The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Industrial Fertilizers At The Farmers Market?

November 2nd, 2009 · 5 Comments · Posted in Sustainability

Boosted with chemicals?

Do you boost your broccoli with chemicals?

Call me naive, but for some reason I never expected to run into a farmer using chemical fertilizers on his produce right here in Dupont Circle, the premier farmers market in the nation’s capitol.

But I couldn’t help wondering when I saw this vendor’s table groaning under the biggest, most gigantic broccoli I’d ever seen. My own broccoli haven’t even headed yet. Had this farmer planted his much earlier than I? Nope–beginning of August, just like me.

Well then, maybe my broccoli don’t get enough sun. Around our garden, the sun disappears behind the house in the afternoon. The farmer screwed up his face a little. “They do like a lot of trace elements,” he said. “Boron, mostly.”

But do you put anything in the soil? Lots of good compost? Surely, I pressed, he must use something, perhaps manure.

“We use commercial fertilizer,” he said firmly. Stunned, I figured he meant just a little commercial fertilizer. Nope, he said, “10-20-20,” meaning 10 percent nitrogen, 20 percent phosphate and 20 percent potassium.

That’s huge.

Chemical fertilizers are not organic and are not considered sustainable because they eat up fossil fuels in the making and in transporting them to the fields. Plus, chemical fertilizers are responsible for polluting watersheds, depleting the soil and increasing carbon emissions. Those are all reasons why organic farmers don’t use them.

There’s nothing that says “local” farmers can’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. There’s no law against conventional growers selling their produce at the farmers market. But somehow it just doesn’t seem right. Isn’t that why we go to the farmers market, to find food that’s been grown sustainably, without chemicals and all that?

As far as I can tell from its website, FreshFarm Markets, the organization that runs the Dupont Circle farmers market, as well as the new White House market and several others in the Washington, D.C., area, makes no claims that its vendors are all organic. In fact, some farmers are so far beyond organic they make no effort to comply with the federal guidelines. But should farmers who are using industrial fertilizers and pesticides on their fields be required to label their produce as such at the farmers market?

What would Michelle Obama say?

It seems to me like a little more disclosure is in order. What do you think?

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  • JBL

    Though I think I am with you on the point that local food, sustainable farming, and farmer’s markets fit together, I am not sure the connection is a necessary one. As you say, it’s not regulated in this way, but even if the question arose with the markets’ governing board, I am not sure that banning conventional farmers is the way to go. It’s a rough living most of the time, farming. Closing farmers’ markets to conventional farmers would only shrink the market for their produce all the more, hastening the sale of their land, perhaps, to bigger, more industrial set ups.

    And if your goal is food system reform, it seems to me that you have to live with something all reformers eventually confront: what’s more important? Half measures and partial progress, or the beauty of my own principles? It’s not all or nothing, of course. But it seems to me it only hurts your movement if you shrink its constituency very much.

    And if you want to act–as I am certain you do and have already–vote with your pocket book. It’s been a while since I’ve read Pollan, but isn’t that one of his points? I know you don’t appreciate some of his stuff, but this is a good argument. It’s only by making the farming way of life a livable way of life that people will stay in it or move into it. We can influence that life with our choices, which is a point you often make, and which I appreciate.

    Keep up the good work.

  • honeysock

    As you’ve noted in previous blogs, it’s all about the bottom line. Like any other businessman, a farmer (or restaurateur, or winemaker) can have good intentions for sustainable practices, but if he doesn’t make enough money to stay in business, what’s the point? I’ve had to remove menu items because the locally-produced ingredients we tried to use were so expensive, it drove up the menu price and our customers wouldn’t order them. The broccoli farmer has to compete, even at a farmer’s market. And if no one’s making him follow guidelines (how many shoppers quiz him as heavily as you did?), why shouldn’t he go the commercial route?

    I’m all for organic. I confess I wonder how the small organic farmers are making enough of a profit to stay in business. Organic/green/sustainability won’t become widespread enough to matter until laws change and big $$ is at stake. Just my opinion.

  • kevin

    I think you’re being somewhat naive. At the market I go to those who are organic make a point of advertising it. Even those who aren’t certified will have a sign that’s reads something like “We use organic farming methods,” somewhere on the booth. I assume the others aren’t. I buy at the farmers market not to get organics – which I have mixed thoughts about – but because I want to support my local farmers and, mostly, because the food is better.

  • foodperson

    I’m surprised at your surprise. I generally expect that the local farmers use *less* chemicals than big industrial growers, but unless they specify organic methods or something similar, I assume they use chemicals. But that’s the advantage of shopping at your local farmers market: You can look the farmer in the eye and ask, “How did you grow this?” and if you don’t like the answer you can say, “that’s too bad; guess I’ll shop elsewhere” and generally be able to follow through.

  • Ed Bruske

    JBL, we could also talk about how the global warming issue is going to come down on the use of chemical fertilizers and whether the fossil fuel inputs that go into the production of these oversized broccoli can be tolerated in the long run.

    Honeysock, I would say the farmers who set up shop in D.C. are definitely charging what the market will bear. I certainly appreciate that they need to make a living, but I’m not sure using chemical fertilizers is a necessary component of that equation.

    Kevin, Agribiz waved its big, hairy finger at Michelle Obama for going organic in her White House garden. I wonder if it would be at all comforted to know that unless the First Lady is interrogating all the vendors at the new White House farmers market, there’s every chance she might be serving Sasha and Malia vegetables that have been treated with chemical fertilizers.

    Janet, maybe I’m surprised because up to this point all the local farmers I’ve dealt with–either those selling in farmers markets or via CSAs–have all been growing with organic methods. This seems like a throwback to me, and I wonder what you would find if you polled the other shoppers at the Dupont Circle market.