Words by Christine Dionese
In order to lend some understanding to the term “certified organic” and officially kick off Boomtown’s first installment of our “Beyond Organic” series, west coast editor Christine Dionese caught up with a farmer, a chef and the folks at NOFA-NY (who represent New York state’s organic certifying standards). Each of the interviewees is rooted in their own version of Rodale’s original intentions , which helped redefine the integrity of our food system.
In the 1970s, each of the United States determined organic standards based on regional limitations and production practices. But the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 claimed too much variability existed across state lines, and by 2000, the USDA had developed standardized national organic certification standards. Now, disparities many consumers aren’t aware of exist among the quality of (and ethics behind) organic food available through farmers markets, directly from farms, and from big chain grocers.
Fast forward a quarter of a century to 2017, and we’re left wondering who those labeling and certifying regulations protect: is it the consumers, local farmers and small businesses, or big organic corporations? And at what cost?
The big question for everyone today is whether to certify or not - and why?
Our discussion kicks off with local farmer Sasha Khodorkovskaya, co-owner of Living Acres Farms. Khodorkovskaya says people who want good food should educate themselves about what it takes to grow vegetables and raise animals.
And to him, ‘good food’ is defined by the ethical relationship he has with the ecosystem on his farm.
BTT: Tell us more about your goal as a farmer.
Sasha: As a farmer, my purpose is to grow the most nutritious and delicious, quality food possible. I try to do this while caring for and being gentle to the ecosystem around the farm. I also have to make a profit in order to keep farming.
BTT: What is your motto for farming? Is organic the only way you see it - what’s ideal?
Sasha: There are many approaches and styles of good and bad farming. Organic farms are not always better than conventional farms. Farms should be judged individually. For example, when it comes to fertilizing, manure, blood, and feathers from factory farms are organic and are often used on certified farms, even though they contain heavy metals and antibiotics which are taken up by the plant.
The ideal is to grow cover crops by having the right balance of animals to plants on the farm.
BTT: Whether or not it’s certified organic, what most consumers really want to know is if health-threatening chemicals have been used in the edible growing process. If growing the most nutritious, quality food possible is your goal, what pest control methods do you use?
Sasha: I get products from advancing Eco ag like Sea Shield and I also use "EM" (effective micro-organisms). My perspective on plant pests and diseases is that they occur when the plant is stressed, lacking proper minerals, the soil is lacking biology, and there’s not enough diversity in the ecosystem, etc. Since most microorganisms and insects are either neutral or beneficial, using "cides" (a chemical substance or micro-organism) to kill something "bad" is a doomed-to-fail strategy. It does not address the root of the problem and destroys the good guys.
In my experience, I have seen aphid problems go away just because the calcium content of the soil and plant was brought up. I believe GMOs are a very bad and dangerous invention. It is a shame that many great, non-GMO varieties like "big beef" are now "owned" by GMO corporations.
Dan Martello, co-owner and chef of Restaurant Good Luck and Cure, also weighed in our conversation. While some might be tired of hearing the phrase “farm-to-table,” Martello’s experience with organics is defined by that phrase.
His relationships with the local farmers who grow the food he prepares has always been important - so much so that he travels throughout the week to meet with the farmers and procure provisions.
BTT: Here in upstate New York we’ve seen an increase in interest from local consumers to actively partake in the organic movement. Folks are consistently bringing organic foods into their homes from grocery stores and farmers markets. As an extension of this lifestyle, they now want to know about how restaurants source their food.
For someone like you - a chef who has been sourcing food from farmers since before ‘organic’ was in the common lexicon - how has your perception of organic been shaped and how do you navigate your purchases from both certified and noncertified farms?
Martello: I was new to organic farming criteria when I met Sharon Nagle of Firefly Farms about 12 years ago. She really taught me a lot in terms of organics. Her argument, (from) a true farmer at heart, is that certification was about someone making money. Sharon goes above and beyond the certifying standards and that is good enough for her.
BTT: Have you spent enough time on the farms to see this for yourself?
Martello: I’ve seen and talked to Sharon about how they improve the soil and rotate their crops. She's really opened up my eyes to organic. Literally. (By visiting the farm) you can see what they're doing, understand their standards. Being certified means less to me because I see what they do.
Maybe people shopping at the markets who can't see it for themselves find certifications more important.
BTT: Great point. Dan, do you think your experience is enough for Good Luck’s patrons?
Martello: We have transparency between our patrons and the kitchen, so people are welcome to come into the kitchen. People trust that we're doing the right thing.
LASTLY, WE ASKED FOR NOFA-NY’S TAKE ON THE ISSUE.
NOFA-NY, FORMED IN 1983, IS A NONPROFIT 501(C)(3) ORGANIZATION OF FARMERS, GARDENERS AND CONSUMERS WORKING TOGETHER TO CREATE A SUSTAINABLE, REGIONAL FOOD SYSTEM THAT IS ECOLOGICALLY SOUND AND ECONOMICALLY VIABLE. THEY PROMOTE LAND STEWARDSHIP, ORGANIC FOOD PRODUCTION AND LOCAL MARKETING.
NOFA-NY is represented in this interview by Jessica Terry, NOFA-NY senior certification specialist AT THE NOFA-NY, LLC CERTIFICATION OFFICE, and farmer Andy Fellenz of Fellenz Family Farm, PART OF THE NOFA-NY, INC. EDUCATION TEAM.
BTT: Some farmers and consumers consider USDA certification standards marred by special interests while others support the process, suggesting it elevates the concept of organic overall. It's no secret that finances are cited as an obstacle to becoming certified, but NOFA has suggested the financial roadblocks are a myth. How are you convincing growers and farmers of this?
ANDY: The financial obstacle is really a myth, because the NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets operates a reimbursement program that covers, in most cases, about 75 percent of the certification fee. Requests for documentation are reasonable. Record-keeping is a normal part of operating any farm business. The biggest thing is setting up a documentation system that’s useful and acceptable to both the farmer and the certifier. It’s about traceability, from seed to harvest.
BTT: Regional certifying bodies like NOFA are more ideal because they can help accomplish certification by understanding growers’ concerns at a local level. NOFA is accredited by the USDA, but is it safe to say that you are committed to closing gaps where they exist? Tell us about the type of research NOFA pursues on a local level so that the organization can stay committed to the regional food system and its unique needs.
JESSICA: Yes, choosing a local or regional certifier such as NOFA-NY ensures you are working with an agency with expertise in your particular area of the country who understands the climate, growing season, crops, livestock, etc. that is best suited for the area. It also ensures that all operations are able to be overseen more easily, and there is timely investigation of any complaints.
BTT: Does NOFA (or do any NOFA-certified farmers or growers) currently work with local restaurants and chefs in any capacity?
JESSICA: NOFA-NY is very interested in moving forward and building communication and relationships with local restaurants and chefs. Andy has worked with a chef/owner of a small, farm-to-table restaurant who came to his CSA to pick up his weekly share for the restaurant. Sometimes the chef would change his menu depending on what looked good that week. Another example is Maryrose Livingston from Northland Sheep Dairy - she has supplied meat for Dano’s Heuriger (a restaurant) and cheese to Coltivare for their farm-to-bistro experience.
For farmers practicing above and beyond organic standards, they say little motivating incentive exists for them to certify - and our interviewees agreed: if anyone should be upheld to certification standards, it is the farmers using GMOs and pesticides in their growing.
What do you think?
Should a non-fee based, “beyond organic” certification exist - or are relationships with local farmers and chefs good enough?