I got into a conversation with a coworker a few weeks back about how hard it was to be a vegetable farmer here in the US. I think being a farmer of anything anywhere is a tough, round the clock, un-glorified job, but having been a small scale produce farmer for a few years I know firsthand that market farming vegetables is demanding.
To say the least. There are lots of reasons for that, but the main two reasons that I have identified are these: One: here in the US we aren’t used to paying the actual cost for our groceries. The true price of most of the food we consume is hidden behind government subsidies of crops like corn, rice and wheat; and the fact that most farm workers - immigrant or not - are not paid a living wage for their work. This goes a long way to keeping our grocery bills low, but doesn’t reflect the true cost of what it takes to produce the food. So that when a someone is strolling through a farmer’s market and sees the price of a farmer’s heirloom tomatoes, they might gasp. Because that tomato is priced to make that small scale farmer a living wage, which increases the price of the produce dramatically. But many people don’t buy it because they think that it costs too much.
The other main reason why I think makes it hard to be a farmer here is that we also have a ridiculously high standard for the aesthetics of our fruits and vegetables. Is that green bell pepper slightly asymmetrical? Get it out of here. Forked carrots? No way? The list goes on. Grocery stores are like New York’s fashion week: the produce section is full of fruit and vegetable models. And just like in our species where people with model-like bodies are the exception and not the rule, fruits and vegetables have natural variability in what they look like. Not every carrot can be 10 inches long and perfectly tapered. I am going to be honest: the tomatillos that I grow and love in my garden never look a huge as the ones I see at Gerbes. Heck, I eat kale with holes in it daily.
I think having a frank conversation with new gardeners about what to expect from their first garden is always a good idea. I am always trying to give a very affirming reality check. For example: invariably, folks want to plant broccoli in their garden, which I am here to support but I feel that it is only fair to let them in the reality of growing one or two broccoli plants in the springtime here in Central Missouri.
Growing broccoli in the spring here is tough, you might not be successful, and if you are successful you won’t be overloaded with broccoli, in the spectrum of plant productivity, broccoli ranks pretty low on the list. Also, it needs fertilizer, no two ways about, and if you aren’t comfortable with putting fertilizer on your garden- even an organic one- you might want to pre-tell yourself that you will get a small head of broccoli. But the thing is: that is fine. Its going to taste the same. Sure, it might not look like what you see in the grocery store, but hey you grew it yourself! It came from your yard. You tended it through that hail storm, watered it that week in April where it hovered around 70 all week. You picked the destructive caterpillars off of its leaves. Man, you loved that broccoli. So, even when all is said and done, and maybe the broccoli head doesn’t look like the cover of a Better Homes and Garden magazine, isn’t the fact that you loved it and nurtured it and ate it with your family the most important?
That concept is like the distilled essence of my campaign to get all of Columbia gardening: don’t compare the stuff you grow in your garden to anything else. If you do that, you’re missing the whole point of gardening in this day in age: which is to sink deeper into the joys of what life is, to do something that is deeply fulfilling, even if the fruits of your labor aren’t instagramable. You know what I mean? Like, the fact that I can traipse out to my back yard right this second, dig up some green onions, pluck some spinach, go inside and make a salad feels incredible. Who cares if the spinach has holes in it or that the tips of the green onions are yellow? The gratification of growing something, of being productive, or being of outside and meeting the neighbors is what gardening today should be about.
Of course, I didn’t always feel pride in my slightly misshapen garden produce. Growing cucumbers for a number of years really went a long way in teaching me that there is no such thing as a garden vegetable that is too ugly. Many times, the conditions that cause irregular formations of fruits or vegetables are out of your control, or more precisely, they are controllable but the extent that you would have to go through to get perfectly symmetrical produce would be unrealistic. An example of this is our native soil and carrots. Carrots don’t grow well in our clayey soil of central Missouri. But you could change that if you incorporated tons and tons of compost and sand into your garden to create a completely different soil structure than what is in natural in these parts. I guess you could do that, but really, are you doing to? Probably not. My cucumber learning curve is a somewhat similar situation- in that environmental conditions caused my cucumbers to be misshapen. Many times my cucumber vines would spit out weirdly shaped cucumbers. They kind of looked like a fat letter “J”. The top was fine, but the blossom end was puny and curled up.
I learned that that is a consequence of incomplete pollination of the flower. As we all know bees are facing some dire straits right now, a story that I already knew, but that my cucumbers reaffirmed. I guess all I can do is plant more native flowers in my yard in hopes of doing my part to conserve these vital pollinators. While at first I was slightly embarrassed to share my weird looking cucumbers with friends and family, learning the underlying cause turned the situation into something wholly different: my cucumbers shouldn’t be scorned: they’re proof that we need to be more diligent in protecting and conserving the invertebrate pollinators all around us. There is nothing like a wonky cucumber to put a human in its place.
Gardening is a controlling undertaking: I am going to make sure that this one type of plant grows in this spot, and will make sure that nothing invades this area; but we can’t control everything, which is evidenced by crooked carrots, misshapen cucumbers, and lumpy beets. And at the end of the day, my weird cucumbers were a lesson in humility. But also in letting the small things go. Like, does it matter? Sure the pollinators matter- that is a real issue we are facing, but does an ugly cucumber matter? No, the cucumber tastes great. So if you grow your first garden this year and harvest some alternative looking fruits and vegetables, don’t get down on your skills! That is a fact of gardening and farming: do not be deceived by the produce section of the supermarket. What you pull out of your garden is more normal than what you see on the produce shelves.
Embrace the sweet potatoes with holes! The chard leaves with purple streaks, and the heirloom tomatoes with seriously cracked shoulders! When you are in your kitchen cut the bad parts of, and you know what? Whatever dish you cook with them is going to taste, and feel marvelous.
If you want to learn more about what the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture does, visit our website. Happy gardening!
Carrie Hargrove is the Director of Urban Farming at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture.