Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Farm Bulletin: La Cajita Blanca

Plastic bags, cardboard boxes, rubber bands, twist-ties and other ephemera are part and parcel of farmers' lives, particularly those who sell their goods at farmers' markets. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm recalls one corrugated container he grew particularly fond of.

Two weeks ago, the little white box returned after a year's absence.

For many years, we have used half-flats made from unbleached container board. Four years ago, we were caught short at the end of the season and bought a bundle of 100 with a white liner board. They were soon gone, and by last year there was just one still in circulation. It stood out in the stack and we commented on how many times it must have returned to the farm. At least five times by the initials, though it might have been more because staff typically initial flats later in the season when mold has set up in the field. That way, if someone is inattentive, we can address the situation quickly.

The "ears" on a half-flat box.

The flat also had a small oval sticker, indicating that at least once it was filled with Triple Crowns. Those yellow stickers were left over from the days when we grew melons, and we used the extras to mark the non-Chester boxes. Maybe it also went out filled with mirabelles, green gages or festooned with Joe's Long Cayenne peppers, which look just like a jester's hat. Still in good shape after its many journeys, the box was filled with fresh hallocks of Chesters and sent out into world again last week.

We typically reuse paper flats until they look shabby or their "ears" get mangled—what we call the tabs that lock the boxes together when they are stacked. We never reuse the green paper mache hallocks, however. There are three good reasons why. First, and most importantly, it is a matter of food safety. We do not know where the hallock was stored. Unlike the flat, the hallock comes in direct contact with the fruit, which is eaten raw. From a food safety perspective, it is reckless to reuse the hallock without knowing where and how it was stored. Second is food quality. If there is a speck of mold in the used hallock, that mold will infect fruit put in it later. Mold and berries are a match made in heaven if you are into rapid decay. Third, as a matter of federal law, organic growers can only reuse packaging that previously held certified organic produce. Consequently, the used hallocks go to recycling.

Hallocks that hold the berries.

Packaging is always a fraught subject, especially for organic growers who want to extend the ecological ethic beyond the field. There are many factors that need balancing in selecting how to present the food. For example, on a hot summer's day the delicate greens wilt rapidly, their quality suffers and we waste a lot if they are sold out of an open crate. In the winter, the kale, collards and chicories fare well in the open air. They remain beautiful through the day and sell well. We try to make sure it is always a judgement call rather than a reflexive need to bag.

In the valley, farmers are fortunate to have a superb plastics recycling service. Located on Waconda Road in Brooks, Agri-Plas, Inc. recycles a wide spectrum of plastic waste generated by farms. Pots, old irrigation tape, barrels, plastic bags, old twine and grain sacks are all sorted and sold to domestic users. When we have to pick up some supplies in St. Paul, we will carry down our recycling and stop by Ernst on the way home. Very efficient.

In the meantime, we will be waiting to see if our little white box returns some Sunday in the future. It is hoped with her ears intact so we can send her forth once more.

If you enjoy reading Anthony's missives, you won't want to miss his book, Beautiful Corn: America's Original Grain from Seed to Plate, that is coming out this fall. Pre-order here. You can find Anthony and Carol at the Hillsdale Farmers' Market most Sundays from 10 am-1 pm.

No comments: