Nichols Farm and Orchard stand is a mainstay of the Oak Park Farmers Market. It’s fair to say they’re big dogs at this weekly event, with a larger footprint and wider selection than any other vendor at this Saturday gathering of local food producers.
What I like about Nichols is that they experiment with different varieties, offering a rainbow of potatoes, leafy greens you’d have a hard time finding elsewhere, breeds and varieties of fruits and vegetables that seemed to have disappeared from American tables but are now making a comeback.
Last Saturday at the Nichols stand, I spotted several varieties of potatoes – German Butterball, Red Thumb, Russian Blue – that were very unlike the uniform brown varieties you’d easily find at your local mega-store.
But the importance of these potatoes goes beyond their appearance.
Different types of plants and beasts are critically important to keeping the gene pool vibrant. When species are allowed to disappear, we lose more than just a tasty morsel for our table. We lose a set of genetic information that might be useful someday for the survival of that species…or even our own.
Corporate agriculture is vital to keeping our big world fed. However, large scale agro-businesses need to keep things simple, requiring specific varieties of life that meet their standards for market acceptability and mass production. To keep the industrial farms pumping out produce, certain breeds are selected and others are left behind. It’s just business.
The relatively smaller farmers that supply farmers markets are in a better position to experiment with varieties of plants and animals that may not make economic sense for the massive economies of scale deployed at mega-farms, where factory production processes place a premium upon consistency, manageability, shelf-life, and – though sometimes it seems an after-thought – taste.
So when you support Nichol’s and all the other small farmers by shopping at the Oak Park Farmers Market, you’re supporting the production of lesser known varieties of plants and animals that are delicious and interesting but also essential to the continued health of our planet.