The Counterculture Organic Movement
Punk music is anti-establishment, unapologetic, raw truth, … just like organic food. Punk rock is music of the people, played on a minimal amount of instruments. Punk embraces a DIY ethic, doing it for yourself is it’s own reward. Almost everyone has access to what makes punk rock rock. The same ease of entry and idealism drives the organic food movement. The growing awareness of organic foods has become a big business. Just as punk took root in social circles that rejected the mainstream, the organic movement rejected mainstream, high-tech agriculture and embraced getting back to the basics.
Becky Miller is passionate about farming. She is the Volunteer Coordinator for Green Door Gourmet, a small organic farm in Nashville TN. In the air-conditioned barn that offered a break from the summer heat, Miller, wearing a pastel yellow scoop-necked tee, and a worn Miller High Life cap allowing her tousled, blonde hair to poke out the back and sides, sat down to talk about her organic farming. “One of the things we have run into with having a lot of different small farms is distribution,” said Miller. “Farmers are expected to do everything. So, the distribution is just this huge gap that nobody really knows how to fix. Because the margins of food are so small, it’s really hard for a distributor to make a lot of money as that middleman, and manage all the logistics of small farms and try to weather all the little things that are happening.”
According to the book, Persistence Pays, American farming went through a profound change in the twentieth century with the industrialization of agriculture. Our modern, largely industrialized U.S. food system has only been widely established for less than a century. By the mid-twentieth century, the world population was booming. Traditional agriculture couldn’t feed all of the additional people. Small farms weren’t cutting it and they struggled to keep up. The solution was to incorporate technology into farming to produce product on a large scale.
“In farming it’s all about scale.” said Miller. “If you’re a small farm, it’s not really worth it to connect with a large distributor. They have to come and pick up your 20 pounds of tomatoes and it’s just not worth it for them to come out and pick it up.”
Across town, Allan Powell is the owner of Nashville Grown, a food distribution service for small organic farms and restaurants. A full, white beard covers his face and blends into his curly brown hair that’s pulled back into a ponytail. Armed with a clipboard and pen, he bounds out of his delivery truck.
“Nashville grown is called a food hub.” explains Powell. “What we basically do is aggregate food from a number of smaller family-type farms. We provide a website that allows people who want to buy that food to get on and place their order. My job is to come pick up the food from farms and then to put it all together, get it delivered, collect the money, and then redistribute the money.”
“Allen is doing a really great job of being flexible enough to work with all these teeter totter weather, food and people.” said Miller. “We need him and we love working with him. He comes out here and he takes produce from us and it’s wonderful. He manages all those logistics for us. It’s a tough job.”
Conventional farms use synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides engineered to make growing more efficient. “[Giving] plants a lot of nitrogen and energy right up front [helps plants] grow. It’s great for the first couple of years, then you use up your soil health, [which encourages the growth of] superweeds.” she explained.
“I tend to think of it as the fast food of farming.”
The term organic didn’t have its current meaning until recently. After ten years of debates, the USDA established “organic” guidelines and seal in 2002.
Consumers deserve labels that say more about our food — labels that are backed up by rigorous standards like George Avalos’ “USDA Organic” seal. George Avalos worked in the USDA’s Office of Communications and designed the seal. “If you look at the logo, it’s basically a field of green, the crop rows, ‘USDA,’ ‘organic,’ and a circle,” said Aves, “I didn’t go deep into any concepts.”
Green Door Gourmet has 350 acres, 150 of which are certified organic. “Organic is a word that is regulated by the government. And you cannot use it unless you follow their standards and are certified by somebody who is in line with those standards.” said Miller.
“An organic farm is a farm that’s paid a third party to come out and certify you are following established rules made by the government.” Miller continued, “Organics require you to do things like rotate your crops, and use cover crops, use alternative pest management, and just different things to help with the quality of your soils.”
“The prices tend to reflect how much money is being spent on the farm; in terms of labor and certification.” Miller explained, “You do have to pay to get certified. Not only do you have to pay your certifying provider, but you also have to pay an employee to do all the logs and the logistics and the paperwork. [Organic farming] requires more hands-on labor. So, that’s more cost in terms of just the actual paying of people to go out there and weed, or to cultivate.”
“On the flip side of things people tend to pay more money for organics because It’s a really easy way to identify to the person, ‘Hey, this is good food’.” Miller said.
One of the more surprising organic restaurants is located in the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. Executive Chef Donovan Pritchard runs and operates the Zoofari Cafe, and Taste of the Wild catering at the zoo. “I really [want] to showcase the quality of the ingredients and what Middle Tennessee has to offer from an agricultural standpoint. I like to keep things as simple as possible.” he said.
“I discover the dish as I put it together. I have an idea of what I want it to be and how I want to get there but it’s a journey from start to finish. Local organic produce tells the best story and I want to tell the best story and provide the best experience.”
In Nashville’s Savier Park parking lot is a bright red food truck, sporting an Eiffel Tower in its logo. “Sourcing local, working with wonderful local fresh ingredients definitely brings a nice taste to our food.” said Brittney Blackshear, owner of Crêpe A Diem food truck. “I think that’s one of the reasons [why] I’m so passionate about French food; is that it’s quite simple. [It’s] not covered up by a bunch of sauces or anything. It really lets the ingredients shine for what they are.”
“Sourcing local food is not only just about the taste, it’s also about being responsible and acting sustainably. If you think about it, if I pick up ingredients directly from Market, it didn’t have to go from this port to be shipped around and grown with pesticides, and all these things. It’s supporting farmers who practice sustainable ways of agriculture in farming, and using livestock. And that’s something that I believe in. To support that culture and the local community around me, and sustainable minded businesses.” said Blackshear.
Miller echoed Blackshears’ sentiments about local produce. “Separating ourselves from agriculture has just been a just real detriment to our culture. ‘Culture’ is a part of agriculture. They speak to each other.” said Miller. “As long as we can keep those circles and connections working, I think that will make better choices in terms of what we’re doing and the policies we make and the food we purchased.”
Allan Powell observed, “I’m guessing that most people like the idea of a strong local economy. Most people like the fact that they can figure out where their food comes from. Most people like the idea that they have contributed to something really beneficial in their local environment.”
Pritchard’s observance was more simplistic. “I look at cooking as like old school punk rock.” said Pritchard. “Three chords in your face. Really simple. If it’s true and it’s honest, it’s awesome.”
“Local farm fresh is the way we’re going to go if we want to be independent and have a strong economic, financial, and spiritual future.”
To paraphrase Kurt Cobain, “Organic farming means freedom, liking and accepting anything that you like. Cooking whatever you want, as sloppy as you want. As long as it’s good and it has passion.”