Never mind organic, go local

The smell eminating from those bursting bubbles is ammonium sulfate.  The bubbles arose from contradiction and unrealistic expectations.

If you want organic food, grow it yourself or buy it directly from growers.  The only way that our markets will be stocked with organic produce is if we – and a massive network of small market gardeners – take a great deal of strain off of the agricultural system.  It will simply not be possible for industrial agriculture to use organic methods: the two systems are incompatible. (Though it would be both possible and beneficial for industrial agriculture to adopt some organic methods.) A large, “organic” farm will still have to feed.  That’s what the California controversy stems from.  A fertilizer company doctoring their “organic” fertilizer with inorganic salts.  But serious organic culture wouldn’t be using amendments like fish/feather puree, and there’s philosophical problems with those fertilizers within “organic” to begin with.  Are the chickens whose feathers go into the fertilizer organic?  The fish is waste from other processes, but would those processes fit into the organic philosophy?

I think that organic is a noble pursuit that’s become more marketing than anything else.  Worse, it clouds what we should be doing in/about agriculture.  The more important pursuit is to bring food production as close to its place of consumption as possible…from both an environmental standpoint and an agricultural/food standpoint.  Smaller producers are less likely to overuse amendments (fertilizers and the full host of -icides) for reasons philosophic and economic.

Furthermore, a very strong argument can (and has been) made that plants could care less about whether the elements they need for growth are organic or inorganic.  They use nutrients at the molecular level, where there is no difference.  What makes organic growing work is that it develops the ecosystem of the soil…actually, it allows that ecosystem to develop rather than building it.  The soil system is barely understood at the scientific level, much less in agricultural parctice.  It is something that can be seen but not described; that is, if you know it then you’ll know it when you see it.  But having that soil system and producing massive amounts of the same crop, rotation after rotation, is next to impossible.

We can choose to have bags of lettuce shipped to us and feel better because it says “organic” on the package, or we can have (perhaps) less lettuce in the dead of winter and actually be able to feel good about how the lettuce arrived on our plate.  I say “perhaps” because there are very good ways that we could alleviate a great many of our agricultural pains without sacrificing, totally, our everything in season all the time desires.  And it would be easier to have organic (or close to it) produce by implementing fundamental process changes.

Unfortunately the current desire is to attempt to change what we feed the plants rather than how/where we grow them.  So long as we follow this path, we’ll be treated to more illusions being shattered and the myriad of process related contaminations striking “organic” produce with a regularity similar to the evil “factory” produce.  But that’s the rub anyhow…grocery store organic is still factory produce.  The herbicides are often replaced by immigrants with propane torches.  All of the other ills that the socially responsible hope to alleviate with their informed purchasing often remains the same, unless you really think that battery chicken feathers are significantly “better” than fixing phosphorus with fossil fuels.  It’s not.  Actually, it is less efficient.  Those chickens were almost certainly fed with grain grown by the addition of fossil fixed nutrients; you’d get more bang by skipping the chicken step.  (Which is not to say that feathers which would otherwise go to waste shouldn’t be turned into fertilizer, only that such a process is an act of reclamation of the waste from another process.)

The better answer is to worry less about where the nutrients come from and think more about how they’re used.  The process that we should be perfecting is to make the act of going from seed to stomach as efficient as possible.  Growing lettuce for Boston in California, organic or not, is extremely inefficient.  It would be better to grow lettuce for Boston inorganically in Boston than to buy the “organic” California lettuce.  But it would mean an effort both wider and deeper than agreeing to pay the X dollar difference at the grocery store.

All of this will be elaborated on in posts to come, but simply:

1.  We all must produce all that we are able to produce.  Not only is it the cheapest way to eat, it produces the best product with the least amount of environmental impact.  And our collective production is the only way to reduce the strain on agriculture enough so that reforms of large scale agriculture can be accomplished.

2.  We must put a purchasing and investment focus on small farm/market garden operations.  These are often more profitable (on a profit/acre measure) than large farms, and they recycle money within the community…or at least keep it close.  As things stand, these growers cannot get into grocery store sales so the consumer must find them, but if enough consumers choose them, they may make it into the grocery stores.  They are far more likely than big farms (a relative term) to practice good technique, and they’re very likely to be responsive to consumer demands.

3.  The time for investing in an urban, intensive agriculture network is actually passed, but that we missed the best time is no reason to forgo building the system.  Large amounts of produce could be brought to market year round from close to the point of consumption.  If we’re serious about “green jobs”, the best sector to grow would be the one that’s all about growing.  Greenhouses, raised beds, hydroponics, aquaponics, etc would be the surest, most effective means of shrinking the footprint of dinner while providing an economic jolt.  For example, imagine large sections of crumbling inner-cities like Detroit becoming centers of business that grow the food for the surrounding suburbs.  The most elegant solution is the one that solves the most problems in the most efficient way.


~ by Lex on December 30, 2008.

6 Responses to “Never mind organic, go local”

  1. Lex,

    Just found your blog.


    As far as most big farms are concerned, a plurality of them practice good soil husbandry, as topsoil could be considered to be their capital. Most lease contracts for farms contain husbandry clauses to preserve the land.

    That being said, I don’t buy organic because I don’t believe in the truthfulness of labels. I know a couple of guys that run a “Certified Organic” operation that use enough Round-Up to keep Monsanto in business.

    By the way, I added you to my blogroll.


  2. Hey Jeff,

    Thanks. I know that many big farms do practice good soil husbandry; it is their capital. I certainly don’t think that big farmers fall into the evil tycoon character set. When i write about growing i do emphasize smaller farms, because local is important…but also because pressure needs to be taken off of bigger farms so that they (and everyone else) can remain profitable over the long term. I have nothing against big farms or commodity agriculture; everything has it’s place. A good many of the big operations practice IPM too, if for no other reason than the prohibitive cost of pesticides.

    I’m a realist on this matter, probably because i work in horticulture and understand the demands/constraints of growing on a large scale.

    I care not one whit for “organic”. It’s a noble pursuit and i try to stay close to it in my own growing, but i think that it actually represents a very difficult constraint on farmers (especially the small farmer). Say the market gardener/small farmer has a problem like powdery mildew; are they supposed to lose the crop because there’s no organic treatment? Or as is the case with worms, there is an organic treatment (Bt), but it’s still a toxin. A grower could slather everything in a layer of Bt an inch thick…it’s still organic.

    I don’t bother with buying “certified organic” either. It’s mostly marketing at this point. And i’d rather look the grower in the eye and shake his hand.

    And i will return the favor.

  3. Lex – I read this before we took off for camping and wanted to comment…

    Do you know of these folks at Polyface Farms in Virginia? I love how they say they are really in the earthworm enhancement business.

    I think they are a fascinating concept – and I know it is practiced around the world.

    This is the hard time of the year – when the Farmer’s Markets are closed and we have to hope the shops buy enough interesting things from local growers. Last year I read Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable Miracle – total eye-opener to the costs of food in the real sense, not just what we pay.


  4. Dawn,

    I do know of the Salatins. They do it right, and i have a friend who was inspired enough by them to start a similar livestock operation…though of course much smaller. Polyface is my example of choice for those who think that animal husbandry is necessarily an environmental evil.

    I always enjoy livestock farmers who spend more time talking about earthworms and growing grass than they do about the animals. While i have nothing against the new ways of agriculture, i worry that we might have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Updating, tweaking, and amending the old ways will probably serve us better and make us less reliant on the new ways. And i don’t think that that they’re mutually exclusive.

    I’ve read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as well; it’s a wonderful little book.

    It is a difficult time of year. There are some ways around it, like indoor gardening…but that isn’t for everyone (though it’s not as hard as it sounds, and not terribly expensive if your electric rates are reasonable).

    This issue is one of the reasons that i feel that urban, greenhouse agriculture is of paramount importance. It is one way that quality produce could be had year round.

    Take a look at this:
    Specifically, under “our farms” and then under “our national headquarters”. At the bottom of the page is a layout for their 2 acre operation.

  5. What a terrific link, I bookmarked it so I can go through it later in more depth.

    That is a wonderfully rich use of two acres of land. Inspiring the mind and body.

    There is an entire thread over at Global Oneness Project regarding agriculture. Here is the link to Dorah Lebelo and her work in the inner city of Johannesburg.

  6. Dawn,
    I just stumbled across that link not too long ago, but i’m excited for a springtime trip to Milwaukee (it’s not too far from here) and the chance to see the operation in action.

    Thank you for the link on Ms. Lebelo. I’ll be looking into her project further, as i’m more interested in the nuts and bolts than the impact.


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