Saturday, June 23, 2007

The farmer's market, carbon footprints, ugly tomatoes

Carbon Footprints

"When you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer to the fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractor, harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it."

-Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma

We are about to see a huge trend in favor of locally grown, small farm, organic foods. For decades, these trends have existed in the subculture, but they are about to go mainstream.

Why? First, Al Gore's movie made a lot of people care, not only about global warming, but also of the concept of the "carbon footprint." The idea is that we each contribute to global warming, not only by driving a car, but also by buying products that have to be transported long distances. Americans have the biggest carbon footprints because we consume so many goods that have to be transported from all over the world.

Second, others like Michael Pollan, have begun to expose just how much petroleum is used to make our "industrialized foods" -- especially the packaged food goods that show up on the center aisles of the supermarket.

As a result of all this talk, more and more Americans are going to start eating more foods that are grown without petroleum products, and are not transported very far.

Farmer's Markets

I became particularly interested in these trends last week when I was listening to something like the "militant vegetarian show" on KPFT. A guest from Vermont said his family spent an entire year reducing their carbon footprint by eating only foods from local farmer's markets. He talked about how it changed their lives; how the food was better; and how they began to feel a real bond with the people who grew their food.

So I decided I should try the Bayou City Farmer's Market in the Greenway Plaza area (about a mile from my house). When I arrived, I was immediately shamed. As I drove into the lot with my big sports car, I was blocked by a pack of 50 or 60 bicyclist. As I was consuming gas at 14 mpg, they were reducing their carbon footprints by traveling to the market on people power. I tried to park in the back and sneak in a side entrance.

The market felt like a street festival. There was a jazz singer. Some "green" electric company was passing out fliers. Some people were selling cookies. Others were selling soap. But about half the stands were actually selling what I came for -- local produce.

I had several impressions about the produce. First, most farmers did not bring much. The average stand seemed to have about 10 bunches of herbs, 20 or 30 tomatoes, and a few exotic vegetables.

Second, the produce was inevitably ugly. Especially the tomatoes. Most of the heirloom tomatoes seemed to have cancer-like growths, deep blackened cracks, or both. At one stand, I selected three of the ugliest tomatoes. The vendor pointed at one and said, "this one is no good. You might want to get another." Since they all looked equally ugly, I don't know how she could tell.

Third, some of the produce was quite unusual. In addition to the ugly tomatoes, I bought a strange mix of greens, some Chinese long beans, and a rare variety of micro basil.

Market food, ugly tomatoes, and an epiphany

At home, I stir fried the long beans with some other ingredients from my pantry. As I began eating my delicious stir fry, I worried again about my carbon footprint. My stir fry had bacon from the Mid West, jarred mushrooms from California, red bell peppers from Bulgaria, soy sauce from the Philipines, peppercorns from India, cooking wine from China, and sesame oil from Mexico. I can't even count the number of planes and ships and trucks that were needed to bring me my all-natural, mostly organic, nearly vegetarian lunch.

The long beans tasted great, but thinking about my effect on the environment was dizzying. Worrying about the carbon footprint can ruin the whole experience of eating. The whole farmer's market ethic was just making me guilty.

Then I chopped up one of the ugly local tomatoes and sprinkled on the micro basil (adding some Italian balsamic vinegar, French salt, Indian pepper, and Italian cheese).

As I took my first bite, I had an epiphany. This was one of the best tasting tomatoes I had ever had. And the micro basil also was pretty outstanding -- much more flavorful than the giant, perfectly manicured basil you get at the supermarket.

At that moment, I realized that maybe, just maybe, when someone loves gardening so much that they grow a few handfuls of tomatoes and basil, drive them over to the farmer's market, and spend their whole morning selling about $50 worth of produce, maybe they are doing it out of love. Maybe that food is going to taste a lot better. And maybe what I tasted in that tomato and basil was a lot of attention and caring. Not greed. Not money. And not a lot of petroleum products.

I would drive a long way for food like that. Fortunately, this farmer's market is just down the street.


Unknown said...

The Economist has a good article on the subject, including some rather provocative claims. Specifically:
Another surprising finding was that a shift towards a local food system, and away from a supermarket-based food system, with its central distribution depots, lean supply chains and big, full trucks, might actually increase the number of food-vehicle miles being travelled locally, because things would move around in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.

Anonymous said...

Long time lurker, first time commenter here.....Just out of curiosity, what do you think of the Farmer's Market in the Onion Creek parking lot on Saturday mornings? And as long as I'm mentioning the Heights area, what do you think of the quality of the produce at Canino's Market?

anonymouseater said...

Scott -- Great article. The Economist usually is smarter than everyone else. There really are a lot of inefficiencies in farmer's markets, just as there are inefficiencies in a lot of recycling. The only argument for farmer's markets that has convinced me so far is that much of the produce is better than the stuff that corporations like Con Agra produce.

Jana - Welcome. I have heard about the Onion Creek market, but haven't been there yet. To me, Canino's seems to have a lot of supermarket-like produce, but there are occasionally some good finds. For the most part, it does not seem like a small-producer farmer's market such as the one on Eastside and the one at T'afia.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I visited the other two farmer's markets (besides the Bayou City Market) for the first time this weekend. I wasn't very impressed with either. I thought the Bayou City Market was small, but it's a lot bigger than the other two. I used to live in Portland, OR, and their farmer's market was amazing, so I was spoiled. I was also surprised how everyone in the Houston farmer's markets seemed to use plastic bags and much if not most of the produce did not appear to be organic. Anyone else (who has experienced other cities' farmer's markets) feel the same way?

Interesting theory posed in the Economist article, btw, I'll have to read that one.

Unknown said...

I just moved from Houston to Northern California and have noticed that both the quality and quantity of farmers markets is much higher in Nor Cal. However, you must also consider that northern california and the pacific northwest (mostly because of their climates) have much more agriculture going on. I have found Robert's experience to be true though: the produce looks much worse but usually tastes much better.

Unknown said...

Its really nice to see many people in Houston concerned about consuming only local produce. I have been to the Bayou City farmer's market at Greenway (again, just a mile from my place) and was disappointed to find very less produce, compared to other farmer's markets. Even the one at Onion Creek/Rice univ. doesnt carry huge quantities. So though these places are good to savour the freshness of fruits and veggies, they are not a reliable source of weekly groceries. But I do not want to give up the hope on the farmer's market scene in Houston, so I am going to check out the Central City co-op and hopefully I find a place where I can buy my weekly (or even bi-weekly) produce regularly.
On another note, it would also be fun to do something about this situation (atleast in our area), and find a practical solution. Like a group of people get together, (or take turns) and visit some farms on weekends and buy produce in bulk and share costs. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Hi Folks -

I'm part of one of the musical acts that plays at the Bayou City Farmer's Market. I can tell you that the produce, like the music is indeed locally and organically grown - even the healthy looking stuff! The organization that runs it is Urban Harvest. They give all kinds of free classes on backyard gardening, horticulture, and sponsor several after school gardening programs. They've been in that location about three years, and are growing more and more. Today there are about 40 vendors - I'll be playing this Saturday AM - stop by and I'll sing you a verse of Guy Clarke's "Homegrown Tomatoes". Have a nice cup of Katz's Fair Trade coffee and have a seat in the covered listening area!

If you want to see some pictures of the market, stop by my website at

I'm glad you foundn sokething to like abo thteh market - support it and it will grow along with you!

TC Smythe
of said...

This won't succeed in reality, that is exactly what I think.