What is organic?

Walking down grocery-store aisles these days can sometimes feel like a journey to a foreign land where you don’t speak the language. There are packaged goods boasting that they “contain antioxidants,” “promote a strong heart,” “strengthen your immune system” and are “natural.” It all sounds great, but it’s impossible to know what any of it really means.

By choosing organic produce, Americans can reduce overall pesticide dietary risks by about 97 percent. –from The Organic Center

Except, that is, for the green and white circular seal that signifies a product has been certified organic according to USDA standards. Unlike most food-marketing lingo, USDA organic means the product meets strict qualifications, most notably that ingredients are not genetically modified and have been produced without the use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or chemical pesticides.

Yet research shows that, much to the chagrin of organic advocates, many consumers remain confused about how certified organic products are different from the multitude of those labeled natural. In fact, according to a 2010 survey of 5,000 women conducted by New Hope Natural Media (Delicious Living’s parent company) and iVillage, some consumers even believe natural foods and beverages are nutritionally superior to organic products.

The latest on labels

There is, however, some good news on the horizon. After years of lax enforcement, the Obama administration’s appointees at the FDA have started clamping down on misleading and meaningless food labels, and they are working to create new regulations that will govern what can appear on the front of food packages. And the USDA has undertaken efforts to both tighten organic standards and ramp up enforcement so consumers can feel confident that a product stamped organic really is. For instance, in response to long-standing criticism of the largest organic dairies, new pasture laws took effect in June, requiring organic dairy cows to graze pasture for at least four months of the year and get at least 30 percent of their food from pasture during grazing season. And in September, the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) will require certifiers to start regular pesticide-residue testing, in an effort to improve the safety of organic food and maintain public trust in the label.

Although imperfect, the organic standard remains the only way for most consumers to buy food that’s been grown and manufactured without synthetic chemicals or genetic engineering, something more and more Americans want. Since 1990, when federal organic standards were first established, the category has evolved from a niche movement with $1 billion in sales to a mainstream business worth $25 billion in 2009. Even in economic hard times, the sector is growing. Last year organic sales rose more than 5 percent, versus a total food category increase of just 1.6 percent, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

Here are three inspiring stories from the changing organic front. All of these women believe in the power of organic food to nourish both the people who eat it and the communities that produce it.

Next page: Emily Oakley, Three Springs Farm, Oaks, Oklahoma

Emily Oakley, Three Springs Farm, Oaks, Oklahoma

Organic goes mainstream

How she started
When Emily Oakley was going to high school in Tulsa in the mid-1990s, the term organic wasn’t popular. “It was something people were skeptical about, like it was still just for hippies,” says the 32-year-old Oakley. Today, the demand for organic foods is going mainstream all over the United States—even in northeastern Oklahoma. Seventy-five percent of Americans purchase some type of organic foods and beverages, according to the Hartman Group.

Peak times for sensitivity to toxic chemicals in our environment include: the six months before a woman conceives, during pregnancy, and through the first two years of a child’s life. –from The Organic Center

The changing face of organics
Such widespread acceptance is due partly to people like Oakley, who is part of a growing movement of trailblazing farmers bringing organic agriculture to unexpected places. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of organic farms doubled, versus a 0.5 percent increase for all farms, according to USDA data.

Oakley's farm today
Oakley’s 5-acre Three Springs Farm, which she started with partner Mike Appel in 2003, is located an hour east of Tulsa and nestled among large cattle ranches and industrial chicken-growing houses. Now well established, the farm’s 100-share CSA gets more than 20 people on its waiting list each year. “A lot of people would think you couldn’t succeed with an organic farm in a place like this, but there’s really so much demand that’s untapped,” says Oakley, who also sells her fruit and vegetables at Tulsa’s twice-weekly farmers’ market.

After studying agriculture in college and living as far afield as Kenya and Costa Rica, Oakley worked at Full Belly Farm in northern California and an urban-garden organization in Rhode Island. She says she never imagined she would return to farm in Oklahoma, but she loves being able to supply her customers—whom she calls her “inspiration”—with healthy, ultrafresh food. “There’s nothing else we’d want to do and there’s no other place we’d want to be, which is kind of crazy,” she says.

Next page: Willow Rosenthal, City Slicker Farms

Willow Rosenthal, City Slicker Farms

Urban organic

Fresh food in the city?
After moving to west Oakland in the late ’90s, Willow Rosenthal noticed two things right away. One was that within the 8-square-mile neighborhood, there were no supermarkets or other sources of fresh food—only an abundance of fast-food restaurants and tiny corner stores. The other observation was that nearly every block was dotted with two or more empty lots.

For Rosenthal, who grew up in a farming community in Sebastopol, California, this was an obvious opportunity. She convinced a friend to loan her $11,000, bought one of those vacant lots, and started City Slicker Farms in 2000.

Urban farming
Today Rosenthal, 38, is a leader in the burgeoning urban-gardening movement. Although there are no national statistics on urban gardening available, Fisher of the Community Food Security Coalition says he has seen the interest in urban agriculture explode in recent years, evidenced by a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, where there are 35 community gardens representing a total of 1,400 plots, and a 1,000-person waiting list. The National Gardening Association estimates that in 2009 seven million more U.S. households grew their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, and berries, a 19 percent increase over 2008.

Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing, to the extent possible, food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.” –from the President’s Cancer Panel report, May 2010

In the historically African-American and low-income neighborhood of west Oakland, City Slicker Farms not only has provided a welcome source of affordable organic food, but also has helped to renew a community. When Rosenthal first started selling vegetables on a folding table on a busy sidewalk, it was the first time many residents had ever had regular access to fresh produce.

Rosenthal remembers one young boy who came up to the table looking for fruit. Since none of the fruit trees had blossomed yet, he picked up a beet. “I told him it probably needed to be cooked, but he just ate it,” she recalls. “It shocked me. All I could come up with was that his body was really craving fresh food and nutrients.”

Backyards, rooftops, and more
It soon became clear that three plots of land couldn’t keep up with growing demand, so Rosenthal started helping people create their own organic gardens. Today in the back yards, front yards, and balconies of west Oakland, there are more than 100 gardens created by City Slicker Farms. Through its farm stand last year, 6,800 pounds of produce were shared among 1,000 residents. The organization supplies materials—compost, planter boxes, seeds, and soil—and help planting, as well as a mentor who checks in regularly for two years, and free phone consultations thereafter.

Rosenthal says she has seen people transformed by their gardens. “The gratitude that’s come from the community has just been amazing,” she says. Now retired from City Slicker’s day-to-day operations, Rosenthal remains on the board, is involved in special projects, and is writing a book about urban agriculture that’s due out in 2012.

Next page: Myra Goodman, Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, CA

Myra Goodman, Earthbound Farm, San Juan Bautista, CA

Making megaorganic work

Big organic When most people think of the word “organic,” the image of Earthbound Farm’s state-of-the art lettuce-processing facility in California’s Salinas Valley is not exactly what springs to mind. Inside the 210,000-square-foot plant, freshly harvested baby lettuce tumbles down a labyrinth of silver washing flumes and into giant shaking trays and centrifuges, where it is dried and then packed into plastic bags and boxes. Out back, retailers’ refrigerated semitrucks line up, waiting to fan out across the country and deliver the 3.3 million packages of organic salad the company sells each week.

Starting small
What started in 1984 as a kitchen-sink operation in Myra and Drew Goodman’s small farmhouse outside Carmel has become an organic empire that stretches to 75 percent of all U.S. supermarkets. Earthbound Farm is the country’s largest grower and processor of organic produce, growing 100 different types of lettuce, vegetables, and fruits on a total of 35,000 acres. With sales last year of $425 million, the company has achieved such economies of scale that its packaged organic salads are now close to the same price as conventional varieties.

Critics argue that by doing organics on such large scale, the Goodmans are running an organic “factory farm” that betrays the original ideals of the movement. But Myra Goodman says she’s more committed today than she was when she spent her days handpicking lettuce and packing it into Ziploc bags. “We’ve found that organic can be big—you just have to make it affordable, easily available, and top quality,” she says.

Peak times for sensitivity to toxic chemicals in our environment include: the six months before a woman conceives, during pregnancy, and through the first two years of a child’s life. –from The Organic Center

Delivering organic to the masses
This means Earthbound Farm’s 150 farmers all adhere to the same organic methods, whether they have 5 acres or 680 acres. These include crop rotation, planting cover crops on empty fields, growing flowers to attract beneficial insects, and nourishing the soil with compost.

For Goodman, 46, the company’s growth has always been about delivering organic food to as many people as possible. “The more organic we sell and the more market share we take away from conventionally produced food, the healthier it is for the planet and for people,” she says.

Organic production, however, is not a surefire protection against unsafe food, something Goodman learned the hard way in 2006 when some of the spinach Earthbound Farm was bagging for other companies was involved in a deadly E. coli outbreak. Earthbound Farm now tests every batch of lettuce and spinach after it comes off the fields and before it exits the plant. “Food safety in terms of pathogens has to be a top priority for anyone producing food, organic or otherwise,” she says.

When Goodman, who grew up in New York City, moved onto the Carmel Valley farm after college, she told herself it was only until she was ready to go to grad school and pursue a career in international relations. But she and Drew were seduced by the land and by the natural, tranquil rhythms of farming. And though she had no prior knowledge of organic farming, it instinctually made sense to her. “The previous farm owner showed us how to add chemical fertilizers and sprays to kill fungus and insects, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it,” she says. “It didn’t feel right. We knew there had to be a better way.”

After 26 years of organic farming, the Goodmans have helped prove beyond a doubt that there is.