Are You Organic?

It’s a good question. There’s two answers, one short, and one long.

The short— Yes, mostly. Our row crop operations, including our apple trees in Corralitos, are certified organic, as is our flock of laying hens and our meat birds- chickens, ducks and turkeys. All our animals are raised on frequently rotated, non-irrigated pasture. Our pigs are not certified organic, but are fed a diet consisting of pasture-based forage, organic grain from Modesto Milling or Associated Feed, spent barley from Corralitos Brewing, organic veggie slop off our farm, organic windfall apples from our farm, organic pumpkins from our neighbors at Crystal Bay Farm, and organic strawberries from our neighbors at P&K farm.

The long— Yes, mostly. The whole idea of farming in a conventional sense— heavy use of external synthetic inputs, overuse of land, striving to maximize profit margins and yield over healthy land and healthy animals— is antithetical to how we understand what we do. Farming should be stewardship of land and animals for their own sake, and for the sake of future generations of farmers. It should not be a commodity oriented, alienated, mechanized and factory-ized process geared towards the people in charge collecting more money at the expense of workers, consumers, animals and the land.

We have never been anything other than small-o-organic growers. We never will be. That being said, we’re cranks and anarchists and the sort of people who think its a good idea to start a vertically-integrated small farm across the road from Dole and Driscoll’s, so we have some opinions on the matter. They are as follows. Please take them with a heavy swallowing of salt, and a little bit of laughter.

The Organic certification system has its value, but it also has its flaws. Many would argue it doesn’t go far enough— it forbids many pesticides and herbicides, for instance, but allows farmers to cover acres and acres with plastic, increasing run-off and erosion and soil depletion. It’s no mistake that this part of the central coast, where farmers lean heavily on plastic mulch to reduce weeds in strawberries, has one of the highest soil depletion rates in the country. Its almost laughable- the use of acres of fossil fuel derived plastic mulch is perfectly allowable in big O “Organic” agriculture, regardless of ecological cost.

There’s also the issue of capital cost. For small farmers, and especially for young and beginning farmers, with little capital that must be spent on tools, rent, seed and stock in order to, you know, farm, the extra thousand or two thousand dollars annually that certification and its corresponding demands of time, documentation, and legalistic list-checking can cost is nothing to shake a stick at. It’s a lot of money. It’s also money at one of the tightest times of the year, in early spring and late winter, when all the other expenses start to rack up. And so you start to question: Money for what?

What are we paying for, when we buy organic? Some things are unarguably good, in my mind. We will always feed our chickens organic feed, for instance, because we don’t want to support the companies who get rich off patenting, manufacturing and marketing GMOs, and we don’t want GMOs in our poultry feed. Given the percentage of the domestic corn, canola, and soy crop that contains GMOs and the lack of any tracking requirements outside of organic certification, it’s basically a guarantee that unless the feed the poultry flocks are receiving is certified organic, it contains some unknown percentage of GMOs.

So, I buy that Organic label then, cost aside, in order to know. But for you, as a consumer, you don’t know that I’m actually buying organic feed. In theory, certification serves to protect and guide the consumer in a market full of cheating, avaristic farmers. It keeps you from being taken advantage of. Looking at our certification, you would know we weren’t cheating, in theory, because someone else would be looking over my shoulder to make sure I was following the law, which in an ideal world, is protection enough. What’s more effective though, in our minds, than bureaucratic inspection and the myriad inadequacies of the law, is actually knowing the people you’re dealing with. If you know your farmer, and know the farm where your food came from, know the people who picked it and bagged it and brought it to market, isn’t that the best safeguard against exploitation? Against cheating? What represents you and your values best— a “USDA certified organic” label, or farmers you can talk to and rely on? Farms you can see and trust?

We have to be thinking, critical consumers and producers. The label is fine, the label has its purpose. I look for the label. But it’s not enough, and that realization has to come hand in hand with the realization that its also not practical for many small farms to become certified in the first place. We can’t cede our ethical decision making processes to bureaucratic governmental and private companies that exist to facilitate the ease with which agribusinesses can package something and sell it to an unthinking market. If we wish to move beyond anything other than a token lip service to long-term sustainability in our economic relationships, in our food sheds, and in our environmental practices, we need to realize that rather than trusting blindly in a label, we need to know our farmers, know our food, and know the workers who harvest it and who care for the land.

A label is no replacement for critical thinking. A label is no replacement for knowledge and awareness and ethical action. A label is just a label. It cannot think, it cannot judge for itself, it cannot incorporate into its final decree on compliance or non-compliance anything other than the limited parameters it is defined by. And so our questions must always include is it enough, is it necessary, what does it do, what are the parameters and who defines them?

That’s not for us to answer, but for you. For us, we are certified organic because of the good things it represents, and because we believe that in a flawed system, the organic labeling process is the best available option to ensure food quality, ecological sustainability, and practical animal welfare. But we’ll keep thinking, questioning, finding a way to do better, because we don’t think the label is enough. We believe in a rigorous examination of the why, in order to come to a stable belief system that we may then put into praxis. Perhaps you are different. That’s okay! We believe in autonomy, mutual aid and free association. So then, we leave you with a question: what sort of farm and what sort of farmer to customer relationship represents best what you want?

Do some ponderin’. We find it goes best over a good beer and some smoked meats.