In 1980, when I was nine years old, I first started selling vegetables at farmers’ markets near our farm in Virginia. Local food was not yet part of the lingo or regarded as a Good Thing. The idea of producer-only farmers’ markets — you can sell only what you produce — was also new. But organic was very much in vogue. Are you organic? That was the question I heard over and over again.
We always used mostly ecological methods, such as mulching for weed control, and eventually gave up agricultural poisons altogether, but our farm was not certified organic and still isn’t. I learned to answer the question positively, explaining our ecological farming methods, and describing how fertile soil, the right varieties, and picking vegetables at peak maturity makes for good flavor.
I also explained that all the food at farmers’ markets was local. Why does that matter? Because local food tastes better. It’s fresher, and farmers who sell at local markets tend to favor varieties with flavor rather than, say, shipping qualities. Local food has a number of social benefits, of course — fewer food miles, less fuel, less packaging, keeping farmland on the urban fringe financially viable — but to the eater I stress flavor.
The purists are furious that “organic” has been ‘co-opted’ by large-scale, industrial agriculture. I’m not. Seems to me, we used to have two kinds of food: industrial and organic — I mean the one prized by the counterculture, which included in its ethos brown bread, bulk foods, and community dinners — all of which I grew up on.
Today we have three: industrial food, industrial organic food, and ecological food of all stripes, such as grass-fed beef and raw milk cheese. The new kind — industrial organic — is superior to industrial food. This is choice and this is progress. At last, Establishment Voices are recognizing what one grubby, barefoot kid was trying to convey in 1980: local food is good and ecological methods are multiple. “People who think seriously about food have come to realize that ‘local’ is at least as important a word as “organic,”‘ said The New York Times editorial page on May 14. Bravo.