One sweltering Thursday last summer, Michelle and I arrived at the farmers’ market with our weekly offerings. As we carried out the bins of veggies in our freshly mud-slathered jeans a woman stepped up to the garlic bin and asked,
‘How much are these?’
‘Two dollars for a large head.’
The mood changed dramatically,
I responded, still smiling,
‘We grow organically, with no synthetic herbic—’
She cut off my explanation and said,
And with that declaration, she was gone. In a broad sense she was right–all vegetables are, of course, living things made up of carbon-based molecules–but the ‘organic’ I was referencing is one of the many systems of modern food production, one that certainly does not apply to all the food at the grocery store or even at the farmers market. With the myriad of cryptic labels assailing the modern shopper—all-natural, non-GMO, organic, or ‘guilt free’—it is no wonder that many give up on deciphering the origins of their food. In his book the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan explains how this lack of knowledge drives consumer choices and, in turn, the global food market;
‘Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it, beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner; cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. The more knowledge people have about the way their food is produced, the more likely it is that their values–and not just ‘value’–will inform their purchasing decisions.’
As growers and members of a CSA our intimate knowledge of and relationship to the land and people who produce the things we eat adds value beyond the monetary to our food. Food labels can also inform our decisions based on our values, provided we know what those labels mean.
Some labels don’t mean anything at all. All-natural or natural simply tells you that the product is made out of things that occur in nature, which is true of all food items on earth. ‘Guilt-free’ is an unregulated label and could make you feel very guilty. Products that are certified organic, however, do fall under the purview of federal legislation and regulation. In order to be certified organic, a farm must not use any synthetic chemical inputs—e.g. fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and food additives—except for those permitted on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances. Organic farms also do not grow genetically modified organisms (GMOs), practice irradiation sterilization, or use sewage sludge fertilizer. In a grocery store you can find three different levels of organic products. ‘100% organic’ is a label reserved for products made with all organic ingredients, ‘organic’ can have no less than 95% organic ingredients, and products ‘made with organic ingredients’ can have as little as 70% organic ingredients.
At Bellair we farm 100% organically, and are in the process of becoming certified. That means that when stink bugs and squash bugs attack, we squish as many as we can and then drape row cover on top of the beds rather than spraying them with synthetic chemicals. It also means that when the morning glories start stretching their tendrils across our fields, we weed them out by hand rather than spraying more chemicals on your food. These are just a couple examples of why organic farming tends to be more labor intensive than conventional farming, but makes a smaller footprint on the environment.
Though you won’t see it written on a label, sustainable agriculture is also a guiding principle and Bellair that goes hand in hand with organic methods. Rather than adding all of the nutrients our crops need in the form of fertilizer each year, we try to build up the health of the soil so that it can support crops without large fertilizer inputs. Because Bellair has been a working farm since the 17th century the soil is in need of some TLC, but the use of cover cropping techniques, crop rotation, and organic fertilizer is bringing us ever closer to our goal of nutrient rich soil.
This brief overview Bellair’s place in a web of different food production systems is, in a way, an answer to our potential garlic buyer’s question ‘Why?’ or rephrased, ‘Why is this head of garlic valuable?’ The answer goes all the way back one clove from last years harvest which we planted in the fall, covered with hay for the winter, harvested in the summer, hung up in the barn to dry, and finally brought to the market for sale. The garlic is valuable for the way it was grown; in a system that values the labor and expertise of farmers and doesn’t grow things ‘on the cheap’ at the expense of the land and, in the long term, the ecosystem that sustains us. With all the costs factored in, that head of garlic is a steal!