Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dirty Dozen No. 9 - Lettuce

                This year, 2012, lettuce was ranked number 9 on the Environmental Worker’s Group’s list of vegetables with the highest level of pesticide residue in the produce we consumers may consume. I have not researched into this situation all that deeply, as in, how the data has been coordinated, what “pesticides” are analyzed, or, more accurately from my own organic approach, that is, lumping “pesticides” into the larger cauldron of seething filth, that of “chemicals” in general…
                Nonetheless, I will embark on a very unhappy trail of… reality in regards to the produce available… anywhere… including the “local” farmer’s markets. This is not a “happy” reality by any means, and I certainly feel a sense of dismay on relaying some of the reality that will be exposed in this entry. While I would like to imagine the reality to be different that what it is, unfortunately, I cannot close my eyes to it. AND, while I feel as though I am “narcing” on some other farmers, after almost a decade of keeping silent on this, I FEEL the need to enlighten the consumer as to what they are actually… consuming!
                Now to pause, briefly, when purchasing produce from a “local” farmer at the farmer’s market, talk to them, question them. If they are honest, they will be more than happy to relay their growing technique. True farmers work EXTREMELY hard to bring produce to the market, and after spending relentless hours of labor in such effort, they are not often ready to lie about such effort. The produce from “honest” local farmers at farmer’s markets is far healthier than anything one can find in a supermarket.
                To begin, (after a three paragraph prelude), this entry will focus on lettuce, especially that found in “salad mix”, “mesclun mix”, etc. The taste of fresh lettuce leaves is absolutely a delicacy! It is something in high demand, both on supermarket shelves, as well as the tables of the farmer’s markets. And while I do not have the space to relay why salad mix is not available every week, other than quickly to relay how lettuce hates the heat of the summer, I will reflect on the spring, as well as the fall crops of lettuce. In a supermarket, for sure, there is no break from lettuce availability. There are reasons for this, and perhaps that will be brought up in another entry…
                Personally, I have ALWAYS grown lettuce for salad mixes. Okay, let me qualify that by stating that… since I have been farming, I have ALWAYS grown lettuce for salad mixes. Initially, I was quite a novice in regards to the situation, BUT, as one who grows organically, I have learned over the years that the obstacles to growing lettuce are quite few. And I learned this reality quite early. Without a doubt, other mammals, such as deer, rabbits and… f%$^ing groundhogs, LOVE lettuce. And while a solid fencing set up can prevent, but ultimately not completely deter those nasty creatures, especially the latter mentioned, lettuce has relatively few other “pests” with which to deal. And I will explain a little more here. There are cutworms, along with a myriad of other bugs that will “assault” lettuce, but lettuce grows rather quickly, and the damage, at least as I have witnessed, is negligible in comparison to other ravenous bugs, such as bean beetles on bean plants or squash bugs on squash plants.
                This leads me to my first point of consternation, if you will. It has been over a decade since this situation first occurred. At the time, the National Organic Program had yet to take effect. Back in those archaic days, the “organic” term was regulated by individual agencies, mine being the same that regulates it to this day, the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Anyway, there really was no policing of the situation, and those of us “organic” farmers had nothing to stand on other than our integrity. At one of the markets I attended, an absolutely NON-organic farm advertised their salad mix as “pesticide free”. To come quickly to the end, before the analysis, the farmer ceased his advertising once my “certified organic” salad mix made an entrance.
                The point I am attempting to make here is the cleverness, or deviousness of the advertiser, and that entity was a “local” farm. It is quite true that the farmer did not spray his lettuce with pesticide. Why would you, since so very little bug damage is incurred? What was not stated was the fact that non-natural fertilizers were added to the soil, as well as HERBICIDES to kill anything else that might grow in that polluted soil.
                To take a deep, that is very deep breath at this point, for those of us that grow “organically”, we are stewards of the earth. Every step that we take as farmers IMPROVES the health of the soil in which we nurture our crops. AND, after over a decade of farming in such a fashion, the plants FLOURISH!!! But that is a digression. In counter-distinction, the “conventional” practice must add enough synthetic nutrients to get the plants to grow, along with pesticides, herbicides, humanicides, etc…  This contrast, and its importance is for you to decide. For me, I have obviously made my decision long ago.
                And then, in 2004, I overheard the same “local” farmer who used to advertise his chemically reared lettuce as “pesticide free”, brag, literally brag, that there is now, (of course it was then), genetically modified lettuce that can survive direct applications of… glyphosate. Glyphosate is the most common form of herbicide available, and is used to kill just about any plant deemed unworthy of life on this planet. (There is a commonly known name glyphosate goes by, but since my computer cannot put a trademark behind the product name, and the company that invented the product likes to sue everyone who respects natural life on this planet, I have not mentioned the malevolent product. I have once again digressed.)
                At this point, I will depict two pictures of “local” salad mix one might find at a farmer’s market, and keep in mind, most farmer’s live by integrity… those farms that supply the local supermarkets often have other agendas…
                First, my salad mix is grown on fields that receive only natural forms of fertilizer, such as composted leaves or horse manure that has been broken down over a period of time to build up the tilth of the soil that the lettuce leaves love. The most noticeable fixtures in the soil of the farm are earth worms. They thrive in the soil, but the symbiosis does not stop there, for there are countless forms of microorganisms that also thrive in the soil… which are greatly diminished, if not exterminated in chemically treated soil. As a steward of the earth, every year I am even more amazed than the last to see how much more healthy the plants are growing in that soil that is constantly enhanced by natural organic matter. And so, the lettuce grows, and thrives, so long as I can keep the f@#$ing groundhogs away. The lettuce is then harvested and triple washed in potable water and bagged fresh for the next day’s market. Again, this is a “local” situation, so it has not been harvested almost two weeks ago and shipped across the United States from California, etc.
                But to keep with the “local” focus, I present the second situation. And I will pause to reassert that there are many ways of growing lettuce for salad mix. This second focus is ONLY the one I have learned about that involves the genetically modified lettuce.
                The second situation starts with synthetic fertilizer. Instead of adding natural organic matter that the earth worms and microorganisms thrive upon, a chemical equation posits exactly what amount of inorganic material should be added that would be the sufficient dose for lettuce to thrive. Of course “thrive” here refers to growing to harvest size surrounded by non-natural substances.  
                The routine of salad mix planting follows, that is, seeding the lettuce seed. Organically, the seeding is timed, so that the seeds sprout and grow enough that cultivation and weeding can be accomplished with the healthy seedlings in visible sight. When it comes to the glyphosate-ready lettuce, I assume the process is quite similar, only, instead of a cultivator… and a pair of hands or two for the weeding process, a tank of glyphosate pulled behind a tractor is used to spray the known carcinogen upon those fresh lettuce leaves.
                If what I have been writing is not striking a nerve, I will explain why it should. Most of the produce that is listed on the Environmental Worker’s Group list is questioned as to how much of the chemicals applied to the crop will actually penetrate… the skin, for example, of a potato, or apple. However, if glyphosate is sprayed directly on lettuce leaves… the same leaves that might be quickly washed in water so as to remove chemically tainted soil… how much of the glyphosate is actually removed?
                HOW MUCH? And then, HOW MUCH IS ACCEPTIBLE?!!!
                I feel blessed by the “buy local” movement when it comes to fresh produce. For many years, very few people understood its importance. But, like I said above, not all of the “local” sources should be trusted. Alas, it makes the situation so complicated. I cannot count how many people who have come to our “producer only”, and local, farmer’s market, that have commented with dismay that not all of the vendors are organic. For some reason, it seems to be a common mistake to think that a farmer’s market= all organic. That is NOT the case.
                AGAIN, ask the farmers behind the stands about their produce. Any farmer who is legitimate will readily reveal their practices. You will not get any answers from the supermarket. As for me, and the Nev-R-Dun Farm approach, the reason that I got certified organic in the first place, way back in 2001, is that I did not want the customer to have to decide about the integrity of the produce. Our ethic is documented and recorded… and absolutely traceable!
                Personally, I still feel bad in a strange way writing this entry. But, to put a finish to it, some people, farmers included, are out for a buck, and if feeding their local consumers chemically laced lettuce mix allows for a vacation to, say Mexico for a month in the off season, so be it. Ugh. You will NEVER get that from me!!!

1 comment:

  1. This post is exactly why we choose you as our farmer. I love the way you think! I love that you care about the health of the people you feed, along with the health of the Earth. When going to farmers markets I do try to find out who is organic, and sadly there are few wherever you go.

    I even did a blog post about the Baltimore Farmers Market at my blog "The Queens Table." I thought the farmers would proudly proclaim their true organic certification. Local may mean fresher, but it does not mean safe from chemicals.GMO's and pesticides.

    Thank goodness for farmers like you! :-D