All food has a story. As a responsible consumer (and, in my case, producer), we want to know what those stories are so that we can make the best, most informed decisions when it comes to what goes on our plate. The hard part is often knowing what that story is. The production, processing, and marketing of our global food supply are increasingly in the hands of only several multinational corporations.
All Natural? Free-Range? Anti-biotic free? Grass-fed? Naturally grown? rBGH free? Organic? These are ubiquitous terms and labels in the grocery store – for the consumer, they are buying guides, and for the businesses that are selling the food, they are marketing tools. They are often tangled with vaguely formed definitions, created from public opinion, marketing and the media. If you want to know the story of how the food got into your hands, and potentially go on to nourish you and your family, these labels often don’t help very much. Where is the traceability, credibility, and accountability?
In 2002 the federal government signed the standards for organic production and processing into law. This means that every certified organic farm has signed a contract to practice what is allowed by the National Organic Program definitions, and every year these farms must prove that they are following this code. This means that the philosophy of organic farming, loosely based on farming in ways that were healthier (or at least less risky) for people and the environment than the increasingly widespread methods based on utilizing synthetic products originally produced and manufactured for warfare by chemical companies, was taken out of the hands of numerous growers and certifiers and placed into the safe keeping of the NOP.
So how are the organic standards developed and upgraded? While the EPA regulates the use of pesticides and fertilizers for conventional agriculture, the National Organic Standards Board regulates organic. Some argue that the EPA does a better job of researching and regulating pesticides than the NOSB. Many organic farms and brands are owned by the few corporations that dominate our food supply, and through the Organic Trade Association lobby group, have a heavy influence on the policy developed by the NOSB. And now we have organic equivalency trade agreements with Canada, the European Union, and Japan. Will this help improve the economy, create jobs, and increase the global organic acreage to the overall benefit of society? Or is it evidence that the philosophy of organic is deteriorating into (BIG) business as usual? It’s a complicated question.
In contrast, weed control strategies on our organic farm are based on mechanical and cultural practices. We have special tools that target specific stages of weed and crop growth for better control, and use field plastic and drip irrigation to reduce the weed pressure. Interestingly, our friends at One Straw Farm recently decided to forgo their organic certification, as the standards do not allow the use of biodegradable field plastic. They now use the Food Alliance and GAP certifications.
In regards to fertility, unlike conventional farms that often directly rely on synthetic nitrogen sources, we use poultry manure from a local source. In a way we are still using synthetic nitrogen inputs, as the nitrogen we are utilizing originated from crops grown conventionally. However, rather than the manure being a potential source of pollution and nutrient saturation of the sort that is creating the algae blooms, loss of biodiversity, and declining fishing industry in the Chesapeake Bay, we are recycling that costly produced nitrogen by feeding our crops. This more complex form of fertilizer also feeds the soil with organic matter and micronutrients – cultivating a stronger and more resilient and diverse biota. These little organisms and their biochemical processes help us by decreasing the pressure from soil borne pathogens, and makes nutrients available for the health of our crops.
As with herbicides, we have limited options for organic products that target bacterial and fungal diseases. The more effective management method is to try to reduce the likelihood of colonization of a pathogen, by creating a healthy soil, healthy plants, inoculating with beneficial organisms, plant spacing for optimal air flow, and drip irrigation to help keep the foliage dry of our more disease-susceptible crops.
We have better arsenal when it comes to organic insecticides. However, these are often broad spectrum, and may have an adverse affect on native populations depending on where and how the products are used. Some synthetic insecticides can be more target specific, but depending on how they are applied can be highly polluting and toxic to the environment.
The use of and exposure to particular pesticides will differ depending on production methods – and with the global food supply, there is often no real way of knowing what you are being exposed to unless you send it to a lab – and how realistic is this? There are studies that the media and marketers cite as reasons to choose organic or conventional – but these are just little pieces of a much grander story.
One of the overarching ways that pest and disease pressure is reduced on the farm is the fact that we are a diversified market farm. We strive to have a diverse array of produce for our customers that come to our stands, and we try to maximize the availability of certain crops throughout the seasons. This means that our many crops are rotated, giving crop specific pests and disease less of a chance to become established.
Unlike the stories in the grocery store, regardless of labeling or lack thereof, the story at a local farmers’ market can often provide much more straightforward information – you can actually talk to the farmer that grew your food. We like to have someone from the farm manage each of our markets, not only because we value the relationships that we develop, but also it allows for greater transparency and accountability regarding our production methods. We are proud of what we grow, and generally do this work because we want to produce delicious, fresh, and socially and environmentally responsible food.