Musings about our farm, organic farming, regional foods and markets.

Plus, what's in the news about foods, systems and regulations around the world.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

How Organic is Organic?

The true nature of organic farming is under assault. It always has been since it became a commercial venture.

So, what constitutes "organic" in farming? It has deep roots, worldwide, especially in small-scale family and community farming. Wikipedia states: "Traditional farming (of many particular kinds in different eras and places) was the original type of agriculture, and has been practiced for thousands of years. All traditional farming is now considered to be 'organic farming'."

Traditional, organic farming is anchored in the soil, a highly complex amalgam of minerals (rock, clay, sand, silt), water, air, organic matter like decomposing plants, animal manure, micro-organisms, worms, live insects, bacteria, fungal mycorhizzi that has evolved over centuries. Soil evolves with the cycle of the seasons guided by the movement of celestial bodies. Traditional organic farming takes place outdoors with plants and animals exposed to the full spectrum of elements (sun, rain, wind, dew, and, yes, here in Canada, snow and ice). No synthetic additives (chemicals, hormones, steroids) are utilized or sought. Fertility depends on plant compost and animal manure and resilient seed.

In the 1990s, the first regulations came into force with their de-centralized, sometimes heavy-handed mechanisms and provisions based on a very non-holistic reductionism. (Nature, conversely and, by extension, organics, is far from being simplistic). Certification, verification, commodification, standards, advocates, consultants, lawyers, government agencies and departments, third-party certifiers, now all claim their piece of a pie that expanded with all the resources and money thrown at it. With regulation came vested interests. Conventional industrialized agriculture, indoor vertical urban farms, hydroponics, aquaponics, all sought in on the lucrative "organic" markets. They were out to co-opt and take a slice of the pie that was not theirs. The result was many organic farmers opting out of (or not opting into) the regulatory system, creating a stream of non-certified farmers operating using organic methods. In Ontario, unlike other jurisdictions, organic labelling is still not policed within the province in spite of much advocacy. With powerful lobbies, political clout, and deep pockets everywhere, existing standards were challenged, diluted and made inclusive to their lower threshold. Now, in the USA (but not yet in Canada), hydroponic agriculture has been sanctioned as allowable under Organic Standards. This is one reductionist method too far removed from the true definition of holistic organic farming. We need a line in the sand.

The four principles of organic agriculture are as follows:

The Principle of Health - Organic agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal and human as one and indivisible.

The Principle of Ecology - Organic agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.

The Principle of Fairness - Organic agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.

The Principle of Care - Organic agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

It is time to put a halt to the dilution of organic standards satisfying powerful lobby groups that do not subscribe to the four principles of true organic farming (listed above), and for government at federal, provincial, and municipal levels, as well as the market-place for organic goods to throw weight behind regulating and enforcing organic standards with integrity and teeth in order to protect organic farmers and consumers. Otherwise, organic farming will splinter into many special interest groups and bitter disputes. Indeed, why should farms spend the high fees to certify as organic year upon year under the current lax regulatory framework? (The irony is, of course, that farms have to pay to be verified as organic, whereas conventional commodity farms are highly subsidized by government). I am on the side of small-scale regenerative organic farming as espoused by the esteemed Rodale Institute, relying on soil that has evolved and matured naturally over thousands of years, even millennia to produce nutritious, delicious food.

Peter Finch

Rolling Hills Organics

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Plant Medicines in Guatemala


In this small country the size of Ireland, or Tennessee, the population is 60% indigenous Mayan, most of the rest being Ladino or Spanish. It is no wonder then that we have been well served by plant guides both in Antigua and on Lake Atitlan.

In Antigua, we were privileged to visit two very diffferent organic farms that are making the most of the appetite from locals and foreigners alike for fresh organic produce. At Caoba Farms a short walk south of the enchanting town, Alex and his team have built a resounding success of a business by growing organic food in fields and under cover and marketing through a store and weekly buzzing farmers market. Other vendors sell their products here too and Mayan women prepare excellent food from local ingredients. Alex is from here and has been growing organically (in more ways than one) for thirteen years. He went and picked some nettle for Gundi's skin irritation and offered to harvest some dandelion if we wanted to come and pick it up in a day or so.

A couple of days later, we were excited to hop into the minibus shuttle up the dusty bending road to Cerro San Cristobal with its magnificent views over Antigua, the valley and volcanoes. On arrival we were hustled onto the terrace for lunch. The best view was obscured and lunch was not the best, despite the promise of field-to-table organic food. This destination appears to be a victim of its own success. With overflow traffic on weekends, they clearly prepare a lot of food ahead of time, and it shows. To their credit, the owners allow the public to wander freely through the organic market garden, and the bounty from the volcanic soil on steep mountain-sides is impressive, thanks largely to drip-irrigation throughout.

In town, we discovered the Pachamama Healthy Market herbal store, which advertises "Natural, Local, Fresco". Don Jorge prescribed a herbal tea blend for Gundi's skin irritation, largely to boost the immune system. It consisted of green tea, moringa, cardamom, yerba mate, nettle, plantain, dandelion, echinacea root, turmeric, lemongrass, whole black pepper. What a blend!

Here on Lake Atitlan we are getting into a happy routine, nicely ensconsed in our AirBnB home with a fabulous view over the lake. At night, the twinkling lights of the north shore villages beneath the starlit sky soothe the soul. San Pedro offers all that we need in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables from the market, organic products (albeit pricey) from international brands at the health food stores, a great selection of freezer beef, pork, tuna, fish at Smokey Joe's, and fresh-picked greens from roadside market gardens.

Over the hill in the next village of San Juan, we came across Planta Medicinales Maya, a co-operative of thirty Mayan women. In this region that is 90% Mayan in make-up, the women and girls always wear their traditional dress woven from brightly-coloured textile in styles particular to each pueblo.


Their backyard garden is a repository of local indigenous medicinal plants and herbs. We purchased some yarrow skin cream, moringa tea (for normalizing blood sugar levels, providing energy, detoxifying, promoting liver and kidney function, and strengthening the immune system), and a digestive tea (with mint, parsley, chamomile, basil, artemisia, rue, mago, lemon balm).

We are well set as we continue our explorations of this fascinating place and culture!