Friday, April 13, 2007

The Agony of Organic


It’s almost spring here in New York’s Hudson Valley. The maples are blooming; the tiny tomato seedlings are thriving (in a greenhouse, of course); and the first hints of green leaves are evident on the apple trees. We’re still months away from the year’s first delectable, local produce, yet the season has definitely started for the area’s farmers. Even though it has been long, cold, weird, winter, nature knows when it is ready and that time is here.
We’re pretty much done fixing tractors and equipment and getting things ready to plow and disc the fertile fields. And while much of our time is spent tending to equipment and crops, we’re also players in a bureaucratic game called organic. Yes, we’ll be spreading compost, irrigating, and weeding. But we’re also filling out numerous forms and mounds of paperwork in order to “prove” to the powers that be that we in fact (in part) grow certified organic products. It wouldn’t be so bad except for the fees, the loopholes, the global competition, the additional expenses, and lack of guarantees. It tough being a small farmer; it is even tougher being a small certified organic farmer. Nonetheless, organically certifying a small part of our production is absolutely a part of our commitment to ecological agriculture. More importantly, it is part and parcel with our journey to Beyond Organic.

Most people, consumers and otherwise, believe that all you have to do to grow food organically is not spray. And while organic growers might not spray the same products as conventional growers, they certainly do spray pesticides; just different pesticides. Growing food organically is more difficult than growing conventionally because of the restrictions and cost of using organic products. Remember, organic growers are faced with the same biological realities as conventional growers. And because there are dramatically fewer limitations (not to mention lower costs) to the conventional grower, they can produce more food, more cheaply than anyone on earth. Yes, conventional farming is the most productive food production system in the world. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

But here at Stone Ridge Orchard, we’re a committed bunch here and ecological farming is our lifeblood. We just need for everyone to understand the constraints we’re under, both biologically and bureaucratically, in order to practice agriculture with our particular ethos. It ain’t cheap, and never will be. Therefore, we must charge a little more. Sure, you can get cheaper organic produce from many other parts of the world, but at what cost?

Large corporate food companies have fought the COOL legislation for years. What is COOL? It is Country of Origin Labeling and it is intended to tell consumers where their food comes from. Seems fair enough, but the fact is those companies don’t want you to know where your food comes from. They want you to think all of your orange juice comes from Florida and your apples from New York. Globally produced food may be cheaper, but again at what cost and shouldn’t you have a right to know?

The title of this blog is Organic Schmorganic. Catchy, huh? But the real meaning behind it is in the subtitle, “debunking the myth of organic in favor of local, ecological farming.” People need food to survive. And since most of our population has moved from farms to suburbia, we’ve lost the cultural opportunity to grow our own. So we depend on farmers. So the questions consumers need to ask is whether they are going to support local grown produce (organic or not) or whether organic (no matter the environmental cost) is more important. There’s more at stake than just food, too. There’s open space, clean water, clean air, entertainment (fall apple picking anyone?), and the most basic of issue of food security (where is it going to come from and is it safe). Folks, you have some decisions to make.

Obviously, local organic food is the ideal choice. But in its absence, what choice will you make? Farmers like me are putting a lot time and money into creating a food system that is ideal. But the process is an evolutionary one. As we all embark and participate in it, we need to support local farmers of all types (or most of them anyway) and encourage them to utilize ecological farming methods as much as possible. In return, consumers deserve transparency in their food system. They need to know that the food they’re eating is the food they thought they were buying. And that brings us back to the organic certification process.

We here at Stone Ridge Orchard support the organic certification process even though it may be a pain. It provides a degree of guarantee where there wasn’t any before; the only faith that existed before was by knowing your farmer or purveyor. The world of organics no longer provides that opportunity. The only place to get it is Local. There were and still are those that attempt to hoodwink the public by calling certain products organic when in fact they are not. We need the government oversight in order to give the consumer what they think they are getting. But we also need everyone to understand that when it is coupled with “local grown” there is a price for which there is no government oversight or real definitions.

In the past few weeks, I have witnessed several farms that are or are in threat of going out of business and being replaced by McMansions. This is not an indication that farming is dead is in the Hudson valley, just transforming. There are many that both enjoy farming and recognize it as a critical element of our heritage and cultural future. As farming evolves, things won’t be as they were in the 20th century. Both the physical landscape and the farming methods are dynamic. They always have been. But they aren’t indestructible and need your support to survive.

So what is the agony of organic? It is knowing that there are easier, more productive, more bottom-line profitable ways to farm and at the same time knowing that the current food train has derailed and the time for a new food future has arrived. And that future is local, ecologically produced food. If it includes organic, great. But in the end knowing your farmer and your farms will provide more transparency than anything—including USDA organic. For now, becoming certified organic is just a milestone in our journey. A means to an end, not an end in and of itself. But I have to get back to my certification paperwork. Working with the soil and water and the crops will just have to wait until tomorrow.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous deliberately said...

Mike, the new website for the orchard looks great. And even though we're halfway across the country, we're looking for food that is organic and local here in Tennessee and we're willing to pay the difference. As far as we're concerned, it's for the sake of our children, who would otherwise have to carry the burden of the true cost of food into their adulthoods and their children's. Keep up the good work. We enjoy watching from afar.

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