“Are you organic?”
It’s probably the question we are most frequently asked at our stand.
The answer is not as simple as people expect. Yes. And no. A full explanation would merit a 30 minute conversation, but a 30 minute conversation is not what most customers are seeking when they ask their question at our stand, a bunch of beets or carrots in hand. Which is fine. We easily understand the question behind the question, which is, essentially, “Do you use things on your vegetables that health conscious people would not want to ingest?” And the answer to that is easy.
So, yes, when getting at the heart of the question that people are asking, yes, we are “organic.” But, despite much debate and research, we are not certified organic and we currently have no plans to pursue certification.
For that reason, we’ve refined our answer to the frequent, “Are you organic?” question to a one-sentence honest summary. “We’re not certified, but we follow organic practices or try to beat them.” Yet the question is so frequently asked that we thought it merited a post clarifying our growing practices and philosophy.
Organic is actually a term regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Only products that are certified by the USDA program can be labeled as organic. If you’re not certified, you’re not permitted to have “organic” on your labeling, anywhere. The one (small) exception to this rule is organic farmers who sell $5,000 or less annually. That is an absolutely minuscule exception. We’re among the smallest of the small farms we know, and we’ve already outgrown that loophole. So at this point, if we wanted to advertise ourselves as being organic, we would need to get certification. We looked into this last year, seriously considering it. It turns out, not surprisingly, that organic certification takes some paperwork, some time, and some money. But, perhaps more surprisingly, when we dug into the paperwork, time, and money we found that while they constituted some extra hoops to jump through, they weren’t prohibitive hoops. We could have qualified and it wouldn’t have turned our lives upside down or broken the bank to do so. But in the end we opted out, at least for the time being.
We just don’t want to mess with it right now. And it would have zero impact on how we grow.
We don’t use manufactured “-cides:” pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides, of the conventional types or the organic. No synthetic fertilizers, as little water as possible, and as much recycling of materials as our creativity can drum up.
We use floating row cover to keep flea beetles out of our beets and cabbage moths out of our cole crops.
We have a garlic/chile pepper concoction for flea beetles that’ll make your eyes water and your nose run, but technically is 100% edible. (And even made from home-grown ingredients.)
We feed all our food scraps, weeds, and grasshoppers (just out of spite) to the chickens, then clean out the chicken manure, compost it, and put it back on the field to grow more food.
Our drip irrigation lines are only made to last one year, but we’ve eeked three years (and counting) out of the current set because we don’t like creating plastic waste.
We walk the fields daily, looking for diseased or unhealthy plants and we pull anything suspicious looking before it can infect a whole row.
We are in the dirt, among the plants, and on our land all the time.
We pick, pack, process, and eat our own food.
And we are very, very particular about what goes into our bodies and what we are exposed to. Being that particular, and managing a small farm without the chemical shortcuts, it takes a lot of time and effort.
We’d rather put our time and effort there, working toward becoming the best little farm around, than toward maintaining a label usually used for much bigger operations than our own. Labels serve a purpose for companies that you don’t know (and can’t know) personally. The organic label is, in part, a badge that hopes to reassure people that, “You can trust our vegetables.”
Us, we prefer to reassure folks of that in person. One of our core beliefs, if not our most core belief, is that agriculture should be local and farmers should be an integral part of every community. In other words, people should know their farmer by name. Be able to ask how their food is grown. And, (this is the kicker) expect an honest answer.
All of our customers are local. Super local. With the exception of the odd vacationer who meanders into the market, I’d venture a guess that 99% of our customers are from within a 5 mile radius, and many of them walk or bike to get there. If they want to know where their food is grown, we point and say, “‘Bout 3 miles that way.” If they want to know what we use on our plants or in our compost, we tell them. If they want to hang around and ask a million follow up questions, we answer them. And if they want to come by the farm any time, well, it’s just down the road and certainly easy to find. Just come around back, we’ll probably be out working in the yard.
When you run a small community business, it’s not necessarily the impressive labeling that’s going to win folks over. It’s running a solid small business. It’s making an effort to learn the customers by name and remember who always comes for the hot peppers and who secretly buys the beets just to eat the greens. Our customers know us. They talk to us. They run into us at the local brewery or the hardware store. We’re not a label. We’re not a mysterious entity. We’re that farming couple that lives down the road.
We want to be the sort of business based on relationships and trust. We realize that an official label doesn’t necessarily make us more trustworthy.
So for now, we’re spending all of our time and effort in turning our small farm into the best little farm community around. Maybe later, we’ll pursue organic certification. Maybe we won’t. In terms or our daily practices, it won’t really change anything.
We eat the food that we grow. We live on the land that produces it.
Because of who we are and the values by which we run our business, we can assure our customers that the choices we make will be the gentlest possible choices on the land, on our health and on theirs.
And right now, for us, that’s enough.