Sustainability--I Can Can’t Get It for You Wholesale

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Synchronicity, the experience of very closely related events coming at essentially the same time, always alerts me to be very aware of what is going on around me. This time the awareness started a few days ago when I read a book review in the New York Times of Ellen Ruppel Schell’s new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. It continued when I watched the film, Food Inc. which showed the dangers of becoming dependent on only a few sources for the stuff we eat.

Then, today, I got our weekly email from the farmer who operates the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm we own a summer share in. It has been raining heavily for much of the summer so I expected a disappointing report for this week's distribution. What I got was indeed disappointing but not due to the dampness. Seth, the farmer, reported that both the potatoes (due in some weeks) and the tomatoes (see the photo for the effects of this blight) were badly infested with late blight.

Dreaded late blight has arrived to this farm. Over the weekend we discovered late blight in our potatoes. This fungus is very destructive to potatoes and tomatoes and when conditions are right can take down an entire crop in a few days. We are trying to manage the infection in the potatoes and hope to keep it localized to a few varieties but it will affect our yields considerably. Late blight is something we deal with almost every year but usually don’t see it arrive until September or October -once the affected crops are done with harvest. This year the infection is earlier and stronger than usual because infected seedlings were brought into the northeast from the Alabama to be sold at Walmart, Home Depot and Lowes. These plants quickly released spores into the air, which the cold wet weather provided the perfect conditions to spread. There is currently late blight reported from Maryland to Ohio to Northern Maine. You can read more about this problem in a NY Times article. Please try and buy your plants from local producers next year!

The connection to the big box stores is disturbing, partly because of their volume. The Times story is more extensive, but also makes a case for tracking the disease to these chains.

Mr. Mishanec said agricultural pathogens can easily spread when plants are distributed regionally and sold by big-box retailers.

“Farms are inspected, greenhouses are inspected,” he said, “but garden centers aren’t, and the people who work there aren’t trained to spot disease.”

These stories are all consistent. Cheaper goods from big box retailers and from manufacturing oligopolies come with a hidden or sometimes not so hidden cost. The cost comes in damage to the system in places and times far from the check-out stations. For those concerned about sustainability--something everybody should be--the price must be paid now or later. Paying it now is both cheaper and much fairer. Ruppel Schell’s book is full of examples where either the environment or workers is working for us without any or appropriate compensation.

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