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Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Country Farm Ripoff: Don't Believe It's Homemade

Buyer beware. That supposedly homemade, authentic jelly you bought off the shelf at Grandma's Organic Farm might be as fake as the 62nd flavor variation of Pop Tarts. 

September brings the cultural shift from the beaches or mountain lakes to the country farms, as thoughts turn to leaves turning and the harvest of crops.  So when you start thinking about apple picking or pear picking or digging through dirt for potatoes, you might be at risk.

Risk of being ripped off!

For the cosmopolitan readers out there whose idea of "the country" is the Sheep Meadow of Central Park, the closest you might come to sensing the seasonal shift is the replacement of lemonade offerings with "pumpkin spice"-infused beverages. (I am waiting to see the first "pumpkin wine" or even worse, the first pumpkin-flavored scotch. Blasphemy!)

Country farms in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic are not the huge behemoths you see in the Great Plains, the South or even California. These outfits depend on multiple revenue streams to survive. One of those revenue streams is the production and sale of canned goods like jellies, jams, sauces, pie fillings, pies and other baked goods, and other items.

Many of these goods sound like they're natural, authentic, homemade, any title that will get you thinking of warm apple pie, warm apple cider and slathering your toast with weird jams.

Most of it is pure hogwash.  Here are some tips.

One: Consider the crops the farm actually grows before buying any canned goods. Look at the ingredients on any can or package. The most common ingredient you will see is white grape juice. Pumpkin butter doesn't contain much pumpkin, but a whole lot of white grape concentrate. And sugar. Are you at a white grape farm? I doubt it. Any grape of merit is one you will find at a grape orchard run by a winery. It goes into wine and you'll be lucky to get a bottle for under $10 at a winery. (More on the perils of canned goods later.) That white grape juice is an imported ingredient and highlights just one of the many flaws in anything for sale off the shelf. And what is the second most common ingredient? 

Corn syrup.

That's right, the same artificial food you can get in any conventional supermarket. The farm may say all it wants that its crops are "GMO-free" (that is, they aren't 'genetically modified organisms') but those canned or baked goods are coming from a factory.  Even if the label says "Abe's Farms," look closely at the label to see where it was produced or packaged. Stop dead in your tracks if you see a disclaimed that says, "Packaged specifically for Abe's Farms." That is a surefire sign of a private-label food distributor. Private label, by the way, means food that is produced and distributed by a no-name company which will slap on any farm's label for a license fee. This means that the "Abe's Farms" boysenberry syrup is likely the exact same product, made in the same mixing vat, as the syrup from "Uncle Jeb's Farm" 500 miles away. This goes for canned goods as well as baked goods. Authentic pies are made on the premises; one place I recommend is the Masker Orchards near Warwick, NY. (These people treat apples like they are a separate food group.) 

Common sense should be the order of the day. If you are at an apple orchard and you're buying peanut butter, you're being conned. So check the labels -- and check out how the hired help will stare you down when you do this. They know what they're selling. They know that anyone smart enough to look at the label in a country farm is not taking their claims of down-home-country-goodness at face value. Now, you know the trick and hopefully you'll save your money. 

Two: The closest you will get to crops where point of sale is closest to point of harvest is literally at that country farm. Authentic means buy it out of the farm store basket. Even better, buy it off the tree at the "pick your own" or "PYO" farms. But be warned: A tremendous amount of crops rot on the tree, and you will be advised to wash and eat whatever you pick very quickly. Mold and bacteria may be rotting the fruit or vegetables you pick even if it's still on the plant (that happens in nature, folks) and even one overnight can be enough for a mold explosion. 

Three: Many farms will grow a variety of crops. All sorts of crops grow in a temperate climate and "crop rotation" actually keeps the soil fresh, because different crops extract different nutrients from the soil. This variety is not cause for suspicion. However, those crops are most likely put out for direct sale at the farm store (if not sold to a wholesaler). It is very unlikely the crops from Abe's Farm end up in the packaged goods labelled "Abe's Farm." (More on that in a moment.) That is because the profit margin for crops is highest for harvested fruits and veggies sold directly to a wholesaler. The leftovers are left on the trees. Those crops are loss leaders and result in virtually no profit to the farm. This explains why some farms allow you to come to the fields and pick anything you want -- for free. They've already made their money. Getting you on the farm in mid-October is a way for them to get rid of their remaining inventory in the fields or in the farm store before they shut for the season. Finally, this explains why it isn't very likely the peaches you see this weekend on the peach trees will end up in the peach pies sold in the store in the same farm. 

Pretty produce commands a high price and goes straight to market. Ugly produce gets mashed up and becomes jelly, juice, anything that needs filler or flavor. 

The reality is that American farms are an endangered species as agriculture becomes more and more the domain of large corporations which can pass on efficiencies of scale to the consumer. The small farm cannot compete because they cannot sell their crops or products at the same price point. The consumer benefits from this process, by the way. It just means that it becomes harder to preserve the mythology of yesteryear that the "family farm" was the bedrock of American culture and wealth. 

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