What is Organic?
I am reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Anyone else read it? It is a nicely succinct overview of our national food system, how farmers Got Big, how that is not good, and the implied meanings of the word organic.
Although the word organic has two very specific definitions (one by the dictionary, one by the USDA—read below), it implies much more. Organic agriculture at its best implies “small farming” and “local” and “energy-efficient” and “nutritious” and “sustainable.” In other words, Quality over Quantity. Below is something I wrote up last year:
What is this mysterious word “organic?”
Organic in the dictionary means a lot of different things:
Chemically, it is of or designating carbon compounds.
It is of or relating to or derived from living organisms.
Relating to, yielding, dealing in, or involving the use of food produced with the use of fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers or pesticides. Whew!
Some may say organic is natural. But that is another label.
In the United States if a farm claims that they are organic, then they are either very small and are not making much money, OR they have undergone third-party organic certification and have filed this with the USDA. To qualify for the organic label, the farm must prove with documentation that the land and inputs to the soil have been free of synthetic chemicals for at least three years. The actual vegetables cannot be sprayed with pesticides created in a lab. Everything has to be of or relating to something alive.
Peasants’ Plot is hoping to begin the certification process once we have accumulated the three years worth of paperwork necessary and once we have the capital to spare. It can be a relatively expensive endeavor.
Be assured for now that we are farming with methods in accordance with organic certifying agencies. We care about the health of our soil and our customers in all ways “organic.”
How do you keep the bugs off?
TOP TEN ANSWERS
1. Organic farms use age-old methods to feed their soil and to provide environments for strong healthy plants that are less susceptible to bug and disease epidemics. The natural microbial life in soil, often compromised with conventional farming methods, plays a big role in the complex balance between bug and plant life, so organic farmers make a point out of keeping the soil as alive as possible. We feed our soil with carefully monitored compost created from local and on-farm sources.
2. Each vegetable sold at our stand really derives from two seed purchases: the plant seed itself plus the seed planted the prior season as green manure, the organic fertilizer of choice. Green manure can fixate nitrogen in the soil while building the soil structure.
3. We plant crops that attract beneficial insects. These are bugs like lacewings and parasitic wasps. They eat the eggs of the destructive bugs, so we like them.
4. We plant crops next to other crops. Certain pairings discourage certain bugs.
5. We plant trap crops, which are never meant for market, just a distraction.
6. We protect crops with row covers. For example, arugula and mustard greens are very attractive to flea beetles, so as soon as we can in the spring we plant and immediately cover the bed with a thin white fabric only to remove at harvest.
7. We pick bugs and/or eggs off by hand.
8. We minimally use organic-approved (OMRI-approved) products such as diamataceous earth for really bad outbreaks of things like cabbage loopers.
9. Organic farmers, especially on small farms, often integrate pasture livestock into their field rotation. Chickens are great to pasture on next year’s garden because they eat bugs in the ground and fertilize at the same time!
10. Finally: The truth is that we sometimes simply CANNOT keep the bugs off. Organic farmers generally know that the natural world will sometimes win. To hedge our bets, we make sure to maintain a diversity of crop families.
We do not use chemical fertilizer, chemical pesticides, chemical herbicide, chemical anything.
Why have you chosen to grow organic?
We feel very lucky to have the land that we do. Our respect for the soil makes growing organically the only real choice. It allows us to keep growing vegetables for years to come without dependence on the chemical companies. We also have concern about the quality of vegetables in the current market and feel confident our produce is among the most healthful and free of toxins.
What’s your favorite part of being an organic farmer?
The hard work involved in growing organically is directly rewarded every time we go to market and see our customers satisfied and thankful. Another favorite aspect of farming the way we do is the feeling we are doing something important. We feel part of a greater movement towards a sustainable food production system in this country that empowers small farmers and reduces the burning of fossil fuels. Selling our vegetables to local communities helps reduce the impact of the global supermarket while building community. It is an exciting time to be an organic farmer.
In terms of the labor, Todd is most strongly (and strangely) connected to manure and composting. He loves it.
What is your least favorite part?
Planting potatoes by hand.
Why should people buy organic products instead of other options?
It is pretty simple. If the choice is available, organically-grown vegetables and fruits are free of toxic chemicals and more nutritional than their conventional counterparts. Some customers might buy organic because it signifies responsible stewardship to the land. If the product is also locally grown, the environment is even better off and the consumer can really be assured of how their food is produced.
What makes your farm special?
One of our missions is to give dense, urban communities the opportunity to feel connected to their food. We hope to offer people the chance to experience a farm and, an even loftier hope, to feel more in touch with nature. Both of us have lived a good part of our lives in Chicago neighborhoods and want to maintain a close relationship to other city dwellers. As part of our worker share program, people can work one day a month in exchange for a weekly box of vegetables dropped off in Wicker Park or Lincoln Square.
What is the difference between “organic” and “pesticide-free?”
Organic in the dictionary means a lot of different things. Chemically, it is of or designating carbon compounds. It is of or relating to or derived from living organisms. It is also relating to, yielding, dealing in, or involving the use of food produced with the use of fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers or pesticides.
Some may say organic is natural. But that is another label.
In the United States, if a farm claims that they are organic, then they are either very small and are not making much money, OR they have undergone third-party certification and have filed this certification with the USDA. This is a lengthy and expensive process. To qualify for the organic label, the farm must prove with documentation that the land and inputs to the soil have been free of synthetic chemicals for at least 3 years. The actual vegetables cannot be sprayed with pesticides created in a lab. Everything has to be of or relating to something alive.
Peasants’ Plot, in its second season, is not certified. Right now we use the oversimplified phrase “pesticide-free” to distinguish ourselves. Be assured that we care about the health of our soil and our customers in all ways “organic” by not spraying synthetic chemicals nor using chemical fertilizer.
Why is pesticide-free produce more expensive?
Pesticide-free vegetables are more labor intensive than those growing with the help of chemical sprays. Our pest control is mostly manual (a few bugs at a time) and includes calculated measures such as properly timed crop plantings, “trap” crops, and flower beds designed specifically for beneficial bugs (which help control the bad ones). In the case of cabbage loopers in the summer of 2008, Todd finally chose to use an organic-approved product to save a section of broccoli beds. Pesticide-free production takes on a higher risk of damage by bugs—so high, in fact, that occasional crop devastation is expected. Soil fertility can also be more labor intensive on a farm like ours. In our case, we compost manure from a nearby horse ranch. Shoveling manure is probably the best example of labor intensity there is. Just ask Todd. We also plant a crop of legumes and grasses in the fall. These crops are not for sale, but are solely for the purpose of enriching the soil.