Steve Moore

Farmstand yes!

(but spare me the organics)

By Steve Moore
October 25, 2010

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GOLDENROD IS at its height now, which spells the end of the farmstands and the return of store shopping.

Around here that means the enlightened elbowing their way once more to the organic bins to pursue their own immortality and using recyclable totes to do the same for planet Earth.

Count me out. I like farmstands, but of all the reigning hoaxes, the organic boom is certainly one of the most wrong-headed, especially when compared with the gem-like purity of the roadside stands. With the decline of dairy farming in southern New England, there are just not enough cows to provide manure for any large-scale organic operations.

And there are major gaps. If you try to raise apples without pesticides, for instance, you get grubby worm condos, not apples. Believe me, I’ve done it, though mostly because of sloth, not any burning desire to be the next Luther Burbank.

The organic industry’s own definition of what it is up to isn’t going to whet anyone’s appetite, either: “Organic agriculture,’’ according to the National Organic Standards Board, “is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.’’

What these people really want are farmstand vegetables. There, you get items that are grown within a mile or so of the sales point — a tiptoe carbon footprint — and they are often better-tasting heirloom varieties, if less perfect in appearance.

One stand I know features early peas that I sauté with pancetta. Down the road, a college kid sells the best corn you ever had, two for a buck. Not only that, the family slaughters a couple black angus annually and offers ground beef any chef would be proud to offer. A woman around the corner has free-range eggs with yolks the color of pumpkins for $2 a dozen. On and on.

But for too many shoppers, once farmstand season is over, if store produce is not explicitly organic, it isn’t edible.

My wife and I made a field trip to a Whole Foods store sometime back to see what we were missing. I asked a young lady — with purple hair and hardware pinned to her face, as natural as you could be — where I might find a regular daikon radish, not organic. She pointed to a cramped section of the store and then watched me as if I were some illegal antediluvian alien. She probably had a point.

But chemicals are developed to be water soluble so if you wash your raw materials, and peel them if you are extra cautious, you are in business. And at a significantly lower cost, if Whole Foods is any indicator. But the organics devotees tend to be evangelical, pursuing a greener-than-thou grail that may or may not exist. At a party up in Vermont we saw all this at work. The hors d’oeuvres were pretty much gatherers’ delights: tabbouleh, hummus, eggplant spread, no hunters in the crowd. One woman offered salt-free parsnip and celeriac surprise. There were cold noodles in squid ink and countless pasta salads. Everyone was on the lookout for personal toxins: gluten, meat, dairy, nuts. Curiously, in aggressively healthy Vermont, everyone seemed afflicted.

A party-goer picked up a tongful of asparagus and then paused as if shot. How was this poached?, she demanded of no one in particular. I said helpfully that it was done in dairy-free water and, reassured, she went back to her jeremiads.

Well, it’s a winding road to enlightenment and there are no fast-food joints to break up the trip. Me? I’ll grab a Hubbard squash at the last open farmstand and watch for harbingers of spring.

After farmstand season, Steve Moore can be found prowling the aisles of Stop and Shop in Pittsfield.

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