The Question

I’m really looking forward to almost everything about tomorrow night’s Outstanding in The Field Dinner at McGrath Family Farm. Phil McGrath is our local “local-food rockstar” here in Ventura County, and it might be unsettling to have to share his spotlight, if I didn’t already know what a great guy he is. Phil, I’m pleased to be your opening act.

I always look forward to any meal with Tim Kilcoyne from Ventura’s Sidecar Restaurant, so no issue there. I’m also looking forward to the event itself, since I have read and heard about the great job the Outstanding in the Field crew does.

I said “almost everything”, because the one thing I’m not looking forward to is The Organic Question. You see, I’m not an organic certified grower, and I don’t plan to be… certainly not by tomorrow night. For a lot of local food enthusiasts, though, organic certification is considered the entry-level criteria for sustainable agriculture. Given my penchant for complexity, I don’t see the issue as being nearly that simple. But tomorrow night, I will be asked The Question, I will answer truthfully, and I will watch the flicker of disappointment wash over the face of the guest.

So here’s the long answer that I will probably not have time for tomorrow night. I don’t believe that organic certification means that much in the context of sustainability, either in economic or environmental terms. Certification is about compliance with certain standards, which have some relation to (but do not define) sustainability. I’m more interested in the philosophy that guides sustainability, and on that score I feel pretty comfortable. I embrace the organic philosophy of feeding the soil, not the plant. In other pieces I’ve outlined our use of composting, mulching and cover-cropping, so I won’t repeat them here. We have utilized beneficial insects as part of an Integrated Pest Management program for three generations. With any chemical application that I may need to make, I give a good deal of weight to potential impacts on my own soil-ecosystem, let alone the larger environment. And it is my belief that a farm managed with natural or organic processes, with an occasional chemical boost when necessary is a perfectly justifiable and sustainable proposition.

It’s really all about moderation, isn’t it? I enjoy a cold beer (or colder limoncello) occasionally, without feeling like I’m risking alcoholism. A good cheeseburger from time to time is not going to be the death of me. Now if I lived my life on nothing but Slim-Jims and cheap whiskey, then I’d have a problem.

People typically think of the food world as being bi-polar: virtuous, small, local, and organic farms on the one extreme, and greedy, global, corporate factory farms on the other. In his book, The Ominvore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan explores a third option: the so called industrial organic model. In this model a conventional mindset and retinue of cultural practices is employed using organic inputs to create food that is legally organic, but is philosophically indistinguishable from conventional farming. It is this model that has made Wal-Mart the largest retailer of organic food in the world.

I’d like to think I’m part of a fourth model: organic and small in philosophy, but open to the benefits of conventional agriculture when needed. So if a little herbicide will knock down a morning glory patch without hours of hand tool and weed- whacker work, I’ll do it. And if a little extra nitrogen helps get young trees off to a good start before winter, I’m OK with that too.

Maybe if the wine really gets flowing, I’ll get to have this conversation about the deeper aspects of sustainability. But I might have to talk with my mouth full.

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