It’s early Saturday morning. As Efren Avalos unloads large crates of potatoes, his eyes wander around Center Street in search of customers. Every week, Avalos drives about two hours from Avalos Organic Farm to Downtown Berkeley to set his stall up by 10 a.m. so that he can make enough sales to keep the farm alive.
“I basically been born in a family of farmers,” Avalos said. “My parents and my brothers, all of them are farmers in Mexico so since I was a little kid I was working in a farm and I’m still doing it.”
Like most of the vendors who line the streets to sell produce at the Saturday Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market, Avalos has a deep and extensive knowledge of the land. Knowing when to plant, what is in season, how to care for the plants, how to harvest and when to harvest is just basic knowledge to these farmers.
Even without the wax coating typically applied to supermarket produce to make them appealing to the eye, the fresh tangerines piled in crates glisten in the morning sunlight. The Mediterranean-style climate we are blessed with allows our farms to produce a wide variety of fruits and vegetables all year.
Our food system is a massive food supply chain: Seeds are planted and turned into crops, which are harvested, exported, delivered and sold; these crops are then made into food which is ultimately eaten. As consumers, it may initially be hard to visualize the complexity of this process; it is even harder to see our food system’s flaws.
“We take (our food system) for granted … until vulnerabilities are exposed,” said Joanna Normoyle, a farmer and co-owner of Orchard X, a small perennial farm in Esparta, California.
Armed with a passion for the outdoors and fruits, Normoyle and her partner took over Guru Ram Das Orchards just over five seasons ago and renamed it Orchard X. Like Avalos, Normoyle comes from a family of ranchers, and uses her extensive knowledge of ecology to harvest and sell produce throughout the seasons and to adapt to major environmental and social challenges like the coronavirus pandemic.
Around March of 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began, demand for food far outstripped supply, prices skyrocketed and food — one of the most basic needs of all — quickly became unaffordable to many. This exposed the many vulnerabilities in the systems our society relies on, especially our food system which was set up to sell in bulk and to big companies.
Our supermarkets scrambled to adapt when COVID-19 hit. When everyone was at home, our system had to bend without breaking to meet consistently feed consumers.
“What matters is having farms that can respond with a kind of resiliency,” Normoyle said. “The only way you get that is by having institutions like farmers’ markets that help support those farms that are resilient and who can be small and agile.”
“(Most) grocery stores are open every day,” said Allison Williams, a vibrant and welcoming vendor for Smit Farms. “Especially when selling all that produce, it can go bad really fast.”
There are nine Safeway grocery stores within a five-mile radius of UC Berkeley. Unlike farmers’ markets, supermarkets are open to the public daily and have their produce sitting on shelves around the clock. When produce goes bad on farms, the crops get returned to ground to nourish the soil and create compost. However, if supermarkets deem food bad, it gets thrown in the trash.
If you have ever had the pleasure of visiting a farmers’ market, you would know that the flavor of the fresh produce sold there is unmatched. Grocery store chains are simply unable to rival the crispness of syrupy stone fruits in the summer or the sweetness of freshly picked carrots in late fall. “The food you get from the farmers aren’t processed,” Avalos said.
If the difference in taste is so drastic, though, then why are we not supporting small farmers and eating seasonally?
Quite simply, our food system is not built in a way that encourages us to. Americans are used to getting our food fast and cheap. McDonald’s is the number one restaurant chain worldwide, pointing to how foundational fast food has become in global food culture. Fast food companies allow us to pay significantly less than it costs to produce our food by taking shortcuts at multiple stages within the process, including paying low wages and keeping a limited menu. We should keep in mind, however, that the cost of food production is far more than monetary. There is the cost of our current food system on the environment and on our health.
We should keep in mind, however, that the cost of food production is far more than monetary. There is the cost of our current food system on the environment and on our health.
Our food system focuses on maximization and high yield. The United States produces the highest yield of corn and soybeans in the world, achieving this in no small part through monocropping. Monoculture, the cultivation of a single crop, lowers initial costs, but there is a trade off of resulting soil erosion, lack of biodiversity and resultant reductions in soil fertility. This method of agriculture also runs the risk of wiping out an entire harvest due to lack of polyculture or intercropping, which is the simultaneous planting and cultivation of several crops.
As a single person within this system, it is easy to feel helpless, but it is important to keep in mind that systems are ours to create and remake.
“Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned,” wrote Donella Meadows, a key proponent of the idea of systems thinking, in her article titled “Dancing with Systems.”
The systems that run our day-to-day lives, whether it be our economic system or our food system, are greater than us and cannot quite be controlled. However, they can be influenced. With slow changes, there can still be a push toward beneficial advancements.
Start by simply trying something new. Go to a grocery store like Berkeley Bowl or the farmers’ market on Center Street and pick out a fruit or vegetable that is unfamiliar. Try it. Have your friends try it. Add variety to your diet and expand your perspective on how you see your food.
“It makes me happy to eat fresh local, seasonal food,” said Sarah Deck, a local farm lover who hawks goods for Solano Mushroom. Deck has been working with local farms for more than 15 years, selling their produce at farmers’ markets around the Bay Area. Her knowledge of fungi and vegetation allows her to not only sell mushrooms to consumers, but also cultivate her very own garden.
As college students, many of us are overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge thrown at us every day. Learning bite-sized pieces of information about our environment and food can allow us to take baby steps towards having a better understanding of our food system.
Even equipped with the best information, however, the decision to choose cheaper produce options at major grocery chains over pricier items from our local farmers is extremely tempting. We often find ourselves on a budget and can’t help but wonder whether buying an organic apple from Smit Farms instead of one from Walmart really makes an impact. While it may not change the world right away, it’s certainly a start.
Farmers in the Bay Area have been supporting local restaurants for years. Smit Farms, which hawks its produce weekly at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, also delivers fresh fruits to restaurants like Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse was founded by Alice Waters, a talented chef who wanted to cook solely with seasonal produce from local farmers. Her purpose is two-fold. Her restaurant supports these businesses, and the quality of the produce lends itself to the unrivaled flavor of the food Chez Panisse is famous for. When restaurants began to shut down due to the coronavirus, local farmers lost a chunk of their business. In this time of instability, the people who patronize farmers’ markets have become more crucial than ever.
This new reliance on selling to farmers’ markets has changed the way these farms make their income. Buying your Fuji apples from Smit Farms instead of Walmart now helps that farm thrive further into the future.
“It’s important to me to know where my food is coming from and to get as much of it as close to where I live as I can,” Deck said. Her sentiment is one that many might not be able to echo: Most of us don’t know where we get our food from. We trust an untrustworthy system to consistently provide us with nourishment and never really question it.
Most of us don’t know where we get our food from. We trust an untrustworthy system to consistently provide us with nourishment and never really question it.
Now that you may be interested in stepping up your support of the vendors at the farmers’ markets, you may not know what to do with their produce. Over the next few weeks, I will guide you through what’s in season and what to cook with ingredients from farms that vend within the Berkeley area. Together, we will get educated, learn to be flexible and adapt to the seasonal changes that influence our diet.
“I feel really committed to regional food systems,” Normoyle says. “To me, that means having places to get food when big disruptions happen in the world; knowing that you have access to the resources in a network close to you is really important and going to become increasingly important as climate changes.”
I hope you will join me for this edible journey.