Local or Organic?

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I thought I’d spend some time talking about the issues surrounding the ideas of local and organic when it comes to farm products, specifically produce.

So let’s work with some definitions. What does local mean? Good luck. I think local is when I pick a lettuce out of my front yard and I don’t think many would argue with me that that is in fact the case. Is it organic? Well, organic used to mean it was grown by some hippies who ran around naked in the moonlight at the full moon and didn’t use any pesticides or herbicides. Organic, these days, is fairly clear. You’re organic if you’re certified organic.

Organic is now regulated and heavily marketed. Not just anyone can call themselves organic due to the fact that you have to deal with inspections, regulations and increasing red tape to call what you produce organic. If you’re a farmer who sells at a farmer’s market and a customer asks you if you’re organic, by law you must present paperwork establishing that you are in fact, according to government regulation…organic. See, it’s not just hippies anymore. Large scale farms can more easily deal with the bureaucracy and red tape to be able to call their produce organic. Farmer Bob down the road struggling to make ends meet might be producing produce that’s beyond organic, he might be doing things in a more sustainable way but if he isn’t certified organic, he cannot legally market his produce this way.

Is local good? Well, I think it is. There are reasons for this. The height of my sense of disdain for products produced elsewhere is that it’s increasingly difficult to know how something was produced and in what conditions. Were the workers well treated and compensated? Is tilling done in a way that’s deleterious to the soil? Are chickens raised in cooped quarters and pumped full of antibiotics so they stay alive until it’s time for market?

Most people just don’t know where their food comes from. When encouraged to find out I’ve had foodies look at me as if to say, “please don’t burst my bubble.” They want yummy tasting food but there’s no sense of curiosity about where it came from. People get very testy when you start looking at their food choices with a critical eye.

Around Austin we have generally poor soil. This is not a major agricultural area when it comes to produce because of this. Settlers raised cattle on scrub land that could actually make use of what was already here. There’s a reason the longhorn is the symbol of UT. Longhorns are heat tolerant and can survive on poor vegetation and whatever is available. Vegetable gardening in our area takes work. The soil is poor, the climate sometimes rough and you cannot just throw seeds on the ground in spring and expect tomatos several months later. In some parts of the midwest that’s a workable scenario. They have 12″+ of topsoil. You’re lucky if you get 2″ in parts of Austin.

Local and organic are not mutually exclusive. Johnson’s Backyard Garden in south east Austin near the airport is both. The farm is certified organic and when it comes to local it fits one of my personal considerations, transparency. As a CSA (community supported agriculture) I know that my dollars and labor are going directly to a local farm, a local family, to help support them. It cuts out the middle man and allows me to have fresher produce and for a farmer to raise his family well.

I’ve gone and worked on the farm on many occasions and picked produce. Not only do I see how workers are treated, they help me with my Spanish. Interns, laborers and other volunteers support this CSA not only because it’s local and organic but because we believe in what’s being done on the farm. We get to learn about crops, crop rotation, planting schedules and all that goes on season to season. Because of this transparency I have far more trust in Brenton and his operation.

I don’t feel the same way about produce shipped in from CA on a truck. I don’t have the connection to the land, the workers and the produce isn’t as fresh even if like JBG it’s certified organic.

Locally picked produce doesn’t sit on the shelf as long and is generally more nutritious. After growing some of my own produce I see how long it lasts once it’s picked. The food on the shelf at a local store, even a good one like HEB or Central Market, might have taken a week or two to get from the field to the store. In that time the produce is already starting to break down and it’s nutritional value is degrading. I’m told that as soon as produce is picked it starts to break down from that point and the longer it sits, the less nutritious it is.

There are many layers to this story but realize that local, isn’t a label that’s regulated. That I know of there is no regulation on the words local when it comes to food or even the words natural for that matter. You can ask if something is local and it’s produced in Bolivia for all we know.

Long ago I went into a large well known big box store and noticed that there amongst the pallete of watermelons was a large sign with a farming family from TX. The text on the advert had the small farm family talking about how they’d grown these local watermelons in such and such county. It struck me since said big box store is no longer known for US goods. I looked in the bin of watermelons and on every melon there was a sticker, grown in Mexico. Now, I’m certain the store was breaking no laws. There wasn’t a sign saying, “these watermelons were grown here in TX.” The advert would lead you to believe that it was grown here. See the innuendo at work? Most who grabbed a melon out of the bin felt good about grabbing something that was locally grown without a second thought. Who doesn’t want to support their farming neighbor?

When it comes to organic we’ve established that to call something organic for marketing you have to be certified so. With that comes regulations, red tape, inspections, bureaucracy and for most people a sense of security. Now that government regulation has said it, it’s gospel. Now I ask, is margarine better than butter? Are eggs bad for you? How much milk is safe to drink? Are pharmaceuticals safe? How about marijuana? As you can see, just because government regulation says something is so leaves me with some doubt.

I’m not against organic at all. I grow things organically. I don’t use any non organic fertilizers or pesticides made from fossil fuels. Let’s look at this another way. I compost lots. I get vegetable scraps from the prep table at a local restaurant. To these I mix neighbor’s leaves that they handily placed at the curbside for me in a compostable bag. I also keep paper that’s shredded or old paper towels and mix it with vegetable scraps to build my compost piles. When this all breaks down it makes great compost for the garden.

I’ve grown wonderful cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce and onions in this. Is the produce I grew organic? I grew it organically in my opinion. The leaves that came from my neighbors yard, are they organic? My neighbors could be using ant killer, roundup and lawn fertilizer on their yard for all I know. Are the vegetable scraps organic? I doubt it, they’re probably grown all over central America and even if I tried it’d be difficult to track and find out what they were sprayed with. I get lots of avocado peels which I’m told are a low pesticide dosed crop but I also get lots of limes which I’m told are heavily sprayed. So with all this material going to feed my garden is the produce that I grow any good? Oh it’s heavenly!

I consider it organic but I’d never be able to pass organic certification. Do I feel bad about giving this away to neighbors? Do I feel I’m poisoning someone? No, not at all. So you see local and organic have different meanings. Just keep it in mind when you go shopping. If you want both, find local farmers who are certified organic and local to you. Go work on the farm for a day, they should be happy to show you around. Transparency is at the heart of wellness.

If you visit Johnson’s Backyard Garden tell them Robert sent you.

http://www.jbgorganic.com/

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