If you've ever stood in line at a Missouri farmers' market, you know that the local food movement is thriving.
A subset of this movement, purchasing Missouri fresh fruits, is thriving, too, despite a relatively short availability season and a little more difficulty in finding the products, says a Missouri expert in the field.
Patrick Byers, a regional horticulture specialist with University of Missouri Extension, said that he is seeing more residents going out of their way to buy the state's fruit harvest at roadside stands, farmers' markets and pick-your-own farms.
These consumers are knowledgeable and quick, he said, as the many of the state's fruits have only a four- to six-week window of availability. Those who make the effort get a taste that no out-of-season product can match, he said. The fresh fruits also offer the maximum amount of nutrition and health benefits.
Byers said that consumers are making the extra effort for same reasons as the rest of the local food movement. "People want to get to know and support their neighbors," he said. "We know that our dollars spent locally will benefit our community."
Farm to Table Festival, June 12-13
Byers will be one of more than 15 chefs, nutrition experts and farmers who will speak at the first Farm to Table Festival, to be held June 12-13 at the University Club on the University of Missouri campus.
Sponsored by the University Club of MU, University Catering & Event Services and the American Culinary Federation Central Missouri Chapter, the event will feature demonstrations by celebrity chefs, hands-on workshops, master-class and cooking-at-home presentations, and an outdoors farmers market.
Byers will discuss which berries are most suitable for commercial and how to begin home production in Missouri. He will also present information on economically promising berries such as elderberry, aronia, hardy kiwi, gooseberry and stone fruits.
Eating local food has an additional appeal as it reduces vulnerability to oil shortages, transportation problems and large-scale food contamination, he said. Local food production also promotes sustainable agriculture.
Byers said there is also a social responsibility aspect that appeals to people seeking local foods. "Consumers know that there is less of a carbon footprint in local foods as opposed to products shipped from another continent," he said. "There is also the perception of safety – we are more confident in something grown in our local area."
Lastly and most importantly, he said, the taste of freshly-picked fruits is vastly superior to anything shipped over long distances. "A farmer can pick and sell fruit at the peak of its flavor," Byers said. "A product in the supermarket may be days to weeks away from its harvest."
Fresh fruits also offer significant amounts of vitamins and minerals, qualities that can diminish as the fruit ages. "The anti-oxidant qualities of fresh fruit are well known," he said. "Blueberries are an excellent course of elegic acid, helpful in urinary track problems. Blackberries are an excellent source of dietary fiber."
As a regional horticulture specialist with University of Missouri Extension, Byers covers a 16-county area centered on Springfield. He traces his fruit fascination to gardening as a teenager. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri and his post-graduate degree from the University of Arkansas.
Byers served as a research associate in the peach and apple breeding programs at University of Arkansas, and fruit advisor with the Missouri State Fruit Experiment Station. He currently provides outreach education for fruit growers in southwest Missouri, and has research interests in elderberry, papaw, persimmon, primocane raspberry, blackberry and other fruit crops.
He and his family manage a small commercial orchard near Fordland, where they produce and market fruit and honey.
Most Missouri fruit farms are surprisingly small, of less than 10 acres, Byers said. Many farmers plant multiple crops during the year, harvesting fruit from late spring through the autumn.
Strawberries are the first fruit crop that appears in Missouri, usually hitting the market in mid May and lasting about four weeks. Cherries ripen in June and last until mid July. Blueberry and raspberry season follows in mid June and lasts about six weeks. Blackberries are ready from late June through early August.
Missouri apples have the longest season, generally lasting from July through October. Persimmons are the state's flash-in-the-pan fruit, ripening and disappearing in October.
Missouri, which is becoming better known for its grape and wine industry, also has a small but growing table grape industry, which peaks in August through September.