• Mark Kurlansky's

    Mark Kurlansky's "The Food of a Younger Land"

    In the 1930s, writers for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) chronicled the eating habits of Americans. Here are some Vermont excerpts, as collected in Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land:

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—Farm & Ferment

    Farmers' Kitchen—Farm & Ferment

    Our farm is centered around regeneration, inspired by Rudolf Steiner and more recent developments in the rebuilding of high-functioning soils and plants. We regard our farm as a self-contained entity, with its own organ systems (microbes, fungi, cattle, etc.), character, economic, social, and ecological life.

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  • A Localvore’s Dilemma

    A Localvore’s Dilemma

    It’s a sign of the maturity of Vermont’s sustainable agriculture and local foods movement that this has become a prevalent and perplexing question. Is it better to buy a local, organic carrot or one that’s just local? Even more challenging, is it better to buy a local, conventionally grown carrot, or an organic carrot from far away?

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  • Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 4

    Reflections of a Restaurateur | Part 4

    One of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite snacks was anchovy deviled eggs. He was also wild about fresh peas, and several of his surviving handwritten recipes are for creamy French desserts. I know this because at my Montpelier restaurant, Salt, we once spent several weeks cooking and serving dishes that were common at fancy Monticello dinner parties or inspired by the late president’s extensive garden.

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  • Set the Table with…Cranberries

    Set the Table with…Cranberries

    The Land of Bog is a mysterious world of acidic, sandy peat soil and an abundance of water. Here live the cranberries: low-trailing vines with small evergreen leaves and tart, wine-colored berries. They are wise and venerable plants that theoretically can live forever; some cranberries on Cape Cod are more than 150 years old.

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  • Eat Right

    Eat Right

    If you haven’t eaten at your local hospital lately, you don’t know what you’re missing. No, seriously! Over the past few years, Vermont medical facilities have traded in their Fry-o-lators for sauté pans, canned and processed foods for local and organic fruits and veggies, and sugary soft drinks for lightly sweetened iced teas.

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  • A Mobile Market Finds Its Way

    A Mobile Market Finds Its Way

    A little after 10:00 a.m. on a chilly October morning in Newport, the traffic at the intersection of Main street and Coventry street is as steady as usual. Traffic lights turn, some cars move, others stop; the rhythm of routine here is strong.  But at the edge of this routine, along the curb, Meghan Stotko is doing something eye-catching: building a multi-tiered display of local food that’s part billboard, part art installation.

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  • Barnstorming

    Barnstorming

    Barns, of course, are a staple in Vermont agriculture, providing a place to house livestock, store hay and grain, and keep farm vehicles and equipment. Unfortunately, though, their upkeep can be dauntingly expensive and time consuming, especially with cows to milk and food to produce.

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  • Inviting the Pollinators

    Inviting the Pollinators

    Several years ago I was privileged to spend weeks and months at a time working in southern Mexico with organic coffee and cacao farmers. My first visit to a coffee farm is etched in my memory primarily through sound—the sound of bees.

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  • Editor's Note Winter 2013

    Editor's Note Winter 2013

    It can be comforting to walk into a Vermont farmers’ market—winter or summer. Whether we’re frequent patrons or visiting from out of state, dropping by a market on a Saturday morning or Thursday afternoon can feel cozy and reassuring: all those farmers practicing healthy agriculture and guaranteeing our collective food security.

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A Localvore’s Dilemma

“Should I buy local or organic?”

A localvore's dilimma

Written By

Caitlin Gildrien

Written on

December 03 , 2012

It’s a sign of the maturity of Vermont’s sustainable agriculture and local foods movement that this has become a prevalent and perplexing question. Is it better to buy a local, organic carrot or one that’s just local? Even more challenging, is it better to buy a local, conventionally grown carrot, or an organic carrot from far away? What about other foods? Is local, organic beef any better than grass-fed beef from out West? What’s the difference, anyway—besides, maybe, the price?

The small scale of Vermont farming lends itself to family farms, direct marketing, and romanticism. It’s therefore easy to assume that all Vermont farmers are “basically organic,” with or without official certification. Certainly most farmers here farm conscientiously, with attention to issues such as soil health and animal welfare. Most farmers in Vermont care about their land, their crops, their animals, and their communities. So is organic certification necessary?

Fundamentally, for the consumer, organic certification means that a third party (in Vermont, usually that party is Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC, the certification branch of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, where I work) has verified that the product meets certain standards, which comprise the legal definition of “organic.” These federal standards reflect key principles of organic farming, such as enriching the soil, promoting biodiversity, and taking a proactive approach to animal health. You don’t have to inquire with a certified organic producer as to whether they use certain pesticides, or if their animals are routinely treated with antibiotics; the certifying organization has asked these questions for you.

If, however, you buy directly from a farmer who isn’t certified, yes, you have the opportunity to ask about practices such as pesticide use or grazing—but do you? For many people, the personal interaction at a farmers’ market or farm stand is about trust, and they may feel rude asking a producer if their berries have been sprayed or if their chickens were fed genetically modified grains. Sometimes the farmers themselves will use a phrase like “basically organic” to describe their practices, but they may or may not explain—or even know—in which ways their practices differ from those of a certified organic farmer. Though it’s unpleasant to think so, some could say they use organic practices when they actually do not.

If organic certification is a reassuring shorthand at farmers’ markets, it’s in the more traditional marketplace where it really can be of assistance. Bread, crackers, sauces, ice cream, and other processed foods, as well as milk, make up a large part of the products certified by Vermont Organic Farmers, as well as a large part of most people’s diets. In these cases, the certifier is asking the questions that the consumer has little opportunity to, since the makers of these foods are nowhere near the supermarket. Additionally, in places with less access to farmers’ markets or a large numbers of factory farms, the assurance that comes with organic certification may be the only way for customers to feel confident about their food choices.

Before the USDA organic program was established and began enforcing a single legal definition of the word organic in 2002, there were many certifiers with different standards and many more people calling themselves “organic” with no definition besides their own. This system presented few problems back when “organic” was a marginal part of the food economy and most organic products were sold locally. But as the number of organic growers increased—and as large food corporations began to take notice of the value that some consumers placed on organic food—the lack of a clear meaning of the word became problematic.

So the USDA, with help from existing certifying organizations such as Vermont Organic Farmers, crafted a set of standards to define organic. Now nothing labeled organic can legally contain GMOs, sewage sludge, synthetic pesticides or herbicides, antibiotics, artificial hormones, artificial colors or flavorings, or preservatives. All organic animals must have access to the outdoors, and organic ruminants (cows, sheep, and goats) must be on pasture during the grazing season. Sick animals treated with antibiotics cannot be sold as organic, so farmers must take a proactive approach toward herd health. Similarly, produce from land treated with synthetic fertilizers cannot be sold as organic, so farmers must take a proactive approach toward soil health. Producers must keep careful records and are inspected every year.
It is true that the standards aren’t perfect. It is true that you can buy certified organic versions of many junk foods, and that many large-scale organic companies are owned by even larger conventional ones. And it’s absolutely true that farmers can be skilled, careful stewards of the earth without organic certification. At NOFA Vermont, we recognize that many farmers choose not to get certified, for a number of reasons. The cost of certification can seem prohibitive (although there is a reimbursement program), and the paperwork is extensive (although some farmers are surprised to realize they’re already keeping all the records required). Some farmers may disagree with the organic standards for being either too stringent or not stringent enough. Some simply feel they don’t need certification to communicate their practices.

As for what to buy once you can be sure of a producer’s farming practices, much of your choice hinges on what you value about your food. People choose food based on taste, price, health, animal welfare, and/or community—just to name a few. When you choose something as simple as an egg, you must decide if it is important to you whether the chickens were fed non-GMO grain, whether they may have been treated with antibiotics, or whether they were scratching outside eating grass and bugs. Then you must decide how much it is worth—in dollars, as well as food miles and your time—to obtain the food that meets those criteria.

In Vermont, we are lucky to have hundreds of certified organic farmers and processors, producing everything from carrots and eggs to burgers and bread, so if you don’t want to choose between local and organic, you don’t have to. Find a certified organic producer who grows locally—and learn more about the organic standards—on our website, nofavt.org.

As for those non-certifed farmers who consider themselves “basically organic”? You’ll just have to ask them what that means.

About the Author

Caitlin Gildrien

Caitlin Gildrien

Caitlin Gildrien is a writer and graphic designer in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. With her husband and two small children, she also grows several acres of organic vegetables and medicinal herbs on their 200-year-old farmstead.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.

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