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Once considered a "cult," organic farming comes of age in East Tennessee.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JUNE 26, 2000:  It's a cloudy June morning, and Ruth Koh is glad for the relatively cool weather. Too much heat can wilt her greens. She walks down the wide rows of the garden behind the 100-year-old Jefferson County farmhouse that she and her husband, Jit, fixed up and added on to, first as a vacation home and eventually as their full-time residence. She shows off the red cocarde lettuce, the arugula, the Swiss chard and deer tongue and mizuna mustard. Stooping by a small bed of beets, which she grows more for the leaves than the root vegetable, she thumbs through the plants and plucks a single green stem.

"This," she says, pointing at a few small holes that perforate the surface. "I would just toss it. I'm looking for a nice leaf."

The culprits, as they often are, are flea beetles—tiny, fiber-munching insects who will turn a field to a half-eaten salad if given the chance. They're a constant worry for growers of all sorts of crops. For most farmers, there are a range of remedies: Cymbush 250 EC, for example, or Decis, Furadan, Fyfanon, Guthion, Malathion, all of them trademarked brands of insecticidal poisons.

But for the Kohs, fighting the flea beetles—not to mention the Japanese beetles, the slugs, the aphids, the Colorado potato beetles, the squash bugs, and all their hungry kin—is a more delicate business. They use row covers, long gauzy stretches of spun polyester that shield the plants from too much sun and some of the pests. They also encourage ladybugs and other insect-eaters to nest among the plants. Two black and white cats patrol the perimeter, watching for field mice and rabbits. For slugs, the Kohs have used beer ("They drown in the beer," Ruth says. "They seem to like it"). And very occasionally, they'll resort to retenone or one of the few other chemicals approved for use on farms certified as "organic."

Most of the time, however, pest control on Laughing Buddha Farm is a matter of simple vigilance. Every day, Ruth (and Jit, when he's not at his day job teaching math at Webb School) does her rounds, hand-picking leaves and vegetables to wash and sell, plucking out any that appear unhealthy or damaged. The rejects go onto a compost pile, to be recycled eventually as fertilizer. Weeds likewise get yanked.

"Some people think you don't have any things in your arsenal," Ruth Koh says. "They think you just have to let the bugs eat the crop, and that's just not true. There are a lot of things you can do. Sometimes just spraying with water will get rid of the pests."

Organic farming is coming of age, in Tennessee and in the U.S. as a whole. Several small organic operations have sprung up near Knoxville in the last few years, reflecting an industry that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates is growing by 20 percent a year. Thanks to a strong economy and growing concern about food safety, consumer demand is up. While organic food still accounts for just 1 to 2 percent of the total agricultural market, it's made enough of a dent to provoke a concerted contrarian response from the commercial farming sector. As both the pro- and anti-organic choruses rise in volume, it will be harder to escape the debate about what we grow and why we buy it.

What Is Organic?

"Organics is not a fad. It has been a long-established practice—much more firmly grounded than the current chemical flair. Present agricultural practices are leading us downhill."

You can hear more or less identical quotes from any current advocates of organic growing. But the passage actually comes from an essay by J.I. Rodale, and it was published 46 years ago. Rodale, who was also the founder of Prevention magazine and the still-active Rodale Institute, is the father of American organic farming.

The movement's ancestry actually goes back further, all the way to the Weimar Republic. In 1924, German philosopher and mystic Rudolph Steiner—who also had a major impact on education with his Waldorf Schools—incorporated a complex cosmology with a practical approach to agriculture. He called it "biodynamics," and it was based on the rejection of chemicals and the belief that humans had to maintain a natural balance in cultivating crops and preserving the soil. Steiner encouraged the use of composted animal manure as fertilizer, creating a self-sustaining farm where each element fed the next. (Biodynamics is more stringent than modern organics, but it's still practiced on some farms, mostly in Europe and Australia.)

Then came Rodale. Born in Lehigh County, Pa., the one-time federal tax auditor parlayed a successful electrical equipment business into a publishing house that specialized in humor, etiquette, and health magazines. In the early 1940s, he read about research conducted by British scientist Sir Albert Howard in India. Howard advocated animal and vegetable waste in place of chemical fertilizers. Rodale bought a 60-acre farm in his hometown to test the practices, and was converted. In 1942, his company published the premiere issue of Organic Farming and Gardening—the first use of the word "organic." The agricultural world, which was busy developing more effective pesticides and herbicides, barely noticed. Rodale sent free copies of the magazine to 10,000 farmers across the country, but not one sent back a subscription card.

Rodale kept at it, publishing the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening in the 1950s and gaining a following in the "back to nature" counterculture of the 1960s. In 1971, the year he died, The New York Times Magazine wrote a cover story on Rodale declaring him "The Guru of the Organic Food Cult."

In the past 30 years, that cult has continued to grow, quietly at first but with increasing vigor. Defining what exactly constituted "organic," however, started to get complicated. Beyond the obvious issues of not using chemicals, there were questions of crop rotation, seed types, and the origins of the various materials used. (E.g., what if animal manure comes from animals who have been fed chemically-treated foods or injected with hormones?)

"It's a systems approach to agriculture," says Bob Shine, head of the Tennessee Land Stewardship Association, which oversees organic growing in the state. "You're looking at more than your profit. You're dealing with the health of your soil as well as the health of your bottom line. It's got to be economically viable, it's got to be environmentally viable, and it's got to enhance the quality of life—and that's not just for the farmer, it's for the consumer."

TSLA is one of dozens of monitoring groups that emerged around the country during the 1980s. As "organic" became a desirable label for more consumers, usually young and affluent ones, the need for a universal definition of the word became clear. Many European governments established organic standards, which have since fused into a single set of European Union regulations. But while some states have passed their own organic laws, the U.S. lacks a national code. In many places—such as Tennessee—that left it up to voluntary certifying organizations like TSLA. The group, made up of growers, gardeners, consumers, and agricultural extension agents, formed in 1990 and adopted standards based on those in other states and in Europe.

Shine says the U.S. currently has 45 different sets of standards in different parts of the country, but they're "97 percent" identical. And soon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue a 650-page national organic code that is expected to go to Congress for approval next year. The USDA has been working on the law for 10 years, since the National Organic Standards Act of 1990 first called for it.

In the meantime, TSLA has given "certified organic" status to a few dozen farms in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri. Shine has certified 32 growers this year. The certification process isn't easy, as Ruth Koh can testify. Laughing Buddha Farm just received its final approval, and as she hoists a 60-page packet of paperwork, Koh says, "When I first got this certification document, I thought, 'I'll never get this done.' It's worse than doing your income taxes. I mean, look at this, page after page after page."

The form asks detailed questions about the history of the farm, the experience of the farmer, the approaches to weed and pest control, the previous use of the land, etc. Among other things, any field that was used for "conventional" (i.e. chemically assisted) agriculture must lie fallow for three years before it can be used for organic growing.

But Koh's not complaining. She and her husband say the rigor of the standards is important to maintaining both the environment and the integrity of organic farming. Now, since receiving final approval a few weeks ago, the bags of salad mix the Kohs sell at the Knoxville Community Food Co-op boast the label "Certified Organic."

Why Organic?

So why go organic? Growers and consumers all give the same answers, a combination of health and environmental reasons. They argue that pesticides and chemical fertilizers accumulate in produce, and that a poison is a poison. Moreover, they say, the intensive farming practices of agribusiness deplete the soil and don't give a chance for natural rejuvenation. And many mention the emerging hot-button issue of food activists: genetically modified organisms, or GMO for short. GMO produce, in which genes from one vegetable or animal can be spliced into another (to make a tomato resistant to a particular kind of bacteria, for example), has been dubbed "Frankenfood" by skeptics who think it should have undergone stricter government testing.

"What got me interested was just years of being interested in good food and having a garden," says Carole Whitehead, the dean of Knoxville's organic community. "After you develop kind of a clean palate, I really think you can taste those petrochemicals on your food."

In the 1970s, Whitehead helped organize a natural foods buying club that evolved into the Knoxville Community Food Co-Op. In the early '90s, she and her husband Terry Todd started growing commercially on two acres of their 64-acre property in Corryton. Certified organic in 1992, they started selling the next year under the name Falling Star Farm. Since then, Whitehead has advised other local growers and even certified some of them (including Laughing Buddha) for TLSA. In addition to the Co-Op, she has sold her produce and eggs at the Knox County Farmer's Market and directly to restaurants.

Like a lot of small growers, Whitehead emphasizes that her food isn't just organic—it's local. That means it has less time to lose its taste and nutritional value between being harvested and eaten.

"I think what brings people back is the flavor," she says, "how good it tastes, how fresh it is."

Casey Spacht agrees. As produce manager at the Food Co-Op, he decided last year to stock only organic fruits and vegetables rather than the mix of organic and non-organic the store had before.

"For myself, I want to promote sustainable agriculture," says Spacht, surveying the Co-Op's vegetable cooler as he takes inventory. He also mentions "the biotech aspect—I want to know what's in my food. I want to eat a peach that I know is actually a peach and not have some GM organism in it."

With Whitehead taking the year off to work on her house, Spacht is relying on newer organic growers to supply him. Besides Laughing Buddha, there's Tamsen Farm in Hawkins County, near Rogersville. Like most of the other local operations, Tamsen is a husband-and-wife outfit, in this case Paul Miller and Athena Bradley.

"I believe that it matters whether we eat food that is adapted to the local environment," says Miller, who has worked in natural foods stores all over the country. (His wife is Knox County's recycling coordinator.) Tamsen Farm is, as the signs on its produce note, in the process of getting certified. Miller expects approval later this year. Among his crops are various kinds of gourmet vegetables, including Asian turnips and eggplants, along with heirloom tomatoes, sugar snap peas, corn, tomatillos, and peppers. As a side business, he plans to produce and package organic salsa.

"We try to grow things people are familiar with on some scale, but not the same garden varieties that are flooding the market," he says.

Many organic growers take a similar approach, specializing in produce that is otherwise hard to find. That's one reason Mahasti Vafaie, co-owner of the Tomato Head and Lula restaurants, gravitated to Whitehead as a vegetable supplier.

"It seems like the things Carole grows are just really beautiful," Vafaie says. "They're really fresh. She's just picked them." At the same time, she says she can't envision buying only organic produce for her businesses—it's too expensive. And that gets at one of the biggest obstacles for organics becoming more than a niche market.

At the Co-Op, for example, some of the produce prices don't seem too far from standard supermarket fare: 69 cents for a bunch of cilantro, $1.19 for a bag of spinach. On the other hand, green bell peppers at $5.65 a pound are much steeper than their conventional counterparts. (Besides produce, the Co-Op stocks an array of organic food that attests to the label's ubiquity: orange juice, flour, ice cream, peanut butter.)

"I'd like to make a profit," says Sarah Reagan, whose Willow Oak Farm in South Knox County just received its organic certification. "But on the other hand, I as a consumer really don't like paying the higher prices. I'd like to see it get to the point where it's not prohibitive for anybody to buy organic. It shouldn't be."

Growing Debates

Not everyone is as missionary about organics. State and federal agriculture departments, traditionally the bulwarks of big farm interests, have taken—publicly, at least—an assiduously neutral stance. They tend to promote organic produce as just one choice among many.

"We try to promote Tennessee farmers and Tennessee agricultural products," says Stanley Trout, a marketing specialist with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. "Organics are part of that."

Likewise, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, in a presentation to Congress a few months ago, was careful to say, "Just because something is labeled organic does not mean it is superior, safer or more healthy than conventional food."

At the Tennessee Farm Bureau, which lobbies on behalf of growers, commodity director Joe Pearson says, "In terms of traditional agriculture and produce, the concern about organic is that it not be promoted in such a way to produce undue concern about traditionally grown crops." On the other hand, he says, "We support agriculture in any form that produces more net income for growers."

Whitehead says when she sold from a stand at the Knox County Farmer's Market, she didn't encounter any skepticism or hostility from the other farmers. Instead, she found many of them were looking for ways to reduce their use of chemicals and were curious about her experiences.

But there's no question agribusiness interests have launched an anti-organic offensive. TLSA's Bob Shine says it showed up clearly in the first draft of the USDA's proposed organic rules, issued in 1997. Somewhere between the USDA and the White House's Office of Management and Budget, he says, "There were a good 60 pages that were totally changed... There was a lot that went on behind the scenes there."

The proposal would have allowed GMO foods to qualify as organic, as well as those treated with radiation or grown with "sewage sludge"—practices embraced by corporate growers and opposed by the organic movement. After a record number of public comments—more than 275,000—all three of those guidelines were changed. The Organic Trade Association still has dozens of complaints with the current proposal, but Shine says he thinks it's "very workable."

But in the meantime, corporate growers and chemical companies have started to raise counter-concerns about organic food. The website of Monsanto, a massive multi-national firm reviled by environmentalists for its production of everything from Agent Orange to pesticides to GMO foods, features articles with titles like "Is organic food really safe?"

One of the leading organic critics is Dennis T. Avery, who heads the Center for Global Food Studies at the conservative think tank the Hudson Institute. Avery was featured in a recent report on ABC's 20/20 warning about bacteria and fungi on organic food.

Speaking by phone from his office in Virginia, Avery—who served in the USDA during the Reagan administration—says organic growers' refusal to use chemicals leaves them open to natural threats. There's aflatoxin, for example, a carcinogenic mold that can show up on corn, peanuts, and other crops. Or E coli 0157. Although it gained national attention following soiled meat deaths on the West Coast, Avery says the bacteria can thrive in untreated crops.

"They don't wash off worth a damn," he says.

He also paints organic growing as anti-environmental, because he says it uses land less efficiently, producing less per acre. Avery attributes the organic boom to a combination of affluence—"This is the most expensive food on the market, so it must be the best"—and "political correctness" in the Clinton administration, particularly Environmental Protection Agency head Carol Browner.

"Carol Browner was appointed by Al Gore, whom she used to work for," he says. "And Al is trying to keep the greens enthusiastically in his corner for the election."

Really, Avery's biggest concern isn't that organic farming will take over, but that it gives credence to views that could lead to more—and, in his view, unnecessary—government regulation of agricultural practices.

Needless to say, Avery has his own detractors. They note the Hudson Institute receives substantial funding from Monsanto and other agribusiness giants. Paul Miller sees the attacks as scare tactics meant to sell the public on the various methods marketed by Monsanto et al to make food "safe."

"I'm sure you could find organic produce that contains bacteria or whatever it is that Avery and people like him are concerned about," Miller says. "But if you look at the real statistics in terms of food poisoning outbreaks, salmonella and things like that, commercial foods are far and away more dangerous than organic foods will ever be. ... I think part of it is an attempt to render our foods antiseptic, along with everything else in the environment."

How Big Can It Get?

Even without corporate opposition, organic farming faces some dilemmas if it continues to grow at its current rate. The mom-and-pop set-ups that have characterized much of it to date may not be able to keep up with the rising demand.

"I really hope that more and more people start growing organic produce, be it for sale or for themselves," says Sarah Reagan, who mostly sells to local restaurants (including Bistro by the Tracks). "We need a lot more."

On the other hand, if "more" means corporate organic farms with migrant workers and national distribution—as is already true in California, which produces much of the nation's organic supply—some growers aren't sure they like the idea. Miller sees the future in cooperatives of small growers, like one he belongs to in southern Virginia. By pooling their produce, the farmers can potentially provide enough to get the attention of major food retailers.

"The power of the big growers and the national produce distribution system is just enormous," he says, "and it's going to be a really tough row for small growers, whether they're organic or not."

And even at that, most local organic farmers don't ever anticipate making much of a living off the land. All of them have some other form of income to supplement their agricultural returns.

"We do not rely on this farm for our only income, and I would not suggest to anyone that they try that," Whitehead says. "Unless you really, really want to grow big and hire lots of people, it's very hard to make a lot of money."

And while she recognizes the need for standards, she says the pending legislation could have negative effects too if it introduces more hoops to jump through. "My fear, of course, is that when the government's in it, it will be more expensive, so much more expensive that we may not be able to do it. Or the paperwork will be such a headache we won't want to do it."

Miller, for one, has no ambition to grow beyond what he can comfortably farm.

"I'd like to keep it at a sustainable level that my wife and I can handle," he says. "Really, our goal is to make a modest living doing something we feel good about, that we believe benefits the local community and leaves behind something that's better than it was when we got here."

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