April18, 2008

Life is moving at lightning speed these days, and I could write about a lot of things. But one item sticks most in my mind. Today I had a conversation with a client that acts as a distributor, and we were discussing the financial nuances of what a farmer like myself can ask for in the way of prices in a distributor-sales setting. I was asked if I had considered becoming certified organic, because then I could ask for more money.


For those who know me, I basically am an organic grower that doesn’t believe in the paper chase organic certification requires. When one really becomes acquainted with the realities of agriculture, one realizes that "organic" is one means to a good end. "Local", "sustainable", "humane", "chemical-free", "no sprays",  and "responsible" are all words that are bandied about in an attempt to explain to potential buyers how crops are raised. The problem is, sellers can say anything they want, and only buyers that develop an intimate relationship with the seller can know for sure if the claims are real, or a pile of horse pucky. I mentioned to my client that sometimes I describe myself as "non-certified organic". There was a pause in the conversation, whereupon she said, "it’s illegal to say that. USDA owns the word ‘organic’ ".  Now, that’s a little statement with a lot of impact. When people like Mr. Rodale promoted the idea of organic gardening decades ago, "organic" was an ideal that belonged to all the people who grew food and realized that the commercial fertilizers and the sprays and the economics of scale that drove these techniques were not necessarily adding up to good food. And now USDA has made it such that people cannot use a word to describe what is happening in a garden to a customer? That’s amazing. We’ve lost a lot of ground in the United States in certain matters, and it becomes increasingly apparent to me that we the people are in a fight for retaining control of our food. If that sounds extreme, think about a few things that no one would have believed a hundred years ago. It’s illegal to make and sell cheese to anyone without a mountain of financial investment, facilities and certification. It’s illegal for me to make blackberry jam and sell it at a farmer’s market unless I can do so in a certified commercial kitchen. It’s illegal for me to sell a turkey for meat to a grocery store unless I want to put that animal through the horrors of a commercial slaughterhouse. There are even attempts in the works to make it so that in the name of food safety, a farm like mine might be required to have extensive laboratoy testing done to determine the safety of the produce I sell–a direct outcome of ongoing "progress" to prevent another outbreak of illness like what happened last year from bacterial contamination in the commercial spinach crops. 

And in many regards, we the people are to blame. We want a 100% guarantee that whatever we eat is absolutely safe. Guess what, no matter what anyone does, there will always be risk involved in eating food, because microbes are everywhere, and at best we can use safe practices and cross our fingers. Our government responds by trying to mandate rules to guarantee the un-guaranteeable, and use one-size-fits-all legislation so that the same rules apply to the Ginormous Spinach Enclave as well as here at Nevermore Farm. So much could be different if the American people would take a moment and re-acquaint themselves with food. We as a culture used to have a relationship with food; we needed it, we grew it, and we understood it. Now all we understand is that we’re hungry and we want someone else to provide something to eat. I suppose that’s just the way it is, but the price tag becomes higher and higher. Every one of us heard our mothers say "Don’t put that thing in your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been" sometime in early childhood. But really, we all do that every day, don’t we? And we don’t think a thing about it.

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