Each year between September and January the question of “what to grow” must be asked and answered by growers everywhere. This is the time of year when seeds are carefully saved, seed catalogs are perused and garden plans begin to be sketched out for the following year.
Asking and answering the question of what to grow necessarily means also answering the question of what not to grow, i.e. “what to buy” the following year with the answer being – everything else.
Wendell Berry spoke eloquently on the consumer side of agriculture with his often cited quote, “Eaters must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” So this answer to “what to buy” is in many ways, just as important as what we chose grow.
Consumers are considering this question of the provenance of our food more often today and answering it from a variety of perspectives such as the locally-seasonally available movements to reduce food miles like the 100 Mile Diet (and its many variations), the Fair Trade movement and the certified organic movement. We are setting personal standards and restrictions on what we can and will purchase.
Though it doesn’t have a name or a label, another way to look at growing vs. purchasing locally from other growers vs. purchasing locally after being transported from across the globe is to consider the water content. Fruits and vegetables in particular have incredibly high water content and shipping this water across the world with fossil fuels comes at enormous environmental impact.
Foods that are high in water content are highly perishable so the varieties grown are selected for their ability to withstand the journey, not for their flavor or nutrition. The perpetual summer these commercially grown and shipped varieties create in our grocery stores crowds out consumer demand for locally grown produce when it is in season, impacting the number of US family farmers that can make a living growing food.
So which foods make a great planned buying list? Outside of locally grown fruits and vegetables, purchased from local farmers when they are in season, buying dried foods which are light and unlikely to be damaged in transport compared to high-water foods helps keep local farmers farming and reduces the need to ship water from one part of the globe to another. Rice, wheat, oats and other grains as well as beans, lentils and pasta are all high in nutrition, lightweight compared to water heavy fruits and vegetables, have a long shelf-life and the water gets added by you when you are ready to use them.
A few months ago I wanted to try making a dal fry (a Punjabi lentil dish) and found this great crock pot recipe for toovar dal fry over at The Novice Housewife which I made with only one modification – I added the tomatoes at the end of cooking the dish, not the beginning.
The dal fry was fantastic and I wanted to investigate growing lentils myself. I quickly learned that the lentils used in the dish cannot be grown in my humid area so were not a candidate for future garden plans, but since they are a dried and nutritious food as well as being delicious, dal fry will remain on my menu.