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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Food for the Table…Food for Thought…Back with Seconds…

Werkhoven DairyI’m here in dairyman Jim Werkhoven’s parlor, hot on the trail of that elusive glass of milk. However, my main concern at the moment is gravity: Jim’s green coffee cup is balanced precariously on the arm of his easy chair and every time he waves his arm, I’m certain the cup is history. “I think the whole organic thing is really about marketing,” Jim says, as the cup miraculously survives another sweep of his arm. “You know,” Jim informs me (another narrow miss), “it takes a carbon footprint fourteen times greater to produce organic than it does regular.” This is surprising news, and while I’m not sure how Jim came by this information, I know anyone involved in the food industry these days has to be very aware of what going “organic” entails.

I have talked to other Valley farmers about certified organic produce. Ed Broers advertises his berries as “organic,” and I know when he replaced old plants with new canes a few years back, he was required to use “organic” metal posts instead of the chemically treated posts from the old field. Before the Aldens left potato farming and the Valley, I talked to Jan Alden a bit about organic. She said in order for a farm to be designated certified organic, it must be pesticide and herbicide free for at least five years. “Use Roundup on your weeds,” she said, “and wait five years before you’re eligible for organic consideration.” Two or three years ago Kelly Bolles and I talked tomatoes and discussed the application of copper fungicide to prevent late blight. I was surprised when Kelly told me that copper spray is considered an organic application.

All three of our local supermarkets have organic produce displays and near as I can tell the only difference between organic carrots and regular is the former still have their tops and cost nearly a dollar more a pound. (Certainly not fourteen times more expensive, but costly enough for this frugal shopper to choose topless instead.) A thirty foot shelf of vegetables displayed at the foot of a folksy sign in Fred Meyer’s produce section touts its produce as “Organic.”

“Organic?” From the retail perspective I wonder what the term means. I decide to put that question to a Fred Meyer’s purveyor of produce who is restocking bins in the section. “Bob,” his name tag reads, is dodging customers, rolling his stock cart back and forth to allow them access to the “regular” onion varieties, but now he is about to be victimized by The Ripple. “Excuse me,” I apologize, “your organic produce? Just what exactly does that mean?” His answer initiated the following interesting conversation.

“With ‘organic’,” Bob replies, “you have two designations: you have your ‘organic’ and you have your ‘100% organic.’” This means another question, of course: “100% organic?” Bob tells me that means the produce must be 95% chemical-free. “And ‘organic,’?” “For that designation,” Bob replies, “I think the product must be at least 75% pesticide/herbicide free.” I wonder where GE figures into the designation. Bob says he thinks “organic” allows genetic modification although he’s not entirely sure. “I learn a lot from customers,” he says. “Some are very well informed, have read and studied the research on the subject.” Other customer behavior puzzles him, though. Soy milk, Bob continues, is a popular item among customers who believe regular milk might be tainted with antibiotics and other chemicals, but he is not so sure theirs is a wise choice. “Do you know how much formaldehyde is used to process soy milk from soybeans? A lot! I’d rather take my chances with regular milk, myself. (And these, I think, are most likely the very folks who shy away from dairy products derived from cows treated with the growth hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin [rbST]; they’ll take formaldehyde over rbST any day.) Bob continues to say he is far more concerned about potential health issues posed by customers who handle the produce and may have MRSA or hepatitis. Apparently, though, “organic” as a marketing tool is working. Bob says when Fred Meyers first included the organic section, a lot of that produce had to be thrown out. “Now hardly any is thrown away,” he says. “I guess people must be buying it.” When I ask him if produce managers at Safeway and Albertson’s would give me the same information as he, Bob thinks their answers would be about the same.

Bob prefaces some personal history by informing me that fifty/sixty years ago people mainly shopped “the middle of the store.” He tells me he grew up on a 235 acre farm in North Dakota. “People back then grew most of their produce and raised their own meat and eggs,” Bob says. “They would go to town once or twice a month for coffee, flour and sugar…you know, the staples. We raised chickens and Hereford cattle and had plenty of eggs and beef.” Bob explains that his family’s farm was self-sufficient: “We raised alfalfa to feed our cattle. Grain also--enough would be reserved from each crop for feed. Now the big food conglomerates own most of the farms in North Dakota…you couldn’t make a living from a 235 acre farm these days,” he remarks. We talk about some of the cost cutting measures the big corporations used to pad the bottom line. “Take wheat farming in the Dakotas,” Bob says by way of example. Ranchers would first cut the grain, rake it into windrows, let it dry for two or three days, then combine it. Nowadays that step has been eliminated by spraying the wheat after the kernels have matured, killing it. Then the combines take to the fields and cut the standing grain. And there you go again, adding more chemicals to the soil.” I thank Bob for taking the time to talk with me and let him return to navigating around customers and unloading those crates of “regular” produce. I choose a half dozen nice non-organic yellow onions, bag them, and head for the dairy section, careful to give the lockers brimming with soy milk a wide berth.

“We don’t use antibiotics on our cows,” Jim says. “And we’re careful to use feed that is produced pesticide/herbicide free.” (It’s my guess formaldehyde doesn’t figure into Werkhovens’ dairy equation either.) In short, I’m sure Jim would tell you, waving his arm a time or two, the milk and cream that come from the Werkhoven Family Dairy is as nutritious and safe as mother’s milk. But one last nervous glance at the arm of Jim’s easy chair and I think if there’s cream in that teetering, green coffee cup, I’m not so sure the cup would agree.

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  1. Lately, I've been getting more and more into organics. Pretty much because it's not genetically modified. There are several documentaries that would probably interest you on the matter. The movement (both organic and local) is about upping the nutrition content of our foods. The FDA/USDA and whatever other agency has to do with food has sold out the American public by approving food-like substances that create Western diseases (heart disease, diabetes, cancer). I decided a year or so ago that we would not consume soy (fermented like in soy sauce is okay). Consequently, I don't shop in the middle part of the grocery store since soy is in most everything. And I make a lot of things from whole grains and ingredients I can pronounce. But I digress.

    Here's a short YouTube presentation by a grade-school girl on organics: I think I'll have my kids do this project when there is a science fair at school.

    1. Ah, Ms. Bridget, so you're one of those who shop the peripheries and avoid the midsection? My problem with "organic" stuff is I'm not quite sure just what that means (as per the post). Also, I don't want to become the victim of a marketing ploy. And soy? I only checked the cereal shelves in "the midsection of the store" and you're right, there's a lot of soy out there. I guess you object to soy because of GE?

      I'm ambivalent about GE food: if science can increase the world's food supply, even if it lacks the nutrition it should, yet helps curb starvation and helps lengthen the life span of those born in food deprived countries, don't we have a moral responsibility to proceed with this technology?

      On the other hand, our technology has outpaced the studies needed to understand side-effects and other consequences it might--and can--create. Just like the "performance enhancing" drugs used by athletes. I read somewhere that in the sport of bicycle touring (Lance Armstrong's sport) the development of testing methods lags behind the creation of new PE drugs--a different drug is developed before there's a test to detect it. (Hemingway, regarding the sport of horse racing and drugged horses, phrased it as their being "chemically encouraged.")

      I applaud parents who research food additives, preservatives, and GE produced products, seeking the best nutrition and healthful foods for their children. When I grocery shop, however, I'm like the baseball great Hank Aaron when he was up to bat and one of his teammates warned him the trademark of his bat was turned outwards:"I'm up here to bat,"Hank replied,"not to read."

      Here's something for you to ponder, Ms. Bridget: I was out gathering the news today and noticed three or four discarded banana peels. Which do you think degrades faster: organic peels or non-organic?

      Thanks for your comment, the YouTube link, and reading The Ripple. Happy New Year to you and your family. TMJ