Food fight: Some local farms prefer 'Naturally Grown' over 'Organic'

At the Huguenot Street Farm, rows of diminutive yellow tomatoes last week shone before a bank of equally brilliant sunflowers that lead to a valley of vegetables growing against a backdrop of the Shawangunk Ridge.
The scene looks idyllic, but it is part of a fight - the fight for produce that is healthful for the consumer, less paperwork for the farmer and cost-effective for both. Ron Khosla, 38, and his wife, Kate, 32, are in the thick of that fight expending untold hours of energy as their bounty of vegetables explode into harvest.

The twosome, Cornell graduates who started the farm in 1999, dropped the label "Certified Organic" in 2002, the year the USDA imposed stringent changes, mostly extensive paperwork and added costs, in return for organic certification.

To address the problem, in October of that same year Ron Khosla founded "Certified Naturally Grown," a program and label especially intended for small farms that distribute their produce locally. The growing requirements are no less strict, Khosla said. In fact farmers within the program inspect other farms that take part.

Teresa Rusinek, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative of Ulster County, calls the farmer-to-farmer inspection "neat."

"I think it keeps them pretty honest because farmers kind of know how things go, when the pests are around and what kind of materials control them or farming methods that control certain pests," she said. "I think it's a perfectly legitimate option for farmers who want to practice organic farming but don't want to be tied up, so to speak, with all the paperwork of the federal organic certification system."

Khosla said the USDA organic program relies primarily on reports from farmers themselves, although physical inspection is also included in certification rules. What might surprise consumers, however, is that USDA inspected farms (with the exception of the Oregon Tilth agency, Khosla said) do not undergo any testing of soil, crops or produce for pesticide residues.

"They don't do any of that," he said. "It's ridiculous. It's a painful joke."

As Khosla swiftly moved about his farm inspecting produce, he gave attention to nonproducing plants as well, including dozens of strawberry starts in a greenhouse next to a shed where the 200 members of the farm's Community Supported Agriculture component pick up their shares.

Strawberries, Khosla explained, can be sprayed with chemical fungicides and still qualify as USDA Organic. The fruits themselves are not sprayed, only the plants, he said, but not at Huguenot Street Farm or other farms that use his techniques.

Khosla grabbed a water hose, and quickly moved about spritzing the plants, a chore that must be done 10 times a day in the first week of their growth, he said.

"It's a pain in the butt," he said. "Yeah, I understand. It is kind of a pain in the butt, but we're trying to grow healthy food."

Khosla said he was heading the first and oldest organic certification agency in the New York Natural Food Association, when the USDA changed its organic certification requirements.

"Our farmers said they didn't want to do it," he said, and I certainly didn't want to go through the headache of complying with the USDA paperwork either."

So Khosla implemented the "Certified Naturally Grown" program, which has expanded to 520 farms across the nation, said Alice Varon, of Stone Ridge, who took over Khosla's position as executive director of the program last year, the year he was hired as International Organic Certification Consultant to the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. In that capacity, Khosla worked with the U.N. organization and the Indian Ministry of Agriculture to develop an organic program for small farms in India, an approach that actively involved farmers and consumers.

In the Mid-Hudson Valley, eight of nine farms Certified Naturally Grown are in New Paltz, while the other is in Lamontville. Columbia County has two members and Greene County has one. So far, there are no participants in Dutchess County.

Varon said the organization has received 30 new applications in the past couple months from across the country.

Among the newer certified small farms in the area is the Lamontville-based Esopus Creek Farm, which sells produce from two acres of a tilled parcel about six times that size, according to farm manager Jessica Swadosh. The farm is owned by Denis Cicero, also the proprietor of a New York City restaurant, the Galaxy Global Eatery, the destination of about one-fourth of the produce, Swadosh said. She said portions also go to area restaurants, the High Falls Food Co-op and the farmer's market on Sundays in Rosendale.

Swadosh said this is the farm's first year of certification, a program that she said is "really brilliantly done." But not everyone is aware of or knows the meaning of the label Certified Naturally Grown, including some customers who stop by the farmers' market.

"Someone said, 'Well, aren't all vegetables naturally grown?'" Swadosh recalled.

Others are more pro-active.

"A lot, a lot, a lot of people ask me if I spray," she said.

The answer this year is "No," but that may change next season, especially since her crop of edamame beans wound up in the innards of insects instead of the stomachs of customers. Spraying for her, however, does not mean chemicals. Swadosh is considering an application of meem, a plant grown in India and used for shampoo, soap - and insecticide.

Meanwhile Khosla said mega farms that use the label "certified organic" - including those in California, which export large quantities of produce to New York State - use as their primary source of soil nutrients manure from "factory farms," manure that may contain steroids, hormones and/or antibiotics. Small farms, he said, go through the same certification process as their larger counterparts.

"It's important to state that I am categorically not saying that small New York State USDA organic farmers are pouring toxic chemicals on your produce," he said. "I'm saying the process of certification is flawed - and expensive."

Regarding antibiotics that Khosla mentioned earlier, the drugs have been found to leach into vegetables grown in organic matter containing them, as determined in a study by scientists from the University of Minnesota. The findings were published in this year's July/August issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality.

"Consumption of antibiotics in plants may cause allergic reactions in sensitive populations such as young children," Khosla said. "There is also concern that consuming antibiotics may lead to the development of antimicrobial resistance, which can render antibiotics ineffective. The antibiotic Sulfamethazine, (used in the aforementioned scientific study) is in a class of drugs that has been shown to be carcinogenic (in animals, but not humans)."

That worry does not exist at the Huguenot Street Farm. Instead of incorporating animal byproducts in the soil to fortify vegetable growth, the farm uses green manures - crops that are not harvested but tilled back into the soil. The technique must be working, because Khosla said 12 acres that are "actively in production" are now feeding twice as many families twice as much food as 26 acres did in the past. Khosla was named Sustainable Farmer of the Year in 2005 by Glynwood Center, of Cold Springs, which promotes sustainable communities.

"Veganic" farms like Khosla's are unusual. In fact, his "progressive" operation is the only one of its kind in the Hudson Valley according to Rusinek.

Khosla said he understands the predicament in which consumers find themselves when purchasing produce from farmers whose methods they do not know. As an example, he went back to root crops like carrots and potatoes, vegetables that he said have been shown to be especially adept at taking up antibiotics.

"As a parent, what are you supposed to do? Non-organic potatoes grown in the U.S. now are often genetically modified, and they are grown with a newer class of pesticides called 'systemics' that actually get into the plants," he said. "The potato growers love them because you only have to make one pass through the field. It doesn't wash off in the rain."

"Your other option is to go with USDA organic potatoes that are shown to take up ... antibiotics."

What to do? Khosla said he would much sooner purchase produce from a non-organic operation like New Paltz-based Wallkill Farms, than from mega-organic farms in California.

"How can you ensure that you and your family are getting vegetables that are healthful for you," he said. "Buy local. It's as easy as that."

Rusinek agrees.

"That's pretty much the message that we put out there," she said.

As for the Certified Naturally Grown emblem, she said it is becoming gradually known by the public.

Does Cornell approve of the program?

"I don't really think it's our position to approve or disapprove. There I'm not going to go," Rusinek said. "Do I think it's a good idea? I think it's good in that it gives farmers an option to the federal 'Certified Organic' program."

Rusinek was more specific in terms of consumer purchasing practices, even beyond the "Buy locally" message.

"There are studies that are out there that say one is better than the other, organic or conventional, but I think the bottom line is people need to eat more fruits and vegetables," she said. "That's the place to start rather than getting too wrapped up in 'Is it organic or naturally grown?'"Daily Freeman