Last summer, I visited a grocery store in Chicago that was selling boatloads of peaches labeled “southern peaches.” They were tiny, mealy, flavorless little waifs.
Lack of local produce at supermarkets frustrates me in general, but I found the lack of local peaches especially odd considering that Paul Friday (of “Flamin’ Fury” fame) lived close enough to Chicago that he drove to a downtown farmers market for many years. Orchards and farms surround Chicago.
Indeed, if someone from another time or planet visited the average U.S. grocery store (knowing nothing about what was going on outside that store) they might think only a few places in the U.S. were able to grow produce at all.
But the problem isn’t a lack of available land or good soil, it is just that most supermarkets want to deal with only a few farms to source their product, and they don’t want to have to purchase locally grown produce that’s only available for a few short months. As one former produce manager from a chain supermarket wrote, “Customers expect us to have a 52-week program on all our items. It’s very hard to deal with a company that says ‘We have these tomatoes from April until December.’ I need places that will give a consistent year-round product.”
And to get a consistent year-round product, they need produce that can ship well from those regions that an alien would think grew all our produce. They sacrifice flavor to achieve transportability.
So, part of what makes Wolff’s able to do what it does so well is that customers value the chance to shop with the seasons. You wait for the “real” tomatoes in the summer. You read our newsletters to see what new local produce we’ve selected from family farms within a 50 mile radius. You read our signage to find out which farms the produce comes from! In the winter, you don’t expect the bountiful local produce that you can find in the summer because you know that to get “consistent” year-round products, you’d be settling for consistently bland!
And you know how that’s particularly true for what Wolff’s calls “The Big Three.” You know that there’s no tomato like a local tomato, no peach like a local peach, no sweet corn like local sweet corn.
So let’s take a closer look at what’s different about Wolff’s vs. a grocery store for these three local crops we await each summer.
Sweet corn is best right after it’s harvested. Within three days, its sugar/starch ratio can change from 80:20 to 20:80 as the sugar converts into starch. That’s what makes it turn tough and bland as it ages.
Wolff’s receives morning deliveries of fresh-picked corn every single day, for as long as the local corn season lasts. Yep, it was on the stalk that very morning! Throughout the season, we always have white, usually have bicolor, and sometimes get the rarer fully yellow corn.
And you can always find out which local farm family grew it. “Some are in southeastern Pennsylvania,” says Fran Wolff, “some in South Jersey, and some in northern Delaware. All are within a 50 mile radius, and we have the unique opportunity of being able to pick and choose which farmer we want to get corn from based on whose corn is tasting the best and is at the height of its season at that time.”
At a supermarket, it’s more of a mystery. No supermarket I know of guarantees that their corn has been picked that morning. One farm’s web site claims that “corn has travelled anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks to get to the grocer.”
In fact, old sweet corn is such a problem that I found this advice on What’s Cooking America’s vegetable buying guide:
If for some reason corn is not being used immediately or has been purchased from the supermarket, add sugar to replace that which has been lost. Add one teaspoon sugar for each quart of water.
At Wolff’s, you won’t have to add sugar to the water. The corn is naturally sweet and nutritious just by virtue of being fresh!
Tomatoes & Peaches
Fran notes that chain supermarkets run into the same problem for both tomatoes and peaches. The problem? They’re picked too early and then transported.
“If you were to grow a tomato in Florida,” says Fran Wolff, “and let it get dead ripe on the vine, and pick it and eat it, it would be predictably be fantastic. But the reason why Florida tomatoes are so often NOT good here in Pennsylvania is that they MUST be picked two weeks too early so that by the time they get here they aren’t overripe and rotten.”
Wolff’s peaches and tomatoes come from small local family farms. These farms, says Fran, “specialize in picking their peaches and tomatoes nice and ripe so that they have the best flavor possible when eaten.”
But what if you do see local peaches or tomatoes at a big supermarket in the summer?
“They almost always get their peaches and tomatoes in big huge batches,” says Fran, “from big local peach and big local tomato farms that pick their peaches and tomatoes two weeks too early so that they can be shipped wherever. And, a grocery store chain will usually store their peaches and tomatoes in their central warehouse for a few days to a few weeks.”
Peaches need to be tree-ripened, says Fran. And tomatoes need to be vine-ripened. Having the means and the desire to let them ripen in their native environment is what sets Wolff’s apart. Many grocery stores “often simply want big batches, all at once, local or not.”
And it’s not only the timing that’s different. “We get varieties of peaches and tomatoes that are absolutely fantastic,” adds Ashley Wolff. “Varieties that are grown for flavor, sweetness and juiciness. Even the LOCAL varieties of peaches and tomatoes that supermarkets tend to sell are ones that are meant to pack, ship, and store well, and flavor is sacrificed. So in a nut shell, not only are supermarket tomatoes and peaches picked before they are ripe, they are varieties that are engineered for practicality not taste.”
“This attention to detail to get the right peaches and tomatoes picked at the right time from the right farmers,” says Fran, “and getting the right corn from the right growers first thing every single morning is what makes the ‘big three’ taste so much better at Wolff’s than many other produce stores!”