From Russia, With Vegetable Love

Part 1

Sometimes I go to the grocery store and get mad and start ranting about vegetables. Homebrew Husband thinks I’m silly when I do this, and pokes me if people start looking at me funny.

The thing is, the cost of vegetables at the market is often far out of proportion to the difficulty in growing them. Let’s take sunchokes. Sunchokes are a pernicious weed. They are a tasty, nutritious weed, I don’t deny this. But when those garden books say things like, “can be a touch aggressive” what they really mean is, “the only thing that’ll kill sunchokes is nuclear holocaust.”

And yet I see sunchokes sold at my local yuppie-hippie market for eight dollars a pound! That’s more than I pay for grass fed beef. Who comes up with this pricing?

On the other hand, there’s a part of me that thinks, “Good for that farmer. Way to get a teeny bit back on the system that kinda screws you with a measly 16 cents for every food dollar spent.” This is, by the way, the exact same feeling I have when I see really successful tribal casinos or outlet malls.

When most people see $8/lb sunchokes, what they probably think (after, “What the hell is a sunchoke?”) is likely, “Wow, that must be a really fancy vegetable, like chanterelle mushrooms or something.” But it’s not. It’s a native, easy-to-grow tuber, the kind of security crop you’d want on hand should the economy totally collapse. Sure, you’d fart a lot, but at least you’d have something to eat.

Growing your own vegetables gives you a far different perspective on crops. In my zone it is so ridiculously easy to grow leafy greens like chard and kale year-round that I become a little angry when I see a few sad looking leaves of Mexican chard being sold for $3.99 at the grocery store.

On the other hand, I know that I can dedicate half my garden to onions, cure what seems to be a ton of Copras for storage, and still manage to completely run out of onions by Christmas.

So when I see a 10 pound bag of perfect, tight-necked onions sold for a measly three dollars I am hit with staggering amazement. Like, how did they do that? How did they get so many onions, cured, cleaned and covered with unblemished layers of golden, parchment-thin wrapping leaves to this grocery store, for that price. They must have come on a truck, and trucks burns expensive fuel. Someone must have  sorted them and cleaned them, and cut their little roots off. They are even in a damned mesh bag – the kind that, properly marketed, you could probably sell for three bucks all by itself.

No really, how do they do that?

Part 2

When I was a kid I went to Russia for a few weeks as part of a school field trip. This was just after the Soviet Union dissolved, in the early 1990s. Things in Russia were…well, not like they were back home. As I recall, over the two weeks I was there, the ruble fell by about a third against the dollar. Imagine if you got a paycheck for $1000 and by the time you got your next one, two weeks later, the first was only worth $670 dollars.

I remember some of the touristy stuff: St. Basil’s Cathedral, The Bolshoi, Gorky Park (but only because of that song), the Hermitage, entombed Lenin.

Now, I was just a kid on a school trip, so I don’t claim to know anything about the socio-economic condition of Muscovites in 1992. But the things that really stick out at me were just brief glances into lives very different from my own suburban upbringing. The guy pissing on the building in plain view of, well, everyone. The smell of the middle school gymnasium. Puberty combined with volleyball, without the benefit of deodorant, is a memory-making thing.

I remember a lot about food, which is typical for me. Beets and cucumbers and beets and cucumbers made up some part of every meal we ate. The tea was served with clear, thin glasses that sat inside silver holders, and you had to put a spoon into the glass before you poured in the tea or else you might crack the glass. There were long lines of people waiting outside a dark store, hoping maybe they’d be able to buy a cabbage that day.

I wouldn’t say I saw people who outright looked like they were starving, but it felt like food choices were very limited. Again with the beets? Again with the cucumbers? We were instructed to bring tea and gum and Marlboros over in our luggage to tip and barter with. Chewing gum made people joyous. Fucking gum. Smokes were a currency. People took those seriously. People ate what they ate because that was what they could get. Preference or mood or voluntary dietary restrictions didn’t come into it.

It was an important education.

When I got home, I went with my mother to the local QFC. It was sometime after spring break, so maybe April. There were oranges. There were huge swaths of vegetables. There was so much fresh food encircling the produce section that you couldn’t focus on it all at the same time. It was like a paint palate where all the colors have run together and you have to focus to figure out where the red stops and the orange begins.

There were little plastic clamshells filled with strawberries. There was pineapple – great pyramids of pineapple surrounded by little decorative starfruit that served absolutely no purpose except to decorate the “tropical fruit” display of pineapple. There were beets and there were cucumbers, but only for those who chose them, who wanted them.

I felt like I was seeing food for the first time. In a film, it would have been one of the moments where the camera circles around the actor, faster and faster, until the background is a blur and everyone in the audience understands that we’ve just gone through the wormhole.

There was no ranting about chard.

Image: Wikipedia/ Evan-Amos
Being The Gatekeeper
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Comments

  1. Rant away – you’ve got our attention. And what do they REALLY do with all that food when it’s gone past prime ?

    • Exactly. My co-op food market has a fresh produce – food bank agreement, so they give the best of the “junk” to food insecure people I think. Many more industrial food places, grocery stores and restaurants, in this area are doing commercial compost separation, which is awesome. Costco, I know, composts any returned produce (I asked). But a huge amount is still just tipped into dumpsters. Sometimes compacting dumpsters.

  2. Oooh, I know exactly what you mean about the onions! And the chard. I SO get it. I often wonder the same things. And fresh beets, that are so easy to grow, how can they cost $1 a piece? Gosh, I practically have to throw them away. And kale, don’t get me started about kale. :D

  3. I went to Russia about the same time. One of the things I remember most is the lines. We started walking to the front of them just to see what the people were waiting to buy. In one line they were buying apples. I have thrown away better apples than the ones those people were waiting to buy.

  4. I think you should sit down and do the math on what it would take to purchase land, insure it, purchase required equipment ie truck, bins, washing materials, packaging materials, calculate your time, seed money and then tell me how much that chard or those sunchokes should cost.

    ie you have an acre of sunchokes it took x years to grow them and that whole time you paid on the land and the taxes, now you can harvest x amount per year which take x time. I would be very curious what you get for an answer for take home dollars per hour worked after expenses.

    • Hi C, you are certainly welcome to draw whatever conclusions you want from the juxtaposition of the two stories in this post. I left the wrap-up deliberately quite open ended. But I can say that nothing in this post was intended to be a suggestion that farmers are getting overpaid, what with the $1.28 they’d actually make from sunchokes sold to me for $8. Rather, it’s meant to highlight both that, when you grow food personally, the economy of food costs shifts for you, the consumer, while pointing out that our food distribution system, for all its many flaws, provides us with so much bounty we should all fall to our knees in awe and wonder every time we walk into a grocery store. I could really do on and on about this, and get into things like food waste and direct farm to consumer purchasing which are, to me, very related, but then this post would be back to 2000 words. :)

  5. Not only could you grow sunchokes and have a sure crop if the economy fails, but if the grid fails too, you could heat your house with the farts.

    But seriously, this was a great post, entertaining and informative.

  6. Wow, I just sat down to write a rant of sorts of my own about a conversation yesterday about the Hundred Mile diet – your post ties in perfectly actually. I’m assuming you have read Dmitry Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse – where he goes into what post-collapse Russia looks like. It’s a quick and entertaining read packed with poignant and relevant information.

    But it’s true – farmers will price what the market will bear (i. e. sunchokes) for specialty items, and those onions were probably mechanically harvested and/or use illegal migrant labor.

    How are your eyes doing?

    • I haven’t read that book but I’m going to go put it in my library hold queue right now, thanks for the suggestion. Eyes are back! Slow recovery but no second surgery, thankfully!

  7. My local co-op, bless their hearts, will happily sell you a $3 bunch of organic DANDELION GREENS trucked up from California. Rant away x 2.

  8. Have you read “The Wisdom of the Radish?” My friend, Lynda Hopkins, wrote it about her becoming a farmer after college with no experience growing anything. The title is based on her contemplating what she should charge for the food she grows. Definitely a good read.

  9. Oh rant on sister! I feel this way about tomatoes. Those beautiful ruby red nutrient rich ones we grew all summer long for pennies were delicious, and made many wonderful canned tomato items as well as salads and sandwiches. However, the ones sold at the store, for $6.99 a pound, are a like a faded old tomato. Barely in the red family of color. So in the colder months, when the garden isn’t producing us tomatoes, we do without. Hubs doesn’t enjoy the store bought ones because they just don’t compare to the ones we grow ourselves. If only they didn’t turn to mush in the freezer! I’d rather grow it myself, support a local farmer for what I can’t grow, and do without when it’s not in season.

    • We eat a lot more tomatoes in winter, but they all come out of the jars where I put them in the summer. :) It’s true – even in lame, no sun growing areas like Seattle, homegrown sun golds, etc. are a gift.

  10. Another excellent post…I’m a long time reader but not an often commenter :)

    I’m curious, do you think Sunchokes would work for animal food? What immediate reserach I did seemed to say you could treat them like potatoes, but also like water chesnuts? If it’s truly as vigorous as you say it may help us supplement our crops of Comfrey, Pumpkins and Beets.

    You see, we have a small farm in Olympia and are working towards the goal of a sustainable existence. I’m sure you know this but animal feed is the largest expense we face and also the one we have the least control over when purchased outside of our farm. I’m thinking the Sunchokes would work for the pigs, ducks and chickens but I’m not sure yet. Obviously, I’ll do more research but curious what your take on it is as well.

    Thanks!

    • Thanks for commenting! I would say you’d need to research how your pigs and poultry would do with the inulin carb in sunchokes. It’s a bit different as I understand it from the starch in potatoes, etc. but can be consumed (be people at least) raw, unlike taters. But from a biomass production, OMG yes. You can grow a big stand of them as a windbreak someplace sunny and then leave a few in the ground. The pigs might even harvest them for you in the fall – they can stay right in the ground in the Pac NW and they develop between the surface and maybe a foot down. I’d say look up the nutritional details, but I think your idea has serious merit.

      • I am pretty sure I read that sunchokes are a great food for pigs…they get to dig them up and they grow so well the animals never eat them all. It may have been in a Gene Logsdon book (The Contrary Farmer) or Joel Salatin but not sure. I use them for screening and my kids think the stalks make awesome swords.

        As for chard, I thought of it as a great perennial that was almost available year round until I got chickens!

        • Toni, I’ve been reading the same thing! At the rate our pigs are going through pasture and forest floor this could be kind of the perfect solution. I’ll have to see if I can find that book, I don’t think I’ve read in any Salatin books about sunchokes…I know he’s big on the pigaerators which we do use to turn our other animal’s beddings. I didn’t even think about the screening aspect…I like that!

          And thank you for responding Erica. It seems the inulin isn’t an issue from what I’ve been reading, and as a bonus, our goats and sheep can eat the tops…could this be the perfect food? So now for the real question…when do I put them in? I found a source but there doesn’t seem to be any documentation on when to plant, just all the different harvest windows. Would appreciate your insight especially since I think we’re in the same zone!

  11. I admit, I think just about all of Part 1 whenever I’m at the farmer’s market. On the one hand, you really want to root for local farmers to make a decent living. On the other hand, $3 for a pint of favas beans IN THEIR PODS!? Like seven pods, WTF? It really baffles me how prices are higher at Portland-area farmer’s markets (where the farmers are getting close to 100% of the profit, minus the market fees) than at New Seasons or Whole Foods (where presumably its closer to the 16% you mentioned.) This is where frugality runs headlong into values supporting local agriculture.

    And the cheapness of commodities, oy vey! Sometimes I look at the price of commodity dent corn (today $7.23 per bushel, or 56 lbs) and then look at the price of boutique artisan cornmeal ($5-6 per lb) and wonder why some of those commodity farmers don’t try to break into the direct-to-consumer market, with grain CSAs or bulk food clubs or somesuch. Surely there is money to be made in between those two extremes. Even at the rock bottom price of $1 per lb, you’d still be getting over seven times the commodity price. Go organic and charge $2/lb, and locavores would be overjoyed at the affordability of the product. Is the problem access to markets, creating new markets, infrastructure like small grain mills, lower yields of tasty heirloom varieties, more work for the farmer and labor costs, what?

    Re: Russia, I’ve heard apocryphal stories of Russian immigrants to the US fainting dead away upon seeing the produce sections of grocery stores. One lesson of the USSR collapse was the invaluability of access to small garden plots in preventing widespread malnutrition. Something like 50% of the population was supplementing their diet from such plots in the early 90s. Even when such gardens are not producing most of your raw calories, they provide important flavor diversity, micronutrients, and a buffer against complete starvation if regular food supplies are unexpectedly cut off. I think it was a point made in the Archdruid Report’s “70′s tech” essays a couple of years ago, if the situation ever arises where all you can afford to buy is the cheapest ConAgra flour and bulk pinto beans, a garden makes the difference between barely surviving on a nutrient-poor diet and thriving.

    • Great points. Definitely the subsidies work out for commodity crops and don’t for more vegetative crops. So it’s unbalanced, and knowing a teeny bit about processing, the organic farmer of dent corn might have to literally recreate a distribution system, because typically corn farmers harvest and sell to the grain elevator, and everything gets mixed together. Beef is the same way, actually. You raise your steer up on your ranch somewhere, then sell them to the feedlot and at that point it’s out of your hands – they all just get mixed in, fed the same fattener and run through the slaughtering plant. So to be the corn guy or the beef guy who doesn’t want to mix everything together with all the other corn or beef is, I think, logistically really hard. And the cheapness of the costs of those commodities is probably due in part to massive cost-sharing (and, again, subsidies) of that processing and distribution channel.

  12. My parents emigrated from the U.S.S.R. My fahter ended up workign for IBM and when they sponsored some Russian engineers, they had my father act as translator. He took them to an ordinary 1970s (so no fancy schmancy vegetables back then) Safeway and the men accused him of setting up a false store front to deceive them. When he took them to several other stores, some of the men cried at the abundance. On another not on Russia, when I went to stay with relatives, years later, I went to a Moscow restaurant. I was told the only vegetable they had was beets. When I pointed out that another table acrosss the room had cabbage, the waitress said, “It is easier to remember if I just tell everyone in my section that we have only beets.”

    • I am not surprised. I spent only two weeks in Russia, already KNEW what things were like back in the USA and nearly cried when I saw the abundance I returned to. If you had grown up with that scarcity it really would be like going through the wormhole.

  13. I have a feeling that federal subsidies feed into all of this. I’m ignorant as to exactly how, but it makes sense that corn (heavily subsidized) is going to be quite a lot cheaper than sunchokes (I doubt it’s subsidized at all – and probably not grown on any massive scale).

    It does make a person wonder how much we’d be paying for all that lovely produce shipped in from timbuktu if there were not federal subsidies – of course, the US might be in a more favorable financial position too… But again, that problem is way too large for the small amount of brain space I can dedicate to it. :)

    I loved your two-part post with your opposing (is that the right word?) viewpoints. It really made me think about all that we take for granted here, and I’m sure there is plenty more that I don’t even know to be thankful for.

  14. Homebrew Husband says:

    I had a colleague, a couple jobs ago, who emigrated from Poland a few decades back. Well it was 2008 and so we were sitting at our desks discussing the recession and how people were reacting to it. And she started talking about some of the shortages that she’d seen back in Poland. I don’t remember the exact phrase, but it was something like “well, there was a toilet paper shortage, people started hoarding, and that made it worse.”
    Right then I realized how easy it is to lose perspective. Because the one thing I hadn’t heard anyone wringing their hands about was the prospect of not having enough paper to wipe their ass in the morning.
    Perhaps not strictly speaking a food story, but one that stuck with me, and that I often remember as a lesson about just how many different realities there are out there.

  15. That was beautifully written, especially the second half :)

  16. When the Soviet Union collapsed, many thousands of small farms sprang up in Russia. They were fortunate to have Robert Rodale visit them in the 90′s, but sadly, he died in an auto accident there. The organic movement he promoted there has taken root and thrives everywhere now. I also had “food shock” after spending a summer working in the Caribbean, getting my groceries in dark, cramped, dirty little Chinese markets, buying leopard-spotted fruit, checking for larval holes in mangoes, then swooning upon my first trip into a SoCal supermarket, gawking and exclaiming at the surreal, completely unblemished fruit and produce on display, with wide, spotless aisles and brilliant bright light everywhere. I’m grateful for all we have, and I hope it will remain so abundant in the future.

  17. Thank you again Erica, your blog is by far my favorite.
    It is interesting how we the urban veggie grower value our veggies vs. the supermarket….not to even touch on impoverished nations.
    For me, beets are the HARDEST to grow. I live in Portland and for reasons I do not understand I cannot grow a good crop of beets to save my life. But tomato’s and cucumbers I can grow with abandon. Thanks again for sharing your insight!

  18. I was wondering, sunchokes! hum, what are they? Never heard of them. Then I googled them and Jerusalem artichokes came out and I was aha, I know this. :) They call them topinambour here in Italy and they are expensive too but luckily I found a local farmer who grows them and sells them very cheap because people here do not know them and mistake them for ginger roots! . I just bought a bagful of them for about 1 Euro!

    Again, what a spot on post as always. Thank you so much and please do rant on, I’d join you to for support :)

    • I just thought to share this with you to know how easy it is for you guys. I grew up in a north African country that was ruled by a crazy maniac. He turned the rich country into a Communist experiment. In the 80s he banned all private sectors and opened up those Russian style government -run outlets. There were queues everywhere and shortage of everything. Chocolate, banana, all kind of fruits and veggies not grown in the country just disappear. So, lots of young kids grew up never seeing a banana in their lives. According to my sister, as I left the country long time before this, when the rules were relaxed in the 90s and banana was available, some kids were frightened from it. Others, according to my sister (actually it was her son) when were given a banana, they peeled it, throw the banana and ate the peel! When she told me that, I broke down in tears.

  19. Re sun chokes: years ago I planted a small bed of them in unimproved soil in front of the travel trailer where my diabetic Mom spent some weeks every summer. I put them there because I had been warned how invasive they were. They struggled for a few years and then DIED out. No nuclear holocaust was involved. Re onions: I wonder about that too! They don’t do well for me, and they are on the list of foods that are safe even when not organic. I would gladly pay the farmer more.
    Re Russia: You might enjoy the work of Dmitri Orlov. Visit http://cluborlov.com or find his TED talk. He has some interesting observations on parallels between Russia anno 1990 and the USA now.

  20. I grew up in Russia during 1990 and remember most of produce “deficit” very well. Someone mentioned “plots of land” (dacha) that helped to substitute most of the calories…When sugar (and meat and butter and cheese) was rationed, we didn’t use our monthly allowance of sugar and kept it until “preserve” season starts to preserve for winter jams, etc from our dacha…On a positive side, since there was no junk food available, I never got used to it and just snack on apples/pear like before. Other wonderful things include: I know how to grow/preserve fruit/veggies and taught my American husband and my best friend said she is coming to my house in case of nuclear war since we can feed ourself from our garden (also, my husband hunts to). Great post! p.s. I wish we can grow kale all year long in CO!

  21. Nice blog. The details and accuracy are spot-on.

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