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Some thoughts on the occasion of harvesting my first-ever peach

 
Dan Boone
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Apologies for the pretentious title. I'm really excited to have just picked the first fruit from trees I planted myself:



Actually this is the second peach from this tree; the first one was too heavy and broke its twig off the tree several days ago, while still hard green. I ripened it in a paper sack on my counter top and ate it yesterday; it was OK but clearly "picked" too soon. This one I "picked" this morning was in the same boat. It busted the juvenile twig it grew on; I think it needs one more day and it's currently in my paper sack waiting for tomorrow. But this one has color and yields slightly to the touch; it's very close to ripe.

The tree I planted in March of 2014; it was a Walmart potted tree that a very good friend bought me as a gift. Last year I kept it mulched and watered, but the deer ate on it every couple of weeks. It threw up a ton of new growth but got eaten back at least five different times. This year it flowered heavily and matured about half a dozen fruit, and is growing lots more new foliage that hasn't (so far) been browsed.

As you can see in the photo, the peach is pretty but imperfect. It has quite a number of small spots of very minor bug damage. I don't spray anything, so this is hardly surprising. But as I was showing it off proudly to various people who humored me by acting suitably impressed, I was struck by the difference in how I value a piece of imperfect fruit or produce that I've grown myself, versus how I value imperfect fruit or produce that's offered for sale. Because, obviously, a commercial orchardist would consider my lovely peach to be completely unmarketable and valueless, as would almost anybody shopping for fruit in just about any context. If offered for sale, it would not sell. Nobody but me would ever value my lightly-nibbled peach.

A couple of tangents and divergences to explain why this is on my mind.

A while back I watched the documentary "Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story" on MSNBC:



Quite a bit of the movie involves a discussion with a grower who does farmers markets and with various grocers, about the problem of imperfect produce. Nobody wants it, nobody will buy it, there's no good way to discount it, and so enormous amounts of it get thrown away. As I was watching, I realized "That's me, too. If I'm paying good money for store fruit and veg, I am going to buy the best-looking ones on the shelf, every time. I will buy discounted stuff (some grocers in my area will shrink-wrap the wrinkly stuff and mark it down heavily) but only if the markdown is very substantial and I have a "cook it today" plan for it.

The contrast, of course, is that I'm a novice gardener, and so every piece of produce I successfully grow that's even remotely edible, I eat with considerable gusto and excitement. I don't mind trimming bad or unsightly bits away, and I don't mind at all if my stuff has cosmetic damage from bugs or whatever.

So why will I cheerfully eat my own, but I won't touch ugly store/market stuff unless the economic incentive is really huge? Is this hypocritical?

I've been pondering that on and off for several weeks now.

Then, this morning, I was puttering around my garden and listening to one of Diego's Permaculture Voices podcasts, I think it was this one. There was a bit in the middle when the farmer (Nigel Walker) and Diego discussed Nigel's courage at putting some imperfect greens in his CSA boxes. The greens were wonderful in every way except for some tiny holes from something called a flea beetle. Nigel talked about how they were utterly unmarketable in any conventional way, but he felt he'd trained his CSA customers to understand his reasoning, and if a couple of them were offended by the imperfection, his implication was that he was happy enough to lose their business and replace them with customers who appreciate his values. All very sensible, but it reminded me of the proposition that even tiny imperfections render produce almost worthless in the marketplace.

And then I picked my first peach, lovely but imperfect. Why do I so value this peach, when honestly I'd pass it over in the bin at the store, looking for one without the little bug bites and the quarter-inch divot?

Thinking it over, I think the answer boils down to two things: an information asymmetry, and our weary experience of being endlessly screwed when buying industrial-ag produce at supermarkets.

First the information asymmetry: I know everything about my peach. I know what I sprayed on it (nothing), I know what chemical fertilizers were used (none), I know who peed on the roots (me and my dogs), I know what the deer look like that tried to kill the tree last year, I know what the soil it's planted in smells and tastes and feels like. I know that peach. I know it's a good peach, even before I taste it, unless I find a larva buried in it, and even then I'll probably cut away the tunnel part and eat the rest. I also know I put a lot of effort into that peach, and of course we value what we're invested in.

Whereas in the supermarket, I know nothing good about the peaches. All I know is that they are harder than they should be, and that they've come a long way and were produced using enormous amounts of petroleum and petrochemicals. I am not inclined to give these supermarket peaches the benefit of the doubt -- and I have a lot of doubt.

That's the second thing: buying produce at the store (it can be better at farmers markets, but I don't have access to a good one currently) is a never-ending exercise in getting screwed and regretting my purchases. Produce from the store may look good, but way too often it's flavorless, has a bad texture, is crunchy or mushy or bland. Astonishingly often, the item that looks great in the store has used up all of its storage leeway, so it goes bad in the first three days once you get it home. Nine times out of ten (I sometimes think) the store produce turns out to be unfit for human consumption, or so flavorless or ill-textured that consuming it is not a joy. "Anything to make a turd" goes the motto, and too often, we're lucky to get even that for our supermarket produce money. Eventually we come to feel like Charlie Brown playing football with Lucy:



In some produce categories (for me tomatoes are the worst!) I've just come to feel abused every time I make a purchasing decision. I know the produce will be a disappointment, but I buy it anyway, because I've got to eat, and produce is a big part of a healthy diet. And then -- as expected -- the produce has a bad texture or a disappointing flavor or a poor shelf life or a nasty wax coating or some other defect.

A lifetime of shopping like this has left me both suspicious and value-conscious when I buy produce. I carefully inspect everything and reject the smallest blemish, because there's a whole bin to pick from and if I'm going to get screwed again buying low-quality produce, I want the best bit of it I can find.

Upon reflection, then, I don't think that I am a hypocrite. I think there are good reasons for being skeptical of market produce, and thus for giving way too much weight to the only criteria we can easily see (physical perfection and imperfection). And there are equally good reasons for being willing to quite cheerfully eat the substandard imperfect "ugly" produce that we grow ourselves. Guaranteed freshness and the surety that the item was grown to our standards profoundly trumps visual standards! But visual standards are too-frequently the only thing we have to go on, when we go into a big-box store to buy the produce of industrial agriculture. That's what we have, so that's what we use.

What do y'all think?
 
William Bronson
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We just watched The Fruit Hunters.In it actor Bill Pullman expresses similar sentiments about his own home grown fruit.
 
Dan Boone
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William, I found a two-minute trailer of that movie, it looks like fun!

 
Dan Boone
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Update: I've now picked three of the five peaches this little tree set this year. Two of them were good and one of them had four fast little larvae (Oriental fruit moth maybe?) living large next to the pit, eating and pooping and turning everything mushy and brown. It's no surprise; my state's cooperative extension says that backyard peach production is essentially impossible here due to the extensive regime of pesticide spraying that you "need". I'm just happy to be getting some good ones.
 
Roberta Wilkinson
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I can relate.

I have such a relationship with the food that we grow here, that I find grocery store produce almost repulsive - even the organic stuff. I buy the occasional green thing still in winter (hopefully we'll be putting enough of a surplus in the freezer soon that that will be a non-issue), and bulk organic fruit in season from Azure, but just going into grocery stores is enough to make me mad anymore.

It's to the point where I know my family thinks I'm a little crazy because I won't, "Just go to the store," if we don't have something on hand. I feel like I'm the only sane person in the world sometimes, when I'm willing to acknowledge that, say, eggplant, isn't in season right now, and just EAT SOMETHING ELSE instead of buying crappy ones flown in from Mexico or wherever.

I happily dig out grubs, pare off brown spots, even carve slugs out of the hearts of cabbages, and am confident that this flawed produce is still of better overall quality than what we could get in the store. Then there's the stuff you couldn't buy in the store if you wanted to: lambs quarters are by far our tastiest, most distinctive green here, but they're too delicate to be sold in plastic clamshell containers a week after being picked. The native trailing blackberries, when properly ripened, have made me stop in my tracks and moan involuntarily in pleasure, but they won't tolerate regular cultivation. This stuff grows wild and is free for the taking.

This has been a slow process. I grew up in Alaska in a second-generation convenience food family, so climate and culture conspired to keep me from eating anything really, actually fresh, other than game, for a long time. Now I just wish I could snap my fingers and enlighten others, because watching them happily eat garbage drives me crazy.

 
John Master
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I was at a raw milk hearing in Madison and a friendly guy who sat next to me gave me an apple he had grown. As I walked out disgusted at the sham I had just witnessed I ate the apple and was never more excited to see a worm when I got to the core.
 
Mike Feddersen
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For two years I hauled trash from transfer stations in the metro Phoenix area. One day as I was waiting to get my 48 foot trailer tipped on the tipper a load of lettuce was being dumped. I think the load had been a Swift trucking trailer, the product had gotten frozen a bit wilting the outside leaves. It had been offered to the Phoenix Zoo which turned it down, "Not good enough to sell, but you expect our animals to eat it?"

I planted white peach trees from seeds. I too, was very proud of my imperfect fruits. The birds, mainly sparrows are worse than the bugs.
 
Blake Wheeler
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Roberta Wilkinson wrote:
It's to the point where I know my family thinks I'm a little crazy because I won't, "Just go to the store," if we don't have something on hand. I feel like I'm the only sane person in the world sometimes, when I'm willing to acknowledge that, say, eggplant, isn't in season right now, and just EAT SOMETHING ELSE instead of buying crappy ones flown in from Mexico or wherever.

....confident that this flawed produce is still of better overall quality than what we could get in the store.


Amen! It baffles me how people can buy certain things in the middle of winter then wonder why it tastes terrible or has no flavor at all. I've never had produce from the supermarket that holds a candle to something I grew, and I'm not a master gardener by any stretch of the imagination.

I honestly believe the problem is people have no good example for comparison. There's no supermarket equivalent that can match a homegrown tomato, fresh from the stalk corn, or a pear ripened to perfection on the tree. The product may be prettier, but what it makes up for in appearance it sacrifices in flavor.
 
Eric Hammond
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I can't help but think cutting and drying fruits and selling the dried fruits is the way to market this product. The consumer won't see the imperfections and dried fruit commands a high value. Not to mention stores longer. If you could build a solar dehydrator and have little energy overhead you could make quite a profit on your imperfect fruit
 
Dan Boone
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I do in fact plan to cut and dry any surplus peaches I may have in the future, possibly after first making some preserves and freezing some for cobblers and such. Diced dried peaches would be an excellent replacement for the raisins I'm currently purchasing for my morning oatmeal; I would need rather a lot of them stored up before I started worrying about selling the surplus.

(Unlike a lot of folks on here I'm not primarily motivated by the hope of producing cash crops. My focus is on improving the quality and security of the food supply for myself and the people around me.)

Finally tally from the five peaches that set on that tree: One fell green and I ate it after countertop ripening, one ripened perfectly on the tree and I ate it standing there in my orchard area, two were hopelessly infested with maggots at the pit that filled the fruit with brown waste, and one vanished mysteriously and was not harvested. I'm a long way from worrying about peach surpluses!
 
Miles Flansburg
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Dan, I wonder if you could cover the trees, or just the fruit with some sort of fine mesh or cloth to keep the moths out?

 
Judith Browning
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Dan Boone wrote:Update: I've now picked three of the five peaches this little tree set this year. Two of them were good and one of them had four fast little larvae (Oriental fruit moth maybe?) living large next to the pit, eating and pooping and turning everything mushy and brown. It's no surprise; my state's cooperative extension says that backyard peach production is essentially impossible here due to the extensive regime of pesticide spraying that you "need". I'm just happy to be getting some good ones.


I think, probably curculio....the method I use to prevent is time consuming but when I remember to do it early, it seems to work. Starting at first bloom, knock the tree (just by hand, not a stick or anything)...preferably with a sheet underneath to catch and then kill them. You have to continue to do this until the fruit set is visible. They lay their eggs that early. I've done this without the sheet as it's hard to spread it over the things that I have growing under the trees.
for a few years I coated yellow paste board with tangle foot (someone gave me a quart of it that lasted years). I would hang a couple in each tree and catch things....I was never good at ID ing them though but I think that helped also...occasionally there would be a curculio stuck.
I also use deep ashes against the trunk of the tree to prevent/deter borers. Sometimes I smear it all up the trunk when the ashes are wet.....picking up the fallen fruit helps with brown rot, although in a really wet summer it's just gonna happen.
This year I didn't do anything to the trees, I haven't even picked up fallen fruit....we'll see how big a disaster the crop is.....
 
John Wolfram
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The whole discussion of consumers' demand for perfect fruits and vegetables brings up an interesting question of "how well is permaculture able to meet that demand?" My initial response to that question would probably be: not very.

Doing a thought exercise, I would image a perfect poly-culture around Dan's peach tree. It's so diverse that there isn't even another peach tree for miles, and there are loads of beneficial plants and animals around the tree. Even in this perfect situation, there are going to be some pest insects on the tree. Yes, their numbers will be kept in check by predators, but there will be some. Imaging that there are just, on average, three pest insects/birds on the tree each day and each one of the insects/birds bites or damages just three fruits per day that would mean ~90 days from bloom to harvest then there's a good chance that 80-90% of the fruit will be bug bitten (some fruits get bit more than once). Next there's fungus. Of course the good practices will help keep the fungus in check, but some of the fruit will still be blemished (but very edible).
 
I agree. Here's the link: https://richsoil.com/wood-heat.jsp
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