Farming, the Food Supply, and Reality

The disconnect between consumers and the food supply can be extremely stark, and sometimes I’m reminded of it in jarring ways, as when a woman at a conference smugly informed me that discussions about seasonal availability of produce weren’t ‘realistic’ because her grocery store stocks lettuce 365 days a year. Confronting this mismatch between reality—actual reality, not the ‘reality’ induced in the minds of consumers by hothouse produce flown in from South America—and fantasy can be difficult, especially when it involves forcing consumers to adjust to the fact that some of their favourite foods may not be sustainable or ethical, let alone in season.

Farmers are often tasked with the responsibility for this. They’re told they should be reaching out, educating consumers more, and talking more about these issues. The problem is that they are, and consumers aren’t listening. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that grocery stores work with distributors who fill availability gaps with imported produce, and few grocers distinguish between local and imported, let alone post information about seasonal availability. Consumers can ignore the messages from farmers because, hey, their grocery stores carry lettuce 365 days a year, so farmers talking about lettuce gaps or the fact that cold season crops can’t be grown in the summer are clearly just wrong.

Consumers also aren’t listening because they don’t want to hear it. They want things to be available year round and they don’t want to hear about the cost because they don’t want to become culpable for it. In California, for example, consumers expect avocados throughout the year and they expect them to be reasonably cheap and of good quality. This is simply not realistic; California avocados are only in season part of the year, which means distributors have to source them from elsewhere when they aren’t in season. And in some years, there are problems with the crops that have a negative impact on quality and cost. When people see high-priced avocados, or a sign noting a shortage, or buy fruit which doesn’t taste good, they complain about the store and the farmers.

Rather than examining their own expectations and asking why they’re demanding a fruit that is not in season and which in some cases may need to be trucked across substantial differences. The bulk of the California avocado crop is grown in Southern California, which means that guacamole-loving Northern Californians are expecting fresh, flavourful produce in and out of season even though it might be trucked across hundreds of miles to get to them. And they take it as a personal affront when their expectations can’t be met.

Consumers scream that farmers need to educate them more. Farmers say that they’re trying, and consumers aren’t listening. Few people are talking about the middlemen who enable the education gap, and how they play a role in where information goes and who pays attention to it. If grocery stores, for example, had a seasonal produce section, consumers could learn what’s in season and when. The store might choose to carry produce out of season, but consumers would know it’s out of season, because it wouldn’t be displayed with things that were. This could result in a radical shift in how consumers think about produce availability.

Likewise, prominently displaying local produce and talking about the source would be a significant benefit. Some stores are starting to do this because they want to capitalise on the locavore movement and they know consumers are starting to think about this issue, but this is about more than encouraging people to buy local. Such displays can also encourage people to buy in season, to show people that seasonal produce is better for the environment and the community, and tastes better; tomato-haters, for example, often haven’t had an in-season tomato picked off the vine at peak ripeness. They’ve had tomatoes picked green and gassed on their way to the grocery store, and these flavourless nuggets of foulness are what they think tomatoes taste and feel like.

Distributors, too, need to be more accountable. Clearly listing seasonal produce separately can help stores understand the reality of what is in season and what is not. Providing signs for stores to explain pricing to consumers also isn’t a terrible idea; rather than trying to mask the fact that seasons exist and influence produce availability, stores could highlight it. Why not discuss the fact that persimmons come in during late fall, for instance? Why not celebrate seasonal availability instead of pretending it’s not an issue, and turn it into an asset instead of a failing? Distributors could also point out that pricing is variable across seasons because of the increased cost of growing out of season, something that might encourage consumers to buy in season to save money.

Consumers attempting to evade responsibility for their demands need to face reality, and the reality is that produce has seasons, and those seasons limit availability, just as the climate limits the kinds of produce that can be grown. If people want to buy exotic produce and things grown out of season, that’s fine, but they should be ready to pay a price for it, and they shouldn’t blame farmers for their refusal to acknowledge the limits placed on farming. And they shouldn’t yell at advocates who are trying to bridge the divide between farmers and consumers, to provide information about these issues so that people can make educated choices about what they want to eat, where, and when. Because pretending reality doesn’t exist doesn’t actually make it go away.