Food for thought

Local farmers educate consumers about the benefits of organic produce

The last supper? A panel of eight local organic farmers say we might be going hungry if we don’t shift to small-scale farming as soon as possible.

The last supper? A panel of eight local organic farmers say we might be going hungry if we don’t shift to small-scale farming as soon as possible.

Photo Courtesy of Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op

The time is ripe for organic farming, according to a panel of eight local small-scale organic farmers who met with consumers for a freewheeling discussion sponsored by the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op at the Sierra 2 Center in Curtis Park last month.

One recurring theme? Get to know your local farmer.

“You don’t get a chance to do this through the big grocery conglomerates,” said John Ceteras, who manages the 22-acre Blue Heron Farm in Rumsey, who added that he was blown away by the packed theater.

Interaction between farmers and consumers has increased over the past several years thanks to the burgeoning popularity of farmers’ markets. Tom Willey, an organic farmer from Madera, pointed out that consumers select doctors, pastors and lawyers with great care, and that same care should be taken when choosing who grows the food you eat.

“People have been practicing [agriculture] for 10,000 years,” he said. “But Homo sapiens have been on the planet for 250,000, so it’s a new experiment.”

Two decades ago, when small-scale agriculture began experiencing a rebirth, organic fruits and vegetables were prohibitively expensive for many consumers.

“People were not willing to pay more for food that looked the same,” recalled Paul Underhill, who grows strawberries, citrus, pistachios, walnuts and vegetables at Terra Firma Farm in Winters, about 30 miles west of Sacramento. “We were doing things differently on the farms, and it cost more money to do it that way.”

However, today, consumers are increasingly recognizing the problems posed by an industrial agriculture system predicated on a cheap and readily available supply of petroleum and the massive use of pesticides and herbicides that can be harmful to the environment and to humans. The paradigm shift to organic farming is happening, but it may not be happening fast enough, Underhill warned.

“We’re not going to be able to feed everyone in a post-petroleum world with the current number of farmers,” he said.

Winters once served as a major food-production hub for nearby urban centers in the 1920s and 1930s. The town has since become an island in a rapidly urbanizing region where commodity crops reign supreme, Underhill said.

This rise of monoculture crops has made consumers guinea pigs in the transition of agriculture from a biological process to an industrial and chemical one, the farmers insisted. Willey noted that a few years back, the Environmental Working Group analyzed the umbilical-chord blood of 10 unborn babies, looking for 500 synthetic chemicals; they found an average of 200 chemicals present.

“To some extent, that is the legacy of the industrial agriculture system,” Willey said.

Organic farmers use ecologically sound practices, which start with maintaining healthy soils. They use cover crops to store oxygen and nitrogen for plants, and build habitats for bees and other pollinators rather than import them into the fields. Animals, such as sheep, are also integrated into the ecosystem.

“The farm is alive with a level of life you don’t consider,” said Paul Muller, who co-owns Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley. A big part of that life is the farm workers who till the land, tend the fields and harvest the crops.

“It’s a fallacy that farm work is unskilled work,” Underhill said. “They are talented and professional. The fresh-produce industry would cease to exist if all illegal immigrants were deported tomorrow.”

Although the demand for organic produce is growing, the economic downturn, depleting oil supplies, unexpected weather changes caused by global warming and a public that still perceives organic produce as being too expensive has forced small-scale farmers to stay light on their feet. In the past decade, the United States has lost more than 650,000 family farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Getting to know your local farmer could help turn that around.

“The really important thing we need to do is know our farmers and know our food,” said Jeff Main, who with his wife, Annie, runs the 32-acre Good Humus farm in Capay Valley.

“Take back responsibility,” Main said. “That’s how you can help us the most.”