Top | Local Flavors

No choice

(article, Deborah Madison)

Local might be the new organic, but I find the question “local or organic?” an odd one. I know local, and I want organic, but why not choose both local and organic? That’s the headline I want to see on the cover of Time.

If I have to choose — I mean, if I really am forced to choose — I’ll go for local over organic, and I’ve been saying that for years. But I don’t choose that lightly or without consideration for my locale: northern New Mexico, where farmland and farmers are scarce and water even more so. If I still lived in northern California, I might be singing a different tune.

I am pretty familiar with who our farmers are, who’s organic, who’s not, and in some cases, why. I once listened to a farmer in tears as she revealed her decision to spray a section of her otherwise organic farm. The insects were devouring a particular crop of greens, and she needed that crop or would face an extremely hard winter. 

She was up against the wall.

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But it wasn’t just the bugs that were her problem. It was her customers, too. Yes, we earnest farmers’ market shoppers were adding to her woes.

If we had been willing to overlook the bug-eaten holes in her greens, spraying might not have been a thought, but we weren’t. Nor do we want a wormy apple, even when we know that coddling moths are a big problem here. Can you blame a farmer for spraying if the customer won’t buy an apple that houses a worm? 

We would, it seems, rather have pesticides on our fruit than deal with its occasional slender denizens. 

Maybe we need to meet the local farmer halfway when we say we want organic and support him while he figures out how to beat the coddling moth. Maybe we could relax about greens with holes in them, whether the holes were put there by previous six-legged diners or from sharp pellets of hail (which are also known to decimate a crop and with it, a good chunk of a farmers’ income). 

We need to participate by acting more like partners with our farmers, shouldering up to the holey leaves and wormy apples. 

Of course, organic food doesn’t always mean blemished food. But sometimes it might.

Another us/them argument I’ve heard is that we should have organics-only farmers’ markets. I definitely prefer to buy organic — whether certified or not — and I know some farmers who choose not to certify; either they feel that their standards are higher than the national standards, or they don’t relish the cost or the paperwork involved in certification. 

But I’m not in favor of having our farmers’ market be open only to organic farmers. Why? Because if non-organic or non-certified farmers have to quit farming because they no longer have a market in which to sell, they risk losing their water rights, a loss that pretty much lasts forever where I live. 

The loss of a farm, a farmer, and water is serious loss. Better that the farmers stay farming. And maybe one day they’ll change; I have seen conventional farmers watch their organic neighbors’ successes and conclude that maybe organic is something they should think about. I’ve seen them become organic farmers.  When that happens, we get local and organic.

Finally, I am not a fan of the insipid-tasting organic produce that fills the aisles of supermarkets. The real question is not so much organics versus local as much as it is Big Organics from far away versus the local organic food from your farmers’ market or CSA. That’s the real choice, and I’ll choose my local organic offerings every time. Why? They taste better, they’re fresher, they didn’t travel 1,500 miles (or more), and the plant varieties are more interesting. 

Buying locally supports my local community and keeps farmers farming. More often than not, local organic foods are the products of complex farming methods that build soil rather than simply refraining from the use of something that’s been banned. Plus, local farms keep the landscape beautiful for all of us to enjoy as well as eat from. 

And farmers are good and important people to have in our communities.

When we say “local or organic,” it sounds as if local food can’t be organic. That, of course, is ridiculous. It can be and it is. After all, that’s where Big Organic got its start. Let’s have it both ways — local and organic.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. She lives in New Mexico.

*Also on Culinate: Deborah reminds us to savor the taste of local foods and gives us plenty of ideas for hot, whole-grain breakfasts. And read Roz Cummins' interview with Deborah Madison.

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