Friday, September 3, 2010

In search of the Big "O": Finding Locally Grown Organic Produce

Sure, chocolate is sexy, in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. But when you are ready for a more meaningful culinary relationship, one that you can really sink your teeth into, nothing is quite as perfect as the pleasures of produce.

Consider the tomato, with it’s beautiful, clear complexioned skin. It is firm to the touch, it has a beautiful tantalizing aroma, your mind reels with all of the wonderful things you can do with it. And best of all, this particular plump beauty you have found is pure, big “O” organic! Or is it?

“All-natural”, “hormone-free”, “locally-grown” and “pesticide free” are all terms that you may see applied to produce and other products at your local supermarket or farmers market. But do those steps make a product “organic”? Not necessarily.

The term “organic” is actually a legal term which is defined and governed by the United States Department of agriculture.

The National Organic Program (NOP) is a certification program administered by the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) that requires all organic foods to meet strict government standards. These standards regulate how foods are grown, handled and processed. Any single-ingredient food that meets the criteria can carry the USDA label of 100% organic.

Anyone who has tackled the challenge of going organic in their own home gardens knows that the process does sometime mean more work. At home, the temptation to use just a little bit of pesticide or fast-acting fertilizer is sometimes too hard to resist. Organic farmers are strictly forbidden from utilizing any of those quick, but harmful, methods.

Under the National Organic Program, organic produce is grown without any antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or other harmful chemicals. Farmers use all natural fertilizers and often hand-pick insect pests. To earn the NOP Organic label, all of their procedures are carefully monitored by third party certifiers, including the entire handling, processing and shipping of the products.

September is National Organic Harvest Month. It’s a great time to support local organic farms that are taking steps to create products that are healthier for consumers and for the planet.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has a great list of Maryland Certified Organic Growers, Retailers, Processors & Handlers (pdf).

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services provides this list of Certified Organic Producers.

"Organic" Vegetable Gardening at Home
The NOP Organic designation does not apply to gardeners that grow produce for their own consumption. However, to provide the same benefits to your produce and to the environment, here are some suggested tips for organic vegetable gardening.

Amend the Soil 
* Before planting, amend the soil with organic matter such as compost, manures, coffee grounds etc. Continue to do this once or twice a year.

• Use organic fertilizers which are plant, animal or mineral based. These are generally slow release and can’t burn the plants.

• Liquid seaweed (ex. Maxicrop) makes a great foliar spray for plants that produce food. Spray both sides of the leaves until they drip weekly for vegetable plants and monthly for fruit bearing trees, etc.

Methods of Insect Control 
• Insecticidal soap. • Ultra-fine Horticultural Oil.

• To control caterpillars use Bt. (Bacillus Thuringensis)

• Mechanical Controls such as Agrofabric row covers, staking or caging plants & sticky traps.

Weed Control
• Mulch, mulch, mulch!

• Corn gluten is not only a natural preemergent herbicide but it is also a great source of organic Nitrogen..

• Vinegar has been found to kill annual weeds!

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