Farm-to-table refers to freshly grown produce — that is, fruits and vegetables not transported from some distant time zone or even hemisphere but recently harvested on boutique acreage just outside town. The foodie media trumpet the virtues of local food sources, and their cosmopolitan audience tries to honor them when they visit farmer’s markets or read menus.
But first, apologies to country people who’ve been planting their own food forever without fanfare or trend attached. There’s no shorter distance to the table than one’s own property.
The coronavirus-imposed home confinement has given city and suburban Americans time and reason to join the home growers. They’ve been doing it in pots, on windowsills and on any open patch of earth. The Burpee seed company says its sales have soared at a rate two or three times that of a year ago.
Will this passion survive the reopening of other activities? Or have people who turned over strips of stressed grass to vegetables seen other reasons to keep going? Besides super-fresh food, home growing provides exercise, fresh air and meditation in nature. For we chained to computers, weed picking has become a nice break, affording an opportunity to pry our eyeballs off the screen — and notice there’s an outdoors.
Ah, I’m back.
Edibles can be beautiful. Eggplant and tomatoes in pots provide dashes of color and add (hoo-ha) architectural interest. A planter full of red chard leaves makes for an exotic “accent” plant — at least until harvest. (It’s impressive how little chard remains after an armful of it cooks down.)
I do share some of my picky friends’ misgivings toward industrial agriculture. Those duchy-size empires tend to mass-produce tomatoes and carrots that don’t taste like much but have long shelf life. That backyard farming lets us try varieties not conducive to factory farming is not a well-kept secret. Just try to find a Brandywine tomato plant at your garden shop these days.
Still, let’s be honest about modern agriculture. When my celery crop fails, it’s nice to know I can go to the store. And I do appreciate being able to buy lettuce and avocados in January.
As summer progresses, however, I always marvel at how much food can be grown on a fraction of an acre. And in recent months, when lockdowns closed off some of the more expensive pursuits — eating out, concerts, travel — we stuck at home baking and gardening have uncovered a pleasant side benefit: marvelously low credit card balances.
Another recent discovery: Italian and Portuguese neighbors have developed a secret weapon that enables them to cultivate ripe tomatoes a good month before I can. When I ask how they do it, they give me a look that says, “You’ll never understand.”
Many of their families never abandoned their grape arbors and tomato cages. So deep is the passion for fresh vegetables dug into their culture. And so, it was not entirely surprising to learn that back in Italy, younger people laid off from their restaurant, fashion house or retail jobs are now working the fields in local farms as their grandparents or great-grandparents once did.
And they’re kind of liking it. In the coronavirus age, they found working outside on uncrowded fields to be a safe and not unpleasant pursuit. And a paycheck is most welcome.
Like agriculture in this country, farms in Italy long ago switched to foreign workers as locals shunned the hard labor. Italian farmers seem almost amused at how little their urbanized countrymen and women know about picking crops. They’re reportedly catching on, though.
Again, who knows whether this interest in hands-on food production will survive an effective virus vaccine. In a saner world, it would.
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