Sunday, January 21, 2007

Transcending the Obvious

When we came up the phrase Know Your Roots™, we wanted to inspire a new way to think about food; something beyond the ubiquitous “Organic and "Buy Local slogans.” Know your Roots™ gets at, well, your roots. It asks everyone who eats--and we all do--to think about their food and where it comes from, how it is grown, and by whom. Putting that ethos into action is an important and we feel long overdue step that people need to make. In fact we think it's irresponsible to put anything in your mouth if you don't know where it comes from and how it was made-- its roots. We are convinced that an adoption of Know Your Roots™ by consumers would be the proverbial tipping point to solving so many issues right now. Obesity, e-coli outbreaks, and urban sprawl, to name a few.

Defining the geographic boundaries of such a food philosophy is a task for everyone to undertake. There are wholesale buyers out there that believe that, "Global is the new Local." Positions like that are very apparently trying to co-opt the local movement and pull the proverbial wool over the consumer’s eyes. Take the teeth out of any definition, and if consumers don't ask, then nobody is really going to care except in a superficial manner. So how do people take a stand a make sure Local is really Local? And how healthy it is for you and the planet to buy organic if the food needs to be put on a Jet plane and consume vast amounts of fossil fuels to get to you while it's still fresh.

There’re a mini-movement happening out there focused on eating food grown as close to home as possible. People involved in these movements are called, "Locavores" also known as the 100 mile diet because it restricts folks from consuming food grown any further than 100 miles from where they live. Food and wine magazine (the .com version) recently published an article that explores variations in more detail. That article can be found at How to Eat like a Locavore" (see We recognize that being a Locavore lives within and in a way celebrates Know Your Roots™ Because the first step in eating only locally, is to make the conscious effort to pay attention to where their food comes from.

While this diet may be too restrictive for some, Know Your Roots™ is inconclusive. It does require a shift in consciousness. We think that shift is necessary and long overdue. Knowing your roots gives you a way out of our dysfunctional food system and into a truly conscientious food community.

So here's to Knowing your Roots™ and a bit about ours. We’re located in New York’s Hudson Valley in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains on a farm with a nearly two hundred year history. Although our ultimate goal is to provide consumers with their next best local food experience, beginning next year, we’ll begin transitioning from a progressive Integrated Pest Management (IPM) farm to one using organic growing techniques. We’ll undoubtedly become certified USDA Organic along the way, although our thinking is way beyond that. Being farmers means more than just growing food, it means being good stewards of the land and good neighbors in our community. It also means giving consumers a way out of the industrial food machine and into a truly transcendent food community.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Beyond Organic

Organic wasn’t such as bad thing ten or twenty years ago. Then the government got involved. That wasn’t such a bad thing either, except that lobbyists for multinational ag businesses were able to control the way USDA certification was written and cajole it to serve their interests. The real fallout from their efforts is just now being felt and I contend that organic certification will not mean anything in 10 years. Organic food will be just another commodity item in stores.

We’re already seeing it as the premiums growers used to get are disappearing, and the produce shelves are becoming dominated by strictly organic produce and commodity prices. Where I come from we call that commodification. If organic is no longer value-added, then the cost of the paperwork and expensive production techniques cease to make sense, except to those that controlled the process: i.e., large agribusiness.

For a farmer like myself, who is admittedly not organic and doesn’t really want to be, we need to figure out what the next steps are. I originally started this blog to debunk the whole idea that organic was the end all, beat all to food production. Let's explore the concept of what’s Beyond Organic?

Last week I was in Manhattan and I visited several stores to see what was on the shelves. Many of the supermarkets have made a verbal commitment to local. Some have even been leaders and exemplary businesses over the years. But lately most have started to act more like trend-surfers than businesses with missions beyond pure profit. For example, my visit revealed very few local apples or cider on their shelves. There was plenty of west coast organic apples and gobs of overpriced fruit drinks and waters. But where was the local? Remember New York is the second leading apple producing state in the US and apples store great through the winter, so availability isn’t the issue. For us growers, especially here on the east coast, there is very little incentive to enter the organic market as we see prices shrink and a diminishing commitment to local after “the season.”

I’ve set my sights on implementing a production system that takes us beyond organic and allows us to compete in a way that can’t be taken away from us. I don’t know what that system is going to look like exactly, but more than likely it will be a combination of many different styles of production that will include traditional, organic, biodynamic, and whatever else I can beg, borrow, and steal from the myriad styles that are out there. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have done this, but back then it all meant something. We’re now looking to redefine a method of ecological growing that means something to the trade and the consumer, and the only way to do that without having it co-opted by the big guys is to develop in concert with the fact that we are local. Nobody can co-opt our geography, especially if we define the concept of what local means first.

In the early 1990s there was an attempt by a researcher at Cornell to develop something called the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ). It was underdeveloped and never successful, but it always struck me that what we really needed to do with our production systems is to develop an algorithm for calculating a whole-farm EIQ.

Production systems have to be analyzed by more than just what we spray or fertilize our plants with. We live in a complex world and it shouldn’t be a bad thing to utilize technology and science as well as certain pagan rituals in how we grow crops. The goal should be to have the least negative impact on the land, communities, and regional food systems as possible.
Beyond Organic lies in a production system that is a complex and challenging as nature itself. As I develop this new production system, I'll make sure to keep everyone informed. But I don’t think we’ll ever actually “get there.” Farms are complex, biological organisms that include people, buildings, tractors, and plants. They evolve and change every day. There’re a new set of problems and challenges to contend with all the time. Our production systems should mimic and work with that reality….naturally. In this case, philosophy trumps recipes and that's just something a 1000 acre farm in California can't deal with.

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