One of the most important topics of conversation concerning our local food climate today is the commonly heard debate; organic or conventional? Every farmer has a slightly different philosophy and set of growing practices, some of which fall into the USDA certification of organic. However, after speaking with many of the local farmers in the area, it has become clear that farmers and consumers have quite a different perception of this label, as well as what it means to be a ‘conventional farmer.’ For the purpose of this conversation, I focused on local vegetable growers, as the organic conversation becomes all the more complex where fruit, dairy and meat are concerned.
Andre Cantelmo, the co-owner of Heron Pond Farm in South Hampton, NH, is what many consider a ‘conventional farmer.’ He is aware of the stereotype of this type of grower, as he explained in his interview. “There are guys (we call them nozzle heads) that are conventional growers, which is what most people think of… guys on a sprayer, spraying [chemicals] all of the time,” said Andre. “That’s the perception [and those farmers do exist], but that’s not the way that any farmers that I have had the pleasure of being around operate.”
As soil scientists, both Andre and his partner Greg care a great deal about their land and how they take care of it. Many of their practices are the same as those required under the organic certification. However, based on the scale of their operations, it is important to consider both what is best for their plants as well as what is most economically sustainable. “There is a fungus called late blight that can wipe out an entire crop of potatoes or tomatoes,” Andre said. “These are the biggest money makers of the farm. If I lose those crops, I have to immediately lay off half of my work force, and worry about paying my mortgages.” He uses many non-invasive preventative measures against these types of disease, but would use a spray if this disastrous scenario took place.
Josh Jennings, the owner of Meadow’s Mirth Farm in Stratham, NH, is a certified organic farmer, and has been from the start of his operations. He has a “hierarchy of reasons” for this decision. Primarily, it is because he lives on the land, he has workers on the farm, and he wants to ensure that he is taking care of both himself and those that work alongside him. His second reason is environmental, because he believes his methods of growing are inherently better for the local ecosystem. Lastly, he wants to feed a healthy product to his consumers.
Josh acknowledges that it is possible to accomplish all of these things without the organic certification, and even identified that he might not maintain his organic certification if he only sold wholesale to restaurants and other institutions. However, it is the positive marketing that incentivizes his continued participation in this federal program, despite high cost of certification and many regulations. “People think a certain thing when they see that you are certified organic,” Josh said. “It is not usually accurate. People have no idea that there are organic pesticides, and that farms use them. But it gives people a sense, which helps people to buy your food [especially in new markets].”
As Josh said, it is not commonly known that there are many organic pesticides, allowing farmers to use chemical prevention against disease while also maintaining their organic certification. In his interview, Andre Cantelmo went into detail about the most popular organic insecticide, called Entrust (Spinosad is the chemical name). According to him, there is a non-organic product called Blackhawk that is composed of exactly the same chemical. The only difference is that Entrust is the product of bacterial digestion (and therefore organic), while the other is formed by a chemical process. However, both take place in a lab, and are produced by the same company: DOW Chemical.
Lis Schneider, co-owner of White Cedar Farm in Kingston, NH, is a spray-free farmer. Her reasoning behind this is similar to both Andre and Josh; the health of herself, her relatives and her animals is a top priority. Lis also mentioned research she has done on how certain pesticides harm bee populations, which would threaten her entire operation. She doesn’t believe spraying crops is necessary, because she is able to grow a seasonal, balanced diet without it. “People want to know that everything we grow is clean,” Lis said. “There is a want and a demand for it. Lis is not certified organic, and trusts other certifications like NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) and MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) more than the generalized USDA certification, because they put a greater focus on soil health.
In terms of the work of Seacoast Eat Local, we do not put any preference on a particular growing practice. Our mission is to support local farms and food and to help educate consumers to make their own informed decisions. In the debate about organic vs. not organic, we believe there are many responsible practices across the spectrum. We believe our role is to educate consumers with detailed and accurate information (such as listing growing practices in Seacoast Harvest) and to support farms in their quest to grow food for our region sustainably and responsibly.
I have developed a few main takeaways from my conversations, which are as follows:
- There is a public perception of organic food that is not necessarily accurate for all organic produce… therefore, being certified organic is not a clear or definitive determinant of growing practices on a farm
- In general (and in this area specifically), both organic and conventional farmers care about their land, their soil, and their crops — as well as their customers– and try to take care of these things responsibly
- It is possible to grow and produce high quality crops without the organic certification
- In terms of sustainability, it is essential to consider both the growing practices of farmers as well as where (geographically) the food is coming from. Local food, due to reduced travel and storage (read: greenhouse gas use) is typically more sustainable than food coming from a non-native source.
- Most importantly, rather than reading a label, consumers should learn more about the farmers that they are buying from and understand their specific growing practices and philosophy.
This is, of course, not a comprehensive explanation of the debate. However, it is a contribution, which will hopefully encourage those to continue reading on this interesting and highly important topic!