Or, Are You Sure that Tomato You are eating is Organic?
Part I: The Fridge and the Market
I stand in awe of my sister’s refrigerator. It’s a Sears Kenmore, 14 cubic feet. Once I asked her how old it was and she said “very old.” We’ve been visiting for forty-plus years, so I guess it is “very old.”
My sister lives in a lovely garden apartment in New York City, but the kitchen is so tiny and overhead cabinets hang so low, that contemplating change is like figuring out how to stuff a sow’s ear into a silk change purse.
What awes me is the strategy my sister has developed to pack food away, the finesse with which a random conglomeration of wrapped packages, glass jars, plastic containers and what-nots are deftly layered, pigeonholed, balanced with laser-like precision.
Being quick of mind, you may immediately conclude that, aha, my sister has to play musical crocks every time she needs to get something out of the fridge.
Sorry, but you would be mistaken. On a recent visit, she fed me like a queen. Smoked salmon? Magically, a tray of salmon appeared.
Cream cheese, too? Out came a plate with slabs of cheese. Try some tomatoes, they’re excellent, and sliced onions.
Here’s some mesclun, and romaine, a few varieties of fresh lettuce slipped on the table before I realized it. Oh, I hard-boiled some eggs for us, too.
Butter for the rye bread? And there’s cream for your coffee. Do you mind bottled coffee? It’s so hot out, I thought I’d skip brewing. A large bottle of (good-tasting) strong coffee came out, along with cream and ice.
Now you are probably assuming, quite naturally, that there must have been lots of clunking and clanking in the kitchen, that my sister was continually fluttering back and forth like that battery-bunny.
Trust me, we are not a family of flutterers. Our batteries are the other brand.
Further, I am so cowed by the fine-tuning of these edible geologic layers that I rarely do more than move platters to way stations before they disappear seamlessly into that 14-cubic-foot mini-cavern.
But storage is only part of the story. Where does my sister find these delectables? At my request she and her daughter took me on a walk to her favorite place to shop, the Union Square Green Market on 17th Street.
Every Wednesday and Saturday (Mondays and Fridays on a smaller scale) an astounding farmers’ market rises from blank pavement, like a full-up movie set with a cast of thousands.
And a phalanx of trucks whose carrying capacity would dwarf a convoy of semis. Like a mirage, it all vanishes by evening.
The magnitude of the affair boggles the mind, but then, don’t forget, this is New York City, where everything is out-sized.
Surely, this has to be one of the top ten tourist attractions here.
Growers and producers arise before dawn to truck goods in from farms in outlying counties.
They set up canopies, unload equipment, arrange products, post signs (whew!) and put on smiles to land early-bird shoppers.
The goal, of course, is buying and selling. Marketing produce, most of it organic, is what sustains these energetic entrepreneurs, keeps them coming week after week, year after year to this urban outpost.
Shoppers are serious in their pursuit of fine products, as are chefs who regularly pick up special orders.
But there is an air of holiday, too. Friends meet friends for coffee, families come for a taste of the outdoors, casual strollers bump into neighbors. My sister is a regular, hence her delectable refrigerator.
One of my sister’s favorite vendors is Keith. His last name is Stewart but she has only ever called him by his given name.
For more than two decades he has been selling organic produce that he grows on his farm in Orange County, New York. He is famous for his garlic, but he also offers about a hundred varieties of herbs, fruits and vegetables.
My sister has known Keith a long time, though probably not as long as she has known her refrigerator. One Christmas she gave me his book, It’s a Long Road to a Tomato, Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life. It’s available from Amazon paperback new or on Kindle for about $15; used copies cost less.
It’s a must-read for people like me who grew up in suburbia and chafe at standing in line at the super market or (in season) speed-stop for cantaloupe from the Melon Man. (Our Rocky Hock melons are second-to-none.)
But if you grew up in a rural area you will recognize the combination of romance and true grit Keith puts into his reflections on all things farming, from weeds to porcupines and dogs.
He is earnest when he talks about the nuts and bolts of running an organic farm, but good humor and deep love of nature are co-partners. Chores are never finished, yet there’s always time to marvel at the swallows nesting in his barn.
Part II: About that Tomato
Truly, this kind of farming is not a simple life. Across the country there are about 25,000 organic growers competing with a megalopoly of Big Food.
These farmers follow strict federal standards to be certified organic. They must keep scrupulous records and pass annual inspections.
The other part of not-so-simple is figuring out what will work each year, making a hundred decisions before getting to the bottom line: How do costs balance against income?
An unexpected drop in prices — or bad weather — can wipe a farmer out. Small growers constantly teeter on the brink of a bad year. There are no subsidies.
A quarter century ago, organic farming was a grass roots effort, loosely organized.
Enter the USDA to bring order to the meaning of organic. Enter Big Food to give its blessings to irradiation, GMOs and sewage sludge.
No way, said the newly born Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Their energetic campaign for high standards produced 200,000 letters opposing Big Food.
And they won. In 2000 Congress passed a pretty good law, the Organic Foods Products Act that called for a National Organic Standards Board to oversee compliance.
But the challenges are daunting. All three presidents — Clinton, Bush and Obama – pushed to weaken standards. Today’s political climate is even more treacherous.
Big Food buzz-words like natural, all natural, and 100% natural are meant to confuse shoppers, create billions in profits that cut into sales of organic produce.
There’s also the matter of equity. On the face of it, organic food may seem to be more expensive than Big Food offerings, but is it really?
A study done in 2005 by David Pimmentel on the hidden costs of using pesticides came up with an annual price tag of $10 billion.
Public health costs; livestock and crop losses; destruction of natural insect enemies; pesticide resistance; poor crop pollination; honeybee losses; bird, fish and wildlife losses.
All these costs need to be figured in to the growing of chemicalized food.
No. Big Food is not a bargain in the long run.
And lately, Big Food has been buying up organic brands so it can gridlock federal oversight and kick the organic label down the road by introducing concepts like Factory Farm Organic and ingredients like GMOs.
Consider the tonnage of GMO corn and soybeans that are fed to cows and chickens every day.
Wouldn’t it be much more lucrative if Big Food could stamp the organic seal on GMOs? Ironically, a recent scam brings home the point.
The US regularly imports tons of non-organic GMO corn and soybeans from Romania and the Ukraine via Turkey. (What about pesticide oversight in those countries? Yet another issue.)
Mysteriously, some of those shipments came to be labeled organic.
Somebody made a tidy profit on the value-added organic label before the scam was discovered – too late for those producers who had unknowingly fed GMOs to their livestock.
The Organic Consumers Association remains a David in this world of food Goliaths.
They’re the only US organization that focuses solely on concerns of consumers.
They’ve got a following of 850,000 people and 3,000 co-ops, natural food stores, and farmers markets.
They are a vibrant national grassroots network with a solid organization.
They’re strong on education and activism and follow through with lawsuits when appropriate. Recently they’ve published reports on glyphosate (Roundup) residues found in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. They are following this up with press events and protests in seven US cities.
“Buy Local, Organic, and Fair Made” is their mantra. Check out their web site, www.organicconsumers.org . It’s impressive.
You can find news about what’s happening in your state and sign up for their newsletter and donate to a worthy cause.
I am grateful that they are there to advocate for us.
And I’m glad my sister keeps her old fridge and shops at Union Square.
I know her (Keith’s) tomatoes are organic – and tasty.