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The low-hanging fruit

(post, Joan Menefee)

Environmentalists have been talking plenty about low-hanging fruit recently. Get the cherries knee-high to a grasshopper. Snag that kiwi as its belly kisses the dandelions. Think user-friendly. Think access. 

In an election year eating is one thing, perhaps the only thing, Republicans and Democrats have in common.

“It’s the corn subsidies, stupid,” today’s James Carville-wannabe might say.

At Menomonie Market Food Cooperative, my co-op, they stick labels on everything from apples to ginger to potatoes to beer, showing the item's state of origin and sometimes its farm or producer, too. These labels have wised me up to my place in the food chain. 

I know my purchases mean something to the farmers in my neighborhood, because I’ve watched the unthinkable happen: my favorite munchies vanishing for lack of consumer love. Cave Creek Creamery folded last fall, taking its rich beautiful vanilla yogurt with it. 

Wendell Berry was right: Paying peanuts for food has made consumers stingy. And too often, we can’t see who we’re cutting off.

Naturally, then, I was ready and willing to take Menomonie Market’s month-long “Eat Local Challenge,” which began on August 15. The timing of the challenge is no accident. Pick the low-hanging fruit, darn it!  

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Joan drew a big circle around Menomonie on her eat-local map."]

In late August and September, northwestern Wisconsin is rife with tomatoes, corn, and beans. Garlic, spinach, leeks, cipollini onions, and muskmelons make their fragrances and forms known. In other words, it’s not that hard to eat local in late summer. 

Yet truth to tell, I’ve struggled. In fact, I failed on the very first day, because I accepted a lunch offer from a colleague and only belatedly realized that eating out is almost by definition eating in utter ignorance. 

Stubbornly, I trudged on. With a homemade compass, my husband drew a 100-mile radius around Menomonie to give me a visual sense of our foodshed. We concluded that though there was plenty of fertile ground nearby, much of it has been swept into the maelstrom of monoculture. 

This means that in addition to forgoing bananas, I found few milled grains. We got bread from Minneapolis (70 miles to the west) and breakfast cereal from Rochester, Minnesota (65 miles southwest), but no crackers. Even the bread and cereal are part of a game of hide-and-seek, since I am confident that the grains these companies process are purchased from regional consortiums, some of them well over 100 miles away. 

On the dairy and meat fronts, things were brighter. Our milk comes from Crystal Ball Farms in Osceola, Wisconsin (60 miles to the west). Stretching the 100-mile radius just a tish, we got butter and cream from Organic Valley, the largest organic agricultural co-op in the nation, in Lafarge, Wisconsin. And plenty of cheese, natch, from Elmwood, Spring Valley, and Westby. 

Look at the map, and you’ll see we were legit when it came to grilling, too. We have chorizo and ground bison and free-range chicken from Beaver Creek and Augusta, east of us.  

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my husband and I each took a coffee-and-chocolate exemption. Shade-grown and fair trade, yes, but no, not a bit local.

Our apples, though, were local. We harvested them in about 10 minutes on a sunny afternoon as we chatted about books and dogs with the friend whose tree we raided. The small waxy russet fruits were laughably easy to pick.
As I was slicing them up that evening, I noticed white segmented larvae, about the size of a fingernail paring, rearing up in dark galleries that ran through the apple flesh. What had started out as a large box of apples quickly diminished into a scant gallon. This, I snorted, was the low-hanging fruit. 

Not one to shrink before grubs, I sweetened the unwormy apples with homemade maple syrup and left them to stew overnight in a slow cooker. As we spread local butter on our Minneapolis bread, we recalled the  generous tree and felt good about the old foodshed. The worms, after all, were small. And who could begrudge them a bit of apply goodness?

I’d love to conclude with this feel-good moment, but I can’t. Despite those apples, eating local is not the low-hanging fruit it should be in the fertile and gorgeous region I live in. I am not hopeless, but I am chastened. I respect all the more the people who ate local year-round two generations ago. 

And I realize, again, that rebuilding our food economy will be hard work. Even spending 10 percent of my food dollar on the local foodshed, I have learned, will bring thousands into the local economy. So that is my new resolution. I’m going to start climbing the tree.

reference-image, l