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Seeing Red: Eating Locally and Debunking the Red-Blue Divide

When my family tried to eat local for a year, we learned as much about politics as we did about produce.

| Mon Apr. 30, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

in some supermarket chains in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, shoppers can find seasonal organic vegetables in packages labeled "Appalachian Harvest." The letters arch over a sunny, stylized portrait of plowed fields, a clear blue stream, and the assurance: "Healthy Food, Healthy Farms, Close to Home."

Labels can lie, I am perfectly aware. But the Appalachian Harvest vegetables really do come from healthy farms; I happen to know, because they're close to my home. Brand building in mainstream supermarkets is an exciting development for farmers here, in a region that has struggled with chronic environmental problems, double-digit unemployment, and a steady drain of young people from the farming economy.

But getting some of Appalachia's harvest into those packages has not been simple. Every cellophane-wrapped, bar-coded packet of organic produce contains a specific promise to the consumer. To back it up, farmers need special training, organic certification, reliable markets, and a packaging plant. A model nonprofit called Appalachian Sustainable Development provides all of these for a 10-county region of Virginia and Tennessee. In 2006, 11 years after the program began, participating farms collectively sold about $371,000 worth of organic produce to regional retailers, supermarkets, and farmers' markets.

The Appalachian Harvest packinghouse lies in a Virginia mountain valley every bit as gorgeous as the fairy-tale farm on the label. In its first year, a wing of an old tobacco barn served as headquarters. Now the packing plant occupies the whole barn, complete with truck bays, commercial coolers, and conveyor belts. Tomatoes are the cash cow of this enterprise, but they are also its prima donnas, quick to spoil in the sultry heat but at risk of losing their flavor in standard refrigeration, so the newest major addition is a 100-foot-by-14-foot tomato room where the temperature is held at 56 degrees.

Participating farmers (37 of them, at last count) bring vegetables here by the truckload, in special boxes that have never been used for conventional produce. Most of them have just an acre or two of organic vegetables, beside other crops grown conventionally. Those who stick with the program may expand their organic acreage, but rarely to more than 5 acres, since organic is labor-intensive. After planting, weeding, and keeping the crop pest-free all season without chemicals, the final step of picking often begins before dawn. The largest grower in the group, with 15 acres in production, last year delivered 200 boxes of peppers and 400 of tomatoes in a single day.

The packinghouse manager labels each box as it arrives so the grower's identity will follow the vegetables through washing, grading, and packaging, all the way to their point of wholesale purchase. Appalachian Harvest takes a 25 percent commission, revenue that helps pay for organic training and organic certification as well as packing expenses. The project's sales have crept up, with a few more committed growers each year, and some families have been motivated to make their entire farms organic, from vegetable patches to hay fields. Their neighbors are watching, eager to see whether this enormous commitment to new methods will be salvation or disaster.

Tomatoes are a "high-value crop," but only in relation to a dirt-cheap commodity grain like corn; in season, even the highestquality organic tomatoes will bring local farmers no more than 60 to 80 cents per pound. (The lower end, for conventional, is 20 cents.) Yet even that can translate into a cautious living.

On a midsummer day in the packinghouse, vegetables roll through the processing line in a quantity that makes the work in my own kitchen look small indeed. Tomatoes bounce down a sorting conveyor, several bushels per minute, dropping through different-sized holes in a vibrating belt. Workers collect them, check for flaws and ripeness, and package the tomatoes as quickly as their hands can move, pressing the "certified organic" sticker on each one. Watching the operation, I kept thinking of people I know who can hardly even stand to hear that word, because of how "organic" is personified for them. "I'm always afraid I'm going to get the Mr. Natural lecture," one friend confessed to me. "You know, from the slow-moving person with ugly hair, doing back and leg stretches while they talk to you." I know the guy too: standing at the checkout with his bottle of Intestinal-Joy brand wheatgrass juice, edging closer as if to peer into my cart to save me from some food-karma horror.

For the record, this is what organic looks like at Appalachian Harvest: Red Wing work boots, barbershop haircuts, Levi's with a little mud on the cuffs, men and women who probably go to church on Sunday but keep their religion to themselves as they bring a day's work to the old tobacco barn. If sanctimony is an additive in their product, it gets added elsewhere.

The tomato room offers a 56-degree respite from the July swelter, but it is all business in there too: full boxes piled on pallets, in columns nearly reaching the ceiling. Just enough space remains in the center for workers to maneuver, carting out pallets for grading, sorting, and then slapping one of those tedious stickers on every one of the thousands of individual tomatoes that pass through here each day.

Supermarkets only accept properly packaged, coded, and labeled produce that conforms to certain standards of color, size, and shape. Melons can have no stem attached; cucumbers must be no less than six inches long, no more than eight. Crooked eggplants need not apply. Every crop yields a significant proportion of perfectly edible but small or oddly shaped vegetables that are "trash" by market standards.

It takes as much work to grow a crooked vegetable as a straight one, and the nutritional properties are identical. Workers at the packinghouse are as distressed as the farmers to see boxes of rejects piling up. Poverty and hunger are not abstractions in our part of the world; throwing away mountains of good food makes no sense. With the help of several church and social justice groups, Appalachian Harvest arranges to deliver "factory second" vegetables to low-income families all summer. Fresh organic produce has entered some of their diets for the first time.

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