Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reading Labels

Over the years I've had (too) many opportunities to contemplate the organic food versus local food question. In fact, just this past week, someone asked about local PYO strawberry farms. This person was looking specifically for organic farms, and I mentioned a place that my family often goes to pick, stating that I didn't know if it was organic or not, but it is a place where we've developed a kind of relationship with the people who work there. If I had thought that there was a question as to the safety of the strawberries at that farm, I would never have suggested it, and given the reaction I received after I did suggest it, I was sorry to have opened my big mouth, but the fact is that organic has never and will never be the most important label when it comes to the food I buy.

In fact, it surprises me to see people who are willing to purchase organic strawberries from the grocery store in December, but they won't go to a PYO place when strawberries are in season here in Maine if the strawberries aren't certified organic. To me, it is not better to buy organic for the sake of it being organic, especially when doing so means cross-country transport in refrigerator trucks, and then an abundance of energy to keep them fresh until they are purchased, and then, the additional energy needed to keep the berries from spoiling at the home of the purchaser until they are consumed.

We eat fresh strawberries when they are in season. And when they are not growing here in Maine, we eat strawberry jam.

There is an organic farm near my house. I happen to know these farmers - not on a totally personal level, and they probably don't know my name, but they know my face. I'm not a customer of theirs, but I'm at their farm often throughout the year, and I've even helped out in their fields on several occasions. I've had the opportunity to chat with them about stuff and about my little nanofarm, and one time the wife told me that she thought my "nanofarm" sounded idyllic, which is what I often think about her farm - it was funny how we both thought the other had the greener grass ;).

The farmers are young(ish) and very hip, and among other things, they have a blog. I receive email alerts when they post a new blog entry. Today's update was about strawberries. It's been a weird year for strawberries. With the really warm spring, the berries have ripened earlier than expected, but since it's been really dry (a sharp contrast to the last two years), picking has been really good. As such, they've had a lot of visitors to their field, and I happen to know that on the first day they opened, they were, pretty much, picked out until the green strawberries ripened.

Given that strawberries have been a big part of my days recently, I thought what they had to say in their blog post was interesting. The added emphasis is mine.

There has ... been a flurry of news stories about organic strawberries and the "dirty dozen" of conventional agriculture. Sunday morning our neighbor who came to pick told us of an NPR story about methyl iodide -- the soil fumigant used in some conventional production. This led us into a conversation about the erosion of trust in our society, and the motivator of fear for consumers.

Many folks came out this past week with strong support for our certified organic strawberries. That is wonderful to see, but I could not help but acknowledge the over simplification of the discussion. In many ways a Pick-Your-Own farm has less relevance to this "trust" issue. A label like "Organic" offers trust by proxy ... but wherever possible consumers should develop direct relationships with their producers -- as ask them, point-blank, how do the [farmers] grow the food [consumers] buy.

I have never been one of those people for whom the organic label is the end all and be all of what I will choose to purchase. In fact, local, non-organic will win out every time over organic, grown in California. The fact is that sometimes organic isn't the best choice. Sometimes organic spinach grown in a monoculture isn't any better than spinach grown locally on a diverse, small farm using conventional methods.

The strawberry farm where we pick is not small. They have acres and acres of strawberry fields surrounded by an incredibly diverse (mostly wooded) landscape. They're not "organic", and in fact, I was informed (rather rudely, I might add) that this one family who'd picked there one time ended up with chemical burns after their foray in the strawberry fields. I'm not saying it didn't happen. I'm not saying that they didn't end up with a rash. I'm not saying anything, but I do wonder if this person, who insists that the skin irritation was due to chemicals on the strawberry plants, bothered to ask the people at this PYO place what sorts of chemicals (if any) they used on the strawberry plants.

And, of course, that's what the organic farmer quoted above is saying, too. While he really appreciates that people have taken such a huge interest in what he and his wife are trying to accomplish in their organic farm, it should be about more than just the organic label. It should be about the fact that they are local, that they care about the community of which they are members, and that they care about being good stewards of the land they are farming and of the Earth in general. Yes, they are certified organic, but that is just a label, and unfortunately, that label has led people to make many, perhaps, not so wise choices when it comes to what we eat.

As for me, I will continue to grow what I can on my own property, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, because the more I can grow myself, the less I have to worry about what might be going into my food.

But I will also continue to develop trusting relationships with my local farmers and growers, who may not wear that certified organic label on their shirts, but who care about what they do, and I know they care about what they do, because I talk to them, and I'm free to visit their farms whenever I want, without an invitation, and I can even take a look around, if I want to, because they don't have anything to hide, which makes me pretty comfortable about feeding that food to my family.

I wonder if those organic farms that sell their produce to supermarket chains all over the country have the same sort of open door policy?


  1. I've had the same discussions with people. I used to be really surprised at how people would buy organic at the store even if it looked poorly then to buy it at the Farmer's Market because who knows how they grew it!!

    I've asked the farmers. Many are not wholly organic, but are very selective in what they use and how they use it.

    In the end, you cannot be sure what got used on anything you buy. Even organic / natural solutions can be toxic if done wrong.

  2. It is rare that I feel confident in speaking with any sense of authority but I am able to speak to this.

    I have been a hired picker at a local farm. There are 100 acres under cultivation. For the last two weeks I have been picking strawberries. I picked strawberries there for my freezer and jam last year. This is what I know: they are local, they use only those pesticides that they need to and I hand weed every row.

    Organic Certification is strict and, at the scale of agriculture that the really hard working folks that own the farm I work at, would be hard to manage. Of course organic is great, but local is better. The farm does the best it can. But is also feeds a lot of people throughout the summer and I know that although not the perfect ideal of organic they do the best they can. I can trust that.

  3. I heard a recent interview with an industrial hygienist. She made some interesting points about "organic" cleaners. She warned to stay away from them because we don't really have much info on how those "organic" chemicals react over prolonged use like we do on the "evil" chemicals everyone loves to hate.
    Ok, so this doesn't have anything to do with farming, but it's another reason I'm so sick of the word "organic." 20 years ago, organic meant: of, relating to, or containing carbon compounds. That means everything I eat is organic. ;-)

  4. dogear6 - That's what my understanding is, too. The place where I get milk isn't "organic" in that they don't feed their cows organic feed and sillage during the winter, but during the months when they can be outside, the cows are outside, and I know this, because I see them outside eating what cows are supposed to eat - grass, and I know this because I can go to their farm and walk through their barn. It's this sort of transparency that makes me feel comfortable about buying their products.

    Fleecenik - I think the place where I pick is the same way. They feed hundreds of people with their strawberries, and they aren't "certified organic", but I trust that they're doing the best they can to keep us safe.

    Bezzie - Interesting about the organic "cleaners." The best cleaner I've found is baking soda, which is just about all I use ;). My house is probably not as clean as some people like their homes to be, but at least it's not toxic ;).

  5. I tend to agree with local versus organic if they're in conflict as well. Organic tells you something about what the farm "won't" do but not about what it does. Local allows you to develop a relationship with the farmer, cut energy needs (from transportation and refrigeration) and support the local economy. Besides, most of the folks in this country consume mountains of processed food and what little veges they do consume aren't organic (probably not local either) and so if the 'worst' crime we're guilt of is buying locally grown non-organic produce (that we pick ourselves from the fields) then we're doing alright! :)