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The Million Dollar Question

Often times, even before the “hello,” I get this question:

Are you organic?”

I used to chuckle, look down at myself and think well 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, about 0.85% is composed of another five elements: potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium and say “Why yes, I am.”

Well that apparently is only funny to me.

When folks ask us about organic what do they mean, what information are they looking for? If I ask for specifics most often I get in reply, “do you spray your vegetables?”

Last December I sat in a session at one of the leading Eco-Farming conferences in the world that was meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Leading the discussion was one of the nation’s foremost authorities on organic farming. The room was full of small farm owners like us, looking for a way to become recognized for the methods they used that go well beyond organic standards. Many of these folks are in our situation, finding the government certification process too expensive and cumbersome to participate in.

When it was announced that the government might be interested in recognizing these efforts there was quite a bit of excitement, until it was revealed that entry into the new certification required becoming certified organic as a prerequisite. I thought the room was going to explode. Here were 150+ farmers doing the right thing each day but locked out of being recognized for it.

What do you want to know when you ask me if I am organic? I could be Certified Organic and still not be able to tell you I don’t spray my vegetables, since there are over 100 pesticides certified for use by organic farmers. I can still hear my college professor telling the class that no matter the type of pesticide; “If it will kill a bug it will kill you”. A bit dramatic, but you get the point. For most consumers “organic” means what farmers are not doing; not using restricted chemicals, not using GMO’s or treated seed. Most industrial agriculture simply replaced more harmful pesticides with “approved ones” and replaced synthetic fertilizer with manufactured organic sources without changing any of the farming methods that damage the soil and endanger the water.

Don’t get me wrong, if I need to purchase an avocado I am going to buy organic if I can, but let me tell you why. Increasing with the rise of the one stop grocery store since the 1950’s there has been a resulting disconnection between producer and consumer. Since I don’t know the folks that grew my avocado, I will take the extra step and hope that they are in compliance with organic standards as they claim… better than nothing. However, if there is something like honey which we do not produce but use, I don’t go to the store and buy an organic option. I go down the street to our local bee keeper, look the operation over, talk to her, shake her hand and take home my honey. In a time when most of our foods origins can not be easily traced, I will take that handshake every time.

A lot of consumers operate out of ignorance when it comes to their organic food choices. Investigate the real requirements behind your organic eggs, free range chicken or vegetables, it may WILL surprise you. We don’t pursue certification for a number of reasons, ones that are personal and specific to our operation. A certification would not change what we do or how we do it. I was told by my grandfather that character was what you did when no one was looking, and that rings true for us today. The food we sell is the same food our family eats, all 18 of us, including the grandkids. Four generations have spent time here on the farm and hopefully four more will.

We believe strongly in building your tomato from the bottom up. Our soil is our most valuable resource and we are continually working to improve it for our plants, animals and ourselves. Organic farmers, true deep organic farmers don’t want to talk about what we don’t do, we want to talk about what we are doing. Did you know that if you pick up a handful of soil, good active soil, that you are holding 20 miles of linear mycelium, most of it mycorrhizal fungi in your hand? Did you know that this fungi is considered vital for plant growth and that it is easily destroyed by industrial agriculture, organic or not? Strange that nowhere as part of the organic certification process is there any requirements about preserving or promoting this fungi. If mycorrhizal fungi were reestablished as part of larger scale farming it would absorb the excess carbon dioxide everyone is all excited about, but then what would we talk about?

How about we talk about what we are doing here on the farm? How the “deep organic methods” we use (a phrase used by the gardening pioneer Eliot Coleman) can provide the answer to that question, “Are you organic?”

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