Friday, July 07, 2006

health magazine: When the picking's fresh

The Leaf-Chronicle

Vegetables from the Farmers Market, Dot's Truck Patch, Doalnara Organic Farm or any roadside stand have an advantage over the pretty produce on display at grocery stores.

They're fresh.

Ask anyone standing in line to buy Port Royal-grown tomatoes at the Farmers Market for $1.25 a pound why they choose to shop in the heat instead of the air-conditioned comfort of a grocery store, and they'll tell you the same thing. Fresh vegetables and fruit taste much better than specimens that have languished in a distribution warehouse or on a truck for days, weeks, or in the case of apples, even months before they reach your table.

"The reasons for buying locally produced food are compelling," Oklahoma-based organic farmers Emily Oakley and Mike Appel write in a 2005 edition of "Growing for Market." "These include the benefits of eating fresher, tastier and more nutritionally intact food, reducing air pollution and fossil fuel consumption through decreased transportation miles, greater variety selection, preserving farmland and open space, and keeping money within the local economy."

Only two farmers who sell produce at the Farmers Market grow the majority of their produce themselves, but the others buy direct from local Mennonites or farms within 100 miles of here. And that cuts the shipping time that eats away freshness.

Lester "The Fat Man" York, owner of Dot's Truck Patch, named after his late wife, says he buys much of his produce from Amish farmers. Right now, his store on Ashland City Road, also known as the 41A Bypass, is selling cantaloupe, seedless watermelon, honeydew melon, white peaches, nectarines, plums, lemons, lettuce, cabbage, acorn squash, yellow squash, zucchini, corn, okra, eggplant, bell peppers, Vidalia onions, potatoes, tomatoes and honey.

"I love them all," York says. "I can sit down to a vegetable dinner and not even have no meat, just as happy as I can be."

Asked why people should buy vegetables from Dot's Truck Patch instead of at a big grocery store, York's response is familiar. "Mine are fresher."

Writing for Health magazine, Mary Ann Howkins points out that kiwis shipped from New Zealand can be 6 months old before they hit your grocery store shelves. But if you're attentive, you can tell the prime pickings from those you should pass on.

"Be picky. This no-brainer bears repeating," Howkins writes. "When you're buying perishable greens like leaf lettuce, make sure they're in peak condition: If the outer leaves are wilted or their color has faded, it's a sign they're past their prime. Look for bright green caps on strawberries and green, flexible stems on grapes and cherries. The skin of fruits and vegetables should feel full. If it's loose, the fruit has lost moisture — not a good sign."

Of course, if you really want to know exactly how fresh your vegetables are, the best option is to grow them yourself. Although you're too late to plant warm-season vegetables this year, you can still get in some fall vegetables if you plant them in the next week or two.

"People think it takes a lot of land," says Ray Patterson, who sells his home-grown squash and tomatoes at the Farmers Market. "It doesn't."

His motivation?

"The freshness of it," he says. "You can take it and prepare it for a meal just as soon as you get it off the vine."

Originally published July 6, 2006