Organic: A Real Food Choice

Atina Diffley shares her bounty of knowledge about the organic farming movement.
By Jenn Benson

“Organic Farm: Please Do Not Spray.”

Along the winding driveway, through the field of organic sweet corn, these signs greet me as I approach the home and farm of Atina Diffley and her husband, Martin. Although the pair no longer farm on the property (they lease the land out to other organic farmers),

Diffley still educates people on living an organic lifestyle by teaching classes at the University of Minnesota. And, after reading her book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, Organic Farming Works, I was more than excited to meet with her.

Diffley didn’t always know she wanted to be a farmer; she just knew she wanted to be in a relationship with nature. When people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up she jokingly said, “A farmer or a bum. They both get to be outside, they both get to eat out of gardens, and they both get to be dirty.”

It wasn’t until she left her childhood home that she realized her dream. When buying foods from the grocery store she said they seemed “dead.” She had grown up with what she calls “real food” and knew the difference. Diffley then started a flower-pot garden for lack of proper space.

Land prices were through the roof in the late 70s, and her dream of becoming a farmer seemed too far out of reach. Instead, she went to school to be a musician. Very quickly she realized this vocation wasn’t speaking to her heart. Growing food was what matched her spiritually. So, she resolved to set her sights on becoming an organic farmer and started her journey.

WHAT IS ORGANIC?

In a nutshell, the word organic brings to mind words and phrases like “soil building, rotation, biological diversity, beneficial insects, no chemical, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, thirty-six months in compliance with [Minnesota] organic standards, and certification,” according to Diffley.

In 1995, the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) passed the official definition of organic: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on-management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.”

Being certified organic means being in compliance with the organic standards set by the USDA, and renewing that certification year after year. The standards are lengthy and contain a lot of technical terms, but the National Organic Program summarizes it as specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled USDA organic. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.

Soil building, while a broad topic, seems to be what organic farming starts and ends with. Diffley explains, “As organic farmers we’re constantly recognizing what we are doing is degenerative, knowing that we have to do regenerative processes to repair any damage. It’s a big problem for annual crops. If you look at field corn, the soil is bare six or seven months of the year [which is] totally contrary to nature.”

Using techniques such as planting hairy vetch—a soil building plant—when the soil isn’t in use is one example of an organic farming technique. Another method is the use of natural bacteria and beneficial insects in place of chemicals or pesticides. Diffley gave the example of using bacteria that gave cabbageworm the flu in order to kill it off naturally without negatively effecting to the plant.

Diffley gives a great example of using beneficial insects in cucumber fields. “For our cucumbers we use coriander seed. We plant the coriander seed, which flowers really quickly, and attracts pollinating species,” she explains. “It brings those species into the cucumber field, which we need to pollinate the flowers in order to get the cucumbers. It’s an example of symbiotic relationship there where we’re also providing a home for them.”

WHY SHOULD YOU CHOOSE ORGANIC?

To ask why we, as consumers, should choose organic products is a loaded question. Let’s start with the most obvious answer. We are what we eat. Diffley explains that we are all part of the ecosystem, not separate from it. She says “Our bodies are made up of the exact same elements as the trees and the birds and the insects and the grass; we’re all made of the same stuff.”

Think of the conventional farmer spraying pesticides on his crops. He is suited up from head to toe and wears a gas mask. We have to question the safety of the chemicals/pesticides that he sprays. If they are “safe” to eat then why does the farmer have to suit up and wear a gas mask to spray them onto the produce in the first place? It all goes back to being part of the ecosystem.

“The decisions that you make everyday about what you’re going to eat affects the land that you have a relationship with. And it may seem so remote to people that don’t realize why it matters, but if you’re choosing to eat food that was raised with pesticides then you are actually choosing to cause pesticides to be used in the first place,” says Diffley. Pesticides and chemicals are not safe for our bodies. Eating organic means eating foods that are grown without the use of pesticides and chemicals, and that speaks for itself.

Consumers should find comfort in knowing that growing organic is 100 percent without the help of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The World Health Organization defines GMOs as “organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.” The problem with these organisms is we don’t know the extent of the effects they have on our bodies. They haven’t been around long enough to discover how the human body reacts to them. You could say that we are “lab rats” of sorts because the United States is currently not required to label any foods that contain GMOs. That means if you are eating food that is not grown organically, there is a chance that it contains GMOs. And since it’s not required to be labeled, you will never know that you are consuming them. It is our human right to know what is in the food we eat.

Most consumers wonder if organic products have more nutritional value than conventional products. Organic.org says, “At this time, there is no definitive research that makes this claim. It is extremely difficult to conduct studies that would control the many variables that might affect nutrients, such as seeds, soil type, climate, post harvest handling, and crop variety. However, some recently published studies in peer-reviewed journals have shown organic foods to have higher nutritional value. For example, researchers at the University of California, Davis, recently found that organic tomatoes had higher levels of phytochemicals and vitamin C than conventional tomatoes.”

It is something to think about, that’s for sure. And though there may be no definitive research on better nutritional value, you can still base your decision on better health by foregoing foods coated in chemicals and pesticides and layered with genetically modified organisms.

WHY THE PRICE?

The USDA perceives organic farming as a higher risk than conventional farming. Because of this, organic farmers are charged a higher insurance premium than conventional farmers. Diffley explains that the USDA is in a chemical mindset; therefore, organic farmers pay higher insurance rates, but they get the conventional price if they have a loss.

Being in the “chemical mindset” means that the USDA believes that using chemicals is the best way to guarantee that crops will make it through any hardships: droughts, hail, heavy rain, etc. Therefore, organic farmers pay higher insurance rates because they do not use chemicals. The USDA perceives this as a weakness and believes that organic crops have a lower rate of survival—even though in Diffley's experience this is not the case. At the same time, if organic farmers do experience a loss, their insurance only covers replacement costs in line with conventional prices, which means a bigger loss for organic farmers.

Currently, the USDA doesn’t embrace the policy that organic is better for people’s health. In Europe they do. “European policies recognize the benefits that society receives beyond the food, so they support it financially,” explains Diffley. “Europe buys 10 to 20 percent organic food. We’re [the US] still at about 4 percent because it’s been market-driven. We can change this through our daily decisions; one of us might seem powerless, but when we all work on this together we can make changes in the marketplace.”

To help create change, it is very important for consumers to purchase certified-organic products. By purchasing products that aren’t certified, we aren’t sending a clear message to the USDA about what we want. A lot of organic farmers out there are not certified organic and their crops, in the eyes of the USDA, are considered conventional. If those farmers took the next step and became certified organic, then that could possibly start the movement toward organic foods being recognized, by the USDA, as what the majority of consumers want and also be seen as better for human health. This could also, in turn, lower the prices of organic foods.

As consumers, we have the power to show the USDA what we want. If we want certified-organic products, then we need to be purchasing certified- organic products and we need to be encouraging farmers to get certified if they are close to being organic. Eventually, our buying trends will speak for themselves.

Organic, in the end, isn’t just a choice we make in the grocery store—it is a way of life. Every day, decisions we make create a ripple effect. We must do what is best for not only ourselves, but for the rest of the ecosystem, as well. In her book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, Diffley gives organic food for thought that we should all chew on: “Remember always that the most important law of nature is that we live in relationships. All life is connected. We must be conscious of how our decisions affect all forms of life.”

 

Turn Here Sweet Corn, Organic Farming Works

Diffley’s book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, is the heartwarming memoir of one woman’s journey to become an organic farmer. With a mountain of struggles that seem to come down like an avalanche, one after the other, she rises above them with her husband, Martin, and they maintain a successful organic farming business. Using food as an emotional connection, Diffley helps each and every reader understand what it means to be organic and the importance that it bears to ecosystems everywhere.

 

Ask The Right Questions

One always assumes that going to the local farmer’s market means buying local organic foods. I was right on one count—the buying local. But remember, just because it is offered at a farmer’s market doesn’t mean that it is organic. This assumption is a mistake that many people with good intentions make. If you don’t see the certification seal from the USDA on a product but the seller claims it is organic, ask them a few questions to put your mind at ease.

1. What type of soil building processes do you use? If they are bringing in synthetic fertilizers, then you know they are not organic. If they are using soil-building plants, such as hairy vetch, then they are on the right track.

2. What type of pesticides do you use? If they answer any type of chemical or spray, run! They should answer that they use natural bacteria or beneficial insects.

3. Do you plant anything containing GMOs? The answer should be “no!”

If vendors you talk to are organic but not certified, encourage them to seek certification. It not only benefits the seller, but it also benefits the buyer.