What is Organic?

One subject that I find very interesting is the use of the word organic. I have read from many resources which focus on the differences between “conventionally” grown food, that is grown in a way that is more likely to use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and “organically” grown, which doesn’t use such methods, and is supposedly more nutritious and environmentally sustainable.

Yet from the nature of agribusinesses in our country, and the capitalistic approach of our food industry, the term “organic” can imply mixed messages. I often feel uncertain about whether certain food labeled “organic” was really grown in a healthy way. The actual definition of organic is “of relating to, or derived from living matter;” a definition that can actually entail many different methods of growing food. Some methods may use natural compost without pesticides, others being mass-produced and shipped from afar.

As far as Moose Hill’s CSA goes, the process of becoming organically certified is time-consuming and rigorous. The standards for receiving organic certification have risen over the years, thus it requires Moose Hill and Wards Berry Farm to produce lots of records and documentation proving that all of our methods of farming meet the requirements. While this seems like a rather bureaucratic process, the organic certification signifies how mindfully our produce was grown.

After researching the list of requirements that fall under Bay State Organic Certifiers, I found out how intricate and extensive the list really is. One section of the list of regulations explains the requirement of the development of habitats for natural enemies of pests. Another section went into the importance of crop rotation–or planting different crops in one space of land from year to year in order to ensure the advancement of nutrients in the soil. All of these things we can see happening on the farm, and thankfully no preservatives or synthetic fertilizers are necessary because we are relying on methods that strengthen the soil, resulting in stronger crops.

One of the strongest indicators of whether a farming operation is genuinely organic, is whether it uses compost that is made relatively close to the farms location. If compost is being truck loaded and transported for miles on end before reaching its destination, then in my mind this is not very sustainable or self-reliant; why rely on gasoline to ship materials that can be taken right from our backyards?  For those of you who have helped us harvest and weed during the week, you may have noticed the amount of compost that Wards Berry Farm has spread around most of our crops.

The science behind organic matter and it’s relation to a stronger and more disease-resistant plant, is very fascinating. After certain “decomposing agents,” such as earthworms and fungi break down this organic matter (initially composed of chicken manure, shredded leaves, and other organic materials in the case of our compost) into a more uniform dirt-like substance, the more accessible these nutrients are for the roots of the crops that feed on them.

Moreover, healthy soil isn’t created overnight by just throwing a batch of compost on land and then calling it a day. It takes years to create soil that has benefited from several applications of compost, and a diverse rotation of crops that can provide nitrogen to the soil. Without continued rotation, soil can become gradually deprived of certain elements such as nitrogen, especially if only one crop is planted year after year in an area of land. In such “monocultures,” the soil can become dry of the key nutrients that are repeatedly absorbed by one particular crop. Often times, in order for such operations to compensate for poor soil structure, they turn to synthetic fertilizers in order to boost production, and chemical pesticides because their vegetables are too weak to fight off pests and disease on their own.

In conclusion, the reason for why truly organic vegetables taste so fresh, are partly due to the care and effort put into maintaining a healthy soil structure over the years, and the resulting crops that have flourished from it. In my mind, vegetables are not “organic” unless this has been done!


The Omnivores Dilemma, Michael Pollan

This post is by Matt Eiland who is in his first year as one of the Farm Apprentices at Moose Hill. In addition to the weekly pick-up posts, Matt has been sharing stories from the fields, ways to care and store for the crops, and other helpful insights.

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