Where’s the Worm?
I’m just back from the organic market, Whole Foods in this case, with just a few items I can’t find anywhere else.
I remember when our local Whole Foods first opened. I was so excited! Finally, real organic produce! Vegetables with splotches and blotches and bruised dents and odd shapes! Apples with worms and cracks and little raised white pimples! Tomatoes with scars! Small, thin-skinned oranges, some the size of billiard balls!
You’ll scarcely believe me, but I was deeply disappointed when I first walked into that store and saw all the picture-perfect groceries. The first question I had to ask myself was, “Where does this stuff come from? How can it be organic and so perfect-looking at the same time?”
Both of my grandfathers grew up on organic farms in Appalachia. The farms weren’t organic by choice; they were organic by location and time period. The harsh reality of true organic farming led both of my grandfathers into white collar jobs – one of them by sheer hard work and luck, the other by a two-year stint at “Normal School.” Neither one of them ever grew nostalgic about farming or dreamed of returning to the profession, even though they stayed close to home all their lives.
Let’s look at the reality of true organic farming in the early 20th century:
*The only fertilizer was what came out of your cows, so you had to keep and feed a small herd at least. This tied up land for grazing and necessitated early-morning and evening milking, not to mention keeping the cows themselves healthy.
*Pigs ate a lot and smelled bad. Butchering was a messy ordeal for both man and beast.
*Free range chickens quickly got too tough to eat any other way than in stew – if they didn’t first get eaten by foxes or snakes.
*Produce was subject to the vagaries of the weather and the presence of pests that also loved to eat it. Worm in the apple? Cut around it. Dry summer? Hungry winter.
Even the states with perfect soil and growing conditions didn’t yield the kind of picture-perfect foodstuffs you find today at organic grocery stores. How do I know this? I’m old, and I have traveled.
So, if you want real organic, personally-tended produce, you go to the farmer’s market, right? Ahem, not so quick.
One of my uncles has a large farm in the bottom lands, where he grows sweet corn as his cash crop. His son and grandsons sell the sweet corn from a rickety stand at the edge of the road. Local folks call ahead and order 100 ears for canning; the rest gets sold at the stand. Oh, boy, what delicious corn! You can have it from the stalk to the table in three hours! Sweet as honey, melts in your mouth. Occasional worm, but nothing widespread.
About a decade ago, I happened to be visiting in the spring. My uncle was planting the year’s sweet corn crop. He had a big bag of bright pink chunks, the size of ping-pong balls, bearing an odor that would gag a goat. These were his sweet corn seeds. Each seed was encased in layers of fertilizer and insecticide. The corn had been genetically engineered, as well: This variety was called “Sweetie 82.”
Again I am old enough to remember organic sweet corn. The ears were skinny and sometimes only halfway dotted with kernels. Worms nestled abundantly in the silk. In years that had too much or too little rain, the corn might not yield at all. Only those with a deep and abiding faith in God would try to make a profit off of it. (In those years, Uncle did dairy.)
Maybe I just don’t know enough about large-scale organic farming. If you do, please explain it to me. Everything I’ve learned from observation and experience leads me to the conclusion that the produce in today’s supermarkets cannot have achieved such perfection by organic means. To me, “no pesticides, no fertilizers” means bug-eaten and spindly. We’ve taken all the uncertainties out of farming, but at what cost? What’s behind all that perfection?
Anne Johnson is the author of the humor blog “The Gods Are Bored.”
She is also the author of several nonfiction books for young adults and a contributor to the Llewellyn’s 2013 Witches’ Spell-a-Day Almanac.