What Smells Ripe?

Field Notices
     local produce
From Luther College Chips
October 11, 2007

   For those of you who believe in fruit and vegetables, the salad bar in the cafeteria presents you with an endless summer.  The mixed baby greens, carrots, broccoli, and tomatoes are always ripe.

    Never mind that tender greens and tomatoes ripen best at different seasons.  And never mind that endless summer is banked in endless mounds of ice.

    In this Northeast Iowa climate of definite seasons, people mostly eat fresh produce from warmer and more steady climes: California, Florida, and Mexico.  If the grapes in their brown plastic crock displayed their point of origin label it might very well be Chile.  The apple on your tray may bear a plastic stamp that reads “New Zealand.”

    In other words, though they have no legs and no passport, the fruits and veggies in your diet are better traveled than you are.

    The American illusion of endless summer is fueled by a food industry that must treat gasoline and electricity like they too are endless, a food industry that selects its apples and tomatoes less by taste than by their ability to be—here it goes—picked early, travel across a continent or a globe without bruising, hold their blush for days and weeks in gassed and refrigerated darkness, and glow attractively with the right color when they are, at last, artfully stacked in your local supermarket case or salad bar.

    I invite you sample an alternative food industry by nosing your way to a place that gives you a better food clue to the season in Decorah, Iowa.

    On Saturday mornings (8-11) and Wednesday afternoons (3-6) through October, and starting again in May, Decorah area growers hold a farmer’s market.  Under a small village of awnings and nylon canopies, whether the sunshine is warm or the wind is spitting rain, whatever is ripe in this corner of the Driftless is heaped in baskets and boxes for you to buy, admire, or smell.

    The tomatoes that crowded tables and bins there in August have disappeared.  The morel mushrooms that showed up briefly in late May are a distant memory.  What’s on offer now has the distinct smell and flavor of the local fall: Kennebec potatoes, delicata squashes, ears of popcorn, heads of green or burgundy cabbage, bags of Haralson apples, and an autumn rainbow of kale.

    If these local characters sound unfamiliar, you haven’t completed your Luther orientation.

    But you might recognize some of the growers standing on the opposite side of the produce table.  Perry Halse, whose day job is keeping Luther’s flowerbeds attractive, stands with home-baked apple pies on one side and ears of Indian corn on the other.  Cindy Ballard, who keeps Main clean during the week, greets you as the market manager on Saturday morning.  Kristine Kopperud Jepsen, who crafts and manages the words on the luther.edu website, sells grass-fed beef, pork, and fryers.

    Barb Kraus, whose husband Kevin lectures you on genetics, treats you to the finest fruits of selective breeding with her green vegetables and farm-fresh eggs.  Merl Steines, whose wife Cindy keeps the salad bar stocked, stands relaxed behind a table of potatoes and racks of squashes.

    The last handful of beautiful pears I bought from a table at the market were placed beneath a ballpoint-ink sign that read, “5 for $1.00.  No Sprays!”

    What happens if you buy a bag of autumn pears or apples from one of these growers?  Your $5 goes immediately back into the Decorah economy.  The largest percentage possible goes to the farmer, the farm family, and the farm that grew your fruit. 

    What happens when you put your food five-spot into the non-alternative economy?  Mr. Lincoln pays for a lot of Gulf States crude oil, imperceptibly nudges the NYSE share price of a commodity corporation owned by nobody in particular, and gives pennies to the laborers and the farm soil that produced your crop.

    Reward yourself with a stroll to a place where your nose can find out what ripeness smells like in October in Decorah.  It’s not the smell of summer.  And it’s not endless.  But both of those qualities make it absolutely delicious!