BY KEVIN FREKING
The Associated Press / Modesto Bee
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama spared two turkeys named for one of the nation’s most admired presidents, continuing a White House tradition that provides a refreshing sense of amusement and bipartisan cheer no matter how troubled the times.
Obama pardoned Abe, the 2015 national Thanksgiving turkey, during a ceremony Wednesday in the Rose Garden. Abe gobbled right on cue as Obama finished his absolution.
Don’t fret for Honest, though, the second bird who was nearby if off camera. Both turkeys, which hail from Modesto, will spend their remaining days living it up on a Virginia farm.
Livingston-based Foster Farms provided the turkeys for the second time; the poultry giant first took part in the ceremony five years ago.
The birds are 18 weeks old and weigh in at about 42 pounds each. The names of the turkeys were chosen from submissions entered by schoolchildren in California. Honest has a red face and neck, while Abe’s crown features more extensive blue splotches.
Obama referred to Abe as TOTUS, or Turkey of the United States.
“America is, after all, a country of second chances, and this turkey has earned a second chance to live out the rest of his life comfortably on 1,000 acres of open land complete with a barn called the ‘the White House on Turkey Hill,’ which actually sounds pretty good,” Obama said.
George H.W. Bush was the first president to formally pardon a Thanksgiving turkey, though stories of spared turkeys date to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
The National Turkey Federation is the turkey supplier for the event. The trade group and others have been providing turkeys for the first family going back to President Harry Truman, though not all the birds provided over the years shared a similar reprieve from the White House dinner table.
Obama was accompanied at the event by his daughters, Malia and Sasha. They didn’t look thrilled at last year’s turkey pardoning, and Obama thanked them for once against standing with him.
“They do this solely because it makes me feel good, not because they actually think that this is something I should be doing,” Obama said. “As you get older, you appreciate when your kids just indulge you like this.”
The event is typically filled with turkey jokes, “As you may have heard, for months there has been fierce competition between a bunch of turkeys trying to win their way into the White House,” Obama said.
Obama recognized that perhaps he’d told one too many at one point, when he noted that Honest was in an undisclosed location, ready to serve as TOTUS, if necessary.
“Oh, boy,” Obama sighed.
After the ceremony, the Obama family planned to serve a meal to homeless veterans in Washington, D.C.
Original article: http://www.modbee.com/news/article46521230.html
This is a time when so many of us are thankful for good food, great friends, and our families as we celebrate the holiday season. But for families having a difficult time making ends meet, it’s hard to share this joy when you’re not sure where your family’s next meal will come from. Unfortunately, this is a reality facing one in four families throughout our communities.
Anyone can fall on hard times. The Community Food Bank is here to make sure that residents in our communities have a place to turn to when times are tough. We provide food to more than 200 agencies in Fresno, Madera, Kings, Kern and Tulare Counties and serve over 280,000 people each month. That equates to over 38 million pounds of food served in fiscal year 2015 – nearly a pound for every resident of California.
Community Food Bank offers several programs to provide access to food, especially healthy food, to our neighbors in need. We offer Pantry locations throughout our five county service area and we provide USDA Commodities distributions in Fresno County. Our Neighborhood Market and Mobile Pantry programs provide fresh produce and other food items in farmer’s market style distributions; our Backpack program provides 700 elementary school aged children with a backpack full of high-quality food to last throughout the weekend and our Nutrition on Wheels education program offers nutrition education to at-risk populations
Community Food Bank is successful because of the compassion and generosity of our partners in agriculture, business, and government as well as our many individual donors and volunteers. Next month we’re honored to host an event that will feature CDFA Secretary Karen Ross, and others, who will speak to the importance of your donations and why the giving spirit will prevail this year. Please consider making a donation today to Community Food Bank or your local food bank! Donate Here
This post is part of a series highlighting the efforts of Food Banks around California. On December 16th, Secretary Ross will participate in an event at the Community Food Bank in Fresno highlighting donations from agricultural producers to food banks and encourage farmers, ranchers and other Californians to give this holiday season. See her blog post here.
Sano Farms field manager Jesse Sanchez, 63, of Fresno, stands in a field filled with ground cover on Nov. 18 in Firebaugh. He recently won recognition from the White House for his contributions to the farming operation, including new soil and tilling techniques. The ground cover will be tilled into the soil which will enrich the soil with organic material to help the crop that will be planted in the spring. Silvia Flores, Fresno Bee.
By Megan Ginise, The Fresno Bee
On the outskirts of the western San Joaquin Valley, amid one of the worst droughts in California history, Jesse Sanchez is making waves with his agricultural techniques.
Sanchez, 63, is the farm manager at Sano Farms, a 4,000-acre operation near Firebaugh and Mendota that grows garbanzo beans, garlic, almonds, pistachios, and processing and fresh market tomatoes.
By making soil health a priority at Sano Farms, Sanchez and current owner Alan Sano have reduced tillage overall, using less fuel and lowering the cost of their production; integrating off-season cover crops; and documenting many of the improvements they’ve had in soil health, quality and function. After 30 years earthworms have returned to the soil, a clear sign, Sanchez said, of the success of their practices. And he has shared his knowledge and experiences, leading tours of the farm with groups from as far away as Egypt. His efforts have been noticed.
Sanchez recently received the White House Champions of Change award in the sustainable and climate-smart agriculture category for his commitment to healthy soil practices and willingness to share the information with others. He was one of only 12 honored at a ceremony on Oct. 26 in Washington, D.C.
Jeff Mitchell, a crop researcher with University of California at Davis, who has done research throughout the San Joaquin Valley for the last 16 years, has watched Sano Farms flourish under Sanchez and Sano’s care.
“They’re very much pioneers, very innovative and persistent as well,” Mitchell said. “What they’ve done through the vision they have had, sticking with it, learning step-by-step how to improve the system, how to adjust things.” The result, he said, is state-of-the-art production systems that will lead to “the improvement and sustainability of farming systems here.”
Sanchez started working at Sano Farms in 1980. He moved from Michoacán, Mexico, to Mendota, where he worked during the day and took college classes at night. But Sanchez said his interests propelled him elsewhere. His wife, Lourdes, was working as a secretary at Sano Farms, where Sanchez met Sano for the first time.
What started as a family tradition for Sano Farms has grown into an intense desire to see that same tradition continue. Sano Farms started in the early 1960s near Le Grand, but moved to the west side in 1974. Sano has been working alongside his brothers since he graduated high school in 1980, about the same time Sanchez showed up to the farm.
Sanchez is the type of person who always likes a challenge, he said, and when he saw an opportunity at Sano Farms, he jumped on it.
“I see one thing and if I like it, I’m going to do it, and that’s how I started here. I see a challenge and want to work out the answer. When I started working with Alan’s father (Rinks Sano) back in 1980, I told him what I wanted to do and he liked the idea. We were a team.”
Sanchez has been innovative since the beginning, Alan Sano said. Right away, when Sanchez noticed a problem, he kept working on it, always trying to make things better.
When drier seasons hit the farm 15 years ago, they switched to drip irrigation, bringing water closer to the plants.
“(Sanchez’s) really aggressive as far as looking into new technologies, going ahead,” Sano said. “That’s a lot of how we got started.”
The farm used to rip the soil and work it every year behind tomato and cotton harvests. When Sanchez noticed the farm was losing topsoil every season the ground was leveled, he put crop-cover on the once empty plots to reintroduce nutrients into the soil and keep the topsoil grounded, returning some of the lost vitality from the drought.
The White House award recognized Sanchez for his attentiveness to soil health. Through the renovation of his entire farm system, Sanchez has lowered Sano’s use of diesel fuel and has lowered dust emissions, increased the soil’s nitrogen and carbon concentrations, and has brought new life back into the soil.
“By using minimal tillage, the air is clean, the tractors run less in the field, less dust and less fumes, so it helps to create a healthier environment in the whole system,” Sanchez said. “It helps everybody. We help the soil and it’s healthier for the human, more lasting energy for everyone.”
It’s all connected, Sanchez said, from the attention he pays to the plants to the final product that gets delivered, to the positive effect they are having on the environment, one small seed at a time. It’s a system that has taken years to develop and tweak, and every year brings a new challenge from the weather. Sanchez found answers to the challenges from his own roots.
His grandfather, Alberto, owned a small farm in Mexico more than 50 years ago, and Sanchez remembers growing up and playing there. Alberto used to have three harvests in one season, corn, beans and squash all in the same time. They used the soil differently then, and Sanchez said principles of taking care of the earth are what he remembers most.
Sanchez said he never expected to work in farming. He saw how hard his grandfather toiled, and figured he would go to school instead. But he enjoys working with the soil to see what he can create. The better products that come out, he said, the harder he works to keep improving.
Sanchez and Sano are looking toward the future, even as they battle the drought. Because of their zero water allocations from the Central Valley Project, they had to dig new wells last year. Water from the wells added salination to the soil, damaging the health of the plants. It’s a constant battle.
They plan on using drones next year for the first time for aerial inspections to see if the plants are stressed. They will look at coloring and potential disfigurations. The cameras can spot problems sooner than the naked eye.
Farmers don’t always like change, Sanchez said. Even he had to attend several conferences in Texas and Arizona throughout the years to help him believe in the new methods. As a farmer, he said, you have to believe.
“It’s kind of hard to change the system you farm,” Sanchez said. “So little by little we started to change, and now it’s changed the whole system.”
While the current drought-influenced thinking causes most of us to consider how water can be better stored, conserved and conveyed, one recent report emphasizes the importance of protecting, enhancing and using the supply that is below ground.
First of all it acknowledges that much of California’s groundwater has been depleted or widely degraded, and concludes that new regulations, some of them still emerging, are resulting in a historic shift in the way the state’s agriculture sector is helping manage and protect groundwater resources.
An introduction to this University of California research document appeared in the most recent (July-September) issue of California Agriculture, the university’s quarterly peer reviewed magazine. The body of the report was reserved for online presentation. Its author is Thomas Harter, Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Specialist at UC Davis.
The author acknowledges that the demand for groundwater has increased steadily as more of the state’s agricultural acreage has advanced from rangeland and field crops to permanent crops. But the demand on the underground aquifers has come from municipal and industrial users as well as the population has exploded.
Because many people have been alerted to the importance and strategic necessity of the underground water supply by recent drought-related emphasis, previous steps taken to protect the aquifers is sometimes overlooked. Harter chronicles those, making readers aware of the many laws, regulations, organizations and restrictions already in place.
At the same time he points out the many reasons we have not restored those underground pools. Much of the diversion from underground replenishment has been done in the name of water conservation. Even lining with concrete the canals that used to leak water to the underground has had a part in the depletion of the underground pools.
Charts and illustrations in Harter’s article place significant emphasis on the Tulare Lake Basin, once the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi (and perhaps shallowest). As an area of intense agricultural production, with and without irrigation, it no longer sends water to the aquifers below it. The basin is perhaps the most extreme example of starving the underground.
To correct the steps that have been taken to shut off such leakage Harter states that all associations and alliances that have been established for that purpose will have to be utilized. He cautions that it probably will be inconvenient as some popular irrigation practices are modified if not discontinued, and expensive as equipment and procedures, not all of them invented or developed yet, are applied.
Hand wringing is not part of the solution, as Harter presents the opportunities ahead. What is a major aspect of the preservation and replenishment is cooperation. If that overrides the efforts he believes recovery of the underground basins is entirely possible, even probable.
New techniques and tools for measuring the recovery and the streams that support it can be expected. He reminds his readers of the consternation that once faced gasoline retailers as sophisticated instruments were developed that detected leakage from underground storage tanks. It was widespread and considered of little significance until the instrumentation told us otherwise.
Excavations to remove and then replace those leaky tanks were expensive. Marketing opportunities were forfeited, and customers of the affected retailers were upset. But the whole episode has been mostly forgotten or otherwise put behind us.
Harter foresees a day when the deep concerns about depleted underground aquifers and the expense and exasperation of correcting its causes are mere memories. Somewhere over the rainbow …
But a comforting word from an authoritative source may be just what is needed, today, tomorrow and far into the less thirsty future.
Thanksgiving is built around a most basic blessing: food.
What stands out as the highlight of this day for me, though isn’t the food itself so much as the sharing of it. The people around our tables – friends and family members – are special to us, and more than a few are people whom we don’t see as often as we should. Sharing this meal and this day with them is something to look forward to, and to celebrate. Food is a fitting centerpiece for such an occasion (“shameless plug” alert), especially if it was grown in California.
This annual gathering is a great recipe for memories and stories, and for laughter. We “catch up.” We reconnect. We welcome new members into the family fold. As holidays go, Thanksgiving done right is a casual, comfortable affair that is just the right warm-up for the bustle to come.
For our farmers and ranchers, we are thankful this season for the hints of rain and snow that have begun to come our way at long last – may they be a sign of what’s to come.
Part of my Thanksgiving holiday tradition is to help prepare and serve a meal for the homeless hosted by my church in downtown Sacramento. It is a reminder for me that the things we are thankful for may bear a striking similarity to the things we shouldn’t take for granted, from prosperity and health to water, safe shelter, food and family. Not all of us – not even in bountiful California – are so fortunate. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve ALL Californians.
Around many tables this year, families will thank soldiers, past and present, for our safety. We will include parents and siblings, teachers and neighbors in our thoughts and thanks. My family will also thank our farmers, ranchers and farmworkers. They work hard for all of us and the fruits of their labor bring us together, at Thanksgiving and all year long.
Secretary Ross talking with Los Angeles Times reporter Peter King last week in Clovis as part of the Times’ public affairs series, “The California Conversation – Water in the West.” Photo – AgNetWest.com
By Andrea Castillo
Some of the state’s top water officials, along with local farmers and activists, convened in Clovis on (November 18) to talk about agriculture and the impact of the drought.
Los Angeles Times reporters hosted the conversation, called “Water in the West,” as part of a series of talks around the state. Helping sponsor the event were the San Diego Union-Tribune and Netafim, an agriculture drip irrigation company.
Around 100 people showed up at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District building to listen to experts including Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, give an overview of the issues that have emerged during the drought.
Around 100 people showed up at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District building to listen to experts including Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, give an overview of the issues that have emerged during the drought.
Cowin said the past four years have given California a crash course in how to adjust to limited amounts of water. But he said the state still needs to become more efficient and invest more in its water systems.
“It’s a matter of preparing for the future,” he said. “These past few years have given us, I think, a preview of what we can expect more of in the next century. If scientists are correct, if global climate change affects California the way we now expect it to, we can expect more of these extended dry periods.”
Nikiko Masumoto is already preparing for climate change on her family’s organic peach, nectarine and grape farm in Del Rey. The Masumotos have experimented with deficit irrigation (limiting water) but grew smaller peaches as a result.
Masumoto said the marketplace isn’t in favor of small fruit. She said she hopes the drought leads people to understand that size doesn’t dictate value of food.
“We have a very narrow definition of what a perfect peach, for example, is,” she said. “It might not always be pretty.”
Times correspondent Peter King, a Fresno native and former Bee staff writer, moderated a separate question-and-answer session with Ross. He asked her to address the paradox between people hearing about the suffering of farmers and rural communities, while at the same time California is experiencing record crop production value.
Ross said farmers are resilient and becoming more productive with the water available by focusing on higher economic uses, such as nut trees. That adaptation cloaks the harsh reality that some have felt during the drought, she said.
“Agriculture is very site-specific and where the drought has impacted is very site-specific. We can’t let those numbers be a one-size-fits-all.”
But Sarah Woolf, a farmer and president of the water management service Water Wise, said there isn’t enough water to meet the demands of a growing population, environmental protection and the agriculture industry. She stressed the importance of being more efficient in water use and improving storage and groundwater supplies.
“There’s land not being farmed,” she said. “I don’t think, as a farmer and someone who recognizes the high demand of California food products, that we should decrease our agricultural footprint.”
Cowin agreed about the need for better drought preparation, but he said there’s no way to avoid its effects completely.
“I don’t mean to sound pessimistic here, but I do think it’s not likely that we’re going to make such investment that we’re going to be able to withstand a four- or five-year drought of the nature we’ve seen the last few years without some level of impact,” he said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation’s 30th annual informal price survey of classic items found on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table indicates the average cost of this year’s feast for 10 is $50.11, a 70-cent increase from last year’s average of $49.41.
The big ticket item – a 16-pound turkey – came in at a total of $23.04 this year. That’s roughly $1.44 per pound, an increase of less than 9 cents per pound, or a total of $1.39 per whole turkey, compared to 2014.
“Retail prices seem to have stabilized quite a bit for turkey, which is the centerpiece of the meal in our marketbasket,” AFBF Deputy Chief Economist John Anderson said. “There were some production disruptions earlier this year due to the highly pathogenic Avian influenza outbreak in the Midwest. Turkey production is down this year but not dramatically. Our survey shows a modest increase in turkey prices compared to last year. But we’re now starting to see retailers feature turkeys aggressively for the holiday. According to USDA retail price reports, featured prices fell sharply just last week and were actually lower than last year,” he added.
The AFBF survey shopping list includes turkey, bread stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a relish tray of carrots and celery, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and beverages of coffee and milk, all in quantities sufficient to serve a family of 10. There is also plenty for leftovers.
Foods showing the largest increases this year in addition to turkey were pumpkin pie mix, a dozen brown-n-serve rolls, cubed bread stuffing and pie shells. A 30-ounce can of pumpkin pie mix was $3.20; a 14-ounce package of cubed bread stuffing, $2.61; and two nine-inch pie shells, $2.47.
“Despite concerns earlier this fall about pumpkin production due to wet weather, the supply of canned product will be adequate for this holiday season,” Anderson said.
Items that declined modestly in price were mainly dairy items including one gallon of whole milk, $3.25; a combined group of miscellaneous items, including coffee and ingredients necessary to prepare the meal (butter, evaporated milk, onions, eggs, sugar and flour), $3.18; a half pint of whipping cream, $1.94; and 12 ounces of fresh cranberries, $2.29. A one-pound relish tray of carrots and celery (79 cents) and one pound of green peas ($1.52) also decreased slightly in price.
The average cost of the dinner has remained around $49 since 2011. This year’s survey totaled over $50 for the first time.
“America’s farmers and ranchers are able to provide a bounty of food for a classic Thanksgiving dinner that many of us look forward to all year,” Anderson said. “We are fortunate to be able to provide a special holiday meal for 10 people for just over $5 per serving.”
The USDA has announced $4.8 million in grants for 74 projects spanning 39 states that support the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) efforts to connect child nutrition programs with local farmers and ranchers through its Farm to School Program. Grant recipients in California will receive $672,795.
“Farm to school programs work—for schools, for producers, and for communities,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “By serving nutritious and locally grown foods, engaging students in hands-on lessons, and involving parents and community members, these programs provide children with a holistic experience that sets them up for a lifetime of healthy eating. With early results from our Farm to School Census indicating schools across the nation invested nearly $600 million in local products, farm to school also provides a significant and reliable market for local farmers and ranchers.”
USDA’s Farm to School Grants fund school districts, state and local agencies, tribal nations, agricultural producers, and non-profit organizations in their efforts to increase local foods served through child nutrition programs; teach children about food and agriculture through garden and classroom education; and develop schools’ and farmers’ capacities to participate in farm to school. Awards ranging from $20,000 to $100,000 are distributed in four different grant categories: Planning, Implementation, Support Service, and Training.For the 2016 school year, grants will serve more than 5,211 schools and 2.9 million students, nearly 40 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Center for Ecoliteracy, Berkeley Grant Type: Support Service; $100,000
“California Thursdays” is a collaboration between the Center for Ecoliteracy and a network of school districts to serve freshly prepared school meals made from California-grown food. The network includes 42 districts that collectively serve over 250 million meals annually. This project will implement two new efforts: (1) a two-day training program to build capacity and provide technical expertise to nutrition services leaders, and (2) a robust website that features a public interface to improve communications and access to resources among the network.
County of Sonoma Department of Health Services, Santa Rosa Grant Type: Support Service; $94,580
The County of Sonoma Department of Health Services in California will work with key partners to expand farm to preschool programs at fifteen school-based pre-kindergarten sites serving low income families throughout Sonoma County. Activities will include Harvest of the Month educational tasting kits of farm fresh produce; procurement of locally grown foods into pre-kindergarten meal programs; increased hands-on learning in on-site gardens; and the development of comprehensive wellness policies that include farm to preschool language.
Konocti Unified School District, Lower Lake (Lake County) Grant Type: Planning; $45,000
Konocti Unified School District will increase the use of locally-grown foods in school meals, and the number of students that participate in those meals, by embedding farm to school best practices into school culture. Strategies include working with multiple schools, increasing local foods in summer meals, revising policies to facilitate local procurement, increasing school vegetable production, aligning experiential education with Common Core state standards, and engaging the community through marketing and promotion.
National Farm to School Network, San Francisco Grant Type: Training – National; $49,665
The National Farm to School Network will conduct advanced trainings to support school food service/nutrition directors and farmers/producers in sustaining and expanding their farm to school work. Training will be held in conjunction with the 8th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference happening June 2 through 4, 2016, in Madison, WI.
Pasadena Unified School District, Pasadena Grant Type: Implementation; $100,000
Pasadena Unified School District, previously a FY 2014 USDA Farm to School planning grantee, will systematically link fresh food procurement and preparation through staff and teacher training; classroom curriculum; and experiential activities for students in cafeterias, school gardens, and field trips to create an integrated, well-coordinated, and district-wide farm to school approach.
Plumas Unified School District, Quincy Grant Type: Planning; $45,000
Plumas Unified School District will develop a five year plan to expand the existing school gardens and production greenhouse to all 13 prekindergarten-12th grade public schools. Teachers, ranchers, farmers, social service agencies, and interested community members will be invited to provide input in developing a sustainable garden education and local procurement plan. Representatives from the three neighboring counties will be included to explore a regional approach.
Sacramento City Unified School District, Sacramento Grant Type: Implementation; $100,000
Sacramento City Unified School District, in partnership with the Food Literacy Center and Soil Born Farms, designed a farm to school project to include procurement of fresh vegetables, garden education, and nutrition education. This project will introduce a new vegetable each month to students in three pilot elementary schools and then to students throughout the district.
The Edible Schoolyard Project, Berkeley Grant Type: Training – National; $45,050
This project will pilot a new Edible Schoolyard Intensive professional development program for farm to school practitioners from across the country to increase the ability of maturing farm to school programs to sustain long-term success by educating participants about how to forge strong relationships between school food service staff, school leaders, and classroom, garden, and kitchen educators.
Yolo County Department of Agriculture, Woodland Grant Type: Support Service; $93,500
Building on the last three years of operating a successful farm to school program focused on procurement, this project will engage with local school districts to (1) acquire data on the quantity and frequency of foods being served through the meal programs, (2) track crop data for translation into yield for local farms, (3) provide training and writing services with farms to obtain their Good Agricultural Practices certification, and (4) provide services such as curated farm tours, farm availability listings, and business guidance for producers.
State employees donating fresh produce last week at the kick-off event for the 2015 State Employees Food Drive, at the Department of Public Health in Sacramento. 6,550 pounds of produce were donated, including contributions from participating local farms. A Sacramento Food Bank truck was on-hand to quickly transport the items back to its warehouse for distribution. CDFA is again serving as statewide coordinator for the food drive. An event later this week, the annual Turkey Drive, will collect frozen turkeys for the holiday tables of needy families.
What does organic actually mean? It’s tricky, because the word “organic” has at least two distinct meanings. It arose as the name for a movement with a particular belief system. Later, it also became a formal regulatory label governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, most of us just want to know if organic means “better”: if it’s healthier, more sustainable, and, in short, worth the money.
My unsatisfying answer: It depends. There are spectacular organic farmers, and spectacular farmers who don’t comply with the organic rules (and their opposites). I equivocate here because the organic rules are more about process than outcomes. Instead of governing results — i.e. defining organic by the nutritional content of food, or environmental quality measurements on farms — the rules mostly govern the tools used in food production.
OK, let’s start with those official rules. What are they? And how good a job does each rule accomplish of actually making food “better”? I don’t aim to determine whether organic, overall, is “better” — I think that depends on the way farmers use their tools, not on which tools they use. Instead, I’ll try to tease apart the assumptions that link the rules to our judgements about goodness.
Basically, if humans made a substance, you can’t use it in organic farming. There are exceptions: There’s a list of approved synthetics that organic farmers can use under certain circumstances.
But the whole idea that “natural” is safer than synthetic is just wrong. It is true that we’ve had more time to get used to the natural hazards — and not as much trial and error to discover hazards in newer substances.
It’s often impossible, anyway, to say definitively whether something is natural or synthetic. The dividing line is subjective; “natural” means different things to different people. This hazy line between natural and non-natural has caused all sorts of controversy among farmers over the years. Julie Guthman, in her book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, lists some of the arguments on this issue:
Several grape growers mentioned their frustration that cryolite [used as an insecticide] was being phased out as an unallowable substance because it was no longer being mined … its synthetic forms were completely prohibited. Black plastic is allowed for solarization [heating] or for mulching as long as it is removed from the field after use, yet solarization completely kills all biological activity in the soil … Other comments: “We can use Bt [a bacterial insecticide] but not urea, compost but not [heated] oil. How can you be more natural than crude oil?” “Why is it perfectly acceptable to drive tractors around that not only use diesel fuel but also worsen soil compaction?”
This one seems simple, but it’s surprisingly confusing, because the definition of GMO is squishier than you might think. For the organic standards “no GMOs” means no plant or animal can be used in organic food if it has a gene from another species that’s been put there by humans. It also means no meat or dairy from animals fed on GM fodder. (Organic farmers can use manure from animals fed GMOs for fertilizer.)
But organic farmers can, and do, use plants that have been genetically modified with ionizing radiation or chemicals. There are several great organic crops made through this kind of mutagenesis, including my favorite organic brown rice.
Only non-organic farmers can use treated, sterilized municipal sewage for fertilizer. The technical term here is biosolids: dried, composted human poop that has come out of city sewage treatment. Organic people don’t like it because who knows what else besides crap ends up in there — motor oil, medications, Drano? But it sure would be more sustainable to close the cycle and reuse nutrients rather than flushing them into the ocean.
Sometimes people expose foods to ionizing radiation as a food safety measure. There aren’t many foods that are irradiated — but some are, to kill disease-causing germs. You can tell because those foods have this label. Anyway, organic can’t do that.
Conventional farms often get fertilizer that is synthesized from the air and natural gas. Organic farms mostly get it from composted manure. In addition, organic farmers may use nitrogen from South American mines, which has the same characteristics of synthetic nitrogen, but also contains salt (a potential problem for soil health). You can read my deep dive on nitrogen fertilizer here. In brief: Both approaches to fertilizer are appropriate in their place, for complex reasons having to do with land use change and the nitrogen cycle.
To qualify as organic, farmers must rotate what they plant on any given plot of land. This breaks up insect pest life cycles and encourages biodiversity. Most conventional farmers do crop rotation, too — the classic Midwestern system alternates between corn and soy every year. Organic farmers often do longer rotations: corn, soy, alfalfa, for example.
Weed and pest control
This is a big one. When conventional farmers have a weed or insect problem, they often control it with a chemical pesticide. Organic farmers rely on plowing, weeding, pheromone traps, and by providing habitats for predatory insects.
Organic farms also have a set of approved pesticides that they can use — for instance, copper and sulfur are both widely used, as are oils, which are sprayed to smother insects. Organic pesticides tend to be less toxic than synthetic pesticides, but are used in larger quantities per acre.
You are a lot less likely to be exposed to pesticide residue if you eat organic — but keep in mind that the exposure to pesticide you get from residues is way below the tolerances set by the EPA.
Workers on organic farms don’t come into contact with the more toxic pesticides. But Guthman points out that they do come into contact with sulfur, which is “said to cause more worker injuries in California than any other agricultural input.”
Controlling weeds without herbicides creates complications for workers as well. Farmworkers have successfully banned the use of the short-handled hoe, which forced them to bend close to the ground as they weeded crops. But in California, organic farmers are allowed an exception to the rule — instead of a short-handled hoe, farmers can have their laborers weed by hand. The classic labor rights issues are just as fraught, or even worse, for workers on organic farms, bothsmallandlarge.
OK — when it comes to organic meat and dairy, here’s the deal:
For animals to be organic, you gotta feed them organic corn or other organic kibble.
If it’s a ruminant animal — a grass eater — it’s got to be out on pasture at least 120 days a year.
And if it’s a chicken, pig, or other non-ruminant, its must have access to the outdoors. Sometimes, however, that may just be a door to the terrifying beyondthat no animal ever uses.
No antibiotics, no growth hormones
If your animals are going to be organic, no growth hormones are allowed and no antibiotics are allowed, period. If the animal gets sick, however, the farmer is still required to treat it with antibiotics if they are needed — but then the animal is no longer organic.
Those are the main rules. Oh, you’ve probably seen a ton of labels — Oregon Tilth, California Certified Organic, Midwest Organic Service — but you can basically ignore those: These organizations just serve as the certifying agencies that check the USDA organic standards.
If farmers and environmental scientists were to design the perfect system, it might not be strictly organic. For instance, in some situations it would make more environmental sense to use a little bit of a synthetic pesticide than to spray the oils, copper, and sulfur that the organic program allows. Using compost and manure is really good for soils. But we also have to use some synthetic fertilizer if we want to shrink our agricultural footprint and stop cutting down forests. Even growth hormones make sense from a greenhouse gas perspective: A faster growing steer spends fewer days burping up methane and needs fewer acres devoted to feeding it. None of this is simple.
No one has ownership over the term organic. Yes, as a certification it is defined and regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government agencies around the world. But before any of that, it was a set of principles. My reading of organic literature, and this review by the National Research Commission, suggests that organic belief systems are built on two main pillars:
Managing biological systems: Organic practitioners strive to understand and influence their farms on an ecosystem level, controlling pests and nutrient cycles by creating habitat (in the soil, hedgerows, and fields).
Avoiding synthetic chemicals: Organic practitioners often feel that synthetic chemicals are not as safe as natural chemicals because they haven’t been around as long, which means we’ve had less time to see potential dangers. They also often feel that synthetics allow farmers to fix problems too directly, which may prevent ecosystem-level management (see No. 1). For instance, if a farmer uses a highly effective synthetic pesticide to save her peppers from great horned tomato worms, she may not have the incentive to learn about the predator-prey relationship that (perhaps) might be manipulated to control the insects.
This stands in opposition what might be called the industrial belief system. The main pillars of that philosophy:
Supporting humanity: The primary philosophical driver for many industrial practitioners is humanitarian: They want to feed people, and see themselves as a foundation for civilization. By providing food they allow others to specialize in other areas, building electric cars, discovering cures for cancer, writing “Hotline Bling,” etc.
A quest for efficiency: If the goal is to free humanity from labor on the land, any improvement in efficiency is seen as honorable. Therefore we see tremendous emphasis placed on increasing yields and decreasing labor, both of which make food cheaper.
Any adequate analysis of agricultural sustainability should try on both these pairs of ideological sunglasses. It seems to me that the industrial partisans — looking through the rose-colored glasses of ever-improving efficiency and technological progress — have at times been blind to inefficiencies at the ecosystem level (dead zones in lakes and oceans, greenhouse gas emissions). Likewise, organic partisans — looking through the dark glasses of environmental decline and technological failure — have at times been blind to imperatives for land-use efficiency (there really is a lot of evidence that we can preserve more biodiversity by farming more intensively), and to the true humanitarian improvements that have come with industrialization.
We’ve got to do it all: Work in concert with ecosystems, grow the raw materials to support a thriving civilization, do it on a land area small enough to preserve wilderness, and accomplish that with tools that won’t hurt us. The organic ethos gets us part way there. To go the rest of the distance, we’ve got to embrace the good from both belief systems.