2009-08-06 / News

Save ‘food miles’ by growing vegetables

The Island Garden
By Roger Marshall

I’m writing this on a rainy afternoon, having harvested the garlic, a pile of new potatoes and a couple of gallons of blueberries. If it were October, I’d make chicken with 40 cloves of garlic to use up some of the small cloves, and accompany it with boiled new potatoes and mint, a few beans and maybe a few carrots – all harvested from the garden. Dessert might be a blueberry pie and ice cream. The entire meal would have cost the price of the chicken and the ice cream, and would be not only natural and organic, but would have also saved hundreds of food miles.

If you haven’t heard, food miles are one of the largest causes of pollution on the planet. It is estimated that an average meal, made with ingredients purchased at the supermarket, has traveled more than 1,500 food miles once it hits the table. For example, a chicken might be grown in one of the giant Purdue facilities in Maryland and trucked to the preparation factory. From there, it is trucked to a warehouse for distribution and then on to the supermarket. Vegetables come from California, where they are trucked or flown 3,000 miles across country, or they come from Florida, a mere 1,500 miles away.

Summer allows local food to be sold nearby, so your meal may only have been bought at a farmer’s market and brought home in your car. But even then, it might travel 40 or 50 miles from the farm to the market, and a similar distance from market to home.

Growing your own vegetables offers advantages other than simply saving food miles. First and foremost is better flavor. Research indicates that most vegetables lose flavor as soon as they are harvested. The most obvious example is corn, where the sugars that make fresh corn taste so sweet gradually turn to starch and make the corn taste… well, chewy. Compounding this problem is that most supermarket vegetables are picked before they’ve reached their peak of freshness and ripen as they are shipped, so the nutrient values are not as high as they would be when the food is allowed to ripen naturally.

Then, there’s the pesticide problem. To control vegetableeating insects in huge monoculture fields, most edible foods are sprayed regularly. Even vegetables labeled organic may be sprayed with “organic” pesticides over which you, the consumer, have no control. If you grow your own vegetables, you control the amount and the time when your food is sprayed – if you spray at all.

That’s my rant about storebought vegetables. But what can you do about it? While we have warm sunshine – I know, the sun hasn’t been around much this year – take a look at your yard and see where you can find a sunny patch to start a garden. Fence it off and dump unsprayed lawn clippings, rain-washed seaweed, a load of horse manure if you can get it, some wood chips, some straw and anything else organic that you can find. Make a big pile and leave it. That’s all you need do for now. In six to eight weeks, turn the pile to expose cooked compost and cover the outer stuff that hasn’t yet rotted. Turn the pile again around Thanksgiving and leave it for the winter. Next spring, rototill everything in and start planting. If you can keep the deer, rabbits, insects and caterpillars at bay, you should be able to harvest fresh vegetables at about this time next year.

Why not plant some blueberry bushes for next year too? I’m picking about a gallon of blueberries a day from six bushes in a harvest that has been extraordinary. The freezer is so full of blueberries that I might have to make jams and jellies to use them all. Plus, there’s the blackberry and grape harvest still to come. Our island soil seems to be just right for berry plants dating back to the days when the indigenous tribes came here to pick berries. Seems to me that if the soil is so favorable, we should plant our own berries to save food miles, enjoy really fresh fruit and eliminate pesticides.

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