By Dennis Thompson
(HealthDay News) -- Elanor O'Brien and her husband, Jack, have worked the fields of Persephone Farm in Lebanon, Ore., since 1985, growing fresh produce for the surrounding area.
"We grow about 14 acres of vegetables," O'Brien said. "We grow mixtures of vegetables for fresh market and also strawberries, and we have laying hens. It's all certified organic."
She and her husband were both city kids who stumbled into farming during their college years when they realized they had an intense interest in food and how it was grown.
Their farm is named after the Greek mythology character Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Persephone, who is married to Hades, spends part of the year underground. During those winter months, Demeter becomes terribly upset and allows the world to go cold and gray.
"When Persephone returns each spring, her mother celebrates with spring and new green growth," O'Brien said.
O'Brien sells her fruits and vegetables at four different farmer's markets during the growing season, as well as selling produce to restaurants, buying clubs and organic food distributors. Most of what her farm grows and sells is what you'd expect: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, basil. "The traditional standards hold true," she said.
But she and other produce stands at the farmer's market also are a resource for people who like to make more exotic cuisine at home. Folks looking for fennel, radicchio and kohlrabi often strike gold at the market.
And O'Brien said she's noticed a lot more interest in her produce since the rise of the locally grown foods movement.
"The farmer's markets have really grown up in the past 10 years," she said. "Particularly in the past five years there has been increased excitement about locally grown food that we can see in people who come to market. Sometimes they'll mention reading a particular item in the newspaper that they've never heard of before and are interested in trying it. Sometimes they may have eaten at a new restaurant that's using a lot of locally grown produce and meats, and have looked into how to prepare it at home."
O'Brien agrees with those who believe that locally grown produce is better for you.
"It's got to be because usually the produce people can find at the farmer's market has been picked within the last couple of days," she said. "Also, we can choose varieties of vegetables that don't have to stand up to shipping. They tend to be older, more classic varieties that have more nutritional value to begin with."
Most of the produce O'Brien sells has been picked within 24 hours of showing up at her stand in the farmer's market. It's not only more healthy and flavorful, but also tends to stay fresh. "People will frequently say when they buy a bundle of chard from the store and put it in the refrigerator, it turns to mush pretty fast," she said. "But when they buy from the farmer's market, it tends to last longer."
The sour economy has put a minor dent in their business, O'Brien said, but she remains optimistic.
"People are being a little more conservative in their buying habits," she said. "But overall, there's a lot of enthusiasm for local foods. Plus, some people have realized they can save some money buying locally because they aren't paying the additional cost of shipping, and they also can buy in bulk." Some customers, she said, will buy 20 pounds of tomatoes and can them for later use.
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