehow endemic to the pick-your-own model? Do tell]

Apple picking is a cherished rite of fall [absolutely, or if you live where I do, a cherished rite of late Summer as well], a wholesome and fun family outing, a throwback to a simpler time when people weren't so disconnected from the production of their sustenance. I look forward to it every year. It's also a wasteful scam. [Ah- you had me until "wasteful scam"- continue]

We've been educated (or bullied, depending on your outlook) by foodies like Alice Waters and Dan Barber [my understanding is that picking apples pre-dates the yuppie food chic of Alice Waters, but o.k.] to adopt the European concept of terroir —the best stuff to consume is the stuff grown in closest proximity. [Actually, this isn't my understanding of terroir. I first heard this term, when learning about wine, as a description of the fact that the environment in which produce is grown affects its flavor and other qualities. Terre ='earth' or 'ground' in French, and I don't think you would argue that the soil, water, air, and other factors in the crop's environment affect its growth and outcome, right Dan? It seems as if you're making terroir into a straw-man prescriptive (rather than merely descriptive) notion that you can conveniently take down later.] For people in the Northeast, that's fine in the summer, when the Union Square Greenmarket bursts with locally grown exotic greens, yellow squash, and heirloom tomatoes of such flavor (and cost) as to make a gourmand weep. [Oh, ok, I see- by "Northeast" you mean "downtown New York City"- this clarifies things a bit!]

But in the fall, while the region's landscape lights up with foliage, the farm stands' color palette becomes more drab: potatoes, root vegetables, pumpkins, gourds, and, of course, apples. And so, to the pick-your-own orchards we go. [Just one of the facts of local eating- you learn to acclimate yourself to the seasons. In the fall and winter, produce is hearty and drab- if you don't eat drab in the winter, you are not in touch with what the season really is. And if you don't eat drab for a few months, the brighter fruit of summer won't seem that much more special and delicious. Besides, I can think of things more drab than pumpkins, gourds, and apples]

we ate all these apples we picked- and went back for more!

Silverman's Farm, the farm I frequent in Fairfield County, Conn., is a pick-your-own farm for Type A's: a high-volume, diversified joint. It attracts pickers from New Haven, New York, and all points in between. [Oh phew! Glad your concept of "Northeast" stretches all the way to New Haven!] (You can rusticate and still be back to Park Slope in time for dinner.) [Again with the New York City assumption! Not all apple pickers are Northeasters, and not all Northeasters are yuppie "type A" Park Slope inhabitants who view apple picking as a means to "rusticate".] Several tractors take turns hauling wagons with families up the slopes, and then back to the large store, where pumpkins, jams, ciders, pies, and flowers are sold. After jostling through the crowds—gaining access to the choice apple trees and a quick checkout lane requires the same level of competitiveness, foresight, and sharp elbows as winning admission to top nursery schools [yes, yes, we all sympathize with this particular example. Life simply is not the same without the New York City problems of the everyman, such as where to enroll Junior Type A in nursery school- oh wait- we can't!] —it's across the street to the petting zoo for the exquisite pleasure of having llamas and goats lick pellets out of your hands. [I gotta hand it to you- the particular orchard you describe seems to have very little to do with apples and more to do with tourism. But Dan, they're not all like this, trust me!]

On Sunday, we experienced a more laid-back, echt version of apple-picking on a postcard-perfect day at Bartlett's Orchard in the Berkshires.

The apple-picking experience sheds light on some unflattering truths about the American economy.

First, we regard nature as a realm to be conquered and tamed for our recreation, not to be preserved and nourished for its own sake. [Sorry to tell you this, but plenty of people do not view apple picking as land-grab attempt, let alone an amusement park. Also, I would question what you mean by nature as something existing "for its own sake" since the very concept of "nature" is human-made, but that's a different discussion] At the orchards, kids are instructed on how to pick apples—twist them gently—in such a way that leaves the tree intact. (Of course, for every child who closely adheres to the instructions, there's another who shakes the branch heartily, sending a cascade of smaller apples, leaves, and branches down to the ground.) [Here, I humbly submit that these children are behaving in such a way that suggests that their parents see apple orchards as "a realm to be conquered and tamed for our recreation." It would seem that all around the country, in competitive NYC nursery schools and elsewhere, children are absorbing the lessons of a hurried, harried cultural climate. You can see this at parties, buffets, schools, why pick on apple orchards?] But these trees are hardly natural. They aren't the sort of majestic, voluptuous apple trees you would have found in the Garden of Eden. They're dwarf apple trees, stumpy bushes engineered so that their fruit grows just a few feet off the ground. [Here, it is up to you to show us that apple orchards not designed for the U-Pick market reach the Edenic heights of which you speak. Somehow, I doubt that "real" apple orchards involve pickers climbing tens of feet into the air to pick apples off of "real" trees, but that's just me] They're the veal calves of the fruit world. [Ouch, Dan, you really hurt this apple-pickin' vegan with that line]

these might be dwarf apple trees, but the apples on them are plenty real- and big

In the United States, overconsumption is encouraged as a positive good (see under: McMansions, SUVs, all-you-can-eat buffets). [I agree with you here, Dan, wholeheartedly. And yet, picking my own apples at various apple orchards around my town is part of my non-overconsumption lifestyle. Now how's that?] Add pick-your-own apples to the list. At Silverman's Farm, pickers have a choice: $14 for a small bag and $24 for a large bag. At Bartlett's, it's less: $9 for a peck (10 pounds), $15 for a bushel (20 pounds). [Poor guy- those prices are way higher than what the non-tourist-trappy apple orchards charge. Here, I've paid as little as 30 cents a pound for the "seconds" that I use for cooking and baking, but even the pretty apples are only around 70 cents a pound if you know where to go] But even though consumers here avoid all the supply-chain costs they would pay at a grocery store, it's not that much cheaper. At Peapod, a 3-pound bag of apples goes for $2.79, about 93 cents a pound. [See, this is where I have serious problems with your argument, and this gets to the heart of what can be good about the eating local mentality. I'd say the real price of those apples at your neighborhood grocer would ideally involve the environmental impact of those $2.79 apples. Where did they come from? How were they grown? How many extra chemicals did it take for them to survive the journey? Who picked them, and under what conditions? How are the workers at Peapod treated? Most importantly, did the apples come from an economically depressed region of the state, the country, or the world, where the farmers made the decision that shipping their apples to fetch the higher prices that you would pay for apples in New York City is worth more to them than selling their apples to the inhabitants of their own region?]

I may be no Alice Waters, but I contend that this apple tastes better than the one from Peapod.

And, just as people who visit wineries end up walking away with a case instead of a bottle [not me! Is that a Park Slope thing?], it's a given that people leave pick-your-own orchards with a surfeit of apples. We left with two almost-full small bags, about 20 pounds, or between 60 and 70 apples. In a good week at home, we'll go through a dozen. [Wait- how many people are in your family? Let's say 3 - in a good week, each of you eat fourapples? Yikes. Here's an idea- eat more apples! Ever tried having apples instead of fries as a side to your falafel burger?] Pickers tell themselves they'll put the farm-fresh apples to good use: making homemade apple sauce, or whipping up an apple pie. [I do and I do] But most people don't have the time. [This is a statement of attitude as much as anything. Daiku and I, who both work at stressful jobs, simply make the time to do these things. Buying applesauce when you can make it easily (toss some apples in the oven or the crockpot) just doesn't make sense] Besides, pick-your-own orchards sell the processed versions right there, in the irresistible form of apple cider and apple-cider donuts. (Even when they go to pick fresh produce, Americans use it as an excuse to consume deep-fried, carb-loaded junk.)[Well, I agree with you there, but I don't buy the junk, and many people who pick apples at orchards don't either. Dan, have you explored the wide world of vegan food blogging? Perhaps it's time you start...]

above: local apples cut into "fries" accompany a homemade falafel burger

Apple-picking also makes us vulnerable to that peculiarly American malady: the paradox of choice. Sophisticated American consumers must develop the ability to pick and choose among hundreds of varieties of wine, cheese, chocolate, and coffee. Well, like everything else in life, apple connoisseurship can be reduced to a convenient spreadsheet. Did you know that Granny Smith apples are tart and are superb for pies but poor for sauce, while Sun Crisp are tangy sweet and are very good for salad but only fair for pies? And how can you keep track of all the different varieties once they're in the bag? [This is only if you see apples as another hyper-competitive realm in which to demonstrate connoisseurship and expertise. I would submit to you that many people pick apples to eat apples. If you follow the calendar, you'll see that different apples reach their peak ripeness at different times of the season, and if you bake a lot, you'll know that those spreadsheets of which you speak are merely guidelines. Sometimes, Dan, you can even throw a non-Granny Smith apple into a pie. Honest!] If you thought comparing apples to oranges was a fruitless endeavor, try comparing apples to apples. [You're right. Keeping track of countless varieties of apples is tough. Better never go apple picking again. Oh Dan...don't throw out the local food baby with the too many apple varieties bathwater!]

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