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Field of Greens

I spent my first 30 years in tomato hell. The only tomatoes I remember were a dull combination of pale skin, bland flavor and mealy texture. I've since learned about the wonderful effects of vine ripening. I've also learned that it takes a good farmer to grow a good tomato...
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I spent my first 30 years in tomato hell. The only tomatoes I remember were a dull combination of pale skin, bland flavor and mealy texture. I've since learned about the wonderful effects of vine ripening.

I've also learned that it takes a good farmer to grow a good tomato.

The best tomato I ever ate was at a farmers' market in San Francisco. It had been picked that day on an organic farm in Napa Valley.

What made this tomato so special? Was it the soil in the Napa Valley, the farmer's skill, the variety of tomato? Or do I owe my taste epiphany to the wonders of organic farming?

I recently took a tour of a local organic farm with Chris Bianco, owner of Pizzeria Bianco, who often espouses the values of organic produce, especially if it's locally grown. We went to one of his favorite local suppliers, Blue Sky Farms on 189th Avenue in Litchfield Park.

Blue Sky's 120 acres are certified organic by Quality Assurance International, a San Diego firm that specializes in verifying the authenticity of organically grown food and other products. Because the state of Arizona doesn't regulate or certify organic farms, local growers go through a voluntary process through out-of-state organizations -- like QAI. The Arizona Department of Agriculture keeps no statistics about organic farming in the state, not even a listing of organic farms.

Natural fertilizers and no pesticides are part of the organic formula. At Blue Sky, the fields are fertilized with aged, composted manure that's mixed into the soil once a year. Manure is never put on top of the greens. A mix of blood meal and bat guano is used to fertilize the crops after planting.

Since manure and blood meal can be obtained from local sources, at least theoretically, they fit under the umbrella of "sustainability."

One of the more complex issues associated with organic farming, sustainability is an ideological concept. A farm, neighborhood or city that produces all of its own food is the embodiment of the concept. Sustainability means self-sufficiency.

Of course, a theoretical town could use locally made chemical fertilizer. But avoidance of unnatural things is also part of the organic/sustainability formula, so chemicals don't belong on an organic farm.

I heard a woman make the ultimate declaration of belief in sustainability at a Chef's Collaborative conference. The Collaborative is a group of food professionals who believe in organic and sustainable farming. This woman said that she never ate food that wasn't grown in her own community. She was proud that she didn't eat pineapple unless she was in Hawaii.

Regardless of ideology, there are three reasons to farm organically. Assuming that organic food tastes better, flavor is a fortuitous by-product, not a reason by itself.

First is the health argument -- many people believe that using no chemical fertilizer or pesticide means more healthful food.

Second is the environmental argument -- no chemical applications means a safer, less-polluted environment.

Finally (an argument agribusiness can savor) is the economic argument -- if done properly, organic farming can be cheaper. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are expensive.

From what I could see on my tour of Blue Sky Farms, organic farming doesn't look like an inexpensive undertaking.

During the growing and picking season, Blue Sky, with its 120 acres, employs 60 to 80 people. These people plant, pick, clean, package and ship the produce. The fields are immaculate, and all of the weeding is done by hand.

I toured Blue Sky with Bianco and the farm's owner, David Vose. I saw a lot of green. I had no idea that so many kinds of lettuce and other salad greens grew in Arizona. Ninety percent of Blue Sky's business is salad.

Cleaning the salad greens is labor-intensive. After picking, the greens are placed on grids and lowered into a huge half-cylinder vat filled with 38-degree water. Fresh water is used for each batch. Workers in insulated gloves clean and pick over the leaves. The leaves are spun in an industrial-size salad spinner, and then they're boxed and stored in an enormous walk-in refrigerator.

The Blue Sky Farms mesclun mix (young salad greens) is served in many local restaurants -- including Pizzeria Bianco. The mix varies depending on the season, but always has a combination of at least 25 kinds of lettuce, salad greens, edible flowers and herbs.

Each green is distinct. Flavors range from sweet to bitter, peppery to earthy, and subtle to bold. They're all fresh. Every bite has a different blend of tastes to wow your mouth. You can buy Blue Sky's mesclun mix at AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods and Whole Foods Market.

As we walked through the farm, we came to a field of peppery-flavored arugula. In the bright sun, it was a vivid green color. It was the freshest salad I've ever seen. It was alive. I got a craving for an arugula salad -- with a simple vinaigrette and a little goat cheese.

After seeing produce this fresh, I know why Bianco considers it "a blessing" to cook for a living.

Vose showed me a storage room filled with jars, bags and canisters of seeds -- seeds for spinach, red chard, rainbow chard, collard greens, Italian dandelions, red rib dandelions, romaine lettuce, red and green butter lettuce, beets, carrots, fennel, French breakfast radishes, snow peas, snap peas, and dozens more. All organic. This means that the parent plants were organically grown.

A good farmer-restaurateur relationship has its rewards. For example, Bianco doesn't like baby beets because, he says, they're not sugary enough if they're too small. He wants them a little bigger than a golf ball. He actually showed Vose the size he wants, pointing out the ones that were a bit too small or large. Vose made it clear that Blue Sky will be happy to grow and pick beets to Bianco's specifications.

But what about the majority of consumers who don't know their farmers, and can't have food grown to order? If the Arizona Department of Agriculture doesn't keep tabs on organic growers, how can consumers?

For me, the best way to assess food, organic or otherwise, is by taste. That gets us back to my tomato and why it tasted so good. Organic farming probably had something to do with its great taste. The farmer's skill probably counted for more.

Blue Sky's mesclun mix is good because a good farmer who happens to believe in organic methods grew it.

Chris Bianco told me an old Italian saying as we drove back from the farm: "You grow grapes for your children, and olives for your grandchildren."

Organic farmers grow food to eat today, but they stand with only one foot in the present. Like the Italian farmer, they also have a foot planted squarely in a future they hope to influence and enhance.

Contact Andy Broder at his online address: [email protected]

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