Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A fruit for all seasons?

I didn't taste my first strawberry until I came to America.

That should not surprise anybody.  I grew up in a HOT near-equatorial place.  The fruits that I ate were bananas and mangoes and guavas and jackfruits.  On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of Americans would not have even heard of something called a jackfruit, leave alone tasting the awesome fruit or the sweet that mothers made.

Living a locavore life is what we humans did until very, very, recently.  In contrast to all our collective history, grocery stores now seem to sell fruits and vegetables that I hadn't even heard of.  I am yet to try out many strange looking produce items that are on the shelves in my grocery store simply because I have no idea what to do with them, nor do I have the remotest idea of how they might taste.

Strawberries I came to appreciate.  The sweet/tart taste with vanilla ice cream, for instance, is heavenly on a hot summer afternoon.  But then, slowly as I learnt more about the fruit, the more I started getting concerned about the labor used, and the pesticides and other chemicals, the less I became fascinated with strawberries.

After the move to Oregon, in one of my classes, a student remarked that it is easy to distinguish between strawberries from California versus the Oregon produce.  The ones from California are bloated, full of water, and tasteless, he swore.

I started paying attention. He was correct.

Over the past few years, I have been thinking more and more about the fact that the stores always have most fruits and vegetables, as if there is no seasonality/  Especially strawberries.
Today’s California strawberry industry, which grows 88 percent of US strawberries, was born in the 1860s in the Pajaro Valley, straddling Santa Cruz and Monterey counties.7 There, apple orchardists experimented with planting strawberries in the rows between trees. Once they began shipping the fruit to San Francisco markets, they found strawberries to be quite lucrative.8 Land in the Pajaro Valley was ideal for strawberry production, especially in the alluvial plains where the rivers meet the seas. The sandy loam soils drained well to prevent the build-up of moisture and salt and protect a fruit that is prone to rot.9 The Mediterranean climate was no less accommodating. With the vast majority of rain falling between November and April, the warm and dry temperatures of summer protected against molds and other moisture-generated pests and diseases during the harvest season. The natural air conditioning of the Pacific Ocean was an additional advantage, in the summer bringing cool, moist air into the low-lying coastal areas, while in the wintertime keeping frosts at bay. The benefits of what some call the “eternal spring” included a long harvest season, eventually inducing breeders to develop varietals that could be harvested nearly year-round.
The strawberry story is a complex one.  As demand grew, the use of various chemicals dramatically increased.  Now, we are wiser.  In a tight regulatory framework, strawberries present us with a wonderful example of the urgency to think about sustainability--to grow the fruit in plenty, with as little environmental impacts as possible, and while treating the labor fairly.
the strawberry case illustrates that sustainability itself is not a singular goal that can be achieved all at once. Instead, striving for sustainability in agriculture presents inescapable trade-offs in the use of resources and materials, not to mention social goals around working conditions, farmer livelihoods, and affordability. It’s time we started having a public conversation about the fact that those trade-offs exist and how we want to navigate them.
I, for one, have pretty much stopped buying strawberries from the stores.

1 comment:

Shachi said...

Strawberries are #1 on the dirty dozen produce list. Stores or Farmers Market - most of them taste lousy. We shop from a couple local farms here which let you pick you own - I buy and freeze my own for the year. I don't think I had strawberries in India as well!

Hope you are doing well Sriram - I'm back to the blogosphere after an unintended LONG absence!!