Thursday, March 15, 2007

Organic vs Local: Which Is it?

Despite what some people think, I’m actually not against organic farming. In fact, I am a huge fan and have been for a long time. Unfortunately, since organic has become a global commodity, smaller organic farmers must run their businesses differently—compared to 15 or more years ago—in order to compete with the glut of globally-produced organic products. What we’re really battling is GLOBAL organic and not LOCAL organic. In the recent Time cover story about organic vs. local, the author declares locally produced organic a sort of “gold standard.” That’s why in the short term, as a very viable alternative, consumers must begin to accept local, ecologically grown produce instead of the global organic food. Food produced a long way away has a far higher environmental impact (BTUIQ) than local, ecologically grown food. Plus, this way you have the opportunity to know your farmer.

Most globally produced organic produce is possible because of huge capital investments by large companies in countries with cheap land, cheap labor, and malleable business laws. Locally grown organic products, however, are infinitely more difficult to come by because of expensive land, expensive labor, volatile climate, biological imperatives, and not-so malleable business laws (aka bureaucracy). Even the federal regulations regarding the labeling of certified organic produce favor the largest growers and work against the smaller more diversified growers. With all of this working against small regional farmers, why, you might ask, attempt farming in this region at all? Well, primarily, because we enjoy what we do. “Like” is probably not a good starting point for making a living in an industry with a history of tortured souls and bankruptcies. Farmers don’t bring anything if not passion to what they do. In this case, farming is also an important part of our history and culture. And, people are demanding to know where their food is coming from, who grew it, and how it was grown; witness the meteoric rise is prevalence of farmer markets. But most of all local produce tastes better than anything grown anywhere else in the world, and consumers are tired of cardboard tasting produce.

My fear is that like anything else in this fast paced world is that our ability to produce locally grown food may succumb to some greater force, like a real estate developers, lack of labor, climate change, or the next great food trend. Worse, it’s very likely that bureaucrats and policy wonks may get the bright idea that we need to define what local actual means. Once that happens, it’s all over with. The large companies and their lobbyists will make sure the definition includes some loophole so they include their products. Local pineapple, anyone? But the biggest hurdle is keeping consumers interested long enough to make farming a viable enterprise over the long term.

The future of farming in New York’s Hudson Valley goes a long way beyond a Time article trumpeting the virtues of local farms and the food produced there. If you read some of the monumental works of literature written during the past 100 years, you’ll find that many of the conditions that caused the great dustbowl, or the mass human migration to cities, or unfair distribution of America’s food dollar still exist today. There was a time when more people lived on farms than not, and they understood where their food came from. Today, you’re hard pressed to convince people that milk comes from cows; that apples start developing over a year before they’re harvested; and of the price someone pays for their food, very little actually gets back to the grower. Then of course we have failed farm policy and how it supports corporations, rather than farmers.

I commend Time for making the debate over organic vs local a cover story. I really do. But like an onion, we need to continue peeling and exposing the myriad other issues the impact the viability of local farms, farmers, and their families. I understand why farming in the Hudson Valley has declined so dramatically. It is because these greater-than-thou forces that affect us today, affected “them’ back then, too, so they either retired, sold out, or went bankrupt. There are a few stalwarts left, some younger growers like myself, and others who are still giving farming the ol’ college try, but we’re still battling the same uncaring forces that have been working against farmers for decades.

Locally grown, organic produce may be the gold standard, but are you willing to pay for it? Growing organic produce in our local climate is possible, but often yields are lower and expenses higher. And despite the generally higher prices, profitability is unpredictable and declining. Once our love affair with organic and everything local has cooled off, we’ll need some new, truly sustainable method of farming to grow and market our products successfully. But we also need sane, rational change to our laws and policies that not encourage farming, but ensure his survival. There is simply no way farming can survive the onslaught of rising property taxes, reduced labor supply, increased expenses, and I could go on and on. This is what drove large corporations overseas in the first place. This is what’s pushing the next generation in most farming families to do something else with their lives. Without stable, profitable businesses what enterprising person would WANT to get into farming? Well, me for one and not because I have the answer, but instead because I THINK I have an answer.

I farm for a living. Yet farming goes beyond being able to turn soil and plant trees. I have to also be a business manager, a writer, a mechanic, and salesman. And when I am done with those things, I farm again. A of mine passion is trying to answer the “what’s next” question: If today’s gold standard is locally produced organic food, then what is tomorrow’s? For me, it means creating a business model that includes a production method that’s “beyond organic,” green building methods, plant derived fuels to run our tractors, solar panels to power our coolers and packing lines, and a way to attract the best and brightest back into farming.

This game of farming is about survival and perpetual motion, like riding a bike. You have to keep pedaling or you’ll fall off. Everything we do has the questions of “what’s next” wrapped around it. For the next 5 years or so, organics will continue to grow, conventional grown produce will shrink; Locally grown produce will eat away at market share of both. But the demand for locally grown produce doesn’t mean that consumers will just start eating food grown any which way. No, they’ll still want their organics, and they’ll want it grown close to home. But what’s after that?

For now, I’m moving forward with plans to certify some of our production organic. We’ll use a variety of new technologies to help ameliorate the effects of weather and then use some innovative, hot packaging to bring our products to the consumer. Then this season, watch out for some of the best tasting, most sustainably grown produce around. Know Your Roots. Taste Ours!

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Blogger bizdata said...

The choice is not between organic vs. non-organic (or "standard" as some super market chains have dubiously dubbed the category). Rather, it's about the choice that consumers have in purchasing fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are grown locally vs. those which are grown to survive a logistic system that commutes an avg. 1,500 miles between source and destination. Is it better to generate carbon emissions in the transportation of "low cost - low flavor" products that are designed to have high eye appeal and ripen along the way, or to provide better quality products that originate in farms within 10 miles of the destination and are designed to optimize nutrition and flavor? We have lots of education to do to teach consumers that they have alternative and superior places in which to vote with their forks. There is a huge opportunity for both farmers and consumers to become better acquainted. And like many other issues, we can start right in our own backyards.

1:25 AM  
Anonymous Jack said...

You ask what's next: I keep thinking ultra-organics - sort of what biodynamics is. The percentage of top small wineries that make wines from biodynamically-grown grapes are much higher than one would expect.

But how many top non-grape farms have gone biodynamic? It doesn't seem like many; but with Manresa in Los Gatos (one of the top ten restaurants in the country) now heavily sourcing vegetables from Cynthia Sandberg's biodynamic farm, Love Apple Farm, others may sit up and notice.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Mike Biltonen said...

Dear Bizdata,

Actually in the real food buying world, most consumers only have a choice between organic and non-organic. Very little food, even in a food savvy region like NYC, is sourced locally. The rise in popularity of farmers markets and CSAs suggests that consumers are having an effect, but the fact is that very few actually have true access to the markets. The only opportunity for farmer and consumer alike is going to come when large supermarket chains make a concerted effort to source local farm products for their customers. Consumers on the other hand need to just not shop at places that don't provide a local option.

1:50 PM  
Blogger Mike Biltonen said...

Dear Jack,

I think you're right. But what that farming style will look like remains to be seen. But it certainly is going to be something much different than either biodynamics or organic is today.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Devon Girl said...

Things are better here in UK. Food has less to travel as we're smaller so if it's UK it's better. However, you can get loads of local and organic box schemes.

6:42 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schessler said...

I feel so lucky that I can purchase local, organic produce every weekend at the farmer's market for much less than non-organic produce from the grocery store. I always assumed the produce from the farmer's market would be much more expensive, but it's definitely not! I started purchasing it long before I learned that it was also organic, and I couldn't be more pleased. Is this really out of the ordinary?

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Blogger Cherrita said...

Interesting post.
But I would like you to think about big cities consumers. Have they the right to consume organic food?
Where have organic food to be grown?
Which kind of organic vegetables can be consumed in countries like Sweden, Norway?

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