Rescue California from Drought? Re-Localize the Food System

As parents conversed over coffee and donuts early Saturday morning excitedly anticipating the outcome of sorority rush week, I chatted with a Dad about his daughter leaving sunny southern California to come north to the University of Washington. Of course, we started talking about how much it rains in Seattle. It’s just that west coast thing. Southern Californians can’t imagine how Seattleites can bear the endless rain. Of course, I had to perpetuate the rain myth.

The Dad exclaimed, “I like seeing green (trees, bushes, and grass) and know I will enjoy visiting Seattle, since I live in the land of endless drought. I must say that Governor Brown’s executive order last year that cut our water use by 25%, while agriculture (the State’s largest water user) had no restrictions was unbelievable.” Jokingly, he said, “Maybe we’ll be importing water from Seattle soon.”

“Perhaps, by re-localizing the food system, California water can stay in California and not be exported (in its agricultural products) around the country and the world,” I suggested. “Maybe we should get back to eating seasonally and locally, eating what grows where we live when it is available?”

Strawberries:  A Summer Fruit

Lucious StrawberriesWhen the sun and heat amped up in Connecticut in mid-June, giant signs with only one strawberry on it announced the start of the U-Pick summer fruit season at the family farms around town. Knowing that just picked strawberries were the best, my Dad would coerce my siblings and I to venture out early Saturday morning to pick the brightest, reddest, and biggest berries possible. I quickly learned the art of picking–one for the mouth, one for the basket. I knew the proprietor would not be weighing my on-farm consumption, so I could indulge in my favorite fruit–what I learned later was the June-bearing strawberry, a variety that bears fruit for a short three week window every June.

Sometime 20 or 30 years ago, I don’t know exactly when, strawberries started showing up in grocery stores in February way before I expected them. Of course, my mouth salivated for the luscious, sweet, flavor of my childhood. Alas, the berries were never as tasty or juicy as I remembered. February berries are an ever-bearing strawberry and are never local in my northern locale, as it is still cold, dark, and rainy. The ever-bearing strawberry produces multiple crops over a growing season no matter where they are grown. In the winter, they are shipped in a clear clamshell box from a warmer climate to allure the northern shopper with the anticipation of summer flavor. Even though the mid-winter berries are bright red and large, the flavor always seems somewhat dry and slightly woody despite being 92% water, which is the highest water content of any fruit. Ever-bearing strawberries can be delicious and sweet, as the freshly-picked flat I bought yesterday at the Lake City Farmers Market from Hayton Farm Berries grown one-hour north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley.

The majority of Californian strawberries, supplemented with berries from Florida and Mexico, are travel-ready and ever-bearing to be shipped everywhere to the east coast, Seattle, Chicago, China, you name it. The berries have been bred to withstand long-distance travel, arriving at their final retail location looking pretty, but not necessarily tasting good.

U.S. Strawberry Production MapWhat’s astonishing is that only five counties, four in California and one in Florida account for over 75% of the nation’s strawberry acreage, all destined for clear clamshell boxes found in grocery stores year-round. From March to December, strawberries grow just an hour south of Silicon Valley–the high tech center of California–in Santa Cruz county and the Salinas Valley. Winter strawberries grow an hour and a half north of downtown Los Angeles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and near Plant City east of Tampa, Florida. Looking at nationwide strawberry production, it’s startling, but perhaps not unexpected, that California grows 61 percent of US commercial strawberry production with Florida being a distant second with only 17 percent of the crop. Sadly, our taste buds are accustomed to the travel-ready clamshell box strawberries, so much so that even my own daughter doesn’t like the local June-bearing berry.

California Drought and Strawberries

Location of California Strawberry Production & DroughtOur federal government monitors, analyzes, and issues weekly nationwide drought maps. Since water is life, the drought forecast is critical to understanding the irrigation capacity and hence, the potential shock and disruption to our nation’s food supply from the effects of drought. The September 20, 2016 map demonstrates that the extreme (red) and exceptional (burgundy red) drought conditions, the most severe drought categories on the map, are centered directly over California strawberry acreage. Granted this map is depicting a single point in time during the driest time of year, but even so, California’s precious water generated from snowmelt and groundwater sources is irrigating the nation and world’s strawberries!

The future effects of continuous southern California sun on strawberry yields is not certain, but interestingly from 2013 to 2015 about 10% of strawberry acreage was eliminated from production in part due to the drought. There just wasn’t enough irrigation water to feed the thirsty crop. The California drought is not expected to end anytime soon, as there is still a significant water shortfall to replenish to serve people, fish and streams, and agriculture. Whether the lack of irrigation water will impact strawberry production more is totally unknown. Looking at U.S. Drought Monitor, anybody can monitor the weekly fluctuations in precipitation which impact the drought conditions on agriculture and water supplies.

Which brings me back to the Orange County Dad. He agreed, “Eating locally grown foods tastes better! Maybe if the rest of the country grew their own food, it could help the California drought? California agriculture would have to get smaller though and that would be a hard sell. There could be more water for the cities, too.”

Something to ponder. Would re-localizing our food system help the California drought?

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. She is also the Chief Operating Officer of MetroAG Strategies founded to integrate growing food into places where people live. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world with good food!

 

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Reconnecting with Fresh Food

Hayton Farms Strawberrries

Hayton Farms Strawberries

Summer brings my favorite foods. Succulent corn on the cob, pints upon pints of Hayton Farms strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, flame-roasted Hatch peppers, and lettuces all bigger than my head. My 5,000 square foot city lot just isn’t big enough to grow many foods, so I count on my local farmers markets for most everything since I only nurture tomatoes, green beans, and Italian prune plums. Whether from my yard or from the farmer, I know the food is as fresh as it can be. It’s not stored in a warehouse for weeks nor traveled thousands of miles to my plate.

Even though unprocessed, raw food appears to be fresh, only recently has my palate been discerning the subtle difference between just picked or foraged food and grocery aisle produce. Just because a pint of blueberries appears to be fresh–bright plump berries, with a little sheen–it doesn’t mean that they were just picked. A head of lettuce may be vivid green, but its connection to the earth may be drab tan indicating its days or even weeks old.

slight but significant difference in lettuce

One of my favorite famers Steve Hallstrom of Let Us Farm of Oakville, Washington, travels the Interstate 5 corridor every Saturday from May until November, leaving the farm at 5 a.m. to bring the largest selection of delectable lettuces to his loyal clientele at the University District Farmers Market in Seattle. Talk to other purchasers at the market and they agree Let Us Farm grows the best.

Located in a rural Grays Harbor County on the Chehalis River floodplain, Let Us Farm practices sustainable, organic farming including intentional crop rotation. By allowing a portion of their 80 acres of fields to go fallow regularly and planting them with a nitrogen fixing legume, the soil is nourished again for subsequent yearly plantings. Steve and his wife Cecelia live on the farm and have had many interns rotate through their farm operation to learn the agricultural trade. As with any profession, it takes at least ten to 15 years to become a master and every season there is still more to learn. Every growing season is different, too much rain or too little, lots of sun or not enough, and a late spring or an early fall.

Galisse Lettuce from Let Us Farm

Galisse Lettuce from Let Us Farm

Despite the vagaries of the seasons, Steve has accomplished the art of lettuce growing, eschewing herbicides and pesticides in keeping with the organic standards. One choice variety is Galisse, a leafy, lobed, sweet, vibrant green lettuce perfect for salads and sandwiches. The head is as large as a basketball and even with four hungry eaters lasts for two or three meals. Being a thrifty Yankee, I am compelled to buy 2 heads for $5 rather than one head for $3 purchasing Bronze Arrow, Esmerelda, or a bunch of spinach.

Still, sometimes, two heads is more than my family can eat quickly and I store it in my own personal warehouse, the refrigerator. This happened recently, where a Let Us Farm Galisse spent two weeks in the vegetable bin, while I was on vacation. Once home the lettuce still appeared healthy, vibrant, and just as fresh as the day I purchased it, so, I used a leaf to top a sandwich.

Only I knew it was two weeks old! It still tasted okay, but definitely not as good as when I first bought it. Instead of a crisp, juicy, sweet leaf, with flavor just popping in my mouth, it was a smidgen bitter and a tad bit dry.

The Other Lettuce

It got me to thinking how old are the lettuce heads I purchase at the grocery store? Usually Romaine is my top choice, as it is the healthiest variety that is sold at a mainstream store or the co-op year around. Even so, Romaine is often bitter and dull-looking. If my Galisse looked so good after my personal warehousing, how fresh is the grocery store Romaine?

Once picked, fruits and vegetables begin their demise, which can be thwarted by chilling, freezing, canning, and other preservation methods. Sugars begin to naturally oxidize, especially when produce is stored in heat or humidity. Fruits and vegetables respire after harvest causing biochemical changes resulting in a breakdown of the carbohydrates and the production of carbon dioxide and methane.

Let Us Farm Winter Squashes

Let Us Farm Winter Squashes

Further, fresh food flavor is unpredictable because of its unknown travel or warehouse life preceding its arrival in the produce aisle. Additionally, the varying growing conditions such as watering schedule, sunlight hours, and cool versus warm temperatures can vary the produce taste causing the finicky eater to shun the healthiest foods, just because they don’t taste the same every time. Any delay from farm to fork and just the unpredictability of Mother Nature can be enough for food flavor to change from sweet to bitter or vibrant to bland. No wonder it’s hard to get people both young and old to eat their fruits and veggies. And for some it’s McDonald’s fare, because it is so predictable!

One solution to this disconnect with food tasting differently season to season or week to week is to bring food growing back to the people. I’m not suggesting that we all have Victory Gardens as during WWII, but instead that housing developments are built that are landscaped with orchards, berry shrubs, and community gardens. We all eat, but as a society, most of us have forgotten where our food comes from. It’s not Albertsons, Stop ‘n Shop or Publix, but rather a farm. And on the farm, food grows in the ground, or on a bush or in a tree.

By integrating food production into our communities, we can develop neighborliness around nourishment from the earth’s bounty. We need to reconnect with truly fresh food, so we know how good it really tastes!

Kathryn Gardow, P.E., is a local food advocate, land use expert and owner of Gardow Consulting, LLC, an organization dedicated to providing multidisciplinary solutions to building sustainable communities. Kathryn has expertise in project management, planning, fundraising, and civil engineering, with an emphasis on creating communities that include food production. Kathryn is a Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network board member and on the Urban Land Institute–Northwest District Council’s Center for Sustainable Leadership planning team. Kathryn’s blog muses on ways to create a more sustainable world and good food! 

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