Farm Stand Fruit Isn’t Always the Best

Look before you buy.

When I was a kid, when the harvest months rolled around in northern New Jersey and Upstate New York, my family would take Sunday drives to farm stands and apple orchards. The drive was the activity, the destination was the excuse. The destination also had the rewards: fresh-picked apples, fresh local corn, fresh-made donuts, cider, soft-serve ice cream. The smell of apples and cinnamon and donuts brings back memories of those days.

Just a Memory

A regular destination was Tice Farm, which was founded in 1808. It was torn down in the late 1980s so a mall could be built in its place. This article on NorthJersey.com offers a look back at two of the farms we visited when I was a kid.

It’s this fond memory of farm stands that has always remained with me. It’s no wonder I began visiting a handful of farm stands in Washington State where I spent much of the summer. But I soon realized that today’s farm stands cannot be compared to the ones we visited 30+ years ago.

Today’s farm stands are mostly tourist attractions. Sure, they have some produce (more on that in a moment), but they also seem to sell an awful lot of non-food items that can’t easily be connected with a farm. Things like candles and scarves and t-shirts. Things like made-in-China “crafts.” Stocking and selling these items must be more satisfactory for the farm stand owner. After all, they’re cheap to buy, don’t need to be refrigerated, and don’t spoil. Sure, they’re usually the same kind of crap you can buy in any mall — even Tice’s Corner Mall — and probably even in a local Walmart. But tourists don’t care. They come, they buy, the farm stand owners keep them stocked.

Reject Fruit?

It’s the produce that upsets me, though. I visited a farm stand in Quincy, WA several times early this summer, attracted by its handmade signs for whatever “fresh” produce was currently available. What I found was often produce that was bruised or otherwise damaged, days old and, surprisingly, often not local.

I bought my first cherries of the season there and was disappointed to find that nearly half the bag’s contents had to be discarded because of splits and bird pecks. This is the fruit that the packing companies reject.

I suspect that the cherries I’d bought were from orchards in Mattawa that had lost 60% or more of their crop in heavy rains early in the season. (That’s what the helicopters are for, folks — to keep those cherries dry so they don’t split.) When the grower decides not to pick and take a loss for the season, the pickers will sometimes go into business for themselves, picking fruit and selling it directly to farm stands.

Rainier Cherries

These organic Rainier cherries, although ripe and tasty, were flawed for two reasons: they’re slightly bruised by the wind and there’s not enough red on them.

I saw this first hand at one of my client’s orchards this season. He had several acres of Rainier cherries that didn’t get enough color. (50% of a Rainier cherry needs to be red to meet standards.) The fruit was good — I picked at least 15 pounds for my own consumption and they lasted two weeks in my fridge — but the packing companies wouldn’t take it. The grower didn’t pick but the pickers descended on the orchard anyway, taking away a lot more fruit than I did. Was it a coincidence that local Rainier cherries appeared in the supermarket for 99¢ a pound that week? I don’t think so. I’m sure that farm stand got their share, too.

Fresh, Quality, Local Produce? Not Always

And that’s the point: the farm stands don’t always get quality produce. It’s not always local. It’s not always fresh. It’s whatever they can get cheap and sell at premium prices. The tourists don’t know any better. They see farm stands and they think fresh, local, organic. They don’t realize that they’re often buying the produce that the packing houses don’t want.

Is all this produce bad? No. The cherries pictured above were sub-standard for the packing houses, but they were perfectly good to eat. (And it’s good to see that someone was picking them and making them available for consumption — I picked so much primarily because the idea of all those cherries going to waste was very upsetting to me.) Still, a farm stand might charge a premium for them just because they’re Rainiers and just because they’re at a farm stand. It’s the sucker tourist who doesn’t know any better who is paying a premium price at the farm stand when they might get better fruit at the local supermarket.

As for local…well, I’ve never seen an orange grove in Washington State. Lemons, limes, kiwis — these are all produce you might find at a farm stand. If you’re looking for local produce, think of what you’re buying and ask if it really is local.

And fresh? Here’s a secret: apples are picked in the late summer and early autumn. If you buy an apple anywhere in the U.S. in May, it’s either not fresh or it not local. Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy apples off season — apples are one of the few fruits that we’re able to preserve for up to a year and maintain in near-fresh condition. I’m just using apples as an example, since apples appear at nearly every farm stand you might visit.

Look before You Buy

My point: don’t automatically think that the best produce can be found at a farm stand. Not all farm stands are created equally. Look before you buy. Ask questions. Don’t buy pre-bagged items — remember my bag of bad cherries? Make sure you get what you’re paying for.

And support the good farm stands — the ones really delivering produce right from the local farms — by visiting them often.

Stress Levels Rise as Blogging Frequency Falls

Something I’ve noticed.

You may have noticed that my blogging activity has dropped off again. There are two reasons for this:

  • I’ve tried three times to write a blog entry and all three times the text is moving off on a tangent that leads to a dead end. I’m blocked.
  • I’m working against three deadlines, only one of which is self-imposed, to get a bunch of stuff done. I can’t seem to work as quickly as I used to.

Whatever the reason, I’m blogging less and feeling more stressed. Some people might argue that those two things are not related, but I think they are, at least in part.

When I start my day with a blog post, as I did each day last week, I feel good about myself and ready to start the day. Maybe it’s because I’ve managed to produce something at the very start of my day, before most folks are even awake. Maybe it’s because it sets the pace of my day to get more done. Maybe it’s because writing in my blog often helps get things off my chest or out of my head, stored in a safe place so I can clear them from my mind. In any case, blogging helps me to think and to work better.

What’s on My Mind

This week I’ve got a ton on my mind.

My company was mentioned in Arizona Highways magazine and that has led to a dramatic increase in calls for my flying services. In the past two weeks, I’ve sold three 6-day excursions and have at least two other people seriously considering it. If this pace keeps up, I’ll be flying two to three excursions a month during the spring and autumn months. While this is a great thing, it also brings on a lot of stress — making reservations, worrying about customer satisfaction, thinking about weather and helicopter maintenance issues — the list goes on and on.

This stress is only complicated by the fact that I’m working on a book revision that I need to have done by mid-May. While the software I’m writing about isn’t technically even in beta yet, it’s pretty stable. But there are a few features that simply don’t work. I don’t have access to the bug reporter, where I normally contribute to the company’s efforts to identify and squash bugs, so I don’t know if they are aware of the little problems I’m seeing. And, in the back of my mind, is the possibility that the software’s interface might change. I’m 5 chapters into a 24 chapter book right now — a book rich with thousands of screen shots — and if there’s a major interface change tomorrow or next week or as I’m wrapping up, I’ll have to do the whole revision all over again. How’s that for a stressful thought?

And why do I need the book done by mid-May? That’s another stressful situation. I’ve been contracted for cherry drying in Washington State this summer. Unfortunately, I haven’t been given a start date yet. It’ll take me a week to get the helicopter up to Seattle for its annual inspection, come home to get my truck and trailer, and drive back up there to my contract starting point. But I don’t have any details about where or when I’ll begin work. I could theoretically get a call next week — while I’m on one of my excursions — telling me to report in on May 5. I’d have to scramble hard to make that happen.

Related to this is my need to fill at least one seat on the flight from the Phoenix area to the Seattle area. It’s about a 10 hour flight and the cost of such a flight is enormous. I need a couple of passengers or a helicopter pilot interested in building time to bring in some revenue for the flight. Trouble is, it’s hard to get the word out, few people who hear about it understand what an incredible opportunity the flight is, and those people who do want to go simply don’t have that kind of money. My summer profitability depends, in part, on covering my costs for the ferry flight with revenue.

And on top of all this is the video project from hell, which I prefer not to discuss here until it has been resolved.

So you can see why my mind might not be tuned in properly for blogging.

Taking it One Day at a Time

I know that the best way to work through this stressful time is to take one day at a time and get as much done as possible. My main motivation is peace of mind. The more things I complete, the fewer things I’ll have on my mind to stress me out. While some thing are out of my control — will they change the user interface of the software? will I be called to Washington before mid May? — others aren’t. I just need to plug away at them until I get them taken care of.

And I need to blog every morning. It sure does feel better when I do.

The First Day of Spring at our House

The start of our annual fight against the sun.

On Twitter, lots of folks are talking about the fact that today is the first day of spring. That day has special meaning in our Arizona household. It’s the start of “blinds closed” season.

Upstairs
One of two upstairs rooms in our house. I took this shot with a fisheye lens, so things are a bit distorted, but it shows the three big windows.

Our house sits diagonally on its lot. The front faces northeast; the back faces southwest. The second floor has two 4 foot by 8 foot windows facing front — northeast — and one similarly sized window facing the side — southeast. In the winter, sun coming through that side window most of the day helps keep our house warm. The windows work together to keep the house bright — that second floor room is open to the downstairs.

I like living in a bright place with big windows. It makes me feel good — healthy and alive, part of nature even while indoors.

Anyway, what we’ve found is that when mid-March rolls along, the sun starts to angle into those two big, front windows for the entire morning. While that’s quite nice when daytime temperatures outside are in the 60s and 70s, it’s not very nice when those temperatures reach toward triple digits. The sun warms the upstairs when we’re trying to keep it cool. The solution: lower the blinds to shut out the sun.

Downstairs
The upstairs room is open to downstairs, so the big windows let in a lot of light

Blinds and curtains in our house are an afterthought. We don’t have any neighbors close enough to look in, so there’s no real need for privacy. My office and the guest room have blinds because they both get overnight guests once in a while — I’ve found that most guests just keep the blinds closed all the time they’re with us. (I can’t figure that out. Why would someone choose to live in darkness in such a bright, sunny place?)

The two upstairs rooms have blinds or curtains strictly to block out the sun half the year. And we need them. If we didn’t have them and use them, the air conditioning simply would not be able to keep up with the power of that bright sun shining in those big windows in spring and summer. So we begin lowering the blinds in that room on the first day of spring.

At first, we lower them just in the morning and raise them after noon. But later, as the sun creeps northward and spends more time shining in, we keep them closed all day. You see, as the sun shines on the house, it also heats up the double-pane glass, which then radiates heat into the house. The blinds offer another layer of protection.

The first day of spring is a kind of sad day for me. It means the end of the bright mornings in my house and the prelude to what I’ve begun calling hell season. You might know it as summer.

Goofing Off on a Summer Sunday

Getting hot, tired, and stinky.

The original plan, when I left the house with Jack the Dog this morning, was to go to the airport and wash the helicopter before it got too hot out.

Immediately Sidetracked

It was about 8 AM when I left the house. I stopped off at the supermarket to buy a case of bottled water for the hangar. I store the water in the fridge and bring it on trips for my passengers. I bought Arrowhead because it’s spring water (not from a “municipal source”) and tastes pretty good to me.

At the airport, I swung past the high rent district. That’s our pet name for the newer hangars on the northeast end of the developed area. (Our hangar is in the originally, low-rent district.) I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a few people out: Ivan and Shelley, Dave and his friend (who turned out to be my accountant’s son), and Ray and his mechanic.

Dave is renting space for his Hughes 500C in John’s big hangar while John has his Commander in Colorado, where he’s smart (and rich) enough to live in the summer time. I pulled up alongside the open hangar door.

“Going out?” I asked.

“Yeah. I haven’t flown in a month. I got get the dust off it first.”

“Where are you heading?”

“Well, there’s a narrow canyon with a creek in it up around Hillside. I think there’s a place to land down in there. You want to come?”

I did and told him so. But then Jack and I went to chat with Ivan while Dave dusted his helicopter. And I started thinking that I really should just wash the helicopter.

Meanwhile, Dave and his friend pushed the helicopter out and we closing the hangar door. “Is Ray going, too?” I asked.

Dave told me he might, but not right away. He had some things to iron out with his mechanic. And they were thinking of going to the Weaver cabins instead. The raspberries should be ready for picking.

I told him that I might meet them there. Then Jack and I got back into the Jeep and headed to our hangar where my dusty helicopter waited.

Heli Outings, the Wickenburg Way

I should mention something here. When we go on helicopter outings, we each take our own helicopter. Even though we each have four seats and we seldom have more than one companion, we still all climb into separate aircraft. It’s worse when there’s only one of us in each helicopter.

Dave tells a story about when he, Ray, and Jim explored a plane crash site out in the desert, “Yeah, we burned 90 gallons an hour to get three guys out there.”

In our hangar, I had to make a decision. Go or not go? And if I go, what do I do with Jack the Dog?

I decided to go and to bring Jack the Dog with me. After all, he’d earned his wings over a year before and had flown twice in the helicopter.

I loaded up my little cooler with three bottles of water and an ice pack from the fridge. Then I got Jack’s harness and the saddle blanket we use to protect the back seats when he’s in there. He trotted alongside the golf cart as I wheeled the helicopter out to the fuel pumps.

Meanwhile, Dave had started up his helicopter and hover-taxied to the fuel island. He was shutting down as we approached. The fuel guy came out as I was removing the wheels and I told him to top off both tanks. I had a flight to Meteor Crater at 6 AM the next day and I didn’t want to worry about fueling in the dark.

While he fueled, I tried to put the harness on Jack, got it on sideways, and spread the blanket on the back seats. I patted the seat and he jumped in. Then I fastened his harness to the seatbelt. It was the first time I was flying with Jack without another human on board and I didn’t want him getting excited and jumping into the front seat area. Especially since my door was off.

Ray had pulled his helicopter out of his hangar on its dolly and left it parked on the other end of the ramp. As I started up, he fired his up, too. And Dave started up.

A typical summer Sunday afternoon at Wickenburg’s otherwise dead airport: three helicopters starting up on the ramp.

The Weaver Cabins

Dave made a radio call and took off to the north. Ray hovered over to the taxiway without making a radio call. I didn’t know what he was up to.

“You going, Ray?” I asked.

“No, you go on,” he said. I realized he was still working on things with his mechanic.

I made my call and took off after Dave. Of course, I’d lost sight of him. He had a two minute head start and was flying a dark colored helicopter. I knew he’d be flying low — he and Ray always do — so I figured I’d just stay high. I was approaching Round Mountain near Box Canyon when I tuned into the air-to-air frequency we’d chosen.

“Dave, you up?”

“Yeah. Can you hear me?”

“Yeah,” I relied. “Where are you?”

He told me he was just flying over Ray’s gravel pit, which was out to my left. I couldn’t see him, but I stayed high.

I caught sight of him a few minutes later. “I got you,” I said. “I’ll pull in behind you.”

A few weeks ago, there was a midair collision in Phoenix with two news helicopters crashing into a park. All four people in the two aircraft died. Local helicopter pilots are still pretty shook up over this. I wasn’t flying with anyone unless I could see him.

I dropped down to Dave’s altitude, which was only a few hundred feet off the desert floor. I saw a lot of cows. In the back, Jack was standing up, leaning against the back wall behind the seats. Putting dog hair on the fabric there, I knew.

Dave overflew the ghost town of Octave and then started climbing up the canyon beyond it. I followed. We had a 2,500 foot elevation gain ahead of us to cross over the mountains. Dave took it close to the ground, following the earth up. I flew more conservatively, climbing to maintain a reasonable elevation over the terrain. At one point, my climb rate was 1,000 feet per minute. I realized I was catching up with Dave and reduced power.

Over the mountain, Dave did a pushover into the valley. I can’t do pushovers in my helicopter. Well, not aggressive ones, anyway. No low-G operations permitted. So I dumped the collective and glided down behind him.

Now I’ve been to the cabins about a half dozen times and I’ve always landed in the same spot — a flat spot on the arm of a mountain about 1/10 mile from the cabins. The last time I was there, I set up a line of white rock to mark the spot. But it was also in my GPS. Dave headed toward my spot, then looked as if he was going to land a bit to the east of it. So I moved toward my spot. That’s when Dave realized he had the wrong landing zone and I realized that my landing zone and Dave’s were the same. So I turned 90° and landed on the very edge of my spot, right beside some cacti and bushes where the arm of the mountain drops off. He found a flat spot about 75 feet behind me.

Weaver CabinsA while later, we were down in a canyon beside a spring-fed creek. Flies were biting. We checked out the condition of the larger cabin, then examined the raspberry bushes. We were at least two weeks too late.

It was cool and pleasant in the shade, despite the bugs. I wished I worn long, lightweight pants and hiking shoes. At least I had water.

Jack was having a ball, running around and checking everything out.

Helicopter OutingWe heard an approaching helicopter, then saw Ray circling above the trees. We walked out where he could see us. Although he normally lands in a clearing on the other side of the creek, he found a spot near us. We were back by the helicopters when he shut down. I snapped this photo with my Treo for my TumbleLog. That’s Ray’s Hughes 500D on the right and Daves Hughes 500C on the left with my big fat tail (take it anyway you want) in the foreground.

Ray had two passengers with him and he took them down to see the cabins. He told us that there was a fig tree in a clearing upstream. Figs, of course, are in season right now and everyone loves fresh figs. I still don’t know if he was bullshitting us, but we never found the fig tree and he wouldn’t walk upstream to show us where it was.

On to the Canyon

Dave decided to continue on to his first destination, which was the canyon up near Hillside. One by one, we started off and took off. Ray went first — he wanted to be off the ground before I brought my RPM up to 100% and blew dust into his cockpit. (Both guys fly with all doors off most of the year; I only had one door off because I’ve been flying passengers lately.) Then I went. Then Dave. Ray disappeared quickly. I followed Dave over another mountain and northwest toward Hillside.

I watched Dave fly from my perch about 200 feet above him and 1/4 mile back. He flew close to the ground, following the earth. He’d climb over a small hill and drop down on the other side. I either flew around the little hills or glided over them. I lost him when he reached the boulders west of Hillside, then picked him up again when he climbed into sight for me.

Then he was turning, following a canyon, dropping down even lower.

“Yeah, there isn’t enough room for both of us there,” Dave said into the radio. I looked down and saw Ray parked alongside a stream in the bottom of the canyon.

“Jeez, Ray, there’s barely enough room down there for one.”

“Oh, it’s not that tight,” he told me.

Dave turned and went back downstream. I lost sight of him for a moment, then saw him on a sandbar about 1/4 mile downstream from Ray.

“There’s another sandbar right in front of me,” he told me. “I think there’s room for you.”

But in all honesty the location didn’t seem very appealing to me. It was in full sun and there wasn’t much water flowing. I was wearing Keds, which don’t make very good hiking shoes. And although those guys have more rotor blades than I do, mine are almost twice as long. I needed a good, big spot. I probably could have found one, but I didn’t think it was worth the effort.

Besides, I’d gone to the airport to wash my helicopter and I still had some work waiting for me back in my office.

“I think I’ll just head back,” I told him.

“Are you sure?” Dave asked.

“Yeah. I got work to do. Have fun. Fly safe.”

Ray was still on the radio. “Dave, you on the ground?”

But Dave had either turned off his radio or, more likely, the signal was blocked in the rocky canyon. “He’s on the ground,” I reported. “About a quarter mile downstream. I’ll see you guys later.”

I climbed out and punched Wickenburg Airport into my GPS. I was close to the plane crash site Ray had shown me months ago, but I didn’t overfly it. Instead, I made a beeline back to Wickenburg, by way of Congress. It was a 41 NM flight. I made it in under 30 minutes and set down at the fuel island for more fuel. I’d flown 0.9 hours.

Down to Business

Of course, by that point I was hot and tired. Too tired to wash the helicopter. But I had to get that job done. It was dirty — I’d flown in the rain a few weeks ago and it had gotten badly dusted up at the cabins hours before. My passengers the next day were paying $1,200 for a flight to Meteor Crater and Winslow, AZ (made famous in that Eagle’s song). For that kind of money, they should fly in a clean helicopter.

So I put the helicopter away in the hangar, hopped into the Jeep with Jack the Dog, and drove back to the supermarket. I bought a sandwich, iced tea, and a tapioca pudding and drove back to the airport. I connected my iPod to my boom box, and listened to the last four Grammar Girl podcasts while I ate. Then I tuned in the Future Tense podcast playlist I’d created, rolled the helicopter out, and got down to work.

I hate washing the helicopter on a hot day. The challenge is keeping the water from drying on it before I get a chance to dry it with a towel. My post about washing the helicopter explains the process, so I won’t explain it again here. I will say, however, that I got so hot that I had to hose myself off. Twice. I must have sweat out everything I drank that day.

I put the helicopter back into the hangar and dried it. Then I did some paperwork. Jack hung out under my desk in the back of the hangar. It was too hot, even for him to chase lizards.

Now I’m back in my cool house with a nice cold egg cream in my belly. I’ll shower, put on clean clothes, and get down to the real work.

Chapter 23 awaits completion.

WebCam Timelapse – July 16, 2007

It’s getting closer!

My WebCam has been faithfully making timelapse movies every day. I’m trying not to bore you by showing you all of them.

Yesterday’s sky was extremely active. Cloudy then mostly sunny then cloudy with an approaching thunderstorm. This video shows an excellent example of a typical monsoon summer day here in Arizona. The storm was fast approaching and Mike and I really thought we’d get poured on. But when the sun sets, the storm’s main source of energy is removed. It dissipates quickly — usually within an hour of sunset. And although yesterday’s storm got close — probably within 20 miles — it died before it reached us.

Darn!

Here’s the video from the day. I’ve tweaked the settings to shoot a new frame every 8 minutes and create the video at the framrate of 5 frames per second. That stretches out the video to 20 seconds without making a major increase in the file size.

Remember, after clicking this image, you may have to wait a few seconds for it to load before it starts playing. Be patient and click only once. It’ll play right in this window. QuickTime is required.