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What's Organic Produce?

Living on the Earth, August 15, 1997:  What's Organic Produce?

Last week, I talked about my 25-year involvement with organic agriculture and
the rapid growth and acceptance of environmentally-friendly food production.
Then, last Tuesday, The Connecticut Post featured organic food on its front
page.  Supermarkets now offer organic produce and landscapers feature organic
lawn programs, as our society awakens to the dangers created by the widespread
use of fertilizers and pesticides.  It's a hopeful sign:  Like the evolution of
society's attitude toward smoking, it indicates that we can make a dramatic
change in our collective behavior when it comes to the way we grow our food.  

However, as the mistakes in the Connecticut Post's article show, this growth in
interest hasn't been accompanied by commensurate growth in understanding about
what organic food really is. 

Strictly speaking, organic relates to materials made of carbon and to matter
that was once alive.  For more than 50 years, however, the name has been applied
to agricultural methods which use compost, ground rocks, cover crops and green
manures to build soil fertility.  Organic farming and gardening don't use
synthetic, chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  Plants which grow in healthy
soil have fewer problems anyway.  Damaging pests are managed with non-toxic
mechanical, biological or cultural methods, instead of with synthetic, chemical
controls.  Organic agriculture takes its inspiration from nature - the cycling
of nutrients among plants and animals, the natural composting on the forest
floor and the diversity and balance of organisms in a healthy ecosystem- and
also from the best traditional agriculture in Asia, Africa, Europe and the

Care for the soil is at the very heart of organic agriculture.  By building up
organic matter and the diversity of the soil's life, the organic grower makes it
easier for the plants to obtain what they need for healthy growth.  

Protecting the life in the soil is one of the reasons for not using strong
chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides.  The latter are frequently as
effective at killing helpful and benign organisms as they are at killing the
pests.  In many cases, the insects soon become resistant to the chemicals
anyway.  In the long run, chemicals just don't work.  Yet, they leave their
residues in the air, soil and water, as well as in farm workers and
produce-eaters.  Avoiding these chemical residues may be especially important
for the young, the elderly, and those who are seriously ill or allergic to
manmade chemicals.  

How do you know you're getting organic food? The best way is to grow it
yourself.  If you buy from a farmer, ask about the growing methods that were
used.  Both of these require some knowledge on your part.

In a store or at the Farmers Market, you often see the term "Certified Organic."
Certification is a process designed to assure customers that the grower of an
item has followed specific guidelines in producing that crop. Organic food is
grown and shipped all over the world.

Here in Connecticut, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (or NOFA)
Certification Standards list recommended, permitted and prohibited materials and
methods for soil preparation, planting, weed and pest control, harvesting and

Farmers who want their farms' produce or livestock to be certified organic must
fill out an application form which details the history of and future plans for
the farm, as well as the crops to be grown, rotations used and even seed
sources.  After an inspection, a soil test and approval by NOFA's Certification
Committee, the farmers' produce carries that certification with it to market. 

The standards and certification agencies vary in different states and countries
in the number of years that must have elapsed since pesticides were used, and on
specific products, for example, but all certification standards have a component
which deals with building healthy soil.

The federal government's National Organic Program is expected to bring greater
consistency to the various state and private certification agencies when it
becomes a reality in the very near future.

If you are interested in knowing more about organic agriculture or where to buy
local organic food on Long Island and in Connecticut, send a self-addressed,
stamped envelope to Organic, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.   

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

(C)1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491

Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays  Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid.  These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.