I’m experiencing fruit nostalgia. The apples, peaches, plums and other fruits we have had in our weekly Farmers To You order have brought me back to a time when fruit was always so much better. It was fragrant, unbelievably sweet and juicy as can be. You needed to eat it with a napkin (or handy sleeve), and its availability was a special, seasonal thing. You ate as much as you could before it disappeared. And it was amazing.
Am I being silly and just remembering with a sense of nostalgia, or is there something to this? When my daughter and grandson recently visited me here in Vermont from their home state of Washington, she remarked on how poor the quality of the fruit at the supermarkets here in New England was compared to in her home state. Later, when I went to visit them, my suspicions were confirmed. The apricots, peaches and citrus in Washington State were amazing (and yes, their juices were indeed running down my face). Those fruits were grown in Washington and stayed in Washington. It wasn’t the climate or a case of better farming practices, it was the fact that the fruit was local. Something gets lost in transport bringing West Coast produce to New England grocers.
There are two factors at play here that exacerbate the problem of poor quality fruit (and really all produce) at our traditional grocery stores. Most fruits and many vegetables only ripen fully when on the plant or in the ground and connected to the soil. But it can be up to two weeks from time of harvest to appearance on the supermarket shelves, so the produce needs to be picked well before it is fully ripe and stored in refrigeration or ripened with ethylene gas on the way to the grocery store. The result is fruit that looks ripe, but it lacks the sweetness, the juiciness and the flavor we crave. Flavor is what makes food delicious, but it is also important because it is a marker for nutrition. Produce that is not allowed to ripen while still connected to the plant lacks much of the flavor and sweetness, and it does not have the nutrition that comes from being connected to the soil as it ripens in the last days before harvest.
Recently a second factor has had a major impact, and that is the cost of transportation. While the cost of growing the fruit has gone up modestly over the past few years, long distance transportation has gone up a great deal. As an example, prior to the pandemic the freight cost of a whole semi trailer load worth of food was around $6000. Currently, transportation for the same amount of food costs over $15,000 (an amount that equals more than the cost of the fruit or vegetables themselves). As a result, supermarkets buy cheaper grades of fruit to offset increased freight costs, but that impacts quality, flavor and nutrition even more.
So you and I are not just being nostalgic when we think that fruit used to be much tastier. Fortunately, when you have bitten into the peaches, nectarines, watermelons, pears, apples, and plums we have brought to you from our local farms over the past few months – quality fruit, grown with care, that makes its way from the soil to your family in a matter of days — you have enjoyed fruit as it was and as it should be.
The benefits of eating locally will continue to become more apparent as the ills of the current industrial food system continue to come to light. Peaches and asparagus in February will continue to be expensive and disappointing, so wait for the real thing — local, in season, and fleeting — and gorge yourself on all you can get while the season lasts! We have worked hard to make eating locally and seasonally easy for you. What is better for you is also better for the planet. It is a pleasure to enjoy delicious, juicy, flavorful fruit, even with the mess of juice running down your chin. Enjoy!