Many of us just don't have the time to drive out to a u-pick farm and get our own produce. So how does the organic produce trend affect us when we walk into the supermarket? Well, it's starting to become more apparent. Wegman's, a supermarket chain in Western and Central New York, has redesigned their produce sections to highlight these farms. Heirloom vegetables are displayed prominently, with descriptions of their heritage and flavor. Local produce is displayed in its own area, complete with a picture of the farmer who grew the vegetables. Ultimately, it comes down to quality. By having locally grown produce in our markets, we are getting the best of the harvest right then and there, not what was picked and shipped a week ago and still isn't ripe.
One other benefit to us is something we don't get at the market—environmental peace of mind. When we patronize an organic farmer we are doing what the bumper sticker says: "Think globally, act locally". We are helping our own local environment stay clear of groundwater and air pollution and helping foster the survival of native species. I'll bet you didn't think buying a head of lettuce could do that, and it's easier than separating plastic from aluminum.
The most important difference for many of us is the price. Why is organic produce so much more expensive and is it justified? A lot has to do with perception. Organic produce is more expensive for several reasons. First, it is more labor intensive. You can't just go out and spray for weeds and bugs. You have to take the time and try to eliminate the temptation for the bug (weak, stressed plants) and you have to remove the weeds by hand. That's a lot of labor when you have 300 acres planted.
Second, we are comparing Granny Smith apples to Golden Delicious (pardon the metaphor). Let's compare two cases of Romaine lettuce, one organic and one commercial. Both contain 24 heads, both cost pretty much the same per case. But the commercial case weighs more, hence a lower price per pound. But why does the commercial case weigh more? Because the heads are allowed to grow larger. So? you say. In a commercial case of Romaine the heads must be packed into the case very tightly. This will bruise the outer leaves. Also, the vegetable itself is very high in water content. Because the lettuce is older (having grown longer), the leaves are not as tender.
When you buy a head of commercial lettuce, you end up trimming off the bruised and tough outer leaves before you can eat it. Now compare that head of Romaine to an organically grown, tender, flavorful product with no bruised leaves to discard. When you make the comparison now, the price difference is negligible. And finally, one more reason organics are more expensive—because it is marketed as a premium product compared to the same old regular produce (just like gasoline).
About the Author
Joe LaVilla originally hails from Rochester, in western New York State. Deciding to forgo his love of food, Joe pursued a degree in chemistry from Cornell University. After obtaining his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from the Univ. Of Rochester, he gave in to the inevitable and returned to his culinary calling. A graduate with honors of the Culinary Institute of America, Joe has worked in Manhattan, Washington, D.C. And at Spago in Las Vegas before settling in Phoenix, where he is currently working in off-premise catering. His excellent article "The Nuances of Cooking with Wine: Answers to Common Questions" appeared in the November 1997 issue of The electronic Gourmet Guide.
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