Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Vermont’s Great California Debate

Cal-Organic. Earthbound Farms. Driscoll’s Berries.

I often wonder whether the ears of folks involved in California agriculture are perpetually burning from the intensity of Vermont coffee-shop debate over the environmental, ethical, and economic value of left-coast commercial organic produce.

Our sparsely-populated, Green Mountain-rippled little state has the highest density of farmers’markets and micro-brewers and the lowest density of McDonald’s and Walmarts in the country. Buy Local is the official Vermont mantra, though we don’t complain when a local food business manages to sell in the wide world beyond our borders. Bove’s Spaghetti Sauce, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Cabot Cheese, and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream are just a few of our local-folks-done-good contributions to the wider culinary world.

While Buy Local is the motto, its two subtexts are Buy Organic and Grow Your Own. Just about everyone gardens, and just about anything you grow in your garden can be bought from the guy up the road. Until it snows.

When it snows, Vermonters linger around the produce section of our natural food co-ops and New England-owned supermarket chains and bravely poke the shrinking piles of locally grown potatoes, beets, and carrots. As the holidays pass by and the long bleak sweep of howling winds and snow-tunnel roads begins to stretch long and lean between the New Year and the advent of Mud Season, we pray in vain that this might be the week someone gets out there and digs up fresh parsnips.

Silently, furtively, the bags of California organic produce start slipping into grocery carts. This happens about the same time that cabin fever sets in, a seasonal mental illness that renders everyone glassy-eyed and abjectly cranky. Vitamin D deficiency may play a role; we don’t get any from the sun here from late November to around February. Napping through this dark time is really the best strategy.

Unfortunately, that napping gets interrupted by The Voice From The Kitchen: “You bought those damn California carrots, didn’t cha?”

“Yeah, but they’re organic.”

“Organic my ass, it took a half a tank of A-rab oil to drive them here. No wonder we’re running up eight trillion dollars a week fighting wars in the Middle East what with you buying California carrots.”

“We were out of carrots. And don’t start with that whole the-war’s-all-my-fault thing.

“If we’re out of carrots then we’re meant to be out of carrots. We still have lacto-fermented beets and canned fiddleheads and there’s plenty of milk from Jake.”

“Jake is locking his undocumented workers in an unheated bunkhouse for the winter to stay in business; I’m not buying his milk so forget it. At least those California organic farms treat their workers decent.”

“Says who, the Labor Department? Like we can trust the government? Look at this, USDA Organic Seal right there. Who ya think they paid off to get that? I don’t need any government-approved food in my house. I’m taking these carrots over to Jake’s cows.”

Door slams. Truck won’t start in the cold. Carrots get abandoned in the pick-up bed till spring when they are washed out with a hose to provide rich organic nutrients for the weeds growing in the driveway.

The mid-winter conversation down at the diner runs much the same: Organic is better than non-organic. Local is better than organic. Local organic is better than anything. We should boycott certified organic products so as to discourage further governmental regulation. Commercial farms, organic or not, are part of the military-industrial-pharmaceutical complex and need to be banished from the face of the planet. Sure, organic growing saves a little petrol but then it’s shipped 3,000 miles. The country is going to hell in a handbasket because of the whole ethanol thing. If they let us grow hemp, none of this would have happened.

Eventually, spring comes around, the local parsnips get dug up, the first greens and radishes and carrots appear from those clever folks with hoophouses and hot beds full of local organic cow manure, and debate ceases because our mouths are full of all the salad we can stuff in there.

A few summers ago, though, a shocking development left Vermont localvores uncharacteristically speechless. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a report entitled “Pathway to Global Product Safety and Security” that chronicles the ever-increasing difficulty theFDA has keeping track of food imports. The kicker that left Vermonters unable to speak: Apparently, over 66 percent of our produce and 80 percent of our seafood is imported from other countries—with naught but an occasional look-see by our trustworthy governmental officials to see what toxic residues or deadly spiders they may be carrying, but that’s another story. It’s the 66 percent of produce flying in from foreign shores that floored us.

Vermonters tend to identify themselves as Vermonters, citing the years in which Vermont was an Independent Republic. Our military pride arises from relations with the Vermont National Guard, and while we are socially liberal we are politically conservative and rather anti-federalist, which confuses people. There’s a strong streak of libertarianism, or maybe communitarianism, in all of us. We might not like our neighbor much, but when his barn’s burning at 2 a.m. we are there in our pajamas walking cows out of the flames and hauling hoses and buckets.

The whole thing about that 66 percent has compelled us to remember, in a positive sense, that Vermont is indeed part of a broader union of states. Although it’s summer and we are awash in genuine local produce, we are looking at that California organic produce in a more neighborly and less conflicted light.

Local organic-but-not-certified-by-the-dang-government may well be best. After that it gets a little fuzzy, but one clear sentiment is gelling in our communitarian minds: California carrots—and garlic, plums, strawberries, asparagus, and just about anything else you can name—are a damn sight better than Chinese carrots, and that’s a fact. And if our kids sneak a box of California-grown strawberries into the reusable grocery shopping bags next December, well, at least they’re eating produce—and American produce at that.

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