Food harvesting swaps.


The Living Force
Couple of interesting articles regarding food. One about home grown produce and the other about corporate grown produce.

Both I got via the Crikey website.

First is on the New Matilda Website, about old school bartering of your excess crops like once was done in the village market square. So these academics aren't really coming up with anything new.

As a note, I've been giving some of mine away. I believe there's an outlet to swap around here or I could swap at the local co-op.

Here's the first article.

I'll Raise You Six Granny Smiths (Apples)

By Sue Jackson

It's early days for food swaps in Australia but, as Sue Jackson writes, they're not just wholesome community affairs, they're signposts to the future of sustainable food

You have a glut of lemons and your family and friends are pleading "No more!". Wild parsley is pushing up your pavers. Your signature banana cake recipe deserves wider public recognition. You have heaps of seed saved from last year’s best chilies. If you have found yourself in any of these situations, perhaps what you need is a neighbourhood food swap.

Of course, food swapping is hardly a new phenomenon. Home gardeners have always exchanged produce or given it away. It is not unusual for community or church events to include swapping of food along with other items like toys or books. And community gardeners regularly share produce.

What is new is the emergence of events designed specifically for food exchange, where no money changes hands, which are organised by people with food security, public health and community building in mind. And although such events are certainly not exclusive to Australia, we are certainly in the vanguard of this exciting new movement.

As the phenomenon is in its infancy it is not easy to obtain comprehensive figures about the level of activity. There are no official, dedicated national or international food swappers newsletters — as yet — and no central bodies registering food swaps or collecting statistics. But we can glean some information.

When Peta Christensen, a Melbourne community gardens support worker, who received a Churchill Fellowship to travel widely to study developments in urban agriculture, compiled her comprehensive report in 2005, she made no mention of food swaps. It seems reasonable to surmise that they were rarities overseas back then. And even today, googling "food swaps" nets a very meagre haul — a few scattered meetings throughout the USA, Canada and the UK.

Here in Australia, food swapping appears to have originated in a project called the Urban Orchard established in 2004 at Melbourne’s Centre for Education and Research in Environmental Strategies (CERES). The project initially focused on utilising the surplus backyard fruit of the abundant plantings of Mediterranean post-war migrants across the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne.

Since then, food swapping at Ceres has extended to include vegetables, herbs, seedlings and seeds. Participants from over 180 local households, representing a mix of age groups and cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, now exchange produce every single Saturday morning. Glenda Lindsay, who two years ago was one of the founders of the Yarra Urban Harvest in Fitzroy, cites the "swap table" at Ceres as a major inspiration.

Ceres Urban Orchard has compiled a national list of food swaps. There are currently four in South Australia — three in Adelaide and one in Gawler. New South Wales has one in Wollongong, and in Queensland, Brighton is a host. Rural Victoria is represented by Sale, but Melbourne is clearly the epicentre — with eight different food exchanges per month.

Food swaps have even attracted some recent mainstream recognition. On 13 March, Ceres, Yarra Neighbourhood Orchard and Cultivating Community co-hosted the "World’s Biggest Eva Vegie Swap" in the City Square as part of Melbourne’s Food and Wine Festival.

The swap stimulated a great deal of media and public interest and over 300 people participated, some of whom were keen to start food exchanges in their own neighbourhoods. Passers-by seemed intrigued by the whole notion of food for free, the most common question being: "How do I know what’s a fair exchange for what I bring?"

I have been involved for some time now with Yarra Urban Harvest, which every month attracts anywhere between 30 and 60 participants.

Because the Yarra swap vegies are invariably freshly picked, they taste like no other. Diversity is also a hallmark, featuring heritage crops and unusual plants adapted to local conditions. Even macadamia nuts made an appearance recently — something extraordinary for inner-city Melbourne. And because storage and refrigeration are not an issue, items like zucchini flowers and nasturtium leaves that have no shelf life are also regular offerings.

There are seasonal variations as to how much produce participants contribute, but at one memorable swap last year at the height of summer more than 90 kilograms of food changed hands.

Sharing of gardening and food lore is one of the other drawcards. Recently, I was selecting some kumquats for marmalade, when I was alerted by a Chinese neighbour to the benefits of salted kumquats for relieving sore throats. Another neighbour, just back from a trip to the north of India, had been introduced to kumquat chutney, flavoured with staranise, ginger, chillies and limejuice.

The swaps are full of camaraderie too — especially as people tend to undervalue what they produce themselves and often have to be pressed to take more home. Food swaps are fun, they promote frugality, and help reduce food miles and waste. They are also, quite simply, signposts to the future.

As Jennifer Alden, CEO of Cultivating Community puts it: "Neighbourhood Vegie swaps are a part of an emerging Alternative Food Economy, a larger community food system. As the impacts of climate change and peak oil become more extreme it’s things like growing our own veggies, sharing resources within our communities and generally relocalising that are going to ensure a resilient and food secure future."

Concern about food security and equity surely informed the decision of Melbourne’s Maribyrnong council to support the Western Urban Harvest Swap that meets monthly in the suburb of Footscray. According to statistics provided by the local Western Region Health Centre, two-thirds of Maribyrnong is a "food desert", with inadequate access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

As part of its five-year plan to rectify the situation, the local council has devised a Vic Health-funded "Fruit and Veg for All" campaign, to which food exchanges are integral. As then Mayor Michelle MacDonald exhorted prior to the launch of the swap 18 months ago: "If you’ve got more olives than you need and more broccoli than you can cook or too many veggies ripening at the same time, come along and share your harvest."

Maybe for you there is something wrong with this picture. Perhaps you don’t know the first thing about gardening. If that’s the case, don’t despair. There are plenty of resources out there to get you started — and plants are very forgiving. In pots, window boxes and on balconies, vertically, in the shade or even in the dark — they can flourish in the unlikeliest circumstances. And of course at food exchanges, small contributions are always welcome; the beauty of seeds is that they grow into something bigger.

At the City Square swap two unrelated contributors turned up with grapes called American Strawberry. One sample was black, soft and fragrant; the fruit tasted like it was about to spontaneously ferment into wine. The other was paler, crisp and refreshing, with a strong undertaste of strawberry.

Clearly different soil types, cultivation methods and solar aspects had had a huge impact on the fruit. Who needs Bordeaux, Marlborough and the Barossa when we can taste marked regional differences within a mere eight inner-city kilometers? So — grab those lemons and get down to your local food swap. If you don’t have one yet, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

And just to contrast this with the second article from Slate regarding the shenanigans in the American tomato (particularly tomato paste industry). The above Matilda article is about swapping good wholesome food, the Slate is about a CEO arrested (on the lam), bribing purchasing mangers at big food companies using over processed tomato paste from those tasteless thick skinned tomatoes made for transporting.

Rotten TomatoesScandal strikes the tomato-paste industry.
By Arthur AllenPosted Friday, March 19, 2010, at 11:21 AM ET

Tomatoes.Scandal strikes the tomato-paste industry

The feds had been investigating his tomato-processing company for more than four years, but Scott Salyer was apparently taken by surprise when the FBI nabbed him at JFK Airport last month. Salyer, who flies his own jet, had been traveling to Paraguay and Andorra, among other locales, looking for an extradition-safe home. He was visiting the United States to see his newborn grandson when the investigation closed in on him.

Prosecutors have assembled a mountain of evidence against Salyer and his company, SK Foods, including tapes in which the 54-year-old orders his underlings to bribe purchasing agents from major food companies such as Kraft, Frito-Lay, Safeway, and Cargill. In some of these conversations, he sounds more like a mafia don than a prince of tomatoes. After a salesman tells Salyer that a buyer at a major food company "needs a retirement program," Salyer responds, "How fast are you going to reel in that fish? I want that sucker on speed reel." He was trying, desperately and aggressively, to keep tomato-paste contracts out of the hands of his rivals and to unload paste that was a bit moldy or watered-down.

Tomato paste may seem like too cheap and unalluring a product to inspire such underhanded dealing. It's not smack, after all. But having written a book on the fruit, I'm not at all surprised that graft has grown out of the tomato fields.


Tomato trucks are a fixture of any summertime drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They barrel down Interstate 5 from the field to the cannery, each one trailing two gondolas loaded with 26 tons of tomatoes. A sharp curve will jolt a few of the small, oval fruits out of the trailers. When they hit the pavement, they bounce.

The bouncing tomato of California is a wonder of science—the fruit of breeding programs that began in the 1940s when Jack Hanna, a cranky olericulturist at the University of California-Davis, got the idea of designing a tomato sturdy enough to be picked by a machine. Hanna was remarkably unsentimental about the old thin-skinned, teardrop-shaped, gooey tomato—the type that made a colorful splash when it hit a politician's shirt. His tomatoes were hard and uniform and bland-tasting. Canned tomatoes would get mixed with spices and condiments "to the point that you don't know what the tomato underneath tastes like anyway," he told a reporter in 1977. Besides, bland was good for business. "The more bland a food is," Hanna said, in a comment that echoes weirdly in an age of overabundance, "the more people eat it."

Today, about 90 percent of professionally grown tomatoes in the United States are canning or "processing" tomatoes, and nearly all of them are grown in California. A single, tiny company that you've never heard of—Morning Star Co., based in Woodland, Calif.—produces around one-quarter of all the commercially grown tomatoes in America. Most canning tomatoes are then turned into concentrated tomato paste. (Though some are diced or sold peeled and whole.)

Grown between Bakersfield and Chico from July to November, the tomatoes in a given field ripen nearly simultaneously and are harvested by gigantic machines that can pick a ton in about 20 seconds. In the 2009 growing season, the five big tomato processors (Morning Star, Rio Bravo, SK Foods, Ingomar, and Los Gatos) paid farmers about $80 for a ton of tomatoes and earned about 50 cents for each pound of paste—enough to make a couple of the Ragu spaghetti sauce jars that you buy for $3.99 each.

The Big Five have enormous operations, but tight regulations and water shortages make it impossible for them to build new canneries. So they must run their existing plants with a frightening efficiency. The California canneries operate 24/7 during the three- to four-month harvest, in which they crank out 12 million tons of paste, stored in large, sterile bins. (The paste is sold to brand-name businesses like Heinz, Nabisco, and Kraft, who turn it into the ketchup, pizza and spaghetti sauces, salsas, and juices that we consume with such gusto.)

Since the bulk processors sell a nearly interchangeable commodity, they're in a fierce competition to win customers by producing paste as cheaply as possible. Scott Salyer, the tomato kingpin who was arrested in February, was being outclassed by his chief rival, and the undisputed champion of tomato efficiency, Morning Star Co.'s Chris Rufer. Salyer, it would seem, resorted to fighting dirty. To keep Morning Star and other competitors from edging him out of deals, prosecutors say he bribed contracting officials. He was also litigious—in fact, he sued Morning Star over a lost customer barely two months before the FBI raided his offices.


I've spent two years talking with people in the tomato business, and in that time I haven't found many willing to volunteer a nice comment about Salyer, whose grandfather "Cockeye" Clarence Salyer came to California in 1918 and at one time owned 50,000 acres of farmland. The Salyers lost most of their land in a battle with the rival Boswell clan. And now he's lost SK Foods, which declared bankruptcy last year. Nine of Salyer's employees or the purchasing managers they bribed had pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges prior to Salyer's arrest. He's being held without bail in Sacramento, facing 20 years in prison if convicted.

Salyer's arrest seems to be the climax of the federal investigation, but food companies have meanwhile filed class action lawsuits against SK and two other big California tomato processors, Ingomar Foods and Los Gatos Foods. The lawsuits claim that the three companies conspired to set domestic prices, a claim they deny. Ingomar and Los Gatos officials have said they rue the day they got involved with Salyer.

If the tomato investigation goes deep enough, other dark secrets might turn up. Six years ago, a field manager for Rio Bravo, Jerry Gilbert, committed suicide in the middle of a legal conflict. A farmer had sued Gilbert, claiming that in previous years—when Gilbert was still working for Morning Star—he requested what amounted to bribes in exchange for a tomato-growing contract. Then, according to the farmer, Gilbert stiffed him.

Gilbert's job was to buy tomatoes from farmers in an area measuring several hundred square miles around Morning Star's cannery in Williams, which is the biggest in the world. It's a complicated affair because the contracts are usually signed in the spring, but the size of the summer harvest is always subject to weather.

A dirty field manager, farmers say, will guarantee you—for a price—a good spot in the harvest schedule, so your tomatoes don't rot on the vine. Or, say you're a farmer and you've contracted to sell one of the companies 50,000 tons of tomatoes, but ended up producing 55,000 tons because of good weather. It's September and you have 5,000 tons of tomatoes sitting ripe in your fields. The field manager will do you a favor: He'll buy your tomatoes for 50 cents on the dollar. What choice do you have? And then maybe he'll put your tomatoes through a dummy contract set up with another farmer, who'll sell them at full price to the cannery and split the returns with his friend the field manager. "There's been every kind of scam you can imagine in this business," says Don Cameron, who manages a large farm near Huron.


As far as the consumer is concerned, the Salyer case is of little significance. Moldy tomatoes don't pose a health risk if they've been cooked and recooked by food processors. And the added price for paste that his buyers paid in return for bribes probably had a negligible effect on consumer prices. It hasn't affected the business much, either. Olam, a Singaporean concern, bought out SK's canneries and has taken up the slack.

Tomato industry folk in California are ready for the whole saga to end."Everyone is so darn happy he's getting his just rewards," said Gwen Young, a tomato executive with Kagome, a Japanese food-processing giant. "We can't have anyone playing underhand. It makes it sound like the rest of us do, and we don't." One bad tomato, she says, doesn't spoil the whole 3,000-pound aseptically sealed box.*
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