What Organic Means to Me – GMOs and Hydroponics and Pasture, Oh My!

“Organic” is one of those words that polarizes. For some of us, it has connotations of healthy, natural foods, and pastoral scenes of frolicking calves in rolling green fields with neat vegetable rows nearby. For others, it creates images of ugly overpriced food available only to the wealthy, grown by dirty barefoot hippies in weedy fields.

As a farmer involved in the organic industry, I can definitively say that neither of those images is representative of organic as a whole, though for sure parts of each might be true in singular instances!

 No dirty hippies, just farmer fashion shows where Matt rocks his patented Blue Steel look.. (absolutely don't tell Matt I posted this photo!)

No dirty hippies, just farmer fashion shows where Matt rocks his patented Blue Steel look.. (absolutely don't tell Matt I posted this photo!)

This week was a big week for organics on our farm because we just mailed in our application for certification. [Keep your fingers crossed so that we pass inspection this summer and can actually say that we are organic!] To some extent, this isn’t a big deal – we only use practices approved for organic production already, so we aren’t changing our farm management, but in other ways, this application represents a big decision for us because of all the loaded connotations of that certification.

We know that some of you have asked us to certify, others might assume that we are certified, and we worry just a bit that by officially becoming organic we risk losing a few customers because of the perception that organic costs more or is elitist.

Our answer is that since we use all organic practices already, we already price our products at the organic level, and of course it isn’t just for the rich! (One of my pet peeves as a farmer is that when I grow vegetables just like how all our great-grandparents did not using modern products, it’s considered elitist. Shouldn’t doing things the old school way just be considered normal?) Yes, we will see some production costs go up by certifying but measured against the yearly march of minimum wage increases, overall input cost inflation, and constantly rising taxes, the financial impact of certification on the farm will be swallowed up by the greater increases elsewhere.

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What really is “Organic?”

What is organic to us? It’s not about certification and a label. Part of why we held off certifying so long is that we wanted to stay outside the regulation and just not deal with all the hassle just to get a label that our customers didn’t really need since you all can come visit us anytime. This also might sound silly, but what’s actually bothered me most over the years about “Organic” is that as a writer, it annoys me that the government owns a word, because words belong to the people using them.

What organic does mean to us is interacting with the world that we grow our vegetables in a way that works with the natural ecosystems, and builds up an (admittedly artificial) agricultural system that complements and fits in the environment, rather than imposes a completely man-made order on it. Our world is amazingly beautiful and complex, so much so that even with all of our modern technology and science, we still don’t understand the workings and interactions of large swaths of it.

 Some days are great days, some days it floods...

Some days are great days, some days it floods...

Farming using organic methods is like an incredibly challenging puzzle, where the pieces are alive and grow and move, the variables are infinite, and every time where you think you’ve learned how a part of the system works, nature throws in a new challenge (thanks for the hail last summer, earth!). We’ve been farming for twenty years but learn a graduate degree's worth of new things each season. We don’t farm because it’s easy or lucrative, but because we enjoy working outside and for the most part (again, reference the hail!) enjoy the challenges and embrace the chaos.

To be honest, we aren’t organic purists. We recognize that there is a spectrum of farm management styles and we respect that each grower has to make the choices that work for their operation. We don’t plan to use GMO crops (they aren’t allowed at all in organic production) and we don’t like that their genes are floating around out there, but we recognize that at some point, our planet might become crowded and trashed enough that we need things like GMO, indoor hydroponic production, and geo-engineering to survive. But when we think about how we farm, shouldn’t we be trying at this junction, when things aren’t quite dystopian thriller level bad, to do our part to keep s*%$ from reaching that point?

Some days we see our farm goals as doing whatever we can to keep us from the Blade Runner or Hunger Game futures, striving towards the Star Trek level where we cruise around a happy universe rather than live in cliffside bunkers to avoid the Morlocks. (I apologize to all non-nerds who had to read that sentence.)

 The year we made our own super hero costumes from farm supplies...

The year we made our own super hero costumes from farm supplies...

A Tangent on GMOs

In this all, we should talk about GMOs for a second. First of all, organic means no GMOs, they simply aren’t allowed under organic production, and using them gets you booted from the program.

I personally dislike GMOs not because of any human health issues in their consumption (I’m not sure the science is there on that front), but because of their Pandora’s Box nature of implementation. GE (Genetic Engineering) tech modifies the genetic code of plants that are then are used in our open world. Sure, there is testing for safety and attempts to try and keep them from spreading and mixing with non-GMO crops, but plants by their nature are promiscuous. Nature has plant sex going on every which way, and once out there in open field production subjected to the forces of nature, there is no way that GMOs can be 100% controlled.

I don’t care about people and animals eating GMOs, my concern is that their release endangers the international commons of open-pollinated seed pools and the communities relying on these seeds who didn’t get any say in the GMO development and release process. The companies selling the products cash in big time, while potentially taking away the livelihood and rights of impacted communities.

The other reason I’m not a GMO fan is because there are a LOT more modern science-backed breeding techniques out there, and in some circles, GMO tech is considered outdated, inelegant, and inefficient seed breeding. Yet GMOs persist largely because the companies selling them have sunk so much into that tech (and their concurrent marketing) that they are heavily invested in its present and future success.

While I’m happy to rail against the companies making and selling GMO technology, I don’t blame farmers for using it and won’t give anyone a hard time about it. Our weather frankly sucks now, and if you are running on a tight margin where a few more bushels an acre feels like the difference between staying in business and losing the family farm, and GMO technology promises to bridge that difference, than it would be silly to not use it from a growers’ perspective. In the system we have, it’s not the farmers banking millions on a technology that’s opened a genetic Pandora’s box, they too are at the mercy of the seed companies, which rather than spending money on new technologies for improved classical (non-GMO) breeding, instead only offer and promote GE tech.

Challenges to Organic Integrity

The thing is, and this is what makes it a little funny that we are certifying now, that organic agriculture has been a bit besieged. The news recently about organics, that for some have brought its integrity into question include organic hydroponics, the outside access rule for livestock, and some recently highly publicized issues of fraud on giant grain shipments coming in from overseas. Overall, organic integrity is important to us, and we are among a large group of growers committed to legit, honest organic production.

Before this last year, hydroponics was a grey area for organics. In hydroponics, plants are grown in some kind of substrate and fed a nutrient solution. There isn’t soil involved, but the nutrients used can be formulated to be either conventional or organic. It was passed last year that hydroponic farms can now be certified organic, which has raised the hackles on many organic growers and provided fuel for alternative organic labels that keep soil in farming. I’m not going to say that hydroponic farming is easy, but it sure deals with a lot fewer variables than farming in soil. The startup cost for hydroponics is HUGE, but once started, crops can be grown for way less cost than outside in a region like NY.

I can see that there is a place for hydroponics, and frankly, when I see their gorgeous heads of lettuce in the grocery store I am totally filled with envy. But I also question whether such a reductionist system is as good as field grown crops--can we test tube create food without losing some essential essence of that food?. Like ancient hunters who felt that eating the heart of their prey imbued them with the strength of their quarry, does eating soil grown plants share with us some of the energy and strength of the earth and the sun? I worry too that taking big steps to remove the outdoors from food production potentially weakens preservation and land use planning, beginning a trickle towards those darker dystopian futures where we embrace a model that gives more power to the huge well-funded commercial entities that can afford to finance hydroponic operations, moves all food production inside, and severs our connections to the real outside world.

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The second challenge this year came with keeping lower levels of outdoor access for organic animals. This one has my ire raised up more than the hydroponics rule, because I’m pretty sure that lettuce doesn’t care if it grows inside or outside, but that chickens much prefer the outside! There is a high cost for growers to provide outside access, namely that it’s a pain in the butt to manage in terms of time and money. If we had a big barn and our chickens were inside all the time, it would save us SO MUCH time and money. They’d be easier to feed, the eggs would be cleaner and faster to wash since they weren’t traipsing through mud puddles, and chores would take a fraction of the time. But what makes our eggs good is that they have come from the muddier butts of busy outdoor chickens.

I know that money is tight and matters, but as I wrote a few weeks ago, our food costs are relatively low compared to the past and other parts of the world, and is it worth a few more cents an egg or pound of meat for those animals to have a happier life? This pasture rule change is going to hurt the farms that take on all the extra management costs to ensure good outdoor access for their animals, put pressure on farms to reduce outdoor access in this tight farm economy, and it makes our hens sad.

My takeaway here is of course the same as my takeaway always is—buy local because then you can see in person what’s going on with your farms!

A final part of what’s driving our certification is something that might not be visible on the customer end. Producing and selling local food has become an incredibly crowded market these past years, with so many new delivery services, meal boxes, aggregation services, food apps, big companies gettingn involved, and more, all advertising heavily (and expensively) to anyone who seems to have the slightest interest in local or organic food.

All this competition combines with the major social media services significantly changing their algorithms so that farmers like us, who *finally* figured out how all social media worked, have now lost our best way to share our farms stories with you all.

We want to connect and sell directly with our customers through our CSA, on the farm, and at the market, but in this noisy, shiny, crowded world, we are starting to realize that we might lose our capacity to reach folks directly and may end up having to sell to these better funded aggregators instead, and the only way we have a chance to even contemplate making this switch is with that big organic stamp. [Do you know that you can make sure you see information from your favorite farms and small businesses on Facebook still despite the changes, just go to their Facebook pages and under the “Following” or “Liked” tab, scroll down and select “See First.”  You can also make sure you hear from us by signing up for our newsletter at www.hartwoodfarm.com.]

So until next week, keep your fingers crossed on our application process, don’t shovel too much snow, and drink some local milk (and buy some local veggies)!