What does Organic Mean? From the perspective of one organic farmer


This article was written for Rural Delivery’s November 2017 issue, with a focus on Organic Farming.

organic farm

I’m always surprised how many people don’t understand what organic means. I’ve heard people say they think it’s just a marketing term, a way to get more money. It’s possible, or rather likely, that many of the larger retailers and some farmers, got into growing and selling organic products for that reason…..to make a better profit. That happens because customers are asking for it. I mean, that’s how capitalism is supposed to work, right? You produce what the market demands. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. This shows the power that everyday people (or Consumers) have.

But that’s not at the core of what organic means. It’s not at the core of how the Organic “Movement” started and grew (slowly for a long time, now very fast!). When people first started growing organically, or rather I guess I should say, when people first started growing UNorganically – using synthetic, chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides that were produced from war-time chemicals that were no longer needed for war – there was a whole bunch of farmers, and gardeners, and scientists, and regular people who just happened to eat each day who said – Wait, a minute. What are the long-term impacts of these methods of production? And, even though they understood what was really happening in the soil way less than we do now, they knew that the health of the soil and the creatures that lived there were somehow important.

The catchphrase at that time for what organic meant was: Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants = Healthy People (and other animals). It was (and is) all about creating and maintaining the healthiest farm ecosystem, both in the soil and everything that’s happening above the soil too.

Maybe you’ve seen those charts that show how the nutrients in our food have been reducing since the 1950s. Which means we now need to eat more food to get the same amount of nutrients (things like vitamins and minerals and antioxidants and other phytochemicals) that our grandparents or great-grandparents did (I’m talking about whole foods here not more chips and soft drinks).

Well, where do the nutrients in foods come from? The soil web of life. Or they come from the specific nutrients (fertilizers) added to grow a lettuce head to look like a nice big lettuce head.

But when you take away the life in the soil (with all sorts of creatures doing all kinds of things that make a nutrient-rich environment) and you add back only the nutrients needed to make that lettuce head look like a nice big healthy lettuce head, what about the nutrients that give the people eating it the nutrients they need to be healthy?

Am I saying that all organic food has more nutrients than all non-organic food? That’s not something that anyone can say because nutrients in food depend on a lot. Freshness plays a factor (like the time from harvest until you eat it) as well as the way food is prepared. But also soils differ so much. It takes time for any farmer, including an organic one, who takes on a degraded piece of land to bring the soil back to health. Every farmer (organic or non-organic) manages their land differently. Some regions of our planet have soils that naturally contain more of certain nutrients than others. Seeds also have an impact, with some plants being naturally bred and selected over time to work harder to seek out nutrients in the soil. The water (amount and quality) will have an impact. And some research (like this and this) has been done on the impact of higher CO2 in the atmosphere on nutrient levels in our food (think bigger plants but less nutrition).

A few years ago, there was a study on the nutritional differences between organic and non-organic produce. Of course, as in any study on something so complex, there are limitations necessary in order to have a degree of control. All farms are different, whether organic or not, and the food coming off of them will of course be different. It’s hard to account for every variable and every nutrient (though there are studies that have found increased antioxidants in the organic food tested, like here and here, as well as this study with other nutrients.). Produce that you see in the grocery stores is coming from very large farms, many of which are not Canadian (especially the organic food as the Canadian demand for organic food is greater than the supply from Canadian farms). I’m definitely biased here (as I’m a small-scale farmer who makes her living selling super-fresh produce directly to eaters and chefs) but I think that fresh, local organic produce is going to be way more nutritious than organic produce grown on huge farms far away. Nutrition is a big interest of mine. I came to farming from a health perspective. After studying Nutrition and briefly practicing it at a health clinic, I decided that the best way for me to serve others in their quest for better health, was to grow the healthiest food I could for them. And so we manage our soil health with that human health in mind.

rudbeckia

There are 4 Principles of Organic – and I believe that they can make the world a better place.

  1. Health: Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
  2. Ecology: Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them, and help sustain them.
  3. Fairness: Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.
  4. Care: Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

I mean, who can argue with these…does anyone out there NOT want to see more of these 4 things happening in the world?

For a long time, organic farmers and organic eaters were not trendy. But they believed in what they were doing and buying and didn’t care (too much) when others made fun of them. Right now, organic food is very trendy, and quickly becoming even more popular. That’s why you now see it on grocery store shelves and read about it in magazines. Here in Canada, the demand easily outstrips supply and most of the organic products consumed by Canadians are coming from other countries. So, yeah, now there are lots of people jumping on the organic bandwagon. Which isn’t necessarily bad.

All over this planet, there are people who are passionate about organic and the principles associated with it. And they’ve started to recognize the stages of life the movement has been going through. First, there were the pioneers, the original farmers and teachers who shared their passion and lessons learned and decided that an alternative was needed to the “Green Revolution.” This phase is now (appropriately) known as Organic 1.0. Right now, we’ve been in the second phase, or Organic 2.0, for a while. Organic 2.0 has been about growing the sector with written and legal Standards which set out the Best Practices for farms that call themselves Organic. As with farming in general, there’s been an increase in rules and regulations. These have served to create systems that have made it possible for organic foods to be found in every grocery store, with products from all over the world.  This wouldn’t be possible without the legal definition of the word organic (which is long and is the Organic Standards)…or it would be meaningless like so many other terms are (like 100% natural).

Many are now hoping we can move into Organic 3.0 which is all about making organic more mainstream, showcasing the innovative practices and encouraging more of them, making sure the fairness piece is there (farmers, both organic and not, still often get the shortest end of the stick financially, with middlemen making more profit), valuing food and food workers and the important job they do in our society, and making sure that organic is inclusive and open and collaborative.

To that very last point, as a young farmer, I have learned a lot from all types of farmers. Both organic and not. I have learned that the very best farmers are open to all kinds of knowledge and will get it any way they can. They will seek out opportunities to hear a new or different perspective. And I have worked to emulate this quality I’ve seen in these great farmers. Because EVERY farmer knows an incredible amount! Every farmer wants the very best for their farm and their family. Every farmer has a connection to their land and what surrounds it. Every farmer is always trying to improve over the season before. We have way more in common than any differences implied in the words organic or conventional.

To that, I would also like to invite each and every one of you to attend this year’s ACORN organic conference. It is always something that I look forward to all season. I can promise you that the workshops will benefit farmers who aren’t organic just as much as they benefit organic farmers. Plus, it’s an incredible place to find farmers of all ages, including many young and new farmers. I know many people across Atlantic Canada are concerned with the lack of young people getting into farming in their community – well, the ACORN conference is a good place to find many – and there’s no reason you can’t let them know of that great farm property up the road from you…. (in fact, one of our neighbours originally contacted us through ACORN (the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network) to let us know of the great farm property up the road….and here we are!). This year, the conference is happening in Truro November 27-29. Right before another farming event that I’d recommend to all farmers (at least in Nova Scotia). The Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture (NSFA) is hosting their annual general meeting right after (Nov. 30 and Dec. 1) the ACORN conference at the same hotel. I’ve always found this a great place to meet farmers of different scales, who produce different things, and who manage with different practices. But we’re all trying to be successful at what we do. Every registered farm in NS who checks off that they want to be a member of the NSFA has a vote at this meeting, so don’t waste yours.

Both events are ones I’m planning to attend – they often don’t have much overlap in attendees but I hope that changes – farmers represent a very small percentage of the population (under 2%) and we have much in common. But I’d also encourage non-farmers to attend both of these events – they are great places to learn more about the food and farming systems and to hear and value farmers’ perspectives.

radish harvest

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