Why organic?

I’ve been learning Organic growing practices on my farms these last two seasons.  I thought I should go into Organic a little bit and explain why I think  it’s important.  Many people I talk to seem to have a poor opinion of organic or don’t understand why one would want to use organic practices.  I want to explain why I value organic and would prefer to see organic practices, both at a home gardening level and at a commercial farming level.

First of all, what does organic really mean?  Organic food is that which has been grown without the use of chemical or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.  It is also not genetically modified – more about that later.  Fertilizers can be used on organic farms (in fact they are a highly critical ingredient), but they are made of things like ground up mineral rocks, composted animal manure, bone meal, kelp, and etc.  They cannot be petroleum-based or man-made compounds.  There are some organic pesticide sprays as well, made from things like dried flowers or elemental Sulfur.  However, even though these are technically classified as organic, many (most?) organic growers choose not to employ them and instead rely on techniques like crop rotation, trap crops, cover cropping, and fostering beneficial insects as predators, as ways to reduce pest outbreaks.

Organic practices, when used correctly, make the soil richer and a more hospitable place for growth.  The soils are more likely to be balanced, contain micronutrients, trace elements, and healthy bacteria and fungi.  Non-organic chemical pest control tends to kill off all the healthy soil life in addition to the targeted pests.  Therefore land that has been hit with chemical pesticides repeatedly tends to develop *more* harmful outbreaks because there are no beneficials there to protect against them.   Non-organic chemical fertilizers tend to be a heavy-handed dose of Nitrogen to give plants a short-lived growth spurt but they *imbalance* the soil and over time make it a less hospitable and diverse environment.  This is basically what people mean when they use the word “sustainable.”  A blanket statment with lots of room for qualifications is that good organic practices are more likely to be sustainable indefinitely, whereas conventional practices get you good crop once or twice and then require more and more inputs as the soil gets worse and worse.  Think about the meaning of the word sustainable.  Why would we want to do something unsustainable if a sustainable option is there?  Well, because the sustainable option requires more work and the unsustainable option is easy.  Easy, though, for now.  Eventually, following unsustainable practices is going to make for an awful lot of work.  Can we not think ahead and realize that unsustainable literally means it’s not going to work forever.  Can we not buckle down and do the work required to do it right the first time?

Back to organics, though.  The place where fertilizers and pesticides and other growing practices are classified as organic is within the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Organic Standards.  Farms that wish to call themselves Certified Organic must be certified annually by one of several approved certification groups.  They must show various forms of documentation and pay a fee for this certification.

As I mentioned before, many organic farmers choose to follow their own sense of best practices instead of doing everything allowable by the organic standards.  Similarly, many (most?) of the farms that I know of that are following organic practices are not Certified Organic.  These farmers are not willing to pay the money and jump through the hoops required to gain the USDA certification.  They prefer to make their good farming practices transparent to their consumers in the hope that those consumers will buy from them without the official stamp of approval.

On the other side of the coin, much of the organic produce you can buy in the grocery store comes from “Big Organic” suppliers.  These are huge farms, mainly in California, who, in my opinion at least, follow the letter of the Organic law instead of the spirit.  Although I haven’t worked on a farm like this, it is my understanding that the produce may not be all that different from conventional.  It is still industrial-scale, mechanized agriculture.  Grocery store organic, therefore, is good in a pinch but is not the produce I would generally choose to buy.  “Real organic” (again, my opinion), comes from the farmers market *or* your local food co-op type store.  In Seattle, PCC and Madison Market are the go-to places.  Any store that indicates the name of the farm where items were grown, rather than just the region, is going to be your supplier of the real goods.  I would recommend Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food for a more eloquent description of Big Organic.

Let me take a little tangent now and relate something interesting I noticed when I was home in Michigan last August.  Of course the agriculture there is all corn and soy just like the rest of the midwest.  These are the two giants of the industrial crops – produced for animal feed as well as to be broken down into their biological components and made into food additives like lecithin, mono- and di-glycerides, and xanthan gum.  Yes, these are all corn or soy — I looked them up.   Anyway, I was intimately familiar with Michigan’s corn/soy landscape from my childhood, and I remember being aware that the fields surrounding our neighborhood were sometimes corn and sometimes soybeans.  Crop rotation was being practiced, at least on a very minimal level.  But this time, I noticed something funny – all the soybean fields had scattered cornstalks poking out of them.

Why is this funny?  It’s just last year’s corn coming back as a weed in this year’s soybean field.  Well, the funny – or scary – part is that there were no other weeds there.  The soybeans were growing out of bare ground except for the cornstalks popping up here and there.  I might not have noticed this except for the fact that I am now familiar with how the fields look on the organic vegetable farms I’ve been working at.  There are weeds everywhere.  Nature abhors a blank space, and everywhere vegetables are not, there are “natural” plants (i.e. weeds) coming in to compete.  As farmers it is our job to keep the weeds to a minimum at critical times for the vegetable to germinate and grow.  We do this using hoes, our hands, and sometimes the tractor.  Other times it is our job to make peace with the fact that the weeds are there — as long as they are not outcompeting our vegetables, the presence of these plants shows that our soil is fertile.

In conventional Ag, however, weeding is done with herbicides.  These chemicals kill off the weed plants so the farmer doesn’t have to do it by hand.  How come the chemicals kill only the weeds and not the vegetables?  You might well ask.  They’re both plants, aren’t they?  Well in some cases, the chemicals can be targeted to kill only seeds that have emerged and not unsprouted ones, so these could be applied when the vegetable seeds are first planted and before they have emerged.  In other cases, as with the soybean fields I noticed, the vegetable plants are made to be resistant to the chemicals so the chemicals can be applied while the vegetables are fully grown and will kill only the weeds.   The way they are made resistant is by genetic modification — insertion or deletion of genes from their DNA.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) is a term that I’d like you to learn if you haven’t already.

Monsanto produces “Roundup-Ready” GMO corn and soybeans.  This means that the DNA of these plants has been genetically modified — in this particular case it has had a gene from a bacterium inserted — in such a way that it becomes resistant to Roundup (Monsanto’s trademarked name for its potent herbicide composed mainly of the chemical glyphosate).  Are you tracking with me here?  You can now spray your soybean field with this toxic chemical that will kill every type of plant growing there except for the soybeans.   You can buy the chemical, and the seed that resists it, only from Monsanto which has patented both.

Seeing the stray corn plants in the otherwise weed-free soybean fields all across Michigan freaked me out because I was unmistakeably seeing Monsanto’s takeover with my own eyes.  These farmers had grown Roundup-Ready corn the year before in the fields that they were now using for Roundup-Ready soybeans.  When they doused their fields with Roundup this spring, it killed all the weeds and made the soil an inhospitable place for more weeds to grow.  There’s nothing there except soybeans — except for those corn plants that sprouted from last year’s fallen seed and are now growing there as weeds.  They’re GMO’s with the Roundup Ready gene too.

Doesn’t this just seem wrong at a very basic level?  I’m sure there are scientific studies on both sides (and how many of the studies showing Roundup does no harm are funded by Monsanto?) But isn’t it just common sense to think that 1) spraying large quantities of a chemical that kills things onto farmland is probably not good for the land or the people spraying it, and 2) vegetables that have been made able to withstand the spraying of this killer chemical and then doused with it multiple times might be a strange and unnatural thing to eat?

GMO food crops were first planted in the United States in 1996. In 2010 in the US, 93% of the planted area of soybeans, 93% of cotton, 86% of corn and 95% of the sugar beet were genetically modified varieties. (Wikipedia).

Zero in 1995.  Ninety percent in  2010.  Isn’t this unrestrained skyrocket to complete dominance of a never-before-seen organism a little scary, too?  I feel pretty sure that we were growing a hell of a lot of corn pretty darn well before 1996.  The rest of the world is taking a more measured approach to GMO’s.  Other countries, most notably the European Union,  whose governments are not controlled by Monsanto (sorry, perhaps this is the leftist propaganda getting to me), have banned various types of GMO seeds or have banned importation of GMO crops or require labelling, etc.

Not so the US.  If you’re in America eating a non-organic product containing corn or soy, or restaurant food that was cooked in corn or soybean or canola oil, you’re almost assuredly eating genetically modified food.  However, something important that I learned recently is, Organic (basically) Equals GMO-free.  I’m sure there are trace amounts or exceptions or whatever, but the organic standards say that organics can’t contain GMO’s.  These days I really do only buy organic corn chips and tofu because I really have decided that GMO crops is a practice I don’t want to support.

Everything about it just seems wrong — what about the patenting of seeds?  What about the fact that repeated applications of Roundup has now been shown to be creating weeds that have evolved resistance to this killer chemical?  These are whole big issues in themselves.  You can find plenty of information on GMO’s that will make it much clearer than anything I can explain here.   This statement from The Non-GMO Project is a good one to start with.  I like this bullet point from that document:

The scientifically demonstrated risks and clear absence of real benefits have led experts to see GM as a clumsy, outdated technology. They present risks that we need not incur, given the availability of effective, scientifically proven,
energy-efficient and safe ways of meeting current and future global food needs.

I believe that we as a society know what good farming and good food looks like.   We just choose to try to find ways to get around the fact that farming is hard and requires knowledge and skill.  We choose instead to attempt to outsmart nature by using heavy handed agricultural practices like thousand-acre monocultures, government subsidized commodity crops, GMOs and chemical controls.  These practices are not sustainable; they are a shameful mismanagement and misuse of our land and our farmers’ hard work;  and they result in a strange and off-balance food system that has totally perverted what we recognize as food and is making us fat and unhealthy.

Non-organic agriculture has only been widely practiced from the 20th century on.  It’s pure propaganda that calls non-organic “conventional” as it has only been conventionally done that way in the last 100 years.   My grandmother remembers the milkman and butcher coming around with deliveries, for goodness sake.  There’s local, small-scale, organic for you- but it didn’t have to call itself that.  It was just food.  Imagine how different that milk and meat was from what passes for the same items today.  I believe that we need to rescue our food system, not by bringing it back exactly to the way it used to be, but by bringing back a lot of the old time-tested elements and doing our best to ensure that we use our great amount of knowledge and technology wisely.

I believe that changes can happen as more and more people are currently recognizing the problems and making themselves knowledgeable about how to fix them.  I also believe that individual consumers who don’t care to get involved in food politics can still make small changes to their food-buying habits that will begin to have a big influence on restoring sanity to America’s food problem.  See if you can make some small steps; you don’t have to go “whole hog” (as it were) right off the bat.  Here’s what I would say about what to eat, starting with the best options:

1. Food you grow and raise (organically) yourself

2. Food you buy from producers you know and whose farms you have seen

3. Food you buy from any vendor at your farmers market (I believe it’s safe to assume the market management has some knowledge about the producers’ practices, and I support small and local over and above Certified Organic,  so I buy from market vendors even if they’re not Certified Organic)

4. Food you buy from a local co-op type grocery store (These tend to carry a lot of “real” organics and thoughtfully-chosen non-organics, plus are fun to shop at once you get used to them)

5. Food you buy from a restaurant that cooks from scratch and lists local/organic sources of meat and produce

6. Organic food you buy from a supermarket or food you buy from a restaurant that’s listed on the menu as organic (unusual)

7. (If you care about GMO’s): Non-organic food from a supermarket that doesn’t contain any corn, soy, or sugarbeet-derived ingredients.  Food you buy in a restaurant that hasn’t been cooked in corn, soybean, or canola oil.

Whew.  Okay.  Thanks for reading, let me know your thoughts, and happy eating.

Love,

B

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The wisdom of Wendell and a struggle toward sustainable eating

I found myself on a four hour plane ride recently, feeling kind of down in the dumps about some things.  Seeking solace, I remembered that I had Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: On Culture and Agriculture in my backpack.  I opened it up at random, and read what Wendell had to say to me.

“Until modern times, […] a  man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair.  Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god.  And by the same token, since he shares in, depends upon, and is graced by all of which he is a part, neither can he descend into the final despair of destructiveness.”

This paragraph that I opened to speaks to me strongly as the same sentiment that I was trying to describe when I blogged about my epiphany at the coast.  I recognize exactly the humbled and awed, yet greatful and excited sense of opening he is talking about; the realization that we are here for a limited time and the strong urge to do and be all that we can during the time that we have.  I love reading Wendell Berry because every page seems to hold a nugget of wisdom that succinctly puts to words a whole mess of thoughts that were floating around in my head.  Wendell (I feel kind of like he’s my buddy and I think about him on a first-name basis) is clearly a very thoughtful man on many topics close to my heart, and he is able to put his thoughts into very moving words.  Reading his prose makes me want to be a better person, to forget about my petty problems and just hold onto that sense of gratitude, belonging and purpose that he writes about as I move through my daily life.

I was not raised in a religious household, nor have I been able to adopt religion upon trying as an adult.  But I imagine that these are the sorts of feelings and urges that religion addresses for people.  I don’t “pray” as such.  But I do, often, feel overwhelmed by a strong sense of gratitude, to life, for life.  When this full-heart feeling comes over me, often as I’m getting into bed at night after a full day, I say in my head a quote that I remember from Garrison Keillor, another thoughtful man: “thank you for this good life, and forgive me if I do not appreciate it enough.”

I often feel frustrated with myself for not living up to various of my ideals.  I have good moments of reflection and thoughtfulness but I don’t feel that I embody them in my actions every moment.  It’s hard to always be the way I’d like to be.  I’m not yet comfortable enough with myself, not yet living deliberately enough.  Still fumbling.  Trying though, and that is a good step.  I feel that I am still yet living life too glibly – with an inflated sense of self-importance, playing at being a farmer but without yet taking any big risks and in consequence, not yet able to achieve anything great or meaningful.

Here are a couple of other quotes from my plane reading, getting more into the agriculture-specific nature of Wendell’s writing:

“By now the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, and even water.”

“We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, particularly any form of hand work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from.  We have tried to escape sweat and sorrow, only to find that in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.”

“Whereas the exploiter asks of the land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: what is its carrying capacity?  That is, how much can be taken from it without diminishing it?  What can it produce dependably for an infitite time?”

“Consider the associations that have since ancient times clustered around the idea of food – associations of mutual care, generosity, neighborliness, festivity, communal joy, religious ceremony.”

“I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.”

“The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared food, confronts inert, anonymous substances that have been  sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived.  The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality.”

I want to practice agriculture in large part because I love the experience of growing food.  But I also want to do it because I believe in the importance of the things Wendell Berry writes about: the connection to place, stewardship of the land, production of quality food; the basic authenticity of small and sustainable farms in contrast to the disconnectedness, wastefulness, and just plain irresponsibility of large scale agribusiness, whether it is vegetable or animal farms.  There are many issues and problems in the world, but this is the one I care about.  Conventional agriculture and food processing are not okay with me.   What I want to eat, and what I think that all people should be eating, is real food whose production we understand and ideally have helped participate in.

But I am not living up to my ideals.  I eat plenty of generic food from grocery store shelves and restaurants that was probably shipped across the country from corn farms in Iowa and I still eat meat of unknown origin.  Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be a hardcore, toe-the-line, “I only eat stuff I grew myself” nazi.  It also gets my goat when people lately apologize for the food they serve me not being organic.  I don’t want to be an out-there weirdo who has some strange food restrictions that she follows so “she won’t eat normal stuff like us.”  I recognize that there is lots of great food out there in the world that was not produced by people that I know personally and as a lover of food I still want to be able to enjoy it.

I’m happy that I am making steps.  A few years ago I didn’t put much thought into food origins at all.  I’m a lot more conscious of it now.  But I’m still sort of wishy-washy: “well, I get to eat lots of veggies from the farm and I love how it teaches me to eat seasonally – I never buy tomatoes out of season cuz they just taste bad, but I buy bananas even though they’re from South America… sometimes I can trade veggies for farm eggs but otherwise I’ll buy eggs from Trader Joes… I won’t buy Tyson chicken but I’ll get a restaurant hamburger because the menu says it comes from Oregon.” I think that this isn’t quite good enough anymore.  I want to do better and it excites me to be becoming more and more in control of my own food origins.  How do I keep making progress while still maintaining sanity and a varied diet?  Cut specific things out entirely? Try to approach an 80%/20% rule of “known” food to “unknown” food?  What about things like rice and peanuts?  Do I have to know where they came from?  It’s a quandrary.

But, I don’t think that Wendell would want me to feel bad because I share his idealistic aspirations for a sustainable food system but am not 100% living up to them.  Overall the feeling I try to take away is optimism that I am at least becoming aware of these ideals and doing a bit to live up to them by helping to produce good food for myself and others.

And I shall also attempt to be okay with my confusedness and frustration and know that I will never be entirely without them.  Wendell says: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”