Thursday, April 9, 2009

One Garden at a Time

In order to inspire more blog topics (and to reconnect with the reasons for my interest with local eating in the first place), I’ve been re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Today in my re-read, I was reminded of one of the many reasons I’m interested in being a locavore: biodiversity.

When you eat locally, you tend to frequent the farmer’s markets, which are populated by smaller farmers that don’t depend on a monoculture like larger, agribusiness outfits. You also tend to try new foods that you haven’t before, since vegetables and fruits are generally sold when they’re in season, a few at a time - and narrowed options make you more adventurous.

This year, for example, after a long period of potatoes, turnips, and a few leeks, I found the spinach pretty much irresistible when it started coming in. I’ve never eaten very much spinach at all, but I quickly found a few uses for it. My two favorites are a frittata (I make a few changes to this recipe – more on that in a later blog) and this fantastic soup that managed to make both spinach and white beans palatable to me (no small feat!). I also tried out some Swiss chard, but didn’t care much for it so far. I’ll try it again sometime – but not any day soon.

Now we all know from health class that we should eat a variety of foods, but apart from making us healthy, we’re supporting biodiversity in agriculture when we do so. As a people we’re becoming more and more dependent on very few plant species, as agribusiness farms grow in size and raise large quantities of the small group of crops that store or travel well. Anyone that recalls the potato famine from history class can see the inherent risk in such a system. But a slower, more pervasive risk lies in nutrition: the compounds that make foods nutritious and flavorful are the very things that shorten their shelf life. By breeding in longevity, we’re breeding out nutrition.

I’d forgotten to give it much thought until today, but I’d wanted to make my own modest contribution to biodiversity in my tiny little garden. Unfortunately, I’ve already picked up nearly all the seeds I’ll have room for, and at Wal-Mart, no less: Burpee products. But given that Ms. Kingsolver was kind enough to remind me today of the Seed Savers Exchange, I thought I’d nip in and buy the two remaining things I failed to pick up.

Apparently, even when you order from the seemingly-ideal Johnny’s Selected Seeds, even heirloom breeds, you are for the most part buying products from companies like Monsanto. But Seed Savers is a non-profit seed bank that preserves heirloom breeds, and you can buy packets of their many varieties right on their site. (You can also find instructions for saving your own seeds, which is of course how heirlooms were preserved in the first place.) Today I got myself some Greek oregano and some heirloom carrots, but I wish I’d thought to look at the lettuce before sending in my order. There are over 30 different varieties, and I surely could have squeezed one or two more into my little garden!

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