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Permaculture: Uniformity versus Diversity

Posted 12/26/2007 9:07am by Leaf Myczack.

One of the main characteristics of commercial food production is the quest for uniform appearance of product. Taste and nutrition it seems, play a secondary role for the suppliers of mega-sized food outlets. American shoppers have been conditioned to judge food by appearance alone. No matter what type of produce you look at, the impression is that fruits and vegetables come blemish free, have uniform color and size, and grow year round. Lost is a sense of seasonality and product diversity.

The real foods movement began in California over 40 years ago and started with peaches. A small family farm grew an hierloom peach as its' primary crop. Tasty and quite delicious, the peach had one aspect that hurt it commercially. It seems that where the fruit was shaded by contact with the tree leaves, it would not produce the same color as the rest of the exposed to the sun peach skin. It in no way affected the taste of the peach, it only affected the color of the peach skin. Because each peach was slightly different in color from the others, it was rejected by wholesale food buyers who wanted a product with a uniform color. Fortunately a woman with more brains, vision, and taste buds than these corporate food suppliers, came to the rescue and began a local foods movement based out of her restaurant. The rest is history.

A garden or orchard is a collection of micro-climates; more sun here, more shade over there, more soil moisture here, a little drier there, soil composition slightly different throughout. As a result, plants have slight variations, even those growing next to each other of the same varieties. A prime example is purple top turnips. We grow a lot of turnips each Fall from seed we saved from the previous Spring. Our customers remark how wonderful and sweet they taste. The turnips come in many shapes and sizes. Some are round like balls, while others are long and more cylindrical. Others are more squat and flatish. All are tasty and nutritious. Most would never make it to the super-market shelf because of this hodge podge of shapes and some superficial blemishes.

Eggs are another example. We do not grade our eggs by size or color. When you open a box of our eggs, your eyes will be greeted by a diversity of shapes and shell coloration. This is because we have many different breeds of hens, although even within the same breed there can be great diversity in color and shape. Again our customers return again and again because of the wholesome taste of our farm fresh eggs. However, we have lost some business because we couldn't supply uniformly large eggs, or folks couldn't get past the multi-colors (shades of brown, and green) of the egg shells.

Uniformity of color or shape comes with a high environmental cost. Sprays, food dyes, and food waste are employed liberally in order to get the desired results. Perfectly good food is rejected, not because it is inherently inferior, but because it "doesn't look right."

The "Eat Local" food movement has addressed this issue through the advent of small organic growers like us who provide the customer with the same quality food that we eat. When you know who grows your food, and how it was grown, the need for uniformity of appearance seems irrelevant at best. Diversity is not something to be avoided, but embraced. Our customers are a diverse segment of our community, and for that we are grateful.

-Farmer Leaf