There are countless blogs on the internet written by farmers and farmer’s wives about why or why not they are organic. Here is OUR blog on the topic.
In my limited experience over the last year, the organic question is asked even more often when you are marketing fresh locally grown produce versus growing agricultural commodities in the Magic Valley. We are asked often “Are you organic?” or sometimes it is assumed “It is so great that there are organic producers leading the way in our area!” Either way, it opens a conversation that I am more than willing to have.
No. We are not certified organic. The answer could be as simple as we are organic producers we simply don’t complete the documentation and go through the inspections to get the stamp for our produce. It is not that simple.
My response brings on one of two responses: 1) “Good for you!” or 2) “Oh, well I really feel that organic produce is better.” These responses bring a variety of thoughts to mind. The first – “Have you personally been hurt by an organic producer?” “Why the excitement to assume the last few decades of agriculture should be the status quo?” The second – “Nutritionally?” “Environmentally?” “Because of the news?” Either way, I think “Why the bias?”
Let’s talk The Country Gardens philosophy. To us, it boils down to a couple issues: The Chemicals, Our Natural Resources and GMO’s.
1. The Chemicals
It is a complicated issue that can’t be simplified as good guy vs bad guy, organic pesticide vs synthetic pesticide. A pesticide, organic or synthetic, by definition is meant to kill or disrupt an organism’s lifecycle – they are all bad guys! That doesn’t mean that pesticides don’t have a purpose in agricultural production.
Don’t make your decision to buy organic because they don’t use pesticides. Organic pesticides can be and are used in organic production. Organic pest control is an industry by itself and the major chemical companies are bigger players than you would think. Don’t also assume that organic pesticides are safe: nature holds the power to poison, mutate and kill. On the flip side, don’t assume that synthetic pesticides are safe or unsafe.
OUR PHILOSOPHY ON PESTICIDES: Using any pesticide limits our ability to safely work and let our children play in the gardens. However there are instances when, even with other preventative measures, pests exceed limits and we risk losing current and future crops. In these cases, we do use the best pesticide based on current scientific knowledge to control issues in our gardens. While we do look at organic pesticides, we are not philosophically opposed to using a synthetic pesticide if it is the best tool for a specific circumstance.
All pesticide applications (organic or synthetic) will always be disclosed to our members. This is one of the many benefits of being a CSA member – you know the production practices that are used to grow your food!
2. Our Natural Resources
I haven’t met a single farmer with the goal of destroying the environment and putting themselves out of a job! I can only think of a few other professions that work day in and day out with the land. Most farmers have invested decades of their lives in a single piece of land (big or small). Their land is their most expensive and greatest asset.
Each individual grower’s production practices are a result of so many factors: available equipment, government program enrollment, personal philosophies, market availability, previous owner’s decisions, labor issues, crop contracts, financial considerations…
The number of combinations is limitless in how you manage a piece of land. The pros and cons are also limitless. Each management decision has an effect on future decisions – some seen in the same growing season or some a decade or more down the road. It is impossible to discuss these in such a brief forum and I am by no means an expert that will pretend to understand the repercussions of each decision.
OUR PHILOSOPHY ON NATURAL RESOURCES: Our gardens allow us to build a business doing something we love. Our management of these resources will affect how successful we are today and in the future. We truly believe that nutritional quality of produce is not a direct factor of organic vs non-organic production but is a reflection of soil nutrition and health. Tillage can have some negative impacts on the soil but is necessary for other crops. Cover crops are great ways to build soil but can increase weed issues in the garden. Compost can build the structure and fertility of our soils but can also be slow to provide benefits. Fertilizers can be a seasonal solution that increases plant vigor and prevents damage caused by diseases and pests.
Management of natural resources is a balancing act and it is also an active pursuit. We have interrupted nature’s balance to produce food for our family and yours. We will forever be involved in amending, controlling and balancing while we are in production on this small patch of land. Another benefit of being a CSA member – come and see exactly what is happening around your vegetables as they grow. Enjoy the sunshine and pull a few weeds while you are here!
You are talking to 2 women who have worked in public and private plant breeding programs. We have been involved in the research and even planted and harvested GMO crops! It isn’t all science fiction and frankenplants. Are they good, bad or necessary? I think it depends on each individual situation.
I have sat in a boardroom with some of the best minds in agriculture and discussed the challenges we anticipate agriculture encountering in 10, 20 and 50 years. Reality is that GMO’s are not all about chemical resistant plants (Roundup Ready) or insect protection (Bt). Droughts, disease, soil salinity and limited nutrient resources are serious issues that our current crop varieties are not going to overcome. Traditional methods may get us where we need to be but I’m not going to ignore the technology that has the potential to get us the better answer sooner. Most of us wouldn’t trade our cell phone for a land line, our car for a horse and wagon or our vaccinations for blood letting.
OUR PHILOSOPHY ON GMOS: We can’t embrace a production system that removes a technology that has the potential for reducing water use, improving nutrient utilization or preventing disease. Our husband’s farms do grow GMO crops and this technology has allowed them to limit pesticide use and incorporate more cover crops into their rotations – both organically minded pursuits.
Reality – most garden crops do not have GMO varieties commercially available and not in the small quantities that we grow in our CSA.
Confused where we stand? I have given you our philosophy but what is the answer bottom line in regards to organic production at The Country Gardens?
In 2015, we were 95% organic within the bounds of the gardens. Why weren’t we 100%?
What is our plan for 2016? Continue on the same path. Our weed populations are dropping and we will be expanding the use of mulch because of the benefits we observed in 2015. Pray that this cold weather is dramatically decreasing vole populations!
Traditional and organic producers have often placed themselves as enemies rather than as farmers with a common goal of producing nutritious food for the consumer. Maybe we are able to see a slightly clearer picture of both sides because we are wives of farmers who fall on the traditional side while we lean more toward the organic side in our gardens. Traditional and organic are not mutually exclusive – both have tools that are beneficial.
More than anything, we want our members to understand where their produce comes from and we want the public to understand how food is produced. Read, ask and think about agricultural production. You are surrounded by it in the Magic Valley. Find a farmer and chat. Even if you grew up in Twin Falls, you might be surprised at the issues that are worrying farmers in 2016 and you might come away with a better understanding of exactly what is happening in the field.
A Side Note:
Remember that the “Organic” label is administered by the federal government. Definitions, exemptions and guidelines are all available for the public online. We encourage everyone to read and understand about labels on their food!
I grew up on the farm, worked on the farm, got a degree in agriculture, and married a farmer. I’ve always thought I had a good grasp on where my food came from, probably better than most. And I might, but I have learned some things about our food chain this past year; some that have surprised me and some that have down right shocked me. I wanted to start sharing some of these things but it has been very difficult to decide where to start. Bear with me as I try to stay focused and only elaborate on a few things at a time.
Why am I qualified to explain these things and why should you believe anything I say? Well, I’m not really qualified. I don’t have a degree in food science or food law or anything like that. I’ve never lobbied for anything or have done anything government involved. However, 2015 was a new start for me. The start of the Country Gardens and the start of a part time job close to home to keep the bills paid and health insurance for my family. I work part time for a food processing plant as the Quality Assurance Document Specialist. Quite the mouth full and really what the hell does that even mean? Usually when you think of Quality Assurance (QA) you might think of the lab technicians. They are ensuring that all of the outgoing product meets specifications and is safe for consumption. That means, for example, that the fat, salt, protein is correct (someone didn’t dump in the wrong ingredient) and that there isn’t any salmonella or other yucky things growing in there.
What I do comes before the product is made. I have to collect and verify multiple documents for each ingredient prior to being used. Probably something you never thought about. I never had. I verify that the ingredient meets specification for our product; that the allergen and nutritional information is correct, etc. On top of that, I also verify the vendor we are purchasing the product from. These documents include verification that they are in compliance with federal laws, their plant has the proper safety protocols in place, etc. All in all there are around 20 documents to collect and verify. In short, I make sure that the company and ingredients we are purchasing aren’t coming from your neighbors’ dirty garage. I also conduct in plant audits and participate when a customer, USDA, or ISDA does a third party audit of the plant. The FDA is constantly updating, changing, and creating new regulations. So I spend A LOT of time reading laws, dockets, and proposals. So this may not make me an expert but I have spent a fair amount of time making sure that I understand regulations so the company doesn’t get in trouble.
So here’s my disclaimer: I am NOT an expert on any of the topics to follow. I have included web addresses so you can do your own homework. I will try my best to be as unbiased as possible.
Some recent regulation changes in the food world include:
-Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs). These must be removed from all products; in 2013 the FDA decided that these were no longer Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) for human consumption. In 2015, they made the final ruling that they must be removed. There are several years for companies to become compliant and believe me there will be plenty of exemptions.
-Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). FSMA was signed by President Obama in 2011 and most of it is now finalized. This one is huge, all about food safety and prevention over reaction. There are several different parts of this law: rules for food for human consumption, animal consumption, produce safety, foreign supplier verification etc. It was finalized in September of 2015 and companies are still trying to read it.
*Krista and I are trying very hard to find trainings and information about the Produce Safety Rule in order to ensure we are completely compliant with the new federal and state regulations. These rules are extremely complex and trainings are just beginning to be offered for local farmers. We will be attending a few this spring. We take food safety VERY seriously.
-2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. USDA and US Dept. of Health and Human Services released the new dietary guidelines. These are revisited every 5 years and are revised based on current available nutrition science. This guideline is essentially telling the American people what and how we should be eating. Our kid’s school lunch programs, welfare programs, etc. are based directly off of these suggestions. Essentially, this revision says eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains and cut out as much added sugar as possible. There is of course controversy about certain parts of it (red meat recommendations and big business influence).
What’s coming in 2016? I have a few things that I am closely watching and am very curious to see how they turn out. In the last few years the food industry has started to see some changes. Big business isn’t doing as well against the smaller mom and pop. Studies show that consumers have an increasing interest to know more about what they are eating and where it is coming from. They are interested in fresher more nutritious food. Isn’t that why you are a member of the Country Gardens CSA? Some big business is trying to lead the way to keep consumers. For example, you moms like me that buy Go-Gurt Simple may have noticed that it is no longer pink and purple and every other color but is now white. General Mills promised to remove artificial colors and flavors and reduce the sugar by 30% at the beginning of 2016. I wish I would have taken a picture of the labels when I realized I had purchased the new version of Go-Gurt. I can attest that the sugar went from 9g per go-gurt to 6g. They have also made similar promises in their cereal department. Keep in mind the things to watch for in 2016 are now just proposals. The FDA has most of the topics available on the website and encourage people to leave comments and suggestions.
-Nutritional Label. While in the proposal stage now, I anticipate that it will become finalized in 2016. Some of the changes to look for – required Vitamin D and Potassium levels, new easy-to-read format, added sugar vs natural sugar.
-Defining “natural”. Use of the word “natural” is currently defined, but very loosely and definitely not the way that you probably think. Simply put, natural means no artificial or synthetic ingredients. It DOES NOT take into account farming practices or processing methods. The FDA recently extended the comment period for this topic.
-GMO Labeling. This is a big fight and will continue into 2016. Several states have passed laws requiring GMO labels on products containing GMOs that will go into effect mid-2016. There is concern that if the federal government doesn’t create a nation-wide requirement the information for consumers and processors will become extremely convoluted and inconsistent as states pass their own laws. So, the pressure’s on to make some decisions. Big business has a huge hand in this, afraid that people will stop buying products once they are labeled as containing GMOs. In answer to consumers requests without having the government require labeling, several big businesses have started what is called the “Smart Initiative”. By the end of 2016 you will be able to download an app on your phone and scan an item in the store. Information will be brought up to help you make more informed decisions about what you are buying. I’m not going to comment on this, except to say that you should Google “Smart Initiative” to find some news articles highlighting different pros and cons.
So this is a little bit of information about several topics. And believe me, there are a lot more topics. If you want more referencing material on any of these or other topics please let me know. I will do my best to keep updates throughout the year as these proposals unfold.
I feel that the food industry is going to make giant strides in the next few years in transparency for American consumers as the demand for answers and information continues to grow. Come visit us, we’ll show you where your food is coming from. Thanks for supporting the Country Gardens as we try to grow and lead the way in the Magic Valley.