What if Local Isn't Tastier?

In my heart I would like to be a locavore purist, eating food grown or raised within a 500-mile radius of my house. When I read about Broadway East, a restaurant opening this fall in New York City that is going to serve three locavore squares a day, I applauded. I believe in local food, slow food, and every other kind of "food" movement that supports local farmers and sustainable agriculture. I pledge allegiance to Alice Waters every day. But what's a localist to do when the cherries taste better from Washington, 3,000 miles away from where this local yokel calls home?

All summer, I have been eating local cherries sold at both my local farmers' market and at Whole Foods, and though every once in a while I hit a vein of firm, sweet cherries, more often than not I'm left holding the bag (of cherries, that is) because the cherries weren't good enough to finish. So I am forced by my obsessive, compulsive search for the perfect bite to buy Washington state cherries at my local supermarkets and to even have them air-lifted to me at some justifiably inflated cost. And those cherries grown oh so far away are invariably better—firmer, sweeter, and tastier.

I have talked to farmers in New York state and in California about this issue. I have spent days on both coasts in the company of these farmers in their fields and orchards and at farmers' markets. My conclusion: Local does not trump nature and science. The best peach growers and cherry growers in California, for example, use sophisticated farming and irrigation techniques to produce cherries, peaches, and nectarines that just taste better. That superior taste is also a result of the climatic conditions they deal with. For example, Ron Mansfield of Gold Bud Farms combines his degree from the University of California Cooperative Extension and the requisite amount of sun, water, and cool nights to grow peaches that are far superior to anything you can get in Georgia, New Jersey, Texas, or any other state that proclaims peach superiority.

Conversely, Jim Kent at Locust Grove Farm in Milton, New York, grows apples on the land that six generations of his family have tilled that are so good they put any apple I have eaten in California to shame. And I have eaten New Jersey strawberries from Tim Stark's Eckerton Hill Farms in a restaurant with Alice Waters that had her swooning with delight. After she could swoon no more, she said, "We just can't get strawberries this good in California."

So I still pledge allegiance to Waters, localism, slow food, and sustainable agriculture, while at the same time recognizing that sometimes things just taste better grown in one region rather than another. Jim Kent explained this phenomenon this way: "As farmers, we can only work with what God gives us." That makes Jim not a religious man but a realist.