Tuesday, September 1, 2009


The following blurb from an article about an organic apple orchard in western North Carolina caught our attention: "The majority of consumers think 'organic' means we don't spray with anything," Owings [a North Carolina Cooperative Extension agriculture agent for Henderson County] says, "But in fact, we actually spray twice as often, but we spray with USDA-approved materials...That's one of the reasons it's three to four times more expensive to grow organic apples than it is conventional apples. An acre of conventionally grown apples would cost $700 a season for pesticides and fungicides; an identical organic crop's price tag for organic crop protectants is about $3,400."
That example strikes us, first of all, because it's so unlike traditional organic practice. Although we would generally feel better about USDA-organically approved fungicides and pesticides than their conventional counterparts, the model of farmers or orchardists spraying nearly five times as many dollars worth of industrially produced sprays on their crops doesn't especially make organic sense to us. Shouldn't buying organic produce mean retaining more community control and keeping more dollars in the community, not increased industrial dependency?
We have to wonder why all these sprays are necessary at all. Surely apples were grown and enjoyed in North Carolina long before all the fungicidal, insecticidal, antibiotic, etc. sprays became available. What makes that traditional model of organic agriculture impractical or undesirable today? Global trade and the related spread of non-native pests and diseases may have heightened the problems, but we suspect most of the problems with the traditional organic model are a matter of practical choice on the local level. We suspect three changes are chiefly to fault for the demise of traditional organic practice:
1. Consumers generally make their purchasing choices based more on how produce looks than on what practices were used to grow it. Obviously, this is especially true when consumers have no idea what practices were used to grow a crop. Chemical agriculture has set a consumer standard of cosmetic perfection that, particularly with crops like apples, makes it extremely difficult for traditional organic practices to compete.
2. We have shifted in our eating habits more and more to pre-processed food. We buy applesauce instead of canning our own applesauce and apple juice instead of pressing our own cider. One consequence is that most of our processed apple products now come from China, where apples can be grown more cheaply (but with who knows what methods!) Really the only market left for local growers is fresh fruit, and all lower grades of domestic fruit are waste. When processing grades of apples count for zero, local growers will have that much more incentive to spray everything they can to maximize the amount of cosmetically perfect, table grade fruit.
3. Small farms have given way to the supposed economies of scale of large farms. Large farms have a natural affinity for chemical solutions, especially when the alternative is labor-intensive, and so labor-intensive, organic practices have waned. Did you know, for instance, that apples are thinned by means of chemical sprays instead of hand-thinning as used to be done?
So what does all this have to do with us? First, we want you to know how we grow and how we approach the problems of agriculture. We believe strongly in homegrown, low-tech solutions. Spraying nearly five times as many dollars of industrially produced sprays as conventional farmers is not our idea of organic. Second, we want to encourage you to think about your own role in shaping our food system. Do you more often ask yourself how does this look than you ask how was this grown? Do you take the time to process locally grown food at home instead of buying pre-processed food from far away? Do you value small farms and the knowledge and accountability that come from dealing directly with local farmers?
We have a lot to learn about apples yet, but we're keeping hope in a much more traditional model of organic farming, both when it comes to apples and everything else we grow.

1 comment:

Kendra at New Life On A Homestead said...

Wow. You are so right Melissa. The majority of our society DOES base what they buy on how it looks. We think that if it looks bad, it probably is bad. If we would only ask ourselves that question of "where did this come from and how was it grown?" our food industry would be so much better all around for Americans. We should all appreciate families like yours who actually genuinely care about growing food the healthiest way possible. I hope a lot of people read your post!