by Dave Straub, Cordata Produce Department
Since the 1980s Mike and Kimberly Finger have been growing organic produce at Cedarville Farm in Everson. Mike says the barn pictured above was used for a small dairy and guesses that it dates back to the 1940s or ’50s. “I imagine this was a classic gentleman’s/small family farm of the early- or mid-century that raised a few crops, livestock, and poultry,” said Mike.
Summertime is in full bloom and the produce department is the place to be. Right now is the apex of abundance in our local agricultural community and we all reap the benefits of the fresh selection. Besides being delicious, a trip to check out the Co-op’s plentiful summer produce selection can be a fun, engaging experience. Next time you’re picking out some fresh Farmer Direct fruit to munch on, or some crispy locally grown greens for your dinner salad, think about how you’re participating in our rich local history.
When the first homesteaders arrived in Whatcom and Skagit counties they discovered a fertile land teeming with biodiversity. The resourceful Coastal Salish Indians subsisted largely on the bounty of their environment by fishing, hunting, and foraging, leaving the land mostly uncultivated. Therefore, those first courageous farmers, equipped with their wits and a few old tools, broke virgin soil and began to prosper. Immigrants from the Old and New Worlds and others seeking new land during the Dust Bowl were all looking for a fresh start and found a veritable Eden.
“agriculture is thriving in our verdant corner of the world”
Generations later, agriculture is thriving in our verdant corner of the world and many of the local organic farmers today are descended directly from those men and women who came here long ago. Even those without an ancestral claim still possess the same spirit to work hard and be responsible stewards of this land. It is a local heritage we are proud of at the Co-op and we in the produce department are excited to be a part of it.
One of the reasons I love my job is that I get to work in an ever-changing landscape of bright nourishing colors. There is always something new to eat and learn about. In fact, the produce department houses from 200 to 300 different items at any given time. Because of this, it can be a daunting place with its constantly shifting supply and strange lexicon of certifications and symbols. Luckily, there is a helpful staff on hand who are enthusiastic about produce and agriculture. Between the Downtown and Cordata stores there are 17 members of the produce team with more than 100 cumulative years of experience! (A quarter of these years belong to the lovely Jill Brubaker alone, woot!) And that is only counting years spent working at the Co-op. Many members of our team previously worked in local agriculture, are gardening hobbyists, and are accomplished cooks. Feel free to chat with one of us about any of your produce-related questions. There are still a few first-years learning the ropes, but don’t doubt their willingness and ability to help.
“the produce department houses from 200 to 300 different items at any given time”
If you choose to fly solo on your produce journey, let me illuminate some of the signposts which will help guide your decisions along the way.
USDA Certified Organic—In produce the easiest way to tell if an item is organic or conventional is to look at the color of the price sign. All organic items have green signs, while orange denotes conventional. White and red Co-op Essentials signs indicate sale items and will be clearly labeled organic or conventional. When in doubt, simply ask a nearby clerk.
Many people consider “organic” the most important thing to look for when buying produce. It means there was no sewage, irradiation, genetically modified organisms, chemical fertilizers, or chemical pesticides used in the farming and processing of the food item. Also, it was not exposed to any contaminates along the way. This means the whole food system, from seed to our shelves, has been declared organic by a third-party certifier. Yes, even our produce departments have been certified organic!
Besides being good for your health, people choose organic because it’s socially and environmentally good for our community. It is believed that unlike the destructive practices of factory-scale conventional farms, organic farming improves soil and water quality, improves biodiversity and pollinator health, reduces toxic chemical exposure, and is even good for the economy. Organic farms are interested in functioning holistically within their environment, and that’s good for everyone.
Transitional—When a conventional farm wants to become a certified organic farm they must first use organic practices for three years before they can be officially certified. Produce labeled “Transitional” was grown with organic methods, and we hope you will join us in supporting transitional farms while they strive to meet USDA Certified Organic standards.
Local—To the best of our ability we highlight the origin of each item, whether it’s a country, Washington state, or a farm down the road. Items labeled “Local” originated in Whatcom, Skagit, or Island counties. When you buy local you are guaranteeing the freshness of your food. You are buying from your hardworking neighbors and investing in your local economy. Next time you’re in, check out the “What’s Local Now” display for a full rundown of local farms and the produce they offer.
Farmer Direct—Farmer Direct produce is grown in Washington state (outside of Whatcom, Skagit, and Island counties) and harvested, packed, and delivered directly to the Co-op by the people who farm it. This minimizes the travel time and maximizes how long fruit can ripen on the tree. So when you sink your teeth into a Farmer Direct peach this summer, it will be the juiciest and most flavorful peach possible.
Now you are equipped with the tools to fully enjoy your adventures in produce. I truly believe our dynamic corner of the world is the best place to enjoy nature’s bounty and right now it’s at its most delicious. Remember to play hard this summer, and when you get hungry visit the Co-op produce department and experience all we have to offer.