Tough Customers

I find selling to restaurants the most daunting part of the market. Restaurants often require a level of consistency and abundance, on Thursday or Friday, that I can’t quite pull off. When I see another farm’s name, up in lights on a menu, I feel both a pang of envy and anxiety. For those who sell to tony restaurants, it is good advertising and important revenue. For their baby lettuce being there, their cherry tomatoes, their Brussels sprouts, their presence speaks of a well-oiled machine. So perhaps it is this psychological stress that governs my sour point of view on the hyperbolic star-treatment of the most natural, peaceful thing in the world: finding food in your own backyard. Literal or figurative, it could be both. I don’t think it’s the spotlight I crave so much as resent. For the glare’s very existence proves that farming’s modern position is rare, endangered, as brittle as any celebrity.

I am a mixed-vegetable grower with a flagship store on wheels, we joke. My business depends on getting people to stop for only a part of their meal. This factor and the miserable way most animals are raised for the masses has lead me to take an interest in dried beans, or as I like to call them, bloodless protein. Plus, beans, like their animal cousins, are good for the earth where they’ve dwelled. Obviously, people need to eat more beans. I start dreaming of streaming rows of flageolets, acres of reddening cranberry beans, all of it deer-fenced with the profits! Then a recent article in Vegetable Grower magazine deflates my sails. They quote a grower saying how one bad bean in a thousand can get a whole load (tractor trailer) rejected. The badness he’s referring to is something called a “European corn borer.” I’ve discovered the worm myself when thrashing a stockpile.

(There weren’t loads of them, just a few, I’d find them awake when I winnowed, stirring uncomfortably from their sleep and the assault I inflicted when I flailed their former home to pieces. I’d discard an ECB here and there, dispatching the unlucky pest to waiting chickens. I don’t know if you can call that blood protein, but surely it’s not bloodless.)

Such an intolerant marketplace means a farmer will either routinely spray for non-target pests, like the corn borer, or be paid “beans” for his crop. I begin to scale back my dream. My target retreats to the local, understanding market-people who I can look in the eye and explain that the worm won’t hurt them as I flick it to the ground and squash it with my bare toe.

Marilee Foster farms and writes in Sagaponack.