Food & DrinkThe Locavore

The Value of Eating in Season

One of life’s simple pleasures is eating a Georgia peach in summer. In recent years, that love for in-season fruit spread to new categories of produce, and seasonal cooking became the newest trend in restaurants. Now, hoping to advance interest in local agriculture, some local farms are advocating for Athenians to start thinking seasonally in their own kitchens.

For farmer Iwalani Farfour, seasonal growing is all about working with what nature gives her. Right now at Full Moon Farm, she is tending to vegetables that thrive in March, like arugula and mustard greens. “By growing seasonally, that means we have the least amount of inputs to put into the system,” says Farfour.

Full Moon Farm, which is part of the Collective Harvest CSA (a subscription service for fresh, local produce), doesn’t use heated hoop houses to grow off-season produce in winter. That’s an added cost. In the summer, Farfour grows what can stand the heat. Otherwise, she’d have to throw extra resources at off-season crops to help them survive. “It’s possible for us to do,” says Farfour, “but is it viable for us to do it? Not necessarily.”

In the same vein, Farfour treats the winter season as a time to let her soil rest instead of forcing it into productivity. “By managing the soil with cover crops and using plants to provide the fertilizers and nutrients that we need, we don’t have additional costs.”

In short, seasonal growing is more cost-efficient. That’s important when Full Moon Farm is competing against traditional supermarkets for your dollar. Local vendors like Farfour depend on people seeing the value in buying from them. “You’re spending money with a local company, so your dollars are going back into the system, into your local economy,” she says. The buy-local movement is strong in Athens, but local food economics is a complex landscape.

From a purely economic point of view, there’s not much motivation for communities to convert to all local food, says Joshua Berning, an economist with UGA’s Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics. “We don’t necessarily have an advantage to producing all of our own food in Georgia,” says Berning. That doesn’t mean Berning is opposed to local agriculture. He’s a big fan of farmers markets and CSAs because of the quality of the produce they provide. But as Berning explains, our food system as it is now thrives on trading specialized crops. California is good with wine; Georgia is good with chickens; so we trade to get the best of both worlds.

We can’t forget, adds Berning, that local is all relative: “Our imports are someone else’s local.” Most economies depend on being able to export their major crops to other areas. Georgia’s economy would suffer if our chicken industry didn’t have takers in other states.

Yet there is more to buying local, in-season produce than cost. “There’s a certain value consumers feel for interacting with the farmer directly that a lot of people don’t get,” says Berning, and that’s why he thinks local agriculture is growing in popularity. Still, he wonders, will this interest in local agriculture be as strong in 10 years?

That’s why Collective Harvest is working to educate Athenians about seasonal eating. Adopting seasonal eating patterns can help make local agriculture a sustainable part of the Athens economy. Instead of fighting natural food cycles, says Farfour, consumers need to embrace the seasons. That means getting used to a more limited scope of available foods. The trade-off is eating produce that’s at the height of its nutritional value and flavor.

And buying seasonally often costs less. Farfour urges consumers to think about how much they pay for high-quality vegetables in a month. She bets that most people spend a lot more money on the same amount of vegetables than what the CSA offers. “This is the true cost of food,” says Farfour. “This is how much it costs a local farmer to supply this food.”

The value of eating local veggies is a bigger concept than pure cost, and Athens seems to embrace that. Collective Harvest saw membership increase from 117 members last season to 140 so far this season. They hope to attract even more for the fall season.