Purity is for Fanatics

When they learn that my family and I run an organic farm, one of the first things strangers ask us is whether we are “certified” organic.  The answer has always been, and will likely always be, “no.”

 We have several reasons for not getting our farm certified, some of them practical, and others ideological.  As far as the practical side is concerned, it takes a lot of time, paperwork, and money to get (and keep) a farm certified.  You have to learn the certification rules and regulations, abide by them, document your practices and purchases, and then pay a hefty sum for the privilege of being inspected and audited by the certifying agency.  On top of the expenses related to the certification process itself, simply to source all of your seeds, plants, sprays, and feed organically is no small outlay – especially compared to the limited income we make from our small-scale farming operation in the first place. 

 Abiding by organic certification requirement also requires much more forethought and planning than I seem to be able to manage as a part-time farmer.  Many a time I’ve needed to get a crop or cover crop in the ground, I haven’t had the time or wherewithal to order seed from an organic source, and I simply have to pick up what I need from the local ag co-op or farm-supply store.

 Obviously, if the scale of our operation were greater and we were moving large amounts of produce through wholesale channels, certification would be worth the trouble, because it would enable us to charge top dollar for our farm products.  That’s not the scale on which we operate (or want to operate), however, so the certification process doesn’t “cost out” for us.

 Obviously, I’m glad that the organic certification process exists.  Though it has inevitable and exploitable loopholes, it represents at least some check against unscrupulous farms slapping on the “organic” label willy-nilly and extracting even more dollars from unwitting consumers.  And in my opinion, any move toward more governmental support of sustainable farming practices is a good move.

 At the core, however, I have two ideological beefs with organic certification.  The first has to do with trust.  I want to have a relationship with our farm customers that is based on transparency and personal trust.  At the core, organic certification implies enough distance between the producer and consumer that the certification process has to stand in the role of intermediary, ensuring the customer that the producer is “legit.”  In my world of small-scale, locally-based farming, however, I don’t need or want that intermediary.  Any of our customers is welcome to come by our farm at any time, walk through our fields, visit our chickens, and ask us any questions they might want about our methods.  I’ll tell them openly that sometimes I’ve used fungicide-treated seed to ensure a good cover-crop stand, or that I often buy conventional chicken feed from our local mill, to supplement the vegetable scraps, bugs, seeds, and other pasture-scratch food that make up our birds’ diets.  These sorts of practices may not be strictly “organic” according to the rules, but I think they are a defensible part of our overall farming methods.  In the main, our customers agree. 

 The second ideological reason we don’t aspire to certification is that we don’t want to foster a false sense of purity that can so easily infect people who are seeking healthier food.  Don’t get me wrong: I thank God for folks who are willing to put their money where their mouths are (literally) and support more ecologically responsible farming.  Almost without exception, I’ve experienced them as good, conscientious people, and I’m very glad their numbers are growing.  In my judgment, they are absolutely right that organically-grown food is better for their bodies and for the planet.  And heck, we are they: much of the food my family and I can’t raise ourselves or purchase from other local farmers we buy as certified organic through a local food-buying cooperative. 

 The truth is, however, that even organic farming is no panacea.  Organic fields can still erode badly – in many cases, even more badly than herbicide-drenched no-till fields, since most organic farmers depend on weed cultivation, which keeps bare soil vulnerable to rain and wind.  Most organic farms still steal fertility from elsewhere – perhaps not in the form of natural-gas-based chemical fertilizers, but by importing animal manure and other off-farm organic matter.  Except on the smallest of scales, most organic farms still rely heavily on the cheap energy of fossil fuel, both for crop production and distribution.  And so on.

 My point is not to pillory organic farming, of course.  It still has a lot of problems and can’t truly be called sustainable, but it’s the best agriculture we have at the moment, and I support it in word, deed, and pocketbook.  Just because something sports the “USDA Certified Organic” label or its equivalent, however, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that by purchasing such products we have thereby achieved some blissful state of perfect non-complicity with the ambiguities of farming.  We haven’t, and we should never forget that we haven’t.  The kind of purity we might wish for simply isn’t possible in any agricultural paradigm that currently exists at a large enough scale to attract the notice of customers or government regulators.  And, I suspect, it’s a purity not possible at all in a world replete with ecological ignorance and arrogance.

 The drive for true purity is for true fanatics.  It can lead toward self-satisfied passivity, neurotic paralysis, or, in the case of Nazi Germany, human atrocity.  In this sense, “certified” could be a slippery slope toward “certifiable.”  Far better, I think, would be to recognize that the world and our actions in it are messy, and that purity is impossible.  Then we could spend our time and energy moving beyond organic (whether certified or not), even beyond sustainable, toward a truly regenerative, healing way to grow food, which leaves the planet and all people better off, rather than no worse.

About ktkramer

Kyle T. Kramer founded and lives with his wife Cyndi and their three young children on Genesis Organic Farm, in his native southern Indiana, in a solar- and wind-powered home he designed and built himself. Kyle is also the director of graduate lay degree programs and spiritual formation for Saint Meinrad, a Benedictine monastery and school of theology. He serves as a Climate Ambassador for the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change. Kyle is a regular columnist for America magazine, and he is the author of A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt (Ave Maria Press, 2010). Kyle's writing and talks mainly concern the intersection of simple living, ecology and Christian spirituality.
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