• Set the Table with Switchel

    Set the Table with Switchel

    Long a staple in Northeast hayfields as a thirst quencher and restorative, switchel—alternatively called “haymaker’s punch” —was a colonial era proto-Gatorade, a source of both hydration and electrolyte replenishment. Recipes vary, but the most common ingredients were molasses, cider vinegar, and ginger, mixed to taste in a jug of very cold well water. While the concoction could have provided benefit to all manner of laborers and sporting folks, its use was particularly common among the workers of the hayfield and the children who carried the switchel jug to them.

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  • Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    Bartered, Smuggled, and Bought

    When the Upper Valley Localvores took their first 100–mile diet challenge in August 2005, we came upon a serious stumbling block. No local salt! Tomatoes and corn–on–the–cob were abundant, but oh, we needed salt. Fortunately, one of our members had vacationed in Maine and brought back a precious supply of sea salt. It made us wonder what our Upper Valley ancestors had done for salt.

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  • Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    Farming & Feasting with the Robinsons: Winter

    In the not-so-distant past, eating locally was a way of life and a matter of necessity. For four generations, the Robinson family farmed in Ferrisburgh, at the place known today as the Rokeby Museum. The museum’s collection includes correspondence and household records detailing the family’s ways of farming, preserving, and eating. In the last of this four-part series, we take a look at how the Robinsons cooked, ate, and farmed in the late 1800s.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    Restoring Vermont’s Heritage

    “The farming of our fathers was exceedingly simple, content to draw from a virgin soil the supplies of simple wants, instead of aiming itself for their increase. With the impoverishment of the soil, with the forests almost swept off the face of the country and the consequent climate change, with the multiplied wants of society and development of so many new industries, the highest intelligence and energies are required to remodel our system of agriculture so that it may fully meet the demands made upon it.

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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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