Cravings: Buying local brings just-picked produce to your table

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Pittsburgh is a city full of farmers. Farm markets are everywhere, from the North Side to the East End to the South Hills, in parks and in parking lots and on street corners and even on the steps of the City-County Building, Downtown.

John Beale and John Heller, Post-Gazette photos
Jillian Stein, 4, from Point Breeze, smiles from behind some basil at the East Liberty market.
Click photo for larger image.

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To hear Post-Gazette food editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith talking about her family's farm and farm stands, click on the links:

Family farm
Farm stands

At many, you can buy almost everything you need to assemble a healthy delicious dinner, from pork and beef raised in the open air, to freshly baked bread, to strawberries and lettuce and beans and greens and tomatoes and corn that was picked just a few hours earlier. And more often than not, the person standing behind the folding table owns the farm your dinner is coming from, or is a family member of someone who does.

And that's why, during the growing season, you should forget all about strawberries and peaches and lettuce and beans and corn from California, Florida, Mexico, Chile -- or anyplace other than right here in Western Pennsylvania. Because we've got it all.

We've got so many markets in Pittsburgh, in fact, that we were ranked first in the nation last year in farmer's markets and community gardens per capita in a survey by SustainLane.com, an online resource for urban sustainability (with 206 school and community gardens, the city alone has one garden for every 1,600 people). As a result, Sierra Club named Pittsburgh the country's "most unlikely foodie haven" in its current (July/August 2006) issue.

If you're inclined, we're a great place to try the 100 Mile Diet, which a couple from Vancouver began in 2005 as an experiment to see what it would be like to eat and drink only from sources within 100 miles of their home as a way to reconnect with the food, local farmers, the seasons and the landscape.

To find your 100-mile "foodshed" -- you know, like a watershed but for food sources -- get more tips for eating locally and read about the couple's experiment, go to www.100milediet.org.

Now, I'll tell you upfront that when it comes to farms and farmers markets, I'm completely biased. As in, I'm completely, unabashedly pro. My family has owned and operated the same farm in Independence, Beaver County, where we specialize in peaches, berries, tomatoes and other vegetables, since 1787. We've run a farm market there for decades and sold our fruit and vegetables for many years in Coraopolis.

My husband and I now run farm stands at the East Liberty farmers market on Mondays and the new Saturday market in Sewickley (or will as soon as our tomatoes start kicking in) that started last year and is continuing this summer.

We started running the stands three years ago after I decided to raise 250 heirloom tomato plants in our spare bedroom in Shadyside as a diversion from wedding planning. It was gray and dreary March outside, while inside I was contemplating elopement to escape the various petty stresses of planning The Big Day. Gardening is relaxing, I thought. I love heirloom tomatoes. I'll raise a bunch.


Organic snap peas from Bluebird Farms at the East Liberty farmers market
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Art King of Harvest Valley Farms, Valencia, arranges produce at the East Liberty farmers market.
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Four months later, after we had planted the seedlings at the farm, those plants had become burgeoning monsters about to bear an invasion of tomatoes that we'd never be able to sell through our market there. So we bought a pop-up tent, packed our battered red Grand Am with crates of homegrown peaches and just-picked blackberries and juicy heirloom tomatoes, and set up at the East Liberty market on Mondays, which at that time was my day off from my regular job as a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

It was the most fun you could have on a Monday. At first, shoppers were skeptical of us newcomers, but within a few weeks we had regulars, folks I soon recognized week after week. They oohed and ahhed over our peaches and stood in line under the hot sun to get their share.

I loved how delighted they were at the taste of our stuff, how surprised they were by the taste of a real peach, a peach that my dad or uncle had tended -- pruning several thousand trees by themselves, thinning hundreds of thousands of unneeded peaches by hand, guarding against pests and praying against freeze, drought and hail -- for six months, and had picked just hours before.

Or how they grabbed samples from a tomato that I had raised in my spare room from a tiny seed, sweated over to plant and water and fertilize and hoe and stake and pick and wash, now become a ripe, meaty feast that would make any corporate grocery store tomato blanch in shame. And then they bought a bagful to take home.

And that's why, from May to November, you should shop your local farmers market first, and adapt your meals to what's locally available in season.

The produce there is fresher than anything you'll find at even the most chichi of grocery stores, where almost everything is still picked an average of seven to 14 days in advance and trucked or flown in from fields across the country -- or often, in a different country. And the fresher it is, the more nutritious it is, as many vitamins and minerals begin to fade as soon as a fruit or vegetable has been picked. A study by Penn State, for instance, showed that spinach packaged and stored at proper temperatures declines in nutrient value within seven to 10 days from harvest.

If your lettuce or corn or beans have been picked the morning you buy them, though, those nutrients are preserved for you and your family to eat. It's almost as good as having a garden of your own.

By buying locally, you also tend to support practices that are healthier for the environment than those used by most agricultural corporations. Although many local farmers are not certified organic because of the cost (about $600 a year), meticulous record-keeping and yearly inspections that are required, many do follow sustainable farming practices.


Strawberries from Harvest Valley Farms, at the East Liberty market
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Mary Ann Fulks sniffs some heliotrope at the East Liberty market.
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They apply compost to build up their soil and mulch to keep down weeds. They rotate crops from one field to another each year to keep soil from being depleted by one type of plant for too long, and to keep insects and diseases from breeding successive generations on the plants they tend to prey on. They try to avoid the use of chemical insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertilizers.

They keep their cows, pigs, lambs and chickens out on grassy pasture instead of stuck inside on a cement floor in a narrow pen, and they don't feed them the hormones to make them grow faster or the antibiotics to prevent diseases that are used by mainstream livestock farmers -- hormones that end up in your body and can cause reproductive problems, and antibiotics that contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

And if you want to know about their farming practices, you're buying from these folks face-to-face, so you can ask all about them.

Even farmers who do use traditional sprays try to use as little as possible, and try to use the least toxic materials, both for their own health and to reduce the amount of money spent on costly chemicals -- and unlike organic produce shipped in from California or Argentina, they didn't consume hundreds of gallons of jet or diesel fuel and then produce tons of exhaust to bring it to you.

If you're like most people in North America, each ingredient in your dinner tonight will have traveled an average of 1,500 miles from the farm to your table. And diesel-driven semi-trailers, the main means of transportation for most produce, give off 3.7 pounds of greenhouse gas per mile -- about 5,500 pounds, or nearly 11/2 tons per one-way trip -- in their exhaust, according to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

In many cases, you're also supporting family-owned and operated businesses, some of which have grandparents, parents and children all working together to make the business succeed, from pulling weeds to baking bread to selling you the ingredients for tonight's dinner and a week's worth of lunches. Those people behind the counter -- some of whom you can meet in our miniprofiles in the accompanying story -- ften are the same ones who planted and tended and picked the produce you're buying, or who birthed and fed and cared for the animals that produced the pork chops or beef roast or leg of lamb you're about to enjoy.

They run small businesses that employ others in the area, and will employ even more as demand for their products grows. They work day jobs to make ends meet, many of them, in addition to raising kids or grandkids and tending the fields and going to market. And yet they farm because they have to, because there's nothing they love better than growing things and making things, and making people happy with what they grew and made.

The farmers and bakers and flower-sellers and all the other vendors at your local market thrive on offering the best of favorite products but also always trying new things, exciting their customers with the unexpected and the unique -- a purple potato or a flat peach or a new supersweet variety of corn, a skein of wool dyed rose pink or a pie made with an entirely new combination of berries, chocolate and cream. Something to try, something to experiment with, in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colors, flavors, scents and sounds.

And that's maybe the best thing about shopping at a farmers market -- the sense that everyone there really wants to please you, wants to bring you beautiful gladioli or dewy raspberries or a strange new variety of squash and watch you marvel at your discovery. They're excited when you walk over, even just to sample a scoop of salsa or a dollop of jam. And because they want to please you, they get to know you a little, and you get to know them a little. And that's a community. Your community.


Bumbleberry pie from Sand Hill Berries of Mount Pleasant, also at the East Liberty market
Click photo for larger image.

Food editor Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.


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