A better strawberry

Photo by SusieFoodie (Susie Wyshak) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I just finished reading Tracie McMillan’s wonderful book, The American Way of Eating. (If you’re unfamiliar with it, check out my earlier post, and then pick up a copy!)

To honor the occasion, I thought I’d feature an earlier piece of writing from McMillan that also addresses issues of farming, agricultural workers, and produce distribution. Her piece for Saveur (also available as a PDF) last summer profiles Jim Cochran and Swanton Berry Farm. As McMillan writes, the rise of organic strawberry farming as a viable business enterprise wasn’t a sure thing a few decades ago:

It was flavor that ended up being the key to growing organic strawberries—a feat considered impossible back in the early 1980s, when Cochran was working as the business manager for a cooperative of strawberry farms. Every day, he drove south from his home in Santa Cruz to the Salinas Valley, where he helped small growers, most of them Mexican immigrants, compete against industrial farms. The farmers he worked with relied heavily on toxic fumigants, like the now-banned methyl bromide, which killed off the fungi, insects, and weeds that are particularly problematic in strawberry growing. Until the use of fumigants became widespread, in the 1960s, commercial berry production required crop rotations so diverse that they made industrial-scale growing impossible. Fumigants fueled the berry industry’s boom in the ’60s, and they were adopted on farms of all sizes.

For the details on how Cochran’s farm developed a different model—and became the first unionized organic farm in the United States—check out McMillan’s full article. Then, for a bit more on Swanton Berry Farm, check out this article from Patrick Connors for the Rodale Institute (Cochran: “I’m not out to tell other farmers what they should be doing, but I do want to show them that it can be done”). Finally, head to this recent piece from NPR for a look at the psychology of honor-system payments at Swanton and other self-serve farm stands.


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