THE BLOG
05/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Locavore in Turnip Town: In Praise of Veggie Traders

About five years ago, when the term "locavore" had not yet been coined and we all thought that eating organic was about as good as it got, I was driving around town in my Subaru and listening to NPR's Faith Middleton interview Carole Peck. Carole is the chef/owner of Woodbury, Connecticut's Good News Cafe--an establishment that has long prided itself on supporting local food producers and growers in a state that is maddeningly packed to the rafters with both unused farmland and heavily-frequented Taco Bells.

The question that Faith posed was about Carole's propensity for keeping as many local foods on the menu as possible; but what, Faith asked, happens in the winter? Carole, who is neither meek nor mild, recalled a chat she'd had with Alice Waters; when the conversation turned to local foods (as it always does with Alice), Carole's take on the subject was Yankee pragmatic, all the way: "what the hell am I supposed to feed my customers eight months out of the year? TURNIPS?"

Fair question.

This is, alas, the flip side of the locavore movement; sure, most of us know that local and organic foods can be higher in cost (often prohibitively). But what about us poor schmucks who don't live in places like northern California, or whose local food suppliers just don't have the wherewithal to create a year-round growing program, like Elliot Coleman has long done way up in frigid Maine? What am I to do when my neighborhood farmer's market is only open from July until the first week in October (compared to the farmer's market in, say, Middlebury Vermont, which is open from May until the end of October)? Sure, I built my own raised beds; last year, I grew two different types of carrots, and kale and leeks that survived hard frosts and snowstorms and kept me in produce until January. But the three English peas I managed to spawn were eaten by crows, my beets were gnawed on by deer, and my Bright Lights chard had to be literally chiseled out of the frozen Connecticut tundra with a tool that only New Englanders will recognize: a long, heavy, metal pole with a flat end (known in my home as the "thing with the thing on the end of it"), meant to disgorge the enormous rocks on which most of New England stands.

The fact is, eating local during any other time but late Spring, Summer, and early Fall ain't an easy prospect; growing your own is challenging, and buying your own is indisputably expensive. And for every mid-winter reading of my Chez Panisse Cookbook, for every Meyer Lemon craving that I get each November, for every Waters/Bertolli/Tower/Tanis recipe that calls for pulling wild fennel out of my local highway median, I find that, like most very serious, food-focused non-Californians, I sort of want to tear my hair out.

Which is why I celebrated--screeched with delight and relief, in fact--when I discovered one of the most brilliant, simple, and straightforward attempts to hook up local food lovers with other local food lovers, regardless of locations; if Freecycle works (and it does), and Craigslist has changed the way communities do business and interact with each other, why can't vegetable growers and food lovers take take advantage of this same business model? Now, it seems they can, with VeggieTrader.com.

It's a very easy, very community-friendly idea: grow too many tomatoes? Have too much lettuce coming up that you can't use? Looking for Brussels Sprouts starters (like I am) but can't find any at your local nursery? Log onto VeggieTrader.com; tell it what you're looking for or what you have too much of, scour the I WANT postings, and that's it. Whether you choose to sell, give away, or trade your produce is your business, and if you do wind up buying, odds are it will be far cheaper for you to procure your goods from a gardening neighbor than a high-end supermarket. Utter brilliance, and perfect for people like me who are devoted to eating as locally as possible, but who have to jump hurdle over hurdle in order to do it.

Of course, one of my friends mumbled something that sounded vaguely like "Communist" under her breath when I described the process to her. But come December, when she's eating mealy tomatoes that have traveled thousands of miles and been sprayed with enough herbicide and insecticide to knock out a small city, and I open up a jar of fresh Brandywines that I've pickled a day or so after they've been harvested by my Veggie Trader tomato connection, I'll be a happy camper.

I'll still be planting my garden in the coming weeks, and filling it with cukes, beans, and (yes) more peas. And if I find myself filthy with turnips, I'll know exactly where to unload them.