Essay: On the Origins of Celery

I write short essays for our farm's newsletter and the local paper. They're aimed mainly at non-farmers,  but I've decided to post some here anyway. Here's a recent one.

On the origins of celery

by Jordan Marr

The year’s first good dose of heat over the last few days did wonders for the radish, beet, and arugula seeds I recently planted. I lifted up some bed blankets yesterday to find a flurry of tiny seedlings emerging from the now toasty soil.

The sudden spate of new growth took me back a few years to my first experiences growing and eating my own vegetables, when I had what was, for a guy with little prior connection to agriculture, a revelation: that vegetables don’t just result from the soil, they are the soil. That is, they are an extension or expression of their soil’s unique properties and characteristics. Did you notice my use of a possessive pronoun? I like to think of every vegetable emerging not from soil in general, but from its own unique piece of it.

Prior to this revelation I found it easy to conceive of a head of celery on my counter as a thing in and of itself; as a commodity, I suppose. But at the moment when I made the connection between the celery and its growing environment, I began equating vegetable consumption with the notion of putting my mouth directly into the soil. It was a strange image that changed my relationship to food and that endures in my mind’s eye.

Meanwhile, a debate rages about the relative healthfulness of organically- versus conventionally-grown crops. Supposedly scientifically-based, it frequently leans into political and ideological territory.

I’m frequently asked for my opinion on the matter. The perception that organic foods are more healthful than conventionally-produced ones appears to be most people’s primary motivation for paying a premium for organic food, and customers often ask me to weigh in. To avoid wading into politicized territory, I shy away from making specific nutritional claims about my crops. I just don't have the technical background to speak authoritatively on the subject.

I don’t think it’s necessary, anyway. My own approach to dietary health involves the assumption that if I eat a mixed diet of whole foods produced in healthy soil things will generally work out for me, health-wise.

And so my response to those who ask me if organic food is more healthful is not a scientific one either. Instead it is rooted in intuition and experience. My belief is that healthy soil is going to be more likely to produce healthy food; that the properties of the end product are inextricably linked to the properties of the growing environment. It is relevant, then, that organic theory and practice, while certainly not perfect, takes as its primary aim the maintenance and ongoing improvement of soil health. This is a characteristic not all food-production methods can claim.

Above all, I think people need to consider their food for the growing environment that produced it, regardless of the particular production method. And not just in terms of its geographical origin, which the buy-local movement has highlighted. But to realize that to eat a tomato is to eat a unique combination of soil, sun, and water, not all of which are made equal.