Deb Babcock: Organic gardening - a fertile field

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Mondays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

— If you get a chance to read Barbara Kingsolver's new book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - A Year of Food Life," you might find it quite interesting. Kingsolver's family spent a year trying to eat foods that only came from nearby their home in Virginia and from people they knew or could visit to see how the produce was grown or how the livestock was treated.

While we probably don't grow enough variety of food in the Yampa Valley to sustain ourselves with a well-balanced diet, there are many lessons in the book that we could learn from. And, we might be quite surprised at how much local food we can purchase here in the valley.

One of the topics hit upon in the book is organic gardening and what it means to purchase and eat food certified as "organic."

There is a wide range of thought on what constitutes organic gardening, from the purist view that forbids absolutely no disturbances to the soil or plants to those who simply eschew synthetic chemicals and genetically-modified seeds. Typically, organic gardeners use mechanical, cultural and natural/biological controls to manage nutrient deficiencies in the soil, insect pests, weeds and plant diseases. This includes the use of organic compost and aged manures instead of chemical fertilizers. Mulch using organic matter, such as table scraps, leaves, straw and discarded plant materials, is used for both weed control and fertilizer.

Because of this wide variation in organic gardening practices and the growing size of the organic produce market (over $10 billion), the US Department of Agriculture has established uniform national standards for produce using this label. Under the National Organic Program, a producer must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent to sell, label or represent their products as organic.

Generally, only relatively large-scale operations opt to go through the certification process, since it involves a sizeable annual fee and frequent on-site inspections. Growers who sell less than $5,000 annually are exempt from the certification rules.

Certified growers are required to follow uniform practices for growing organic plants and may not use genetic engineering, irradiation or sewage sludge on their crops. Nor may they use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides unless approved on a National List of synthetic substances available through the NOP. Additionally, certified organic gardeners agree to use seed and seedlings that are naturally-occurring, not genetically modified. They also agree to create barriers between organic produce and non-organic produce to help prevent cross-contamination of crops.

However, in May of this year, the USDA approved the use of 38 non-organic ingredients in processed (not raw) products labeled as USDA Organic. Some of these ingredients were requested by large industrial food processors and include non-organic food colorings, intestine casings from factory-farmed animals in organic sausages, fish oil that may contain toxins such as PCBs and non-organic hops used in beer labeled as organic.

What this means for the consumer is that if we choose to buy organic (and pay the usually higher price), we need to do our own homework if we truly wish to find out what is in the food we eat. Something labeled as USDA certified organic may actually contain non-organic ingredients.

For more information about this topic, check out the National Organic Program on the USDA Web site at www.ams.usda.gov/nop.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or email: gardeners@co.routt.co.us

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