Money Where Your Mouth Is

The size of the farm and how carefully the food is grown, picked, and packed also affects price. Take last fall's amazing heirloom organic Fuji apples, grown by the Jersey Boyz on an 11-acre farm near Oregon's Columbia River. So crisp and juicy are these apples, one bite sent nectar running down my sleeve. Hand-picked and gently hand-packed, they were displayed next to a large organic grower's Fujis, which were selling for half the price, and conventional Fujis, going for even less.

"Once you taste that heirloom apple, you're hooked," says Brown. "It's an incredible apple, and the extra 50 cents doesn't seem like much. I couldn't expect--and wouldn't want--the heirloom grower to sell for less, no matter what the other growers are doing. She'd be out of business the next year."

Brown knows of what he speaks. Even with the support of outlets like the Wedge and his Co-op Partners Warehouse, he has watched a frustrating number of farmers go under. Unable to live on the low returns he saw after more than a decade of growing heirloom eggplant and tomatoes, and new potatoes the size of shooter marbles on the once-lovely Red Cardinal organic farm in Stillwater, David Washburn quit farming last year. "Why is our food so cheap?" he often used to ask. "In France, most people spend 25 percent of their disposable income on food; in the U.S., it's about 9 percent." (For a profile of Washburn, see "The Price Is Right," City Pages, September 9, 1999.)

Ten long, contentious years in the making, the new U.S. Department of Agriculture rules governing what can and can't be labeled organic will be introduced next year. Thanks to the organized and thoughtful efforts of a concerned public, organic farmers, and small producers (many of them Minnesotans), the guidelines prohibit the use of genetically engineered organisms, ionizing radiation, and sewage sludge for fertilization. They do not address health claims, and they don't attempt to govern food additives or growing methods. They cover production only. Meat, eggs, and dairy products from animals that are not raised free-range qualify as long as the livestock eats organic grain; so does mono-crop farming with approved fertilizers and herbicides. (Until now, these practices were restricted by the guidelines established under state and local organizations, Minnesota's Organic Growers and Buyers Association being one of the toughest.)

At best, the rule encourages conventional producers to seek alternative, less harmful methods, rewarding them with the increased market value the very term organic bestows. But the certificate does not assure the consumer of taste, health, or quality. It does not release me from knowing where and how my food is grown. Buying lettuce from California when ours is in season weakens our local food network. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to pack, wrap, truck, and store a California head of lettuce, much more than a perfectly fresh one from a local grower who is cultivating a beautiful landscape, helping to keep our groundwater clean, supporting wildlife, and protecting me from yet another SuperAmerica.

Our local co-ops provide vast amounts of information about the food they sell, especially throughout the produce aisles. Along with the price tags, they list whether the food is conventionally grown (with the aid of petrochemical pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, or fertilizer), transitionally grown (the farmer is applying for organic certification, using organic methods to bring the land or operation up to organic standards, a process that takes three years), or organically grown (certified by an independent agency according to specifications that require the grower to submit to soil tests that confirm he/she is not using chemicals). Some produce may be labeled "IMP" (integrated pest management), meaning nasty bugs are under attack by friendly critters (ladybugs, for example), but that the grower may also be using a fungicide or herbicide. (Don't assume IMP produce is organic: The Wedge sells local IMP berries that were sprayed with a herbicide before the plant blossomed. Still, this is less harmful than if it is sprayed while it is in bloom.)

Within the organic community, the debate rages over a marketing term to distinguish quality growers from quantity producers. To Diffley, the question is moot. "The trends in organic agriculture simply reflect those of our culture at large," he says. "Every time something proves itself to be profitable, there's a push to produce more with less margin and thus less personal contact. We have a strong relationship with all of the co-ops and, through them, with the people who eat our food."

The Wedge encourages local growers to tell their unique stories through point-of-purchase displays; homey and friendly, these express the personality of the growers, and give information about the vegetable. Signs for products from Delano's RiverBend Farm are bright-green and sport a bending river. Diffley's shows his son Maize, grinning, holding up an ear of bicolor corn. "People see our corn display with the picture of our son," Diffley says. "Maybe they understand that there is a real person actually growing that corn. It doesn't just come from plastic trays." There is a barefoot joie de vivre in peeling back a fresh, green husk to peek at tender, white and gold kernels while standing next to the teen's goofy portrait.

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