Know your farmer, know your soil

04/05/2013 09:30:00 AM
Andy Nelson

Andy Nelson, Markets EditorAndy Nelson, Markets EditorGet ready for the latest and greatest in “know your farmer” mania.

We’ve all seen countless photos of Farmer Bob and Farmer Sue in recent years at our neighborhood grocery store, looming over the tomatoes, spuds, peaches, you name it.

I personally think a running video about the horticultural and food safety standards most producers abide by religiously would be more educational and illuminating, but I suppose that might be boring.

If the smile of Farmer Bob or Farmer Sue helps people eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, I’m all for it.

If TV viewers get all warm and fuzzy watching idyllic pastoral scenes of a Michigan apple orchard in an ad for McDonald’s, and it makes them substitute apple slices occasionally for fries, good for them and good for the apple industry.

I’m telling you, though, things could get strange when you start to see marketing praising the particular kind of dirt your onions or blueberries come from.

A little background.

In February, New York state senator John Bonacic introduced a bill designating “black dirt” — what an article in The New York Times described as “super-fertile, obsidian-hued sediment that just happens to coat thousands of acres of farmland in his district northwest of New York City” — as the Empire State’s official “state soil.”

Sounds fairly uncontroversial, right? Kind of like floating a bill endorsing the right of kids to believe in Santa.

Wrong! Apparently New York already has what the Times piece described as a “quasi-official state soil”: something called honeoye (pronounced honey-oy).

A spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau said the organization was hesitant to promote black dirt or any other soil at the expense of other soils.

“We don’t want to dig ourselves a hole by saying one soil type is better than the next,” the spokesman, Steve Ammerman, told the Times. “We think all of the soil in New York is golden.”

You see where this is headed, don’t you?

This summer, when I head to my local Hy-Vee to buy zucchini, Farmer Bob’s sign will be bragging about the “famously fertile black soil of Platte County, Mo.,” and Farmer Sue’s about the “awesomely aerated brown dirt of Douglas County, Kan.”

Maybe I’m joking, maybe I’m not. When I was new to the produce industry, I remember Michigan vegetable growers touting their famous muck soil. I had my doubts until one of them took me into a field outside Hudsonville and turned over some of it.

I can honestly say it was the only dirt I ever looked at and thought, “Hm, that looks almost good enough to eat.”

Put a high-def video of muck soil or one of the many other excellent soils used to grow fruits and vegetables in a grocery produce department, and your average locavore would go ga-ga.

The hipster restaurants could bring you a dish of the black soil or muck or honeoye to run your fingers through before you ordered the locally-sourced organic sustainable fennel.

And while we’re on the subject of soil, if anyone can recommend something black or mucky or otherwise that’s good for growing bluegrass in the shade in Johnson County, Kan., I’m all ears.

anelson@thepacker.com

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