• 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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  • Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    Last Morsel—Roots on the Rails

    On summer evenings in the garden in Weathersfield, I know it’s nearly time to call it a day when the train whistle blows; over the river, Amtrak’s Vermonter is about to cross the highway in Cornish. As I stand up, knees cracking from too-long bending over the rows of carrots that want thinning, I think about the train on its trek north to St. Albans, and how tomorrow it will head south to Washington, DC. Back and forth, more than 600 miles, each day, every day.

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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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  • Taking it Slow in Italy

    Taking it Slow in Italy

    Getting together, the listening to and exchanging of ideas— that is the miracle of Terra Madre.”

    With this, Slow Food International founder Carlo Petrini welcomed us to the 2010 Terra Madre conference and set the tone for our four days in Turin, Italy. He addressed an audience of 5,000 representatives from 161 countries—small-scale farmers, producers, educators, and observers—who had traveled to Italy to meet with their peers and discuss global issues of food, culture, and justice. We came to take part in the conversation, too, along with two dozen other Vermonters. The experience renewed our appreciation for the value of gathering around a table to break bread and to exchange ideas.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    Post Oil Solutions at Five Years

    A strong regional food system—one in which the people of a region are participating in their own food production in both sustaining and sustainable ways—is community based. As much as this system grows food, it grows people, encouraging relationships of collaboration and mutual aid, respect and care. No longer at war with nature and each other, unburdened by that ancient power relationship of us over them, and having given up the self-destructive effort to control life, people actively work with life in a community-based food system. In this way, they practice “relational agriculture,” building the social fabric that leads to a truly sustainable food system for all.

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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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  • New to America,  Old Hands at Agriculture

    New to America, Old Hands at Agriculture

    There’s something exciting happening at the Intervale. “So what else is new?” you might say. “There’s always something interesting happening at the Intervale.” But not every day do you see families from more than four different countries, speaking a mix of different languages, planting lenga-lenga, molukhia, or Asian mustards side by side in a lush valley in Vermont. This summer that will be the scene at the gardens at Ethan Allen Homestead, a field at the Intervale Center in Burlington, and on farmland in Shelburne.

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  • 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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  • 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 Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    A Farmhouse Feeds Its Neighbors

    When Joseph Kiefer and Martin Kemple founded Food Works in 1987, phrases such as “food security” and “local food system” had yet to come into common parlance. It was ambitious—maybe even radical at the time—to think of using gardens and locally grown food to address the root causes of childhood hunger.

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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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  • 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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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    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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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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