What Does it Mean to be Organic?

What Does it Mean to be Organic?

I recently found myself sitting in a (Zoom) room of organic farmers at the Organic Association of Kentucky (OAK) annual conference. Now, I am a writer, not a farmer. But I grew up in a small town surrounded by Kentucky farmland; I visited my grandparents on theirs. I mostly buy organic. So, if I didn’t know the specifics of organics, I got the gist. Or, I thought I did. Organic means no chemicals or synthetics. A return to more natural agricultural systems and tools. Good for people, animals, planet. Got it.

And then, the keynote speaker, talking about a trend amongst newly certified brands and products, said something like, “They’re calling their pesticide-free, non-GMO hydroponic strawberries organic! They don’t even taste good!” Laughs and jeers filled the chatbox.

The hydroponic strawberries sounded pretty smart to me: moving inside, away from chemical-filled, overworked soil. Committing to non-synthetic pest management. Creating a new system for a population outpacing food production. I probably would have purchased those strawberries, patting myself on the back while puckering at the sour where there should have been sweet.

What Does it Mean to be Organic?

As the speaker continued, it became clear that the point I (and the strawberry company, and maybe you, too) missed was a big one. He didn’t talk very much about the no list: no chemicals, no GMOs, no synthetics, and so on. He talked about what was involved in growing organic: chiefly, the soil and its bustling microbiome. When the soil is healthy and thriving, crops thrive. Produce is filled with nutrients. People are healthier.

There is an experiment where farmers test the liveliness of their soil by planting cotton underwear. After a few months, the healthy soil has gotten busy and all but consumed the cotton. In some cases, only the elastic waistband remains. Other (unattended) dirt, by sidewalks or front doors — pardon the pun — soils the underwear, but leaves it intact. The organic farmers’ land teems with life and is ready to pass that life on. Their practices hold up to the list of no-go ingredients, but their focus is not on that, but on on the wellbeing of their soil.

The marketable version of organic — a quantitative list of do’s and don’ts — is easily packageable. And, as someone who writes a lot of taglines, that is not inherently a bad thing. Succinct, memorable language is important to inspire collective action or even a movement. Lists and sound bites translate to farmers considering their farming practices and consumers considering which apple to put in their carts.

But the more meaningful change — emphasizing biodiversity and ecological balance, maximizing biological activity, taking agricultural cues from nature, understanding the necessary interconnectivity of the animals, the plants, and the farmer — is the more elusive stuff that won’t quite fit into a neat package. It’s a truth that every farmer attending that conference intimately knew.

I saw that shared understanding and community in the gathering of organic farmers. From community, new sensibilities, and a whole new shared vocabulary forms. It is what helps you find the words, but also to see beyond the words.

The gathering reminded me of our journey as a B Corp. In 2016, we started working toward B Corporation certification. Some parts were easy. More parts were challenging. For instance, we focused heavily on environmental impact. But other categories, as a small business of fifteen people, we hadn’t felt the need to formalize. We passed certification in 2017 with a score of 82.2, barely above passing.

We could have carried on and simply maintained our efforts. But, through the process, we had tasted a strawberry born of dirt and sun and care. We wanted that deeper, more elusive thing. In 2021, we recertified 11 points higher.

We are proud of this. But the fact is, we didn’t get there on our own. Having a list helped, and we used it to make sure we were thinking broadly enough. But the real change took effort from the entire team. And, it required help from a growing community of folks we’ve been actively seeking out and connecting with.

To move toward organic farming is to slow down. To take nature’s lead, relinquish a degree of control. It is not compatible with the expectations industrialized agriculture has set for consumers. Organic farming is also about symbiosis — with the land and all it produces, but also with each other.

To be an organic consumer, we must also slow down and take nature’s lead.Take the time to read the egg carton to learn how that particular producer has defined organic. And to plug into community. (It’s important to note the implications of food injustice that impact many people’s ability to do these things.) OAK, like many other organic groups, is an association of farmers. But it’s also a great resource for consumers. Here, you can learn about what it means to be organic. How to eat with the seasons. How to make great kale pesto. How to get organic produce in the hands of more people. How to support your local organic movement.