The Spring Equinox is past, and the weather is warming–sure signs that our local farms will soon be offering vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Local farm products are magical because they provide unique and distinctive flavors, scents, shapes, colors, freshness, and nutritional value.
Our area offers a range of options for savoring the seasonal bounty of local farms. There is an option that fits just about everyone, from individuals to large families and from residents to visitors. These options include subscribing to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, picking your own, shopping at a farmers’ market, shopping at a local boutique market, and dining at a farm-to-table restaurant.
The magic of locally grown products begins with the seed farmers select to plant. Local farmers can choose from thousands of seeds, including heirloom and newly developed varieties. As a result of the wide seed selection, local farmers can and do grow green, yellow, pink, purple, black, and multi-color tomatoes along with the more common red ones. These locally grown tomatoes offer a variety of flavors and textures, from sweet, pop-in-your-mouth yellow pear tomatoes, to meaty Amish Paste tomatoes to juicier, more delicate Brandywine slicing tomatoes.
The benefits of the wide seed selection go beyond taste and texture. The nutritional value of the most common fruit and vegetable varieties has been declining since the 1940s. Many heirloom varieties were developed before this nutritional decline. Consequently, except for carrots, the heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables from local farms contain from 5% to 50% more vitamins, minerals, and protein than today’s common varieties.
Diversity on the farms extends beyond seed varieties. Many of our local farms grow an assortment of fruits, vegetables, and flowers, from leafy greens and peas in the spring to pumpkins and gourds in the fall. This diversity helps protect the farms from pests and diseases, reducing the need for pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides (agricultural chemicals). Less need for agricultural chemicals means the products local farms sell can contain lower amounts of chemical residue than those found in USDA studies. This is a significant benefit considering the USDA found that the average strawberry contains the residue of 7.8 different agricultural chemicals. A typical, conventionally-grown tomato is sprayed with agricultural chemicals 28 times before being harvested. Not surprisingly, the USDA identified 35 other agricultural chemicals in the most recent batch of tomatoes it studied. Local regenerative farms use no man-made agricultural chemicals. These farms are particularly adept at creating diverse, protective eco-systems that deter pests and diseases. Part of their farming technique is to use no man-made agricultural chemicals. Consequently, products from regenerative farms are free from agricultural chemical residue. Whether local farmers use conventional farming techniques, farm regeneratively, or a method that falls in between, most local farmers are happy to discuss their farming methods, what chemicals they use, and why.
Another part of the magic of local farms is that they allow fruits, vegetables, and flowers to fully mature before picking the products. Fully ripe fruits and vegetables are juicier and more flavorful than fruits and vegetables picked before they are fully ripe. They are also more nutritious. A vine-ripened tomato has about 31% more vitamin C than a tomato picked before it is ripe.
Local farms also grow relatively small quantities of each type of fruit, vegetable, and flower, which allows them to handpick their products. Handpicking is much gentler than machine picking, so the products are less likely to be bruised. Unbruised fruits, vegetables, and flowers look better, but they also keep their nutritional value and freshness longer than those bruised.
Another vital part of the magic of locally grown fruit, vegetables, and flowers is their short trip from farm and table or vase. Quite a few locally grown fruits, vegetables, and flowers are sold the same day they are picked. A short, local trip provides a massive benefit since fruits, vegetables, and flowers are 70-90% water. These products begin dehydrating as soon as they are picked. The more water the fruits, vegetables, and flowers retain, the better their flavor, appearance, beauty, and nutritional value. Dehydration is a big challenge for a typical strawberry since it travels over 2,000 miles from farm to table and takes 10 to 14 days to make the journey. The same is true for a typical tomato which travels over 1,300 miles and takes 14 to 21 days to get from farm to table.
There are several ways to enjoy the many benefits of locally grown products, including CSAs, pick-your-own farms, farmers’ markets, local markets, and farm-to-table restaurants. A CSA membership entitles the member to a share of the farm’s production throughout the growing season. As a general rule, CSA memberships provide a sizeable quantity of food. Consequently, CSAs typically work best for families with creative cooks and groups of friends who can split each week’s endowment of food. Since the membership is a share in production, quantities, and types of produce vary from week to week. If it is a banner year for zucchini and a poor year for peas, members will get lots of zucchini and relatively few peas. Many local farmers also like to experiment with new offerings, so CSA memberships are most rewarding if you are willing to give a new type of fruit or vegetable a try. CSAs typically serve members on a pre-set day of the week and at a pre-set pick-up location. Generally, the member pick-up point is at the farm or a farmers’ market. This is the season when local farms are finalizing their CSA membership lists, so it is an excellent time to join.
Pick-your-own farms are just what their name implies. The farm grows the fruit, vegetables, flowers, pumpkins, or Christmas trees, and you harvest them. Weather and microclimates can affect ripening times. Be sure to check with the pick-your-own farm before you go to ensure they offer what you would like to pick.
The benefit of picking your own is that you can select exactly the size, shape, and ripeness you want. Since picking takes time, pick-your-own farms offer fabulous outings and photo ops for families and groups. Who doesn’t love a toddler stooping down to check out a row of strawberries or being given a boost to pick an apple out of the tree? Pick-your-own farms are also good sources of food for special events like DIY weddings, benefits, parties, and harvest festivals.
Farmers’ markets typically take place one day a week and feature booths from various area farms. Just about every town in our area has its own farmers’ market. (The Middleburg farmers’ market is slated to return in 2023 when the new Town Hall is completed). As a general rule, the bigger the town, the larger the number of farmers who attend the market.
Farmers’ markets are typical retail environments. Shoppers can buy whatever quantity of items they want. Multiple farms and flexible quantities make farmers’ markets ideal for singles, couples, and people who want to be able to buy a variety of types of items at the same time. In addition to fresh produce, farmers’ markets often include booths selling eggs, cheese, meats, and prepared foods like jams, jellies, and baked goods.
In addition to weekly farmers’ markets, our area is fortunate to have many year-round boutique markets, including Salamander Market, The Market at Bluewater Kitchen, and The Whole Ox, which feature local, farm-raised products. The selection changes from week to week based on what the local farms are growing. Most of these markets also offer non-local gourmet items and food they prepare on-site.
Last but not least, our area boasts quite a few excellent farm-to-table restaurants. The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm helped create the farm-to-table restaurant category. Offerings at farm-to-table restaurants range from the casual English Pub style fare at Hunter’s Head to fine dining at the Goodstone Inn and Harriman’s (Salamander Resort).
The Buy Fresh, Buy Local Guide includes a sizeable selection of CSAs, pick-you-owns, farmers markets, local markets, and farm-to-table restaurants. Information for our area is available online at https://buyfreshbuylocal.org/virginia/. The guide includes farms that raise their offerings conventionally and farms that offer certified organic, certified humanely raised, and regeneratively raised products. If a specific certification or growing method is crucial to you, check the text description of the farm. Loudoun County offers a website that lists farms in Loudoun County at https://loudounfarms.org/ Fauquier County provides an online list as well http://pubapp.fauquiercounty.gov/government/departments/agdev/index.cfm?action=farmlist
The season to enjoy the magic of locally grown products is here. CSAs, pick-your-own farms, farmers’ markets, boutique markets, and farm-to-table restaurants all offer a chance to enjoy locally raised products. There is an offering to fit just about everyone. Locally grown fruits, vegetables, and flowers are magical because catering to the local market allows farmers to grow a diversity of types of products, including heirlooms and new varieties. The variety will enable farmers to protect their crops from pests and disease with lower amounts of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, or none at all. The focus on local also enables farmers to deliver high-quality products by letting their products ripen fully on the farm and by picking them just before they are offered for sale. The result is a distinctive world of variety, sights, flavors, fragrances, and nutrition.