Let’s Get Local Produce in the Chain Grocery Stores

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By Elena Day

The Buy Local movement has stimulated lots more folks to grow local. I noted four middle-aged men bent over picking beans in a field behind Cooters in the Country (Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia outlet) outside Sperryville. Their sign identified them as “Hungry Farmers.” I passed another makeshift produce stand in Banco on Rt. 231 close to the turnoff to Graves Mountain Lodge.

Grow Local/Buy Local is great. The problem arises when sun and adequate, not overly abundant, rainfall result in bounteous July/August harvests. Regarding tomatoes, I have heard growers remark that the boxes in which these are packed for auction in Dayton (Shenandoah Valley Farmers Auction) cost more than the tomatoes contained within.  Thornless blackberries, which everyone is planting these days, also hit absurdly low prices.

As I see it, without appropriate local distribution systems, and by this I mean local produce funneled into Kroger, Food Lion and Whole Foods, Costco and Sam’s, the vegetables and fruits of smaller growers end up in the compost heap or, somewhat better, as pig meals.

Seasonal local produce is only occasionally found in chain food stores. Corporate buying and distribution systems are skewed against local production because chain groceries are all about consistency in delivery at the lowest price. California and Arizona agribusiness owners have gone south into Mexican lands to grow produce when their season is over. In this way they can provide the North American grocers with cucumbers, broccoli, strawberries and raspberries all year long. (I avow that any cucumber flavor has been bred out of those lovely looking Mexican winter cukes.)

Friends who vacation in Mexico have commented on Driscoll’s berry production lands in Sinaloa. Driscoll’s (a hundred-year-old, family-owned company based in Watsonville, CA) and BerryMex (in Sinaloa and Baja California) are both owned by the Reiter family. Berries are the number one selling fruit in the U.S. with more than $3 billion in annual sales. Berry pickers call strawberries the “gift of the devil” and wages average $10/day in Mexican fields.  Workers receive 12 cents to pick a 1-pound container of “organic” strawberries that retail for $4.99 at Whole Foods near Washington, D.C.

In March 2015, Mexican workers in Baja California abandoned the fields to strike for higher wages. It was the largest farmworker strike in many years. Thousands participated. Workers are generally dispossessed peasants (largely as a result of Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement passed in the 90’s). Sixty-four percent lack adequate housing and access to water, electricity and sanitation; 47 percent lack health care services; and 59 percent of children between ages 15 and 17 are not in school. Many workers are functionally illiterate.  This is according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography. The big growers know that low wages and poor working conditions have little or no effect on sales in the U.S. Obviously, most North Americans have no idea where their produce is grown and under what conditions, or that “organic” does not inherently imply fair labor practices.

Closer to “home,” this past July farmworkers in Washington State who pick blueberries for Sakuma Brothers Berries (distributed by Driscoll’s), also staged protests and strikes for higher wages and against abusive labor practices.

Besides berries, Baja California exports tomatoes to El Norte. Los Pinos Ranch alone exports 250 million pounds of tomatoes per year. These tomatoes are grown in hothouses containing approximately 3½ acres of tomatoes. The tomatoes are grown upwards and workers adjust them on stilts. I assume that the hothouses don’t cover 3 ½  acres, rather they contain that amount of tomatoes which would normally grow in a field of that size.  The tomatoes are picked slightly pink and redden in packing boxes as they travel north.

Another friend who visited Mexico commented on broccoli fields near San Miguel de Allende (a popular retirement haven for North Americans), in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. “The huge broccoli field was fenced off and the gates locked.” The broccoli was not likely consumed by Mexican harvesters. Guanajuato’s broccoli exports, of which 97.8 percent of 70,000 tons were to the U.S., totaled $196.3 million in 2014. Seventy to 80 percent is frozen. Other Guanajuato exports to the U.S. include fresh cabbage, onions, garlic, carrots and celery.

We have all been made aware of California’s water problems. I cannot help but wonder what the agribusiness model is doing to the water table in the northern Mexican states.

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Readers should be aware that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the DARK Act, H.R. 1599, of which I’ve written in the past. This bill, designed to prevent states from labeling Genetically Modified foods was designed for and by Monsanto and other agrochemical companies benefit so they can continue to sell billions of dollars of Roundup and now other more toxic herbicides (as Roundup resistance increases) and increase the number of Genetically Engineered staples the world population consumes. According to a report from Open Secrets, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, the 275 members of the U.S. House of Representatives that voted for H.R. 1599 received $29.9 million in contributions from agribusiness and the food industry (The Grocery Manufacturers’ Association, etc.) in 2014.

Contact our Senators and ask that they do not vote yes on a Senate version of H.R 1599, which is likely to be introduced after the August recess. Urge U.S. presidential hopeful  Bernie Sanders to speak out against H.R. 1599. He is a Senator from the forward-looking and intrepid state of Vermont that has been the first to challenge Monsanto, et.al., and pass a GMO labeling mandate.

In a New York Times article on July 13, 2015, Mark Spitnagel and Nassim Nicholas Taleb compared Monsanto’s GMO enterprise to the U.S. banking system.

“The G.M.O. experiment, carried out in real time and with our entire food and ecological system as its laboratory, is perhaps the greatest case of human hubris ever. It creates yet another systemic, “too big to fail” enterprise—but one for which no bailouts will be possible when it fails.”

It’s time for home gardeners to plan and plant the fall garden. For kale chomping aficionados, and I know there are many out there, August 5 is the optimal date for seeding fall kale.

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