Looking for a “particular” customer

by | Jun 2, 2020 | Uncategorized

Peter Henderson is the social influencer you have never heard of. He’s not one of the TikTok team currently trending on #gardening101 (251.9M views as of May 31, 2020). But he did write a best-selling book called “Gardening for Profit” and in the last thirty-five years of his life “wrote or dictated at least one hundred and seventy-five thousand letters[1]. Of this enormous number more than two-thirds were written by his own hand” as the typewriter was only invented 10 years before his death. That’s right, he was most active around the time of the Civil War in the US. If you do the maths, that’s about one letter for every waking hour for 35 years. “No correspondent, however humble or obscure, who applied to him for advice or information ever asked in vain. Besides, it was his invariable practice to reply to correspondents at once. No matter how weary body or mind might be, all letters were answered the day they were received. This habit of promptly and fully replying to all inquiries gave him an influence and a personal following of such magnitude as no horticultural writer of his own or any previous era ever enjoyed.”

This is also why he is called the father of horticulture. Unfortunately, there’s one area, however, where his influence didn’t have the impact that it should have, and 150 years later we are all the poorer for it.

In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (1997), William Woys Weaver writes:

“Peter Henderson once lamented that it was the demise of the ‘particular customer’ that eventually changed the way market gardeners did business. Boston and Philadelphia had been bastions of the type of consumers who demanded to know the background of their produce, how it was cultivated, and the comparative tastes of different varieties, and tolerated no compromises in freshness and quality. This gave rise to hundreds of vegetables that sold themselves by virtue of having passed through this critical gauntlet: Boston lettuce, Philadelphia Market tomato, and much more. The New York market was different. As long as the produce looked good, it was possible to sell it. Henderson’s greatest fear was that this standard should prevail nationwide once vast quantities of produce began moving across the country rather than coming from nearby farms. He was to be proved correct.”

I wrote a few weeks ago about ripe fruit and Eve and the apple – the Genesis account describes it as “pleasing to the eye”. I mentioned that there are visual attractors for us for fruit in particular “notice me” red, for example. Unfortunately, we have developed a system over the last 150 years (since the warning from Peter Henderson) built on serpent-like deception. This deception tricks us into thinking things are ripe when they are not and into normalising blemish-free fruit and veggies and standardisation in shape and size.

And it has gathered momentum – Here’s a quote from a 1950 article about S.C. Johnson & Son (yes the floor wax people) in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine.

“Nature did not have the foresight to provide enough wax to preserve fresh produce during long journeys across a country the size of the United States. That is why a man-made coat is sometimes needed.”

The irony, of course, is that apples come waxed straight off the tree (that’s the dusty look which shines up when you, well, shine the apple). Trouble is now we have to wash that natural wax off to make sure we take off the pesticide residue. A bunch of the waxes also have dyes in them to enhance the colour (even the russet colour in potatoes can be improved with a wax coating). I am not suggesting that preserving the fruit is a bad idea. Julia Phillips writing the Atlantic in 2017[2] gives an informative history lesson of coatings for food going back 900 years and why that’s a good idea. There is also no evidence that these artificial waxes are harmful to us. That’s not my point. My point is that we have gone down this road because we transport our fruit and veg so far and it takes so long to get there.

This IRL photoshop deception of our food does cause massive waste (up to 30% post-harvest loss) and for that reason alone needs to be called out. It also leads to overuse of pesticides and fungicides (to maintain “looks”), and a lesser emphasis on taste and nutrition in breeding programs as desirable attributes in produce. I have run informal experiments in one of our partner IGA supermarkets. I have seen first-hand how hard it is to sell a field ripened spray-free tomato or a just-picked ungraded Fuji apple (no artificial wax). Customers pass over them for the shiny apple and the “perfect-looking tomato”.

What we need to do is embrace Peter Henderson’s “particular customer” ideal and educate all of us to “demand to know the background of their produce, how it was cultivated, and the comparative tastes of different varieties, and tolerate no compromises in freshness and quality.” And that has nothing to do with shape, size, or how shiny and uniform something is. 

[1] Peter Henderson, gardener, author, merchant a memoir. by Alfred Henderson Published 1890

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/why-fruit-has-a-fake-wax-coating/524619/

Peter Henderson’s Glasshouses