Saturday, February 12, 2011

Field Notes From The Farm -- Feb 2011

Another in the "Field Notes from the Farm" series:

February 2011

Field Notes From The Farm

What kind of shopper are you?  Since these Field Notes are about the farm and farm products, let’s focus on choices you make at the market.  By way of example, let’s sharpen the focus and bring it down to Santa Fe as the location and La Montanita Co-Op in particular.  I choose the Co-Op because that is one of the places we deliver our certified-organic produce and I am familiar with their operation.

La Montanita Co-Op's Santa Fe Store
In the produce department you will find three categories of fruits and vegetables to choose from: local, local and organic, and organic.  The later category is primarily what I call industrial organic with production centered in California.  There is nothing inherently wrong with industrial organic.  This is a subject for another time.  But let me give you three caveats about industrial organic.  1.) As an enterprise grows larger, it becomes more difficult to control the quality of inputs.  2.) There are two aspects of organic: negative and positive.  The negative aspect is not using any harmful pesticides and herbicides.  The positive is focused on building the tilth of the soil.  Industrial agriculture focuses more on the negative and not enough on the positive.  3.) Your consumer dollars leave New Mexico and don’t support the local economy.  New Mexico desperately needs more local, organic farmers.  As the price of gasoline and diesel fuel increase sharply in the next several years (prices are up 25.1% in 2010), the economic pressure on the industrial organic producers will increase and they will be seeking ways to reduce their costs to remain competitive or change the rules so they can meet a more lenient standard, but still claim the title “organic”.

Returning to the other two categories, local and organic passes muster and that leaves us with the last category of “local”.  This can quickly become very tricky.  At this point, let me introduce Richelle Elder.  She is the Produce Team Leader at La Montanita Co-Op in Santa Fe.  She is the keeper of the gate.  If a farm approaches Richelle for the Co-Op to handle its produce, it will have to answer a long list of questions.  She will ask you to describe your operation. You will have to answer questions about soil fertility and building the soil.  How do you make your compost?  What about animal manures?  What do you do to control insect pests?  Plant diseases?  Weeds?  How do you harvest and handle your produce before you bring it to us?  If there is any doubt in Richelle’s mind about your answers, she will actually schedule a farm visit to verify the integrity of the operation and the quality of the produce.  Clearly such a conversation is above the level of the average consumer.

Richelle Elder, Produce Team Leader, La Montanita Co-Op

A few follow up observations to the above.  In August of last year Valorie and I visited the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.  We counted only five vendors out of a possible 100 who up-front advertised that they were certified-organic producers.  What about the other 95% of the vendors?  Do you feel comfortable enough in your knowledge of organic production to sort the “good guys” out from the “wanabees” and the conventional?  For a vendor just to say he doesn’t use any pesticides doesn’t cut it.

However, there are many reasons why some of the local farmers chose not to become certified.  First, they probably do not have any aspirations to market out of state.  Second, the certification process is costly and time consuming.  Third, to become certified, you have to report the dollar volume of your sales to the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission because your fees are based in part on your revenue.  Fourth, there is a strong sentiment that certification is a sterile, bureaucratic process that violates the spirit of living close to the land.  Fifth, there are valid production systems that are in conflict with the USDA's National Organic Standards (NOS) certification rules.  That last point calls for an example or two.  The NOS rules assume you are going to be using animal manures as part of your compost so that is the basis of their strict requirement of high temperatures maintained over several days to offset the dangers of manure pathogens contaminating the compost.  But say you are vegan and your compost contains no manures.  If you are a follower of John Jeavons’ Biointensive method, you build a cooler compost pile and you end up with compost that is 30% of your starting volume (vs. about 12% by NOS rules) and your compost is teeming with mycrorrhizal fungi, which are extremely beneficial in a healthy soil.  By contrast, in the NOS compost, the temperatures are too high and there are no mycrorrhizal fungi.  Another leading light in the organic movement is Rudolf Steiner and his Biodynamic method.  If you are a disciple to Steiner’s methods, you will be out of step with the NOS rules.  There is also the social interaction of the Farmer’s Market.  It is a pleasure to converse with the grower and get to know him/her personally.  There are also a few that maintain their own standards and think the NOS rules are too lax.  I am sure there are many other reasons for local farmers not to become certified, but I have given you enough ideas so that you can see there is a lot to it.

As for the other markets in town, I can’t speak for them because I am not familiar with their operations.  However, there is one prominent retailer in town that builds beautiful, large displays of produce.  Problem is that one pile is conventional and the other pile is certified-organic of the same product.  Why the choice between quality and junk?  Why make the shopper read every sign with a critical eye?  Questions come to mind.  Are the conventional produce and the organic produce separated from each other, or are they co-mingled?  Do the produce handlers wash their hands between handling the conventional produce and the organic produce?  Do they transfer the pesticide residue on the conventional produce to the organic produce?  Clearly, this retailer does not know who they are and does not have a corporate commitment to quality that takes precedent over profit.  At La Montanita Co-Op you have no such problem.

But let’s step out of the produce department and make some choices in a packaged goods, processed foods aisle.  Suddenly the choices become a lot more difficult.  Who is the gatekeeper to guide you in making quality decisions for you and your family?

Let me introduce you to the Cornucopia Institute.  Their goal is to “empower farmers – partnered with consumers – in support of ecologically produced local, organic and authentic food.”  They are one of the strongest advocates supporting the organic, family farmer from being co-opted by industrial organic producers weakening the National Organic Standards.  Visit their web site at to learn more.  While you are there, take a minute to check out their report “Who Owns Organics?”  It is a fascinating insight into the structure of the food processing industry.

But back to our tour down one of the processed food aisles with the Cornucopia Institute as our guide.  If we look at the various soybean products, there is a wide discrepancy in labeling.  Some manufacturers tout their product as “all natural”, others may even say, “made with organic soybeans” and then there is the select few who sport the “USDA ORGANIC” on their package.  The difference is critically important to vegans and vegetarians especially who rely on veggie burgers and soy fortified protein bars for a part of their protein requirement.  You will find other phrases used such as textured vegetable protein, soy protein isolate or soy protein concentrate.  A red flag should go up at this point.  The dividing line is whether a product carries the USDA ORGANIC label or not.  “All Natural” and other such products are made with soybeans that are extracted with hexane.  Hexane is a by-product of gasoline manufacturing and is a potent neurotoxin.  The National Organic Standards prohibit the use of hexane so those soy products that carry the USDA ORGANIC seal are safe to eat.  Terms such as “natural”, “all natural” have no defined meaning and no legal standing.  Natural means anything the food processor wants it to mean.  The word “organic” has been preempted by the federal government and is a legal term. The meaning of the word organic is embedded in the body of rules that is the National Organic Standards.

To fathom the depth of the disinformation that agribusiness will go to, try getting a straight answer about hexane.  The response might be “Our soy ingredients are not hexane-derived.”  Hexane is a solvent, a processing agent, and is NOT an ingredient.  So duh!  You don’t get soybeans from gasoline.  To find out which brands are safe to eat and which are not, visit the Cornucopia Institute's website where you can find two lists.  One list gives those products that meet the organic standards; the second list names those products you do not want to put in your mouth.

Standards in our complex, industrial society play an important and critical role in maintaining the integrity of our economy.  However, market judgments are not ethical judgments.  Hopefully the two are in alignment, but in the field of agriculture there is a titanic struggle going on between real organic food and industrial agribusiness.  Cornucopia’s chart “Who Owns Organics” shows the incursions into the organic market by industrial agribusiness.  Organic food production requires a different frame of mind and a different skill set than industrial agriculture.  A major thrust of industrial agriculture is to weaken the National Organic Standards and eventually gut the standards from the inside out.  When that day arrives, industrial agriculture can “greenwash” their products with the word organic and while by then the word will still be a legal term, it will be devoid of any significance or real meaning.

In the meantime, what can you as a consumer do?  First, if you live in Santa Fe, you can trust Richelle Elder at La Montanita Co-Op to be your gatekeeper to quality, organic produce.  Outside of the produce section, look for the USDA ORGANIC label on your processed foods.  If you live outside Santa Fe, look for a market like La Montanita Co-Op that has a gatekeeper like Richelle.  Second, you can add your voice to the good people at the Cornucopia Institute in their fight to protect the integrity of the USDA ORGANIC label.  Third, and the most important, you as the consumer have the power of the pocketbook.  Maria Rodale, in her book Organic Manifesto, demonstrated that the consumer has the power to change the world.  Let us be part of the quiet revolution and spend our dollars in forwarding the organic movement and, at the same time, protecting our health and the productivity of the land.

If we heal the land,
the land will heal us.

David and Valorie Hutt
Earth Echo Farm
Tecolotito, New Mexico

1 comment:

  1. You two are amazing. What you have chosen to envision, learn - literally from the ground up - and bring to fruition in just a few short years — not to mention educating the public every step of the way — is nothing short of miraculous. Val and David, you are a living example of what true elders look like: conscious beings committed to the greater good of all humanity. Thank you stepping into your magnificence in such a spectacular way, to serve as role models during the Shift of the Ages. I am honored to know you. Blessings abounding!