I eat a lot of fresh produce. I drink smoothies that are full of spinach for breakfast. I eat a lot of carrots and apples. Watermelon is one of my favorite foods, and sweet corn is a perfect side for any summer meal.
I try to buy mostly fresh, local produce. I feel like that’s better for me than buying organic products that may have traveled hundreds of miles to reach my grocery cart. I will on occasion purchase organic products, such as snack foods or canned goods. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like supporting the local economy and buying produce from farmers I can actually pick up the phone and call is more important than buying something raised organically.
To make sure my thought process on conventional foods versus organics wasn’t completely misguided; I decided to call a farmer I know, Jay Yankey, who grows produce in PrinceWilliam County.
(Jay and his daughter, Ali, show off their carved pumpkin.)
Jay raises his produce conventionally, but he does follow a lot of organic practices, as do other farmers, he told me. Becoming USDA-certified organic is not only expensive, but also time-consuming, and he doesn’t feel it’s worth his time and money to go through the process just so he can label his items “organic.”
Obviously, what he is doing works for him. His customers love his items. They flock to his two farm stands, and his community-supported agriculture venture—Yankey Farms CSA—has tripled in size.
Jay told me that organic products are still sprayed with pesticides. Granted, they are organically-made pesticides, but they are still sprayed and sometimes they’re sprayed more than conventionally grown crops.
Organic pesticides are not always strong enough to take care of a pest problem the first time, Jay explained. He said farmers tend to use the softest products that will do the job, and to spray only when it is absolutely necessary. He has to handle whatever he chooses to apply, and he doesn’t want to harm himself, his family or his customers. There are some crops that Jay doesn’t spray at all. If they don’t have a pest problem, he leaves them unsprayed during the entire growing season. He also uses an integrated pest management plan and crop rotation to help with pests naturally.
Jay also told me that organic produce is grown using mostly composted manure. If the manure used in the compost is too fresh, the crops could be at risk for bacterial contamination. Jay said he uses a mix of commercial fertilizers and composted manure, but he does not use the compost when it is fresh. There are a lot of regulations regarding fertilizer and pesticides to ensure food safety.
Runoff from farm fields and over-spraying of crops is a concern some people may have, but Jay said there can be problems even if you grow crops organically. If you put down too much composted manure, it can enter the water supply during heavy rains.
(Sweet potatoes grown by Yankey Farms)
Farmers I have talked to try hard to be responsible stewards of the land, because growing food and fiber is their livelihood. They do their research on fertilizers, pesticides and farming practices and use the safest methods possible, so I feel confident spending my money on locally grown produce and not worrying about whether it was grown organically or conventionally. Chances are that the farmer who grew my apple or lettuce used organic methods—they’re just not certified.
Growing up, the only sweet potatoes I knew were the mushy, canned ones. Every Thanksgiving, bless her heart, my mom made her sweet potato casserole—full of the mushy potatoes, pineapple, brown sugar and marshmallows. I never cared for it, but my husband is a big fan. As an adult, I’ve discovered real sweet potatoes and the many ways they can be prepared. I like that they’re versatile, but I also love that they’re nutritious without high-calorie additives.
Sweet potatoes have almost twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, 42 percent of your daily vitamin C, four times the amount of daily beta carotene and, when eaten with the skin, more fiber than oatmeal.
Delicious and nutritious—who can argue with that? The trick is in the preparation.
I like to make oven-roasted sweet potatoes. I wash whole sweet potatoes, dice them into half-inch cubes, toss them with olive oil, sea salt and dried rosemary, and then bake them in a 400° oven until they’re fork-tender.
I’d also like to share the following recipe from the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. You probably can—carefully—use an immersion blender in place of a food processor to prepare this soup.
Curried Sweet Potato Apple Soup
2 large sweet potatoes
1 large tart apple, such as Fuji, Honeycrisp or Gala
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 teaspoons curry powder
14-ounce can vegetable broth
1¾ cups unsweetened apple juice
¾ teaspoon salt
6-ounce container plain lowfat yogurt
¾ cup croutons, optional
Pierce sweet potatoes and apples with the tines of a fork. Microwave sweet potatoes and apple on high until apple is very tender, about 6-7 minutes. Remove apple from microwave, and set aside until cool enough to handle. Continue microwaving sweet potatoes on high until tender, about 4-5 minutes longer. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, begin warming the oil. Add onion and curry powder, and cook until the onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes.
Add the broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Transfer the broth mixture to a food processor, reserving the saucepan.
Halve the sweet potatoes and apple. Remove the apple core and scoop the potato and apple pulp from the skins. Add pulp to the food processor. Add salt and whirl until very smooth, gradually adding the apple juice through the processor feed tube. Transfer the mixture to the reserved saucepan.
Bring to boil over medium heat; whisk in yogurt. Reheat just until hot (do not boil).
Top with croutons if desired.
Marie McGee, a Caroline County Christmas tree farmer, says growing 3 acres of trees—about 6,000 of them—at Willow Oaks Farm is hard work, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything. She loves what she does—especially between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the farm is open to the public. “Last year we had snow on Dec. 19, and people called and asked if they could come cut down trees in the snow. I told them, ’Sure,’” she said.
(GMO seeds have enabled farmers to increase their efficiency and decrease the use of inputs.)
I’ve never heard three letters generate as much controversy as G-M-O. What is a GMO, and why are people so freaked out over it?
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism.” So anything that has had its genes altered—naturally or scientifically—fits this category.
“Everything we eat is genetically modified in some way,” said Pamela Ronald, a University of California, Davis, geneticist.
Think back to high school biology classes that covered Gregor Mendel and the cross-breeding of plants. Mendel is known as the father of modern genetics for his work in the mid-1800s.
Since then, researchers have taken his methods to the next level. Scientists have used genetic engineering to make seeds that produce better-quality plants; ones that are hearty enough to withstand frost or ones that are resistant to weeds or pests. The idea is that, through extracting certain cells from one seed and injecting them into another, they can produce superior seeds that grow better and produce higher yields of crops. This technology has enabled farmers to produce more food on their land and has played a large part in crop production in third-world countries.
But some people say this is wrong, that scientists have no right to tamper with nature and that altering anything from its natural state is immoral.
Others say GMO crops eventually become less resistant to the very things they were designed to resist, so farmers will have to increase the amount of herbicides or pesticides applied to crops.
According to a study about agricultural pesticide use by the National Science Foundation’s Center for Integrated Pest Management, conventional pesticide use declined in the 1960s, increased until 1979, declined slightly in the 1980s and then leveled off in the 1990s. The report noted that the overall decline stems from genetically modified food crops, among other things.
I listened to a U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance discussion between Pamela Ronald and Michael Dimock, author of Roots of Change, a book that focuses on the transition to a "sustainable" food system. Roland is a proponent of GMO technology, and Dimock is not.
“You are introducing a gene that isn't intended for that species. There are huge consequences of humans having the power to introduce genes that aren't found in nature," Dimock said.
Consequently, there are people who believe that eating GMO foods is risky.
“Of course there are people who believe this, but it’s not science-based,” Ronald countered. The National Research Council stated that the process of genetic engineering is no more risky than the process of conventional breeding and that the introduction of genes through genetic engineering is no different from conventional breeding. “And science-based research shows that GMO crops are safe to eat.”
So if genetic engineering doesn’t pose a health risk and allows farmers to increase the amount of food that’s grown in the same amount of space, “why eliminate one of the most powerful tools to help agriculture?” Ronald asked.
I have to agree. Advancing our ability to produce food for a hungry nation is without doubt one of the most important things farmers do. And giving them the ability to do that better with GMO seeds is a necessity.