Driscoll’s Strawberries Are Never In-Season

Image via Flickr courtesy eLoWeeZee

Image via Flickr courtesy eLoWeeZee

Driscoll’s strawberries remind me of gas stations.

I can only assume this is because, at various points in my life, I’ve seen them being sold there. If your local 7Eleven/Mobil/whatever stocks a handful of plastic fruit containers (called “clamshells,” in industry parlance — you’re welcome) at any given time of the year, chances are they are Driscoll’s strawberries. They ship fruit 12 months a year to any number of countries, and claim to be the #1 producer and supplier of berries in the world. It’s difficult to doubt this.

The widespread, year-round availability of fruit has become a hot-button issue in the environmental world, and it probably should be. Fruit needs to be grown where it’s very warm; to ship it to consumers, it needs to be picked very efficiently and then kept very cold. This is especially true of strawberries, which go from white to bright red on the vine in a matter of about 36 hours, rapidly lose firmness as they ripen, and are extremely susceptible to withering. Any difference in product appearance — too light, too dark, too small, too “misshapen” — makes your product less attractive to the consumer and decreases your profit. This leads to a demanding production schedule which requires a lot of energy, resulting in large amounts of emissions relative to other non-animal products.

Almost all of the strawberries that Driscoll’s grows, organic or otherwise, come from either California or Mexico. Driscoll’s also grows some strawberries in Florida, from December through April, though not the organic variety. The Mexican growing season runs from October through May. Driscoll’s actually allows you to trace the origins of any container of fruit that you purchase through their “Track My Berries” program, powered by HarvestMark.

So, go ahead and check your code, but I’ll ruin the suspense: your strawberries are grown in California. Or Mexico. It doesn’t really make any difference what the name of the farm is, because they’re all pretty much the same. They’re also traveling a minimum of about 2,000 miles — sometimes as far as 3,500 miles — to get to you, if you’re in Boston. It’s nice that they give consumers access to this information, but it’s largely useless in most circumstances. They’re doing it as equal parts public relations (people want the perception of accountability) and equal part damage-control, in case there’s ever a salmonella outbreak in their product and they need to quarantine berries coming from that source.

Strawberry Field in California. Image via raleys.com.

Strawberry Field in California. Image via raleys.com.

What’s important isn’t the region of Baja, Mexico where your strawberries come from — it’s realizing that they come from Mexico in the first place. This is where seasonality comes into play, and I suppose that for some people, the idea can be a little tricky. In New England, strawberries start to ripen in early-to-mid June, and can be found locally throughout the summer. If you are a New Englander, this is when you should eat them and where you should get them from. That’s pretty much it. If you buy Strawberries from Driscolls, even when strawberries are “in-season” in New England, they are still going to come from California or Mexico. There’s no difference, from an environmental standpoint, between buying Driscoll’s strawberries in July and Driscoll’s strawberries in January. If you’re interested in reducing your impact, don’t buy fruit that’s been trucked across the country.

When the fruit is “out of season” — again, this refers to the region where it’s bought — you should mostly avoid it, because that means that it definitely comes from far away (unless it’s frozen, in which case, check where it’s from). Companies like Driscoll’s do benefit from somewhat obscuring the notion of “in-season” fruit, because technically, they purchase and distribute 100% in-season fruit. This is semantics: fruit is always in-season where it’s grown, because otherwise, it wouldn’t grow. In New England, where we grow plenty of fruit in the summer, you should only buy local fruit. If you can’t get it locally, that’s a good indicator that you probably shouldn’t be buying it.

As summer approaches, it’s important to keep in mind that even though the local markets will be exploding with strawberries, you still need to check where they’re coming from. Buying local fruit helps everyone: yourself, your community, your environment. Even if you can find Driscoll’s strawberries for cheaper than local strawberries, avoid the temptation: it’s mostly because of underpaid laborers. Buy lots of strawberries this summer from Massachusetts farmers, and then freeze or can enough of them to last you through the upcoming winter. Strawberries are good for you, so go to town. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to go all the way to Mexico to get them.

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