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Organic or Local?

December 20th, 2009

Cal-Organic Farms, along with Earthbound, dominates the organic produce section in the supermarket. Cal-Organic is a big grower of organic vegetables in the San Joaquin Valley. As part of the consolidation of the organic industry, the company was acquired by Grimmway Farms, which already enjoyed a virtual monopoly in organic carrots. Unlike Earthbound, neither Grimmway or Cal-Organic has ever been part of the organic movement. Both companies were started by conventional growers looking for a more profitable niche and worried that the state might ban certain key pesticides. “I’m not necessarily a fan of organic,” a spokesman for Grimmway recently told an interviewer. “Right now I don’t see that conventional farming does harm. Whether we stay with organic for the long haul depends on profitability.

Philosophy, in other words has nothing to do with it.”

– Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
For the last several years Mr Chiots and I have been focusing on eating locally and organically. When I have the option, I like to buy local organic. When I don’t have that option, I chose local over organic. I could buy certified organic apples from Chile in the supermarket to eat instead of my non-certified semi-organic apples from a local orchard, and they’d probably be cheaper. Why do I choose a local product that probably has a few chemicals & pesticides on it? Because it’s important for me to know where our food is coming from. I know exactly what is on that apple because I can talk to the guy that grew it. I can visit his orchard and see what he does. I can’t visit the orchard in Chile, so how can I be sure it’s actually “organic”?
I’ve had a few great conversations with our local dairy/beef/chicken/egg farmers about this topic. They used to be certified organic and it got too expensive and too constrictive to keep up their certification. They had trouble finding good quality organic hay to feed the cows in the winter. Someone they knew had good quality hay that wasn’t certified organic, but since it’s wasn’t certified they couldn’t use it. They finally decided to drop their certification. Now they label themselves as “Voluntarily Organic”. Personally, I don’t mind that they don’t have the government seal, I’m glad they’re putting the health of their cows ahead of a label.
I’m guessing some of you have heard of the 4-year study conducted in Europe that concluded that organic food (including vegetables, fruit and milk) contained up to 40% more antioxidants than conventional food and were more nutritious (the percentage were up to 60% more antioxidants for organic milk). I wonder how the raw milk from the farm would stack up to conventional milk? I’m pretty sure it would be way better than 60%.
The problem with studies like this is that it’s hard to know what kind of organic products they used in testing. Did they use big-box organic, or small organic? Did they use produce that had been grown, picked, processed in another country and was flown halfway around the world, then sat on a grocery store shelf for a couple days before heading to your home. Did they leave it in the fridge for a few days before testing to make the study more authentic? I try not to put too much credibility in studies like these, even if they support my viewpoint. Studies can be done in such a way to get the desired outcome (sometimes looking at the funding will give you a good idea of what the outcome will be). I try not to get caught up in the hype about what’s “healthy” what’s not, what’s the “in” vegetable, fruit, nutrient, vitamin at the moment. It’s really too much to keep up with. We now try to focus on eating real whole food. Our diet would probably not be considered healthy by some because we eat lots of butter, drink whole milk, eat lots of animal fat. Bacon anyone?
The search for good quality real whole food is main reason I started to grow some of our food. I know exactly what’s in it, I know how it was grown. What I grow in my garden is the healthiest food available to me. It’s as organic and local as it gets. We’ve developed a hierarchy of food for ourselves.
Local Organic
Organic from local health food store
Organic from big chain grocery
I still buy food from far away, mangoes and plantains will never be local for me, and they’ll never be out of my diet. Coffee is a big NEED in this household as is good chocolate, local sources for those are not feasible either. I’m not striving to make my diet to be 100% local, but I want eat local when I can! I don’t want to rule out delicious food from far away, but I don’t want to eat only long distance food either. I really appreciate some of the things that local eating had taught me, we’re enjoying a much wider variety of food now. I also appreciate that organic is gaining popularity because I am able to find an organic option for just about everything I want. It seems like in our lives we’re finally achieving that balance between local, organic, and exotic.

Which do you focus on Local, Organic or a patchwork of both?

22 Comments to “Organic or Local?”
  1. tigress on December 20, 2009 at 7:44 am

    Umm, apparently we were ilk neighbors at some point because our food hierarchy, the reason i started growing much of our food, my feelings on eating local and enjoying some things from afar, and our diet of real food (sans the meat for me, but butter, whole raw milk, cheese, lots of [sourdough] bread) is pretty much uncannily the same.

    -and that photo of the fridge in a previous post – could have been mine!
    .-= tigress´s last blog ..indian spiced pumpkin tea cake =-.

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  2. Teresa O on December 20, 2009 at 8:35 am

    When I can get local, I prefer it. As the former wife of a farmer, I had it all at one time. We lived and ate by the seasons. We raised our children on black angus beef sans growth hormones, the vegetable garden was huge and into the freezer or pantry went the vegetables. Across the road a family grew strawberries that put their daughters through college and provided Junes filled with jam making and strawberry eating. An apple orchard was just a hop, skip, and jump away. All around us were neighbors with dairy cows, fresh eggs,and pork. With the dying out of the family farm rural areas have lost local foods that once upon a time were so readily available.

    I, too, buy foods that cannot be produced locally. Oranges, bananas, avacadoes, and pineapple are just a few.

    Excuse the rant…the dying out of family farms and access to local food hits a nerve. .
    .-= Teresa O´s last blog ..View from My Window =-.

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  3. Tree on December 20, 2009 at 9:27 am

    I am so jealous. I too talk with my local farmers and know that a lot of them don’t use pesticides and fertilizers and practice what in NYS must be called “Natural” methods (so as not to confuse use dumb consumers with certified organic) but the certification to timely and expensive and invasive to keep up. I spoke with my milk man, Brent. I have been buying milk from him for 2 years now. I wanted to get my milk in refillable glass containers, because recycling 2 gallon milk jugs every week is an ethical dilema for me. Brent said he would love to offer his milk in glass containers, but to do so he would have to have a different set up (sterilization of the returned glass jars, etc.) that simply isn’t feasible. If he were caught refilling my glass jars (even though they would always be my jars and not someone elses – like Byrne Dairy does) he could lose his entire business. Now I certainly understand that. I wish NYS would let consumers be consumers. What ever happened to Buyer Be Ware? What ever happened to doing your homework? Oh yes, I remember we got lazy and we decided we wanted the goverment to protect us from our bad decisions. We is collective as I certainly didn’t make that decision. I have always bought used cars, and I have never bought a lemon, why? Because I take it for a long test drive, to a trusted mechanic, I check the interior and exterior with a fine tooth comb and a magnet, I make sure that what I am spending my hard earned dollars on is worth my hard earned dollars. And in 3 months or 3 years when something does break I know its because it was a used car and I am ready for this sort of thing. All I want is my milk in 1 gallon glass jars (I will even buy special milk jars and not use old pickle jars) but no NYS has decided for me that this is not a safe practice, but where has NYS been in all the food illnesses in the last 2 years? Why is NYS spending so much time harrassing the small farmer while the big farmers aren’t being checked?
    .-= Tree´s last blog ..Snow! =-.

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    • Susy on December 20, 2009 at 9:39 am

      When the farm we buy from, started selling milk they went through the same issues. They really wanted to use glass bottles but it was too expensive and too much of a hassle. This year they let us start taking in our own glass (hence the half gallon mason jars). I drop them off at the farm the night before they bottle our milk and pick them up the day after bottling. I don’t know if it’s legal or not, but buying raw milk in Ohio isn’t legal. I suppose it’s probably legal since technically it’s my cow that I’m drinking milk from so I can bottle my milk however I want.

      It’s crazy that we have to jump through so many hoops to be able to get the things we want to eat. All the rules, guidelines and bureaucracy it makes buying small, local, sustainable much more difficult! These are the very products that are the safe ones for us to consume. So these rules are really doing the opposite of what they’re supposed to do – that is if you believe the rules are there to benefit the consumer instead of big business. I have a tendency to believe that legislation is made to benefit big business and those that donate big to the politicians, instead of the consumers like they’re supposed to. But I suppose if we were all donating thousands/millions they might be willing to back legislation that was beneficial for us.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  4. Ria on December 20, 2009 at 10:41 am

    Buying local for me is more difficult than I first thought, since I don’t have a car and most of the produce in our local “farmer’s market” is actually from a big-name chain. Right now I’m striving to eat more organix foods where I can since eating mostly local isn’t too feasible at the moment. If I find locally-grown foods, so long as they’re not smothered in pesticides and chemicals, I suspect they might win out over purely organic stuff because I wholeheartedly endorse supporting the local economy.

    In a nutshell, I suppose I’m pretty patchworked about it all too. :)
    .-= Ria´s last blog ..Meat with meaning. =-.

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  5. uberVU - social comments on December 20, 2009 at 11:18 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Organic_Hive: Organic or Local? | Chiot’s Run

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  6. Colleen on December 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I had to smile when I read your post and saw plantains among the list of items you won’t be giving up just to eat local. My husband is Cuban, and we “cook Cuban” for many of our meals – so we eat a lot of plantains in our house. Over the last several years, we’ve transitioned for the most part away from conventional food and over to local and/or organic eating. And we too prefer local organic foods. If we can’t get that, we go with local non-organic (as long as we have a good understanding of the farmers’ growing methods) – and if we can’t get that, we go to organic non-local… and on to conventional when there is no other alternative. So we’re not locavore or organic “purists” (except when it comes to meat and eggs, which we eat strictly local-only) – but we are definitely more careful and informed consumers than we’ve ever been. And plantains are high on our list of things we won’t give up just because they don’t grow in New Hampshire!
    Thanks for the great post!
    :) Colleen
    .-= Colleen´s last blog ..when snowed in, make chicken stock! =-.

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    • Susy on December 20, 2009 at 9:55 pm

      Oh, I could never give up plantains!!! I love them in so many ways, fried green so they’re crispy, fried ripe and sweet. I think one of my most favorite ways is baked and stuffed with guava & cheese – MMMMM.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  7. Christine on December 20, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    For farmers that aren’t interested in government certification or spending the big bucks to become certified organic, there’s been a movement to have Certified Naturally Grown farms. Smaller farms can have a fellow farmer come out, check out their operation, and then become a CNG farm for much much less money. I’m not a huge fan of government certification for that sort of thing (it allows things that shouldn’t be, and doesn’t allow things that should), but it’s an interesting option for small farms.
    .-= Christine´s last blog ..Good news! =-.

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    • Susy on December 20, 2009 at 9:55 pm

      Thanks, I’ll check in to that.

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  8. kristin @ going country on December 20, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    Local–my own or a family member’s food. When I have to buy stuff at the grocery store, I don’t even bother with organic certifications.
    .-= kristin @ going country´s last blog ..Yet More High Fashion, Maternity-style =-.

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  9. risa b on December 20, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    We are focused on local. There are some differences between the 2 of us as to where to draw the line, as I am more tolerant of bland +seasonal and am living almost entirely on what we grow, plus a few bought grains.

    “Certified organic” has come to mean, to me, “paying bribes to big biz and its henchmen in the govt.” and so we grow it ourselves and it’s not certified but we have some idea what it is. A lot of the local small farmers feel the same way and instead of “organic” they label their heaps of nice stuff with “no pesticides or artificial fertilizers used.”
    .-= risa b´s last blog ..This would be the year for that =-.

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  10. Maureen on December 20, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    LOVE, love, love this post Susy!!! You said everything we believe but much better than I could have. Now I can just link to yours instead of having to write it myself…..thanks :)
    .-= Maureen´s last blog ..Something’s Missing =-.

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  11. A. Gifford on December 20, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    There are lots of farmers at my local markets that say they are “chemical free” if they are organic but not certified. We eat all organic or chemical free (homegrown or from the farmers market for preference) because I have allergic reactions to pesticides and other chemicals. Even produce that’s IPM bothers me. It’s inconvenient but forces us to eat healthy! I’m growing as much as I can but also love going to the farmers market and getting to know the individual vendors.

    Thanks for your wonderful blog.

    Reply to A. Gifford's comment

  12. MAYBELLINE on December 20, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Since Grimmway Farms is right here in Bakersfield, California, I guess I would be using both local and organic. However, I try to grow my own. When I’m in a pinch, I will buy local. Never ever any other country except if I need a banana.
    .-= MAYBELLINE´s last blog ..Fog Delay =-.

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    • Susy on December 20, 2009 at 9:56 pm

      I think if I had space and time I’d grow most of my own. But since those are both limited at the moment – I’ll buy. I’ll keep dreaming of day when I can though!

      Reply to Susy's comment

  13. Sharon on December 20, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Loved this blog post! I’m always trying to go local over organic. Not all local food is organic however; at least not where I’ve been searching — NYC and CT so you really need to know what to ask the farmers before assuming anything of their produce. Well written article.

    Would love to know what you think of my blog! :) feel free to leave a comment:
    .-= Sharon´s last blog ..Food Safety – FDA can’t trace tainted foods =-.

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  14. Darvin @ Organic Food Coupons on December 21, 2009 at 1:40 pm

    Great post. I agree completely with your prioritization of local over organic, where you can’t have both. Your personal reasons, in terms of being able to speak with the grower and see what they’re using, but there’s a more altruistic reason I agree with this too. By buying local, you help reduce the pollutants that go into our atmosphere, during the transportation of the “non-local” goods to your store!
    .-= Darvin @ Organic Food Coupons´s last blog ..Do Follow Blog, Comment, Keyword Luv and Top Commenter =-.

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  15. Sophie on December 22, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    My algorithm is identical to yours, in that very same order! I choose local over organic and family farm over commercial farm. Conventional local family beats commercial organic for me.

    I too eat foods from away, but only if they don’t/won’t grow here (bananas, plantains, coffee, chocolate, olives,and so on). I won’t eat apples from New Zealand since I live in a region (CT/NY area) that grows the tastiest apples! Even in the off season–I’ll wait!

    I eat local fro a number of reasons and near the top of the list is food security. Not just the health and safety aspect, but also availability.
    .-= Sophie´s last blog ..Local Meal of the Week (DDELC09/10 #5) =-.

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  16. Kevin@Tomato Heirloom Seeds on January 17, 2010 at 7:02 pm


    Very good post! I have been learning about the superiority of the organic produce for a couple years now. I have learned from numerous studies in my research both personally and for college last year, that they are indeed higher in nutrients. It is amazing also to learn of the power of natural whole foods, and the ailments they cure when that lifestyle is followed.
    I have a big garden and have been following organic gardening practices and the soil is a better producer and the plants are healthier and bear more fruits.
    From what I have learned, raw milk blows the others completely out of the water.
    Thank you for your blog post, I learned much and will be back for more.
    .-= Kevin@Tomato Heirloom Seeds´s last blog ..Do Follow Blog, Commentluv, Keywordluv =-.

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  17. Plant Liquid on June 15, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Thankyou for the information, have you tried ShoreGrow an al alternative fertilizer? It is a seaweed fertilizer that is offering some great results for a varierty of plants and is completely organic!

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  18. Organic or Local? | Food Before Thought on June 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    […] of the big, cheap organic food for the same reason people often ignore organic food: convenience. This blogger does a great job of breaking down why local food is important. And I am certainly inclined to agree […]

    Reply to Organic or Local? | Food Before Thought's comment


This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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