As a Wednesday morning farm hand at Common Thread all of our harvesting is intended for the Thursday farmer’s markets in Clinton and Fayetteville. Because this food is going right to market, the farmhands are fairly strict about the appearance of the produce. For example, I have spent the last few weeks harvesting onions, beets, radishes and turnips. With each plant you harvest you must insure that the root/bulb is unblemished and the yellow/wilting leaves are removed, leaving the foliage green and lush. I strolled through the farmers market yesterday and stopped at the Common Thread table. I was astonished at how clean and well-presented all the produce was. Farmers must put an incredible amount of effort into making their food visually appealing in order for people to purchase it.
It is quite obvious why farmers have to be so selective; consumers tend to buy produce that looks ideal. They expect produced to be clean and well-shapen, with no hint that the food they are eating used to be under the dirty, insect-laden soil (sorry if that got a little graphic).
For example, on my family farm we grow garlic for wholesale retail to restaurants. After we pull the garlic out of the ground we rub the bulb with our hands to remove any excess dirt and then put the garlic into storage to cure. When we ship out the garlic it still looks very dirty, but restaurants hardly care because they are aiming for optimal taste, not appearance. On the other hand, when you see garlic in a grocery store or farmers market, the garlic has been extensively cleaned until it is nearly pure white. If you weren’t garlic savvy you would have no idea that the garlic bulb was at one time under the soil. (I’m going to let you guys in on a little secret. Cleaning garlic until it becomes white is actually bad for the garlic. It requires you to remove several layers of skin from the bulb. Much like onions, removing the skins will diminish the storage capabilities of the garlic and spoil the taste.)
I believe this expectation of cleanliness is a reflection on how food is perceived by modern society. Recently there has been a strong resurgence of communities trying to reclaim the food they eat, i.e. buying local/organic food rather than industrial food. Though this societal shift provides consumers with the answer to ‘where’ their food comes from, it doesn’t educate people about ‘how’ their food goes from field to table. Food is judged based on appearance largely because consumers don’t know any better. A wilting leaf or a slight blemish will do nothing to alter the taste of a vegetable, but the consumer views these as negative attributes because they are used to the industrial ‘perfection’ of produce. In my opinion, America needs to rediscover that dirt is not a contaminant. A dirty vegetable is a delicious vegetable; it doesn’t have to sparkle.
This is entirely my opinion. Feel free to follow up with your own ideas.