Hal B. Klein
What To Do With a
If you drive forty minutes north from Pittsburgh on I-79, turn left off the highway exit into chain store suburbia, take another left into an old-growth suburban neighborhood, and then finally hang a right at near semi-rural housing, you’ll find yourself at Kretschmann Farm. Don and his wife Becky started farming their 80-plus acres in 1971, making theirs the oldest organic farm in western PA. On the day of my visit, the farm appeared inoperative: the barren fruit trees and solid layer of snow covering the rolling farmland inspired a desire for cross country skiing more than a desire for fresh-picked produce.
But all was not dormant. In a chilly corner of a nineteenth-century grey barn, Kretschmann and three
I visited the farm to witness the assembly of the box destined for the home of Sherrie Flick and Rick Schweikert, friends of mine who endeavor to eat local produce year-round. Their commitment to eating locally piqued my curiosity: it was in the middle of my second winter in Pittsburgh, and while I avoided purchasing tomatoes, peaches, and other foods shipped from a long distance because they didn’t taste exceptionally delicious, I still brought.
And is it worth it?
When I lived in Southern California the answer to this question was obvious: of course we should eat a year-round diet primarily consisting of locally grown foods. Gorging on a variety of delectable tomatoes until you’re sick of them, then eating so many other foods you forget tomatoes exist, and then spending the months of June and July anticipating their return is a marvelous cycle of seasonality; that first bite of a warm, sun-ripened August tomato is magical. Eating strawberries, then plums, then peaches, then raspberries, then apples, then persimmons and pomegranates, then citrus, and then cycling back to strawberries is a terrific way to live; just when you’ve started to lose interest in one fruit, another appears at the market. In California, the agreeable weather makes it easy to plan meals around a diverse diet of vegetables. I could always find fresh field greens in the market, and I never worried I would be faced with a shortage of other vegetables to take home. I read articles about how, as a society, we were causing ecological damage by demanding out-of-season foods shipped from all around the world, and would say to myself, “What a bunch of fools.
Why would anyone ever want to eat fruit shipped from South America? Why not just eat the fruit that’s at the market?”
In California the bounty of the markets never decreased; the colors simply shifted from red to blue to orange. There’s a reason the contemporary “Eat Local” movement got its start in California. It’s easy to be strident—or even flippant—about the local food movement when you have a bumper crop of avocados and Meyer lemons growing in your backyard. Bu as I stood in front of Don Kretschmann’s ingeniously constructed tunnel of rosemary, cold snow nipping at my nose, I thought, “What about Pennsylvania?” Was I wrong to so easily dismiss people as tasteless, selfish idiots if they bought a pint of blueberries in February?
“Eating Local,” but how many have
the commitment of Sherrie and Rick?
And is it worth it?
The concept of wanting to eat entirely from one’s local food system isn’t rooted in any historical reality. In “A Plea for Culinary Modernism,” historian Rachel Lauden points out that for over 2,000 years the ruling classes in China, India, and Rome spared no expense in importing spices from “the distant and mysterious Spice Islands.” Admittedly, for the majority of food history, the lion’s share of imported luxury goods went to the wealthy, but that’s just because they were the only ones who could afford it. However, by the late 1800s even those of lesser means had access to food from far-flung locales; thanks to technological innovations, canned food became widely available, and the rise of refrigeration vastly extended both the distance food could travel and the length of time it could be stored.
The current “back to the land” trend isn’t novel, either; part of the population reacted in a similar way to industrialization during the early period (1880-1920) of mass long-distance food shipping. Some people felt the world was changing too quickly and that by losing touch (literally) with the land, both our bodies and brains were becoming “soft.” Historian Susan Freidberg writes that people “romanticized pioneer days and rural living more generally.
They saw contemporary urban existence as both too complex and not challenging enough, and somehow cut off from real life.” Some of those who wanted to get back to the land did just that—they moved to the fertile valleys of California and started farming. Once they started farming, however, the practicalities of farming quickly wiped away any romantic, nostalgic desires. According to Freidberg, “Growers quickly adopted the latest technologies—
Hal B. Klein is a freelance food and drinks writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Hal writes a weekly drinks column, “On the Rocks,” for Pittsburgh City Paper, and his work has been seen in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, TABLE Magazine, The Inquisitive Eater, and Drink Me Magazinee. He contributes stories on food & the environment to The Allegheny Front, which airs on Pittsburgh’s NPR news station. Hal holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from Chatham University.