Thursday, May 21, 2009

The high cost of cheap produce...

"...I started to see the golden kernels everywhere, ground into the mud by tires and boots, floating in the puddles of rainwater, pancaked on the steel mills..."
-Micheal Pollan at an Iowa grain elevator (from The Omnivore's Dilemma)

As I read this, an image returned to me. Hands and knees in the dirt and patchy grass of the Farmer's Market lot, fingers picking up each individual kernel that had spilled to the ground. I was helping S, a local farmer, and T, the wiry brown-skinned boy with eyes like the ocean who was interning with her, run ears of corn through a hand-cranked machine that freed them of their kernels. Following this, T and I winnowed the grain, pouring pounds of it from one shining silver pot to another, letting the chaff be blown off by the wind. More often than not the machine delivered patchy ears with a majority of the kernels still clinging. T and I would kneel by the trough, coaxing the kernels off by rubbing our fingers against the roots fixed to the ear like tooth in gum. We'd carefully pick up whatever had been flung off target by the spinning wheel, going so far as to brush our hands over the surface of the earth to reveal any that had jumped behind a sprig of grass or been covered in a thin layer of wind blown dirt. As far as we were able, we accounted for every kernel. Nothing was wasted.

I was simply following S. and T's lead. My first inclination was to let what had fallen lie. First, it's dirty (how quickly we forget that it's from dirt that all food rises!). Second, taking the time and trouble for such a small thing seemed pointless--we had stacks yet to go through! I had a commodity view of corn. A supermarket shopper's presumption that whatever was needed, or wanted, would arrive before I did and be neatly presented for my consumption; whatever I wanted, whenever (for the 24-hour Wal-mart shopper) I wanted it. S and T had an entirely different paradigm. Having been with this corn from seed time to harvest, it was not just a product to them, it was the tangible manifestation of work, energy, life. It was a representation of their time and talent, as well as a sources of income; food in a starving world, money in a poor man's house. Golden kernels of corn where, for these farmers, not unlike nuggets of pure gold to a miner.

How quickly excess quickly begets waste.

Pollan quotes Friar Sahagun in his writing regarding the Aztecs:

"If they saw grains of maize scattered on the ground, they quickly gathered them up saying, 'Our Sustenance suffereth, it lieth weeping. If we should not gather it up, it would accuse us before our Lord. It would say, "Oh, our Lord, this vassal picked me not up when I lay scattered upon the ground, Punish him!" or perhaps we should starve.'"

1 comment:

annNEE said...

I think of this image often now adays, when i am sorting out d. food and throwing out fruit and veggies that don't look perfect. I find that getting food for free in some ways makes me more wasteful because I am even more detached from the food - had nothing to do with making it or working to pay for it. Maybe Aaron feels differently seeing as he is the one who is laboring late at night in the d.