Lessons from Organic Citrus Growers


(By Christina Stucker-Gassi, Healthy Food & Farms Program Coordinator)

While a slew of canceled travel plans have caused me to rethink the next several months, the situation has also provided an opportunity to slow down and reflect on a trip I took in late January. I traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, a stone's throw from the US-Mexico border, for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) winter meeting. Food system reform advocates from across the country gathered in the warm, subtropical climate, a welcome respite from the bitter cold back home.

Building resilient food systems is imperative, and we must remain hopeful while doing this work in the face of overwhelming challenges.

This was my main take away after visiting an organic citrus grove outside of McAllen. The owners are former farmworkers who choose to farm organically as a result of their firsthand experience with conventional citrus operations. They gave our group a tour and shared some landscape analysis of their local food system. The demand for perfect, uniform produce is a colossal driver of food waste. This form of waste is particularly insidious, because wholesale standards drive consumer expectations, which drive grocery store demand. It's a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, but mustering the energy required to make systemic change is difficult among everyday consumers. The farmers are simply left with so much delicious, nutritious fruit they can't sell.

Sourcing practices are also a concern for local growers. For example, the majority of citrus in area schools comes from California, despite the Rio Grande Valley being one of the few places in the country where schools have an opportunity to get fresh, local food for their students year-round.

This was the first time NSAC had met in Texas, and the injustices perpetrated by our government on the southern border was an important reality to confront in our work, especially for those of us more removed from the real harm being caused. We must build stronger multi-racial and multi-issue coalitions to tackle the bigger issues of immigration reform and climate change. Agriculture plays a big role in both. Although this is not the core mission of NCAP, we are building more authentic partnerships with farmworker communities since pesticide exposure is an issue that cuts across all human identities. Addressing heavy topics is essential, even during this pandemic.

As a hard-core butterfly enthusiast, I made time to visit the National Butterfly Center on this trip. While driving south out of town there was a notable police presence and it was front and center in my mind that colleagues had traveled here just a few months earlier to protest the treatment of detained immigrants. I may not have seen any monarch butterflies on my visit to the Center's expansive grounds, but this vibrant creature is a deeply meaningful symbol for immigrant rights advocates.

As we all slow down, consider planting flowers that will fuel the journey for our winged cross-border friends. Here is a list of nectar-rich plants that you can grow, reflecting new research that expands far beyond milkweed.

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