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Decision oh-ate: local, organic or both?

by Beacon Staff • September 30, 2009

You look up the nearest supermarket: Outside of specialty stores or 7-Eleven, you find a Shaw's next to the Prudential Center, a Whole Foods tucked behind Beacon Hill and a Trader Joe's in Back Bay.,"I can't stand another day of Ramen!" you whine to your indifferent roommate. "I'm going to buy real food."

You look up the nearest supermarket: Outside of specialty stores or 7-Eleven, you find a Shaw's next to the Prudential Center, a Whole Foods tucked behind Beacon Hill and a Trader Joe's in Back Bay.

Being the well-informed college student you are, you decide upon Trader Joe's, knowing

that it carries a large variety of organic goods (and microwaveable meals). You hop off the T at Hynes Convention Center, stroll down to TJ's, and walk out with a bag full of groceries and a heart full of warm fuzzies. In fact, your purchases elate you so much that you decide to walk back to Emerson. Jaunting past Copley Square, you notice large white tents and crowds of people-the circus!

Alas, it is but a farmers market.

"Ah, a farmers market," you sigh. "How romantic. Maybe I can find a freshly-grown apple to set alongside my organic bananas."

You stop and grab the first apple you see, but realize you may need to look again: This stand has three varieties of apples, as well as fresh peaches, salad greens, carrots, beets, maple syrup and sparkling apple cider. You're amazed-this produce looks delicious!

You go to grab a Cortland apple, only to realize that you have no idea how it was produced. Nowhere can you find a "certified

organic" sign, like the ones on sale at TJ's. You stand in gastrointestinal limbo: Do I purchase the locally grown, delicious-looking apple? How do I know it's not deliciously

filled with pesticides? Why don't I just ask the farmer who grew it?

For the environmentally-minded consumer,

organic foods represent a more conscientious choice in the daily decision surrounding dinner. But the distance that food travels also affects the environment, and is equally important to consider.

When the decision comes down to a certified

organic apple from New Zealand or an uncertified local apple, it can be a difficult one for any regular college Joe to make. So here's the breakdown: USDA certified versus locally grown.

Farmers Market: Certified and Not

The USDA certified organic label sets a standard for consumers: no cancer-causing

pesticides here. Farmers markets are unique in that you can talk directly to the source-the farmer who planted the seed, who plucked the apple, who picked the corn-and find out his or her exact growing methods yourself.

The Copley Square Farmers Market, which takes place every Tuesday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. from now until Nov. 24, hosts a variety of vendors, certified organic and not.

Casey Steinberg, co-owner of Old Friends Farm in Amherst, Mass., sells fresh-cut flowers,

salad greens and ginger at the bi-weekly gathering. Steinberg said his nine-acre farm is certified organic mostly for marketing purposes, and so that he can better earn customers' trust and remain profitable.

Other farms flourish without the certification.

Trevor Sieck is a worker on Siena Farms in Sudbury, Mass., another vendor at the Copley market. Siena Farms is not certified

organic, Sieck said, because it is expensive,

and because he said it is political to be USDA certified.

"The government owns the word [organic]," Steinberg said.

G

etting the stamp of approval

Farmers must submit an application for consideration of the certified organic label, according to the USDA Web site. Their farms are inspected by a government certifying

agent, and, assuming the farm uses USDA organic methods, they then must pay a fee (which includes the cost of inspection)

for their certification, which must be renewed, fee included, annually.

Fees vary based on farm size, income and distribution. Most vendors at farmers markets

will be charged an application fee of $250, plus the cost of inspection and other fees, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, an organization

that supplies information and technical

assistance to farmers and others involved in sustainable agriculture.

This rigorous process is a means of keeping

farms consistently organic, as Steinberg pointed out, but also requires the farmer to pay again and again. Non-certified organic farmers are also subject to the USDA's wrath: The National Organic Program's Code of Federal Regulations states that any operation using the word "organic," that is not certified organic, will be subject to a civil penalty. Yikes.

But Siena Farms and Old Friends Farm have both used organic growing methods from the start, regardless of certification.

"To be able to use organic practices but not the word is frustrating," Steinberg said.

CNG's the way to be

When the USDA began its National Organic Program in 2002, another certification

system sprung up like in-season produce:

Certified Naturally Grown.

CNG is a non-profit organization that charges a self-determined donation for farmers to become certified, according to its Web site. Its standards are based on the USDA Organic Standards, but it enlists farmers to inspect each other, instead of employing an official certifying agent.

Ian Lavallee, a seller with Atlas Farms from Deerfield, Mass., said working at the farmers market is the best job he's ever had. He said the majority of customers are very friendly, and are happy about their locally-produced food.

"[The farmers market] is about people feeding and being fed in a way that is ecologically

sound," he said.

T

he Difference in Distance

Now, just hold your humanely-treated horses: Isn't the certified organic produce from Trader Joe's "ecologically sound?" When you consider that CNG uses nearly the same standards as the USDA in its certification

process, the difference in production

seems negligible. However, the distance that produce traveled to reach your stomach is not.

Many staple items at Trader Joe's, including

breads, pre-packed meals and produce, are simply listed as "products of the USA." This is vague enough to cover anywhere from the Common (extremely local) to the Alaskan coast (if you can see Russia, it's not local). So while your lunch may have come over from Cambridge, it's doubtful any of these things were grown closer than Amherst, Sudbury or Deerfield.

When you compare the mileage of beef from Stillman's Farm in New Braintree, Mass. to the packaged ground beef at Trader Joe's-which could be from the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand or Uruguay-the conclusion is obvious: Trader Joe's values bovine diversity over locality.

Yet Trader Joe's, unlike farmers markets in the frigid Northeast, operates year-round. And foods like tropical fruits or frozen meals can be impossible to find outside of supermarkets like TJ's.

Steinberg is working to change this

standard,

pioneering a usually far-flown import in Massachusetts soil: ginger. His success gives hope to local food advocates and to lovers of foreign foods alike. With enough green thumbs following Steinberg's lead, perhaps one day they'll mean the same thing.