Given the number of farmers’ markets popping up all over the state (the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers’ Markets is actually posing the question “Are there too many farmers’ markets?” at its annual meeting), it’s becoming easier to know and have conversations with the people who grow your food. This is an important (agri)cultural moment. You have the opportunity to ask a farmer how s/he prepares the hakurei turnips or broccoli raab you’re considering buying. You can also ask the farmer about his or her growing practices. But what exactly are you hoping to learn? What issues do you consider important in the production of the food you eat?
I think we can all agree that we’d prefer to eat foods that haven’t been treated with chemical pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers. It’s common sense: don’t put stuff that’s contacted stuff with skull and crossbones on the package in your mouth. And the organic label gives us some assurance that the foods we’re ingesting are clean in this way. But what if you’d like to know how the farm that produced your organic broccoli manages soil fertility, or where their irrigation water comes from, or what their position is on using plastics in the greenhouse or in the fields to suppress weeds. An article entitled “Organic Agriculture May be Outgrowing its Ideals” published this December in the New York Times describes the agricultural boom in the Mexican Baja peninsula where organic farmers are “planting the beach” and sucking ground water dry in order to keep up with the American demand for organic tomatoes, basil and peppers. These farms mono-crop, ship foods thousands of miles, and use energy in an unregulated manner to run greenhouses. So from the standpoint of sustainability or environmental common sense, what makes these products desirable aside from the fact that chemicals haven’t been applied to them?
At Drumlin Farm, we try to pay attention to as many environmental factors as possible in growing the food we eat and sell to the public. We don’t irrigate because we don’t want to use fuel to pump water to irrigate crops. Instead, we build soil organic matter by resting fields two out of every seven growing seasons and by applying compost that we make at the farm from our own animal manures. Soils high in organic matter have a greater capacity to hold water and nourish crops even during dry conditions. The organic standard does not require farms to rest fields, or use compost, or control their use of water, or limit the amount of plastic they use to suppress weeds. If you’ve ever traveled south of Santa Cruz, you may have seen fields that stretch to the horizon covered in black plastic and planted to strawberries. These fields may or may not be certified organic, yet all that plastic will have to be thrown away at the end of each season. At Drumlin Farm, instead of using black plastic, we cultivate the soil in order to control weeds. We do this by hand with hoes or with implements that we pull behind a tractor. And yes, in doing this we burn diesel fuel and thereby emit greenhouse gases. We have room to further “green” our approach, and yet we are already leagues beyond what certifying agencies require of organic farms. We want to inspire our customers to think more deeply about sustainable farming practices, and we feel that the organic label begins and ends that conversation at an unacceptably basic level: this food is safe; it hasn’t been poisoned. But what other farming practices are behind that organic strawberry? We need to know the answer to this question in order to advocate for more sustainable farming practices and to make more responsible choices.
- Matt, Drumlin Farm Crops Manager