Before I get started, I just have to say: I had a chance to join two Local Growers’ Guild board members for a chat with Earth Eats, discussing a food hub project I’m helping them with this summer. Earth Eats is an awesome local podcast–have a listen! (The marshmallow part is way more fun than my part at the end, so you’ll enjoy the whole thing.)
Several weeks ago, Joe & I were standing in line at the farmers’ market, waiting to pick up our CSA share. The woman in front of us was talking to the farmer–an incredibly kind, enthusiastic young man who has worked to develop an apprenticeship program at two farms that rely on all-natural practices and organic certification.
I can get organic at the store for less thanthis,the woman said as she held a bag of mixed greens in the farmers’ face. The greens were on sale, but the woman continued to argue the price with him. Trying to chip away at both his patience & his prices.
The farmer explained that the prices were set to provide their employees a liveable wage. At the store, you (and the farmers) get what you’re paying for. Produce–inorganic or otherwise–that has traveled long distances, meaning the price is shared between transport costs, storing/shipping costs, distributor costs & then, somewhere down the line, some for the farmers.
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I’ve been facing this argument a lot recently. Are organic prices worth it? Do I know I’m paying for quality that really has any benefits over conventional? When I saw the question again on a popular foodie blog, I knew it was time for me to put my thoughts in order. This answer isn’t complicated, but it’s long–and it has several components. This is Part I of my answer, starting with the most essential component: the farmer.
Are organics more expensive? Yes. But they’re also far more difficult to grow. There’s the process of organic certification–Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics through bureaucracy. I am not exaggerating when I say this: it can take years of phytoremediation, soil development & not having much for the market before you can even think of calling something from the ground organic.
Then there are the seeds. Many smaller-scale organic farmers try to avoid genetically-modified seeds, which now comprise more than 80% of the seeds available for sale in the States. Price hike. Want heirloom? Bigger price hike. While it’s not much for your backyard garden, taking a risk with new crops on a larger scale is a gamble for a farmer.
Now add labor. Are there organic pesticides & fertilizers? Yes. Are there “organic” chemicals that are still okay for use? Yes (on less than 10% of organic operations). But more often than not when buying organic, you’re paying for a lot more farmer face-time with their fruits & vegetables. They’re out in the field more, relying on traditional methods of yield-increases & crop protection.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention that in my past two years of focusing seriously on farmers, I’ve yet to meet someone focusing on organic practices–certified or not–who is raking in the money. At market, they’re discussing the same scares, problems & financial difficulties as the more conventional farmers. Are organic profit margins bigger, when you’re working on a smaller-scale? Yes, but we’re not going to see farmers living lives of luxury any time soon. Most family farms are relying on the farm & a second source of income to get them through the year.
* * * An Example: Fresno, California * * *
California has come to represent a sunny, euphoric form of agriculture for us. Happy cows. Year-round tomatoes. Wine. A land of plenty. But, like most farms, the farmers aren’t able to feed themselves or their immediate communities. We get their tomatoes, grapes & 348 other goodies.
Fresno’s vast farming community produces 350 different types of fruits, vegetables and nuts on various small to large-scale farms. This bounty provides most of the countries produce; however, Fresno County also faces some of the highest food insecurity in the nation. In fact, the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research reports that more than 37% of its population is food insecure…*
So how is it that Fresno, one of the most agriculturally productive regions in our nation, faces the highest rate of hunger? (Read more here and here.) Because in the transition to convenient, not-focused-on-season, all-looks-the-same produce & subsidies that focus on commodities rather than “specialty crops” (the USDA term for produce), the farmer’s share of the profits were whittled away.
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While I’m saving the chemical conversation for Part II of this conversation, I have to bring it into the farmers’ component as well. No matter where you’re buying organic & what the other practices are–whether it’s migrant workers barely earning an income or the third-generation sweet corn grower you talk to every Saturday–by buying organic, you’re helping a farmer’s health.
Each field of organics is a field where those in the field & surrounding area aren’t facing exposure to toxic chemicals. While we may be safe washing food that has traveled & is days/weeks from the last round of chemicals, the workers are still in the field as it’s sprayed, & often back out too soon after they’re sprayed. Time, tide & ripe tomatoes wait for no man.
This is where I’ll pick up next time–the avoidance of chemicals that organics allows on all sides of production & consumption.