This summer, I attended The Farm Cooking School on the Roots to River organic farm in New Jersey. My time there happened to coincide with the summer harvest, which was great because I had always wanted to see what it was like to pick food in the scorching hot summer sun.
The truth is, I never miss an opportunity to learn more about how our food is grown — on any farm. So, I was driven to a patch of shallots, given some equipment, and dropped off with a couple twenty-something female farmers. Trying to pull shallots out from under the weeds was so difficult, I almost wanted to say, “F**k it, let’s buy a bottle of Monsanto’s Roundup and douse this place.”
NO! I wouldn’t do that. But my God, organic farming is hard. The humidity in New Jersey in July is oppressive. My hands and forearms were covered in cuts and welts from a special kind of weed made by Lucifer (one of the four crown princes of hell) that releases some sort of irritant when you touch it. The shallots don’t just release themselves to you because you want to make a salad, especially when the weeds surrounding them are taller than most grown men. You have to fight to get each one, and some of those battles you lose because there isn’t a knife sharp enough or a man strong enough to pull them out of the ground.
After just one hour, my back was killing me from hunching over in awkward positions and carrying big crates of shallots to the truck. All this work and we hadn’t even completed one row of shallots. When I looked at the rows and rows still left to pick, I wanted to cry. My only thought, beyond “Why on Earth would anyone want to do this” was, “These shallots should be a lot more expensive.”
I was filthy and I wanted an hours-long nap in an air-conditioned bedroom. I couldn’t imagine what these farmers dealt with every single day. That’s when I realized how truly thankful I am for organic farmers because this sh*t ain’t easy.
Whoever said, “A woman’s work is never done” never met a farmer
Every organic farm has its own unique set of challenges, and there’s no farmers’ playbook to turn to for all the answers. Solving problems on the farm takes ingenuity, dedication, and a strong philosophical commitment to organic farming.
In terms of tackling weeds and bugs (two of the biggest threats on a farm), the most successful farms create thriving ecosystems that rely on Mother Nature for help. Apricot Lane Farms in Ventura County, California, uses sheep to control weeds and owls to keep their gopher population in check. Singing Frogs Farm in Northern California uses cover crops, like clover, to suppress weeds and help the soil retain water. (Read more about what they do here.)
Conventionally grown food is doused with chemicals
Conventional farmers don’t solve these problems in the same sustainable way organic farmers do. They often rely on chemical solutions (herbicides and pesticides) that seek to conquer Mother Nature rather than work with her.
Thanksgiving dinner can be a chemical bomb
And those chemicals end up on our dinner table. The amount of chemical residues on a typical Thanksgiving meal is pretty mindboggling.
According to What’s on My Food.org, conventionally grown potatoes (a Thanksgiving staple) tested positive for 35 different pesticide residues, including six that can cause cancer, twelve that can disrupt hormones, seven that are toxic to the brain (neurotoxins) and six considered reproductive toxins. Celery, often found in stuffing, has 64 different chemical residues. Cranberries have 13, apples have 47, and conventionally grown pumpkin has 64. And the chemicals aren’t limited to food. Wine has 56 different pesticide residues.
When I read these numbers, it makes me wonder why we are so willing to poison ourselves to save a few bucks. We can’t ingest these chemical residues day after day for years without suffering health consequences.
And the FDA isn’t helping. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, is a controversial chemical that’s been linked to cancer. A recent study found that it’s capable of killing beneficial gut bacteria in our guts and the guts of honeybees.
Yet the FDA has only recently started testing for glyphosate residues on food even though it’s been the most used herbicide in the U.S. for decades. Independent tests have found unsafe levels on all kinds of common foods.
The consequences of conventionally grown food
Yes, conventionally grown food is less expensive. But we do pay a high price for it.
The overuse of antibiotics on conventional factory farms has lead to an antibiotic resistant superbug that will, according to CNBC, “pose a $65 billion threat to the US health-care system” and “kill 30,000 Americans per year by 2050.”
Decades of spraying Monsanto’s Roundup on conventional farms has given rise to glyphosate-resistant “superweeds.” Now farmers have to use even more toxic chemical concoctions to kill them (today, it’s Monsanto’s Dicamba).
Conventional factory farms use practices that are beyond inhumane to animals.
Conventional farmers till the soil, which releases carbon into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change.
Conventional farmers grow only the easiest varieties of food to produce, transport, and sell, not the best tasting or most nutritious.
Conventional farmers till and leave acres and acres of bare soil, which creates dry dead dirt that’s hard for water to penetrate. This leads to sediment runoff and the need to use more water.
The chemical pesticides conventional farmers use are contributing to honeybee collapse. Researchers in Japan are trying to figure out how to replace honeybees with drones. Think of how much that will cost and then hug your local organic farmer.
We save a little buying conventionally grown food, but by doing so, we also support a farming system that is unethical and unsustainable.
Conventional food doesn’t exist
When I’m shopping, I pretend conventional food doesn’t exist. It’s just not an option for me because I won’t support a farming system that causes as many problems and as much harm as ours does. And none of those problems are easy or inexpensive to solve.
Organic food reflects the real cost of farming
Organic farming represents the true cost of farming. It also produces much healthier food.
Food can heal
What we put in our bodies can make us sick and it can make us well. It’s cliché to say it now, but food is medicine. Yet food can’t heal us if it’s covered in poison and devoid of nutrition.
When health really matters, high quality food free from chemicals could literally be life-saving. It’s truly one of the most valuable things to be thankful for. I think of organic food as a necessity, not a luxury. There is no greater need for our bodies and our health than clean, pure food, water, and air.
Organic farmers are heroes to be thankful for
Organic, regenerative, and biodynamic farmers are my heroes because they protect our environment and our health. I am grateful for the hours they spend and the problems they solve every single day. For them, I give thanks this Thursday.
How to find organic turkeys
Use LocalHarvest.com to find small, organic farms that sell traditional and heritage turkeys.
Look for the Animal Welfare Approved label on your turkey. It means the turkey has been raised in healthy conditions and not given antibiotics.
photo credit mythja @iStock