Every summer I struggle with perfection, actually imperfection. It begins with our peaches and nectarines.
We grow heirloom peaches that are often not round. They have more of an oval shape, slightly lopsided near the suture (where the peach skin joins together). When compared to the perfectly sculptured round body of a modern peach, ours look odd, unattractive and unwanted.
Last year we struggled with another major problem: rot in one variety of nectarine. We threw away most of the fruit, dropping to the ground half the crop even before picking.
This year, our nectarines have scars. This past spring was ideal weather for thrips, tiny insects that crawl around and feed on the surface of nectarines when the fruit is very tiny and just forming. Thrips just scratch the skin, but as the fruit grows, the scars look like a bad tattoo. The inside of the fruit is fine, it's just the surface that's blemished.
And what's perhaps the most painful, this summer our fruit are small -- nice, ripe, sweet but small. No one seems to want small fruit. Size matters in the market place.
So what defines the perfect fruit? Who makes the determination? Traditionally, the marketplace drives the decision. But are dollars the best and only way to ascertain value?
I explored this question during a presentation with Kaiser doctors and health-care workers at a conference in San Francisco. I asked: If I had a bad scar or spot of rot on one of my peaches, would you still want it? A different yet perhaps parallel question was: If you had a patient with a scar or rot, would you accept them?
I began with the premise that imperfection is a natural part of life. We all live and need bacteria, mold and fungi. They are part of our bodies, surround us in the environment and are part of how our systems function. So when is disease a disease, something to purge at all costs?
As an organic farmer, I learned that it's a fallacy to try and grow things in a sterile environment. Killing everything is not how nature works. Of course we work to maintain levels of food safety, but we all -- including consumers -- get into trouble with a desire to make food perfect. It's expensive, it's unproductive, it's unrealistic.
I now farm with a new attitude: I live with imperfection. An epiphany came when a friend called my nectarines with a small spot of rot "fruits with special needs." Last summer, we did find a home for a few of our challenged fruits. A few brave consumers simply cut out the rotten parts and loved the rest. (Ironically, the pathogen often grows on the sweetest fruits -- the bacteria thrives on the high levels of sugar.)
But we rarely accommodate fruit, it has to accommodate us. More and more, farmers are forced to cope with a consumer who believes perfect food must lead to perfect bodies. We then try to feed a nation suffering from an epidemic of perfection. If we picked our friends the way we selectively picked and culled our produce, we'd be very lonely.
Real foods carry with them the memory of real life. No two peaches are nor should they be exactly alike. Natural variation is natural. Culls are part of nature, how they're accepted becomes the question for survival.
At the doctors conference, a challenge was made: How do we live with disease? Being healthy isn't about being perfect. After all, who among us is flawless?
The audience was then asked to think about their own imperfections: physical, emotional and social. And to acknowledge our deficiencies, I asked them to share their imperfections with a stranger at their table.
If they had too much to share, they might have a problem. But if they couldn't think of a single imperfection, they have a bigger problem. Wonderfully, the room exploded in conversation and lively story telling.
Imagine a world where we grow to live with defects. Our health delivery systems might work very differently. We'd then redefine the so-called perfect body and stop chasing the magical pill that leads to the fallacy of perfect health. And we'd take the first step in all health decisions: acceptance as proactive behavior.
Likewise, how different of a food system could be created. What would food look like, but more importantly how would it taste? We could move away from the vicious cycle we've fallen into: As food is manipulated to become more "perfect" and manufactured, it also leads to poorer nutrition and eating habits -- and the growing health issues of obesity and diabetes.
We all live with "imperfections" -- however you define it with age, joint wear, muscle strain, weight, skin, hair loss and so forth. One recent health debate is the issue of prostate cancer screening and can literally living with cancer become part of the remedy?
Perhaps it boils down to this: Are we willing to live with trade-offs? Life is not about perfection, but targeting ways we can live with ourselves.
A summer lesson for our farm. My quest for perfection is not to grow rotten nectarines and peaches. It begins with a tolerance and love for misfit fruit. And acceptance that the perfect fruit is full of life in all sizes and shapes.