What Does Organic Mean to You?
Every week I get customers at the Farmers’ Market asking me if I’m “Organic.” The word organic has come to symbolize a very complex set of feelings, emotions and desires about our food production system. When I ask people to elaborate on what they mean by “organic,” they tell me that they want to know that their food is clean and free of synthetic chemicals, that their food is healthy and nutritious, that their food is locally grown by a farmer or rancher that is concerned with the environment and community and works to steward their land for future generations, they want to know that the farmer employs members of the community at a decent and respectable living wage. This is what my customers mean when they ask if I farm organically…
And yet, the label “organic” has been absconded with by the industrial food system in America. Organic farming originated as a grass roots movement by farmers and consumers who wanted to opt out of the industrial food system that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels and treats the environment and soil like dirt. The founding principles of organic farming were rooted in the idea that growing food should not only improve the health of the consumer through chemical-free, more nutrient dense food, but it should also improve the health and resilience of the environment in which it is grown and not harm the workers growing it. However, once demand began to grow for organic, agribusiness and the USDA worked to define the “organic” guidelines to bring the grassroots movement into the mainstream, ie: the heavily regulated, industrial food economy. The result: a factory farm can be certified organic, organic milk and meat can come from cows kept on giant feedlots, and, amazingly, additives and synthetic chemicals can still be included in processed organic foods!
While it’s true, there are now hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that no longer are doused with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers because they are certified organic, it is also true that the minimal requirements of the organic label are just a whisper of the original goals and spirit of the movement – of what people are actually asking for when they ask if I farm organically. Organically grown salad greens from industrial giants like EarthBound Farm (responsible for roughly 80% of all pre-packaged organic salad mixes sold in the U.S.) spend 57 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy for you, the consumer (the ratio is 1:1 or better for salad from small scale, organic, family farms). Industrial organic farms that rely on heavy tillage, organic sprays and organic fertilizers are wiping Mother Nature out of the picture, rendering their soils and their fields less biodiverse, less resilient, and more reliant on off-farm “organic” inputs which must be manufactured and trucked in. You can even buy processed foods with organic high fructose corn syrup or organic chickens raised in massive warehouses, shoe-horned in wing to wing without ever seeing the light of day or stepping foot on dirt or grass, or you can buy a processed organic food product with natural raspberry flavoring made from corn – not raspberries. This is what our industrial food system has done to pervert the word “organic.”
As it turns out, science has been providing loads of support to the long held beliefs of the grassroots organic movement: plants grown in composted soils (full of rich, diverse, biological life) are in fact more nourishing than plants grown in fertilized soils (organic or synthetic); plants grown in composted soils are less vulnerable to disease and insect pests; biological polycultures (such as on a diverse, organic family farm) are more productive and less prone to disease than monocultures (such as industrial organic or conventional); and, most profoundly, the health of our soils is empirically connected with the health of our plants, our animals, our own human selves and our nation. In fact, we now know that civilizations which abuse their soil eventually collapse because of those actions against their soil and against Mother Nature (read Jared Diamond’s Collapse).
So is the food you eat from a small scale, diversified grower following the grassroots principles of organic farming better? Better for what? Is it better for the environment? Better for the farmers who grew it? Better for the public health or the taxpayer? The answer is yes. To eat this food, no pesticides found their way into any farmworker’s bloodstream, no nitrogen runoff or growth hormones seeped into the watershed, no soils were poisoned, no antibiotics squandered, no subsidy checks written. If the (usually but not always) higher price of locally grown, small scale organic food is weighed against the comparatively low price it extracted from the larger world, it begins to look like a real bargain! (paraphrased from Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma)
At Singing Frogs Farm, we farm for Mother Nature. Nature offers us a great quantity of free ecosystem services, such as the predation of pests by beneficial insects, birds and bats, or the rejuvenation of soils through photosynthesis and decomposition (compost). We incorporate hundreds of chickens and livestock on our small acreage because, as one eminent agronomist, Sir Albert Howard, once wrote: “Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops.” In a properly functioning system, there is no waste, the byproduct of animals is food for the plants and vice versa. Biological diversity enhances the chemical and nutrient resources available in the system thereby enhancing both the health and the resiliency of the system and its component parts. We grow between 200 and 300 varieties of vegetable, fruit, berry, herb and flower crops on just 3 acres of land, with another acre taken up by our house, barn, nurseries, roads, and other infrastructure and the remaining 4 acres devoted to native plant ecosystems, livestock pasture, and wildlife habitat.
In addition, repeated research has shown that small, diversified farms like ours produce more food per acre than large, industrial scale farms. However, it’s the higher transaction costs for supermarkets in dealing with small, diversified growers that makes industrial scale food production cheaper for the mass market. The industrial food system’s values of specialization, economies of scale and fossil fuel dependent mechanization end up pushing out the proven ecological values of biodiversity, complexity and symbiosis.
In order to be a viable, sustainable farm, rooted in our Earth’s soil, we must re-learn how to grow our food in a symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature. Nature has already created self-reinforcing, virtuous cycles of health and bounty in every ecosystem out there. All we need to do is plug back into that system – to revitalize the natural ecosystem services in our backyards and on our farms – and we can begin to grow our food and our health in a viable, sustainable way that will ensure there is more bounty and more health for current and future generations.
The only real way to support a restorative agricultural system, one that embodies and enhances the virtuous cycles of Mother Nature, is to vigilantly support artisanal producers, your local farmer, dairy or cheese maker. To walk into a Wholefoods or Safeway is to buy in to the industrial system of soil and resource depletion, which, unfortunately, is still a necessary evil since your local farmer probably doesn’t grow wheat, rye, quinoa or chocolate.
So the next time you’re at a Farmers’ Market, instead of asking the Farmer if her farm is organic, ask her what organic means to her. If they talk only about not using chemicals or sprays, then they are still trying to manage their farm on the depletive industrial model of efficiency to the exclusion of Mother Nature. But if they launch into a soap box diatribe like I’ve done, kindly thank them for their hard work and dedication to the founding principles of organic farming and for practicing restorative agriculture, shake their hand, and buy an arm load of produce from them every week! We need your support!
(c) 2011 Paul Kaiser
Paul Kaiser served in the Peace Corps in The Gambia, West Africa. He worked with several rural agrarian communities to develop sustainable land use management systems that incorporated multi-purpose trees in the farm fields and gardens for soil replenishment and protection, biodiversity promotion, and household products such as fuel wood, timber, fruits, leaves, animal fodder, etc. Since then, Paul earned dual Masters Degrees in Natural Resources Management and Sustainable Development from the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica and the American University in Washington D.C. In the last four years, Paul and his wife Elizabeth have married sustainable land management with local food production at their biodiverse and family-friendly Singing Frogs Farm. In addition, Paul created his “Night Heron Woodworks” business, where this accomplished furniture maker sells hand-crafted, salvaged hard wood pieces.