How do we get fresh produce in the middle of winter?

One evening in late December, my daughter Molly and I were enjoying her favorite meal. The wonderful and tasty dish called calabacitas requires fresh green summer squash, fresh yellow crookneck squash, fresh yellow onions, fresh jalapenos, fresh roasted corn and as a topping, fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Earlier that day, as we were slicing and chopping, and the smells of the greens and reds and yellows brought back memories of New Mexico and her mother cooking, my daughter looked up and said, “Where do you get fresh squash and tomatoes in December? Weird, huh?”

I had to stop and think a minute. She is right: It is weird if you think about it. How is it that we are able to get fresh summer vegetables in the middle of winter in the Hudson Valley? If we follow the seasons of the year, squash and onions – and really, all produce – should not be available to us until at least June, unless you are using winter squash and onions from storage. (Winter squash is squash you pick in fall, like a Hubbard or acorn, and then cure or store for use in winter. It has a thicker skin and a completely different taste from summer zucchini.)

Taking my contact list in hand and using my experience in food supplies, along with my (perhaps now) useful degree in Agriculture, I set out to find out just how this fresh produce reached our table in December. Where did it come from?

Squash is a fairly fragile vegetable; hence the name. Like all vegetables, it is composed of water, sugar and fibers inside a thin and delicate skin. There are more than 15 varieties. For optimal nutritional value and taste, most are eaten during the season in which they are grown, because, once picked, squash last about 14 days under the best of conditions. After that, they begin to lose their water content, dry out, get moldy and end up as trash or compost. And like all produce, squashes begin to lose their flavor and nutritional value the moment that they are picked. You might say they depreciate. So, squash must get to the grocery-store shelf quickly – right?

I asked a local grocer how often he received produce deliveries. I was told three to four times per week: about every other day. A look at the boxes in back told me that the produce came from either Mexico or Arizona. I remembered that the produce-growing regions in January are primarily in Florida and Arizona. As the days lengthen, growing regions slowly advance north. An old friend of mine, still in the produce business, describes the actual movement of growing regions as more like this:

January to March: Florida, south Texas, Arizona, Mexico
March to June: Florida, California, then up the coast from Georgia to eventually New Jersey
June to August: everywhere except south Texas, Arizona, southern New Mexico
September to October: southward retreat to Florida, California
November to December: California, Arizona, south Texas, Mexico

Phoenix, Arizona is 2,144 miles as the crow flies. If the little green squash came from Arizona, as the list above verifies its December location, it had been on the road 36 hours at a minimum.

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