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American Pie: Africa And Chile Are Local?

...When I drive the 126 miles from my home on the west coast to Palm Beach on the Atlantic shore, 90% of the journey is through orange groves and vast fields of sugar cane. The groves are so large that the harvesting foremen track their position with GPS systems...

Millions of dollars worth of fruit and vegetables are grown in Florida. So why then, John Merchant wonders, do local supermarkets stock fruit and veg imported from South America and Africa?

Have you ever lain awake at night wondering how Florida supports its self? Even though I realize how unlikely that is, I offer this quick insight. The State’s Department of Commerce tells me that tourism and the real estate development associated with it represent the largest segment of the economy. The second largest is agriculture.

In 2008, Florida accounted for 71% of the total U.S. value of production for oranges ($1.5 billion); 68% of the total U.S. value of production for grapefruit ($179 million); 52% of the total U.S. value of production for snap beans ($172 million); and 51% of the total U.S. value of production for sugarcane ($448 million as of 2007).

Florida is second only to California in nursery, greenhouse and floriculture production with an annual value of $1.9 billion, and produces 44% ($622 million) of the total U.S. value of fresh tomatoes, and ($94 million) of cucumbers.

When I drive the 126 miles from my home on the west coast to Palm Beach on the Atlantic shore, 90% of the journey is through orange groves and vast fields of sugar cane. The groves are so large that the harvesting foremen track their position with GPS systems.

OK, so enough of the statistics. What keeps me awake at night is why, when I shop at my local supermarket, everything I select comes from somewhere else? The green vegetables are from Chile, the tomatoes from California, the bananas from almost anywhere in South America, and the oranges from Africa! This despite posters in the store that urge me to support local farmers.

Not a hundred miles from where I live is the largest concentration of strawberry growers in America, which in season produces most of N. America’s needs. Pine Island, off the western shore of the State, has acres of mango plantations, yet the mangos in the store are likely from Malaysia, and the strawberries from California.

In Placida, perhaps 45 minutes’ drive from where I live, is a Tilapia fish farm, but guess where the Tilapia in the stores are from – Taiwan! A supermarket that separates its self from the herd by its name, “Whole Foods,” trumpets that its “fresh” fish are from Greece and the Canadian Maritimes. Meanwhile the Florida fishing industry is moribund, with the exception of the shrimpers, despite the fact that the State has the longest shoreline of any state in the Union.

The idea of shipping produce thousands of miles has negative connotations all its own, since the nourishing constituents are probably long dead by the time it reaches the dining table. Of greater concern are the methods employed to get it to the consumer before it rots. At one time, the only way was to harvest early, which was bad enough, but then genetic engineering came along.

Now, consumers would probably be amazed at how many species are altered in this way, despite their early opposition. Tomatoes were the first candidates, in an attempt to prevent them rotting before they are sold. The genetically engineered tomato is a pretty sad specimen. The flesh is a pulpy, pink mass that neither tastes nor smells like a tomato, and the skin is a tough as an apple’s.

When they do rot, the decay begins on the inside, and often is not visible to the shopper. Once you have cut into it, the rot has the appearance of a disgusting black sore. In the last couple of years, the so called “vine ripened” tomatoes have been offered in the stores. They look and taste wonderfully like the old style “Blackpool” tomatoes I enjoyed as a kid. They are grown under glass in, wouldn’t you know, Canada, and cost about twice the price of the others.

As is the case elsewhere in the US, “Farm Stands,” and the more collective “Farmer’s Markets” have sprung up all over Florida. You might be deluded into thinking that this is the answer to being forced to buy imported produce, but don’t get too excited. In the first place, most of the farm stands are not in the fields at the side of the road, as you might naively expect, but are mostly in parking lots.

They are usually there only half a day a week, and are gone by noon. For reasons to which I’m not privy, they periodically change location. So, if you don’t mind getting up at the crack of dawn and hunting through every parking lot in the county, you might be privileged to be able to purchase a soggy green pepper, or some over-ripe tomatoes, or, wonder of wonders, some bananas from Nicaragua!

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