The Union Square Greenmarket wraps around three sides of 3 and 1/2 acre Union Square Park in downtown NYC. Like so many things here, it is big, and can be kind of impersonal. Many different farms attend, and there is a lot to learn if you’re determined to know where your food comes from.
To narrow it all down and make the task of choosing my vendors more manageable, I started with the organic stands. Okay, I know that obtaining the USDA “Organic” certification is very expensive and some small farms cannot afford it—which means that many small farms that actually have organic practices cannot label themselves as such—but it seemed like too much work to weed these farms out from the get-go. Plus, what is the harm in being certain? And the veggies at what have become my staple organic farm stands truly are exceptional.
But it only took a few trips to the Green for me to realize that I could not find a single organic piece of fruit in all 3 1/2 acres. No berries during berry season (although I did see the jam guy from Massachusetts with a few renegade containers labeled “wild berries: no spray” that turned out the be the tiniest and most delicious blueberries and red currants I’ve ever had), no peaches in late summer, and, that’s right, no apples last Saturday. Oh, the market was brimming with non-organic fruit, but if I wanted mine non-sprayed, it seemed I would have to go to the Whole Foods across the street.
Was this true? We went to the market manager to find out. “Nope. We don’t have any organic fruit at all.” But why? “It’s too hard to grow in this climate. They all have to use some non-organic pesticides.” Ah. So that explains why, smack in the middle of apple season, the organic apples at Whole Foods still come from Argentina.
A few weeks later, at a much quainter little fairy-tale market in Warrensburg, NY, I furthered my research by nagging the local farmers about the what’s, how’s and why’s of the area fruit. While I still did not find any certified organic fruit, the people here were completely amazing, passionate, genuine, and willing to talk about their work, and I ended up learning much about many different things, other than fruit. I found out about something called “Certified Naturally Grown,” which answered most of the questions I had about the USDA organic certification: mainly, who was stepping in to create a certification worth its salt when the USDA has totally corrupted the Organic label. I am still not learned enough about it to say too much about it, but to find out more or find a participating farm, visit naturallygrown.org. (I do have a little movie about this, and if only someone would teach this ludite how to convert an MVI file from my camera to jpeg, I could include this nice little movie in the post. If you have the knowledge, please share in a comment).
Back to the fruit, it turns out that it is literally impossible to find a certified organically grown fruit in this part of the country. There are some larger—much larger—farms in California that do it, but for the small fries out here, they simply cannot afford it because, supposedly (and I am still unclear as to why) it is actually more expensive to run an organic orchard. However, I did find a farm that limited their pesticides to “rock dust, sea salt, fish oil, and clay.” Sounds alright to me. And their pears, plums, blueberries and apples were darn tasty, with no hint of fish oil to be detected.
What I was truly surprised to observe, though, was that people didn’t really seem to care about the USDA organic label. Maybe it’s because it has been so perverted and people that know farming aren’t gullible enough to buy in anymore. Maybe it’s because up in Warrensburg, five hours out of the city and neck deep in farm country, people know the folks that grow their food and know their practices, too. Maybe it’s a trust thing. Whatever it is, it’s a good reminder that there was life before labels, and we’ve come to a point in food politics where there has to be life after labels, once more. I like the Naturally Grown certification because it’s a grassroots initiative. But I really think it comes down to talking to your farmers, finding people you like and trust, and building relationship. That’s when fruit tastes really good.
That’s how the case of the missing organic fruit was closed. I learned once again that the greenmarket is not an open-air Whole Foods, and I actually have to take out my proverbial ear buds and talk to people. And thank the lord for that. But before I sign off, I have to take a minute to appreciate the fruit of the hour…
The Apple. No, not the one from Argentina. But the one that is growing in an orchard near you (unless you happen to be reading this blog from Argentina, in which case, thank you for your apples. I confess to having bought them in the winter time). If you are lucky, you will find some varieties that you have never heard of before or seen at the supermarket. They will look like perfectly abstract canvases of autumn and feel firm in your hand. And when you bite in, they will taste alive. And to boot, they will cleanse your body of excess heat collected throughout the summer months and protect you from radiation and other environmental toxins (!). Yes, sign me up please.