Organic Food...Good for the Land, Good for the Body
(Or-gan'-ik): 1.free from chemical injections or additives, such as antibiotics or hormones 2. simple, healthful and close to natureThe word organic to many supermarket shoppers, conjures up images of higher priced vegetables grown by barefoot hippies lost in tree-hugging dreams of "naturalness." But to a growing number of local supporters, the term organic is more than just a buzzword; it's back-to-basics thinking and a way of life they passionately support. With goals that reach far beyond the obvious concern of pesticide residue left on mass produced fruits and vegetables, this often misunderstood group of gentle activists is growing deep roots in Kansas City, both in size and in soil.The down-and-dirty truth about organics has more and more families making the switch to local farmers who pick the produce and feed the cattle themselves, under conditions they boast, with a happy exhaustion, that comes from sun up to sun down, hands-on work."I think people are slowly coming to the realization that maybe it's not the smartest thing in the world to spray poison on your food before you eat it," says Mike McGrath, editor of Organic Gardening magazine on why the trend for organic foods is now growing at 20 percent a year.Armed with proof that our current method of food supply is detrimental not only to our environment but to the survival of future generations, these natural radicals aren't radical at all. With warmth and patience, they share their testimonials through invitations to the farms and fields in and around Kansas City that boast the happiest animals and the freshest produce around. Some have waiting lists of up to three months for their products, while others make reputations for themselves by supplying produce to top- rated restaurants such as Cafe Allegro and The American. The truth about organic food is that we can prevent erosion of valuable topsoil, keep chemicals out of ground water and our bodies, promote meat that is chemical free and raised animals humanely, all while supporting our own communities and small farmers. These claims may sound like soapbox ideals, but the ripple effect of buying organic is real.With Kansas just recently ranked 50th in the nation (below states such as New Jersey and New York) in terms of the quality of surface water, the truth about our current method of food supply is cause for local concern, if not alarm. The main reason is because most supermarket food is grown, distributed and managed by just a few big corporate giants who in 1988 used 2 billion pounds of pesticides and 270 billion pounds of artificial fertilizers in agriculture alone. Traveling long distances and doctored with artificial colors, waxes and sprays to keep the appearance of "freshness," it is often two weeks by the time the stock boy neatly piles them in aisle 2 at your local grocery store."People think that food comes from grocery stores," says Margie Eucalyptus, a devoted consumer of organic food, "It doesn't come from grocery stores! If there were a trucking strike, there would be a 3-day food supply in Kansas City."Eucalyptus, a vibrant 65 year old, became an advocate for organics after she saw her Missouri hometown become poorer and poorer, yet at the time it was agriculturally sound with 70-foot deep soil and plenty of sunshine. She believes her hometown flopped agriculturally because soon after World War II, the munitions industry quickly turned into a pesticide and chemical industry, which farmers embraced as a quicker and easier way to farm.With long silver braids and a glow of energy, Eucalyptus can't remember the last time she was sick and attributes it entirely to her diet of organic food. Not a vegetarian, she relies on her supply of meat exclusively from husband and wife farmers David Schafer and Alice Dobbs, a couple who raise chickens, cows and lambs using "nature as the model."HAPPY ANIMALSLocated just past Jamesport in Trenton, MO, Schafer and Dobbs call 500 lush acres home on a nontraditional kind of farm. Although they raise animals for consumption, the couple make it a priority that the animals are treated with respect and kindness not found in the farm factories of today. But even more unusual is the fact that from birth to butcher, none of their animals receive the standard medicated feed used in virtually all big factory farms.Raised on the land without the use of chemicals, hormones, pesticides or the need for antibiotics, Schafer and Dobbs are actually benefiting their land, too, by letting the animals enrich the soil, promoting a virtual salad bar for the cattle who graze on the natural occurring mix of forage that grows in their pastures."Believe me, no one gets up in the morning and says, 'Oh boy, I can't wait to spray chemicals!' Nobody likes it. Every farmer would like to be free of chemicals, they just don't know how to do it," says Schafer.Alice Dobbs knows why the need for antibiotics in factory farms came about and has set out to break the vicious circle she describes."The animals are in an environment that is so stressful that they just use low levels of antibiotics in their feed all the time, whether they're sick or not because they know they're going to be sick because it's so stressful."But while it's "definitely not easier," Schafer knows it makes much more sense than crowding hundreds of animals into individual cages where they never see daylight or green food."Animals like to move, they like to eat the stuff that grows naturally from the sun and we just allow them to move around and that way they stay really healthy," says Schafer. Because they are outdoors, the animals instinctively move away from their waste so the parasite cycles are broken, "The animals and everybody benefits; the soil, the plants and our pastures have become enriched without adding any fertilizers. It's the natural system at work."The chickens live a privileged life as well, though not free range, but instead in huge open-bottom pens with wheels that the couple roll every day onto twelve, fresh feet of pasture for the chickens to graze on and enrich."It's the beginning of a change of mindset," says Schafer on what he believes will be the new trend in raising animals. An example in the other extreme includes a man Schafer knows of in northern Arkansas who owns a huge chicken house and whose daily chores are simply to go and take out the dead chickens because everything from water to food is done using an automated system.Schafer and Dobbs' farm fresh meats are so sought after that they can only be obtained by ordering, sometimes three months in advance. "There just aren't very many people like us around," Schafer admits. The couple supplies many customers who were formerly vegetarians because of their environmental sensitivity to the chemicals found in supermarket meats.One taste of their farm fresh poultry and for many, there is no going back to grocery store chickens that seem stripped of taste by comparison. By the time traditional chickens reach the butcher's cooler they have been dipped in chlorine baths dozens of times to clean and free them of parasites. In contrast, Schafer and Dobbs butcher the healthy chickens themselves and customers pick them up within just a few hours, eliminating the need to sterilize them chemically.The Hard Sell "It's not the best looking stuff in the world" is how Jim Leatz of C&C Produce describes organic produce. And when the produce business, according to Leatz, is 70 percent impulse buying, that means if it looks good, people are going to buy it.Leatz used to work as a produce buyer for a grocery store in Gladstone where he tried organic produce, convinced it would be good business. Instead, Leatz found that because no preservatives are used on organic produce, it didn't last long enough on the shelf to turn him a profit. "I probably lost fifty percent of what I brought in. It wasn't worth it," he says.While the oranges he bought admittedly had nothing wrong with them, Leatz remembers them as "scarred, not shiny and pretty like a normal orange," turning some buyers off.A traditional tomato will keep for over a week, but Leatz says organic produce lasted two to three days, maximum. "People that buy organic are buying for the nutrition," Leatz says, "I finally had to stop carrying it."Patrick Buckley works in produce at a health food store. "We're changing the philosophy of produce here; More selection, less bulk," he says. That's because even with Wild Oats buying as much as they can locally so it doesn't have to travel as far, organic fruits and vegetables just don't have a lengthy shelf life. But Buckley doesn't think it's the cost that is forcing the store to limit their displays. Rather, he sees it as a summer trend with more people shopping at farmer's markets or simply growing their own.On the issue of cost Buckley says that customers feel justified paying a slightly higher price for produce that has more to offer. "You're getting a lot more nutrition out of organic produce," he says, and, as proof, Buckley brings out a chart comparing the percentages of nutrients found in organic food with nonorganic."You can definitely taste the difference between organic and nonorganic, customers know the difference," he adds.In her book Nontoxic, Natural and Earthwise, Debra Lynn Dodd illustrates the notion that the farther removed a vegetable is from farm fresh, the more pointless it is to rely on it for nutrition. She uses a can of peas as an example. Thirty percent of all vitamins are lost in cooking the peas at the canning plant. Twenty-five percent are lost in the sterilization process, while another twenty-seven percent are discarded with the cooking liquid. Another twelve percent are lost when you heat the peas, leaving you with tasteless, squishy, green balls with only six percent of their original value.Nick Conforti of C&C Produce makes sure his company gets product to over 35 grocery stores on a daily basis, so his biggest concern with organic produce is that it would never keep up with the market demand. When C&C does have a special request for organic, they order it from California, often 20 percent higher in cost than traditional produce."I don't know how they would ever do it," Conforti says on the difficulties of mass producing fruits and vegetables that would spoil so quickly. "The biggest reason is cost," he says, in pointing out buyers' objections to organic produce. "People think they want fresh organic produce until they see how much it costs."McGrath, the editor of Organic Gardening, which encourages people to start their own gardens, has come to the same conclusion."Price seems to be the only barrier with just about anybody except the most hardcore idiots and those people are never going to come around," he says referring to people who just don't get the hype."It doesn't cost any more to produce the food, but you know it's a much smaller distribution system," McGrath says. He believes it is the distribution system keeping the prices up.Yet, if communities bought directly from the farmer at central meeting points like markets, as organic food organizations suggest, the shipping costs drop as do the price.THE CERTIFICATION EXPECTATIONEmerald Forest is a health food store in Lenexa, KS, that has a faithful following of customers who visit the store weekly for their organic produce."We have so many regular customers and such a high demand, the produce doesn't sit around much," says one employee who chose not to give her name. She says that many of the store's customers have cancer or other illnesses that require them to rely only on certified organic produce for their alternative therapies.With a lack of competition in Lenexa and their "price to move" philosophy on selling produce, Emerald Forest is able to keep the produce moving and even have deliveries up to three times a week, juicing what produce does get left behind in their juice bar.But curiously, Emerald Forest deliberately chooses not to stock locally grown produce because of cost concerns and questions of legitimacy that ask whether local produce is certified or not."We don't buy local produce because you can't count on its certification, and it's more expensive to buy from local farmers," the employee says. Insisting that it's cheaper to buy from large companies out of Denver who "operate on a larger scale," Emerald Forest wants to guarantee to its customers through official paperwork that the produce is bona fide chemical-free. The store management doesn't trust that locals have the same standards as their suppliers in Denver.But knowing how important certification is to its consumers, many local growers have already gone through the certification process set forth by OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association) and are frustrated that shops would refuse to support their efforts.John Kaiahua is certified each year by OCIA standards which require him to prove that his land has been chemical free for at least three years prior to planting. The association forbids him to use synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers or herbicides, opting instead for compost manure to do the job. He used to supply local grocery stores but says " I haven't had any this year, it's really hard. They want it cheap."A DOWN AND DIRTY SOIL ISSUELocated in Raytown, MO, Kaiahua calls himself a "city farmer" since he has to borrow most of the five acres he plants on from his nearby neighbors. But with all the fresh produce they could dream of just outside their door, he doesn't think they mind the intrusion.A native of Hawaii and now retired from the Marines, 53-year-old Kaiahua likes the fact that he's cultivating the earth naturally. "I used to plant and farm the traditional way, fruit trees, but I started to get sick from spraying the trees with chemicals," he says, remembering the days when he would quit work, his clothes wet with pesticides."Farming the other way is easier, but in the long term you wear out the ground," says Kaiahua. "As they say in organics, 'Feed the soil, don't feed the plant.'"Kaiahua insists the trick to succeeding is all in how innovative your techniques are and as proof, he points to the staggered, double rows of crops that are crowded so close, they are able to create their own shade, preventing sunburn and discouraging weeds."I plant in half an acre what most people plant in one full acre," he boasts, also admitting organic farmers have to over plant most organic crops anyway, assuming the bugs will overtake a certain percentage.Yielding three tons of tomatoes and two tons of peppers yearly, the labor is intensive for Kaiahua and a friend with whom he share the duties. And because being certified means growing every single plant from a seedling, he's only able to take the month of December off, the one time of year he's not transplanting precious seeds. It's from inside his makeshift greenhouse, a porch strung up with lights and shelves stacked full of plants, that Kaiahua begins the cultivation of his small, but lush paradise.With peaches, apples, pears, eggplant, grapes and cabbage, to name just a few species of food he raises, Kaiahua takes great pride in the fact that his produce is rich with vitamin and minerals -- a technique he practices by keeping them in the soil for as long as possible before harvesting since his buyers usually get his goods the same day."The more mature the plant is, the more vitamins it has in it," he says, on why he lets his crops mature and ripen in the soil, a luxury most large conventional growers can't afford. "A lot of produce has to be picked when its still green so by the time they transport it, it's ripe. If they picked it when it was ripe it would be all squashed by the time it reached the consumers weeks later."Transforming his backyard into a makeshift Garden of Eden, Kaiahua has faced the biggest challenge, dealing with Mother Nature. He is succeeding. "It's a little harder to grow organically because you've got weeds and bugs and they've got to eat too," he laughs.Mark Marino gets up each morning on his farm in Stover, MO, by 4:30 and sometimes as early as 2 a.m., in order to cultivate his 15 acres of vegetables, currently in demand by some of the best restaurants in Kansas City. Cafe Allegro, The American and PB & J establishments such as The Grand Street Cafe all give Marino the bulk of his business, allowing him to keep his prices competitive with conventionally grown produce.The reason Marino insists he's able to keep their business is because he can easily outdo the big corporate growers when it comes to freshness and quality. "I suppose they could fly it in overnight if they wanted but that wouldn't make sense for them price-wise," he says.Marino is also lucky enough to be able to irrigate with spring water from a near by stream, a plus when it comes to quality. But soil, he admits is the key thing."One of the big things in growing organically is building the soil. Because if you just keep dumping an hydrous ammonia into the soil like some growers, that just depletes the soil and all the organic matter gets taken out."Marino proudly describes his soil as "smooth and silky" even after 16 years of farming. With nine greenhouses, Marino cultivates year-round, allowing him to harvest what is probably the earliest crop and most sought after crop of tomatoes in the Midwest.Admitting his biggest challenge isn't keeping the bugs away, but waking up in the morning from May to October in order to keep up with business, Marino lives by this simple philosophy: "We're trying to farm without messing up this little part of the earth that we live on and, hopefully, by the time we get done with it, it'll be a better place." ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOPeter Bahouth was once the director of Greenpeace and wrote one of the more convincing accounts on why people should go organic. In "Attack of the Killer Tomato, first published in the 1994 Seeds of Change catalog, he looked at a tomato that appeared on a salad he ordered while eating in a restaurant and asked the question, "Where did this tomato come from?" The subsequent research led him to believe that "growing your own tomatoes can be a very subversive and radical act."What Bahouth discovered was that the tomato was grown on land acquired by the U.S.-based Jolly Green Giant company in partnership with the Mexican Development Corporation. Once used by local Mexican farmers, the land was first fumigated with methyl bromide, an ozone depleter 120 times more potent than CFC-111 and was then treated with pesticides. The Mexican workers who picked the tomato were paid $2.50 a day and given no protection such as gloves, masks or safety instructions and have no access to health care.Once harvested, the tomato was covered in plastic wrap and then packed in boxes. The plastic was manufactured with chlorine by the Formosa company of Point Comfort, TX. Workers of Point Comfort face a potentially significant rise in cancer and immune suppression due to exposure to high levels of dioxin. The cardboard comes from 300-year-old trees from British Columbia and is processed in the Great Lakes pulp mills where residents are warned against eating dioxin contaminated fish. The cardboard is then shipped by the United Trucking Company to Latin American farms. The boxed tomatoes, reddened by ether, tasteless and with no nutritional value, were sent via refrigerated trucks equipped with CFC cooling equipment throughout North America. Throughout the process, fossil fuels drove the tomatoes' trip, fueling the trucks and warming the climate. The fuel which makes the tomato's trip possible is shipped to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast which are uniquely responsible for the death of that region's environment and economy. The fuel is then distributed to the vehicles that make the 3,000 mile trip possible.CONNECTING THE CIRCLEWhile organic food may not seem that visible here in the Midwest as compared to states like California and Colorado, there are plenty of locals making an organized effort at promoting organic farmers. The Food Circle is taking up the slack for the growing number of Kansas Citians wanting an alternative to the local Price Chopper by offering itself as the connection between consumers and growers. Once a working group of the Kansas City Greens, The Food Circle is made up of enthusiastic volunteers whose goal is to promote sustainable agriculture while maintaining the survival of small family farms.Vicki Combs is the volunteer coordinator of The Food Circle. She speaks to as many groups that will listen, knowing after each presentation that she will have a room full of converts."That's just an indication of what we could do if we had the funding," she sighs in frustration at being unable to reach more people on a consistent basis. With no foundation or government grants to financially back The Food Circle, Combs speaks with passion about her biggest obstacle: "Getting the word out that we're here."Claiming to touch on so many issues, both environmental and economical, Combs has a hard time trying to single out only one reason to convince people to eat organic, "I'd say it's a seamless garment. It's all part of the interconnected web." A web so closely tied to every aspect of creating a local and sustainable food system that if money would permit, she would devote herself to promoting The Food Circle as a full time job. To Craig Volland, a member of The Food Circle Committee, the plight of organic foods is less about ingesting pesticides and more about protecting irreplaceable resources like ground water and a disappearing topsoil for future generations."This is the main point. It's not just a question of avoiding pesticide residue on food, it is whether you're going to support a sustainable way of life," he says.Volland is also president of his own environmental consulting firm called Spectrum Technologies that seeks to make the public aware of critical environmental issues. Volland thinks that right now the biggest obstacle holding back local organics are consumers who have become somewhat spoiled when it comes to expecting all types of vegetation, all year-round."We like salads in December and there are certain natural limitations to the Kansas City area. Part of success is getting people to realize they may not want to eat tomatoes that come from Mexico or Chile in the wintertime; for one thing because the risk of high pesticide residues is much greater from imported produce."Debra Lynn Dodd points out in her book that in 1990 only around 100,000 farms out of 2 million were using organic methods, a mere 2 percent of all food purchased in the United States. Urging an awareness of our massive dependence on chemicals she stresses, "The long term effects of chronic low-level exposure to pesticides currently used on our food are not known."Or, as Volland puts it, "They can't experiment on humans in a controlled way, to prove the effects of weedkillers like Atrazine in our drinking water, although you could argue they are doing it in an uncontrolled experiment by spreading it around everywhere."Mike McGrath will only be satisfied with the future of organic produce when he goes into a grocery store stocked full of vegetables and fruit, and instead of finding a tiny corner labeled "organic produce" stocked with four apples and six tomatoes, he finds a tiny corner of produce labeled "food sprayed with poison."