From Organic to Ornery

The Story of Gorzynski “Ornery” Farm

Many customers come to Greenmarket for organic ingredients, seeking out that certification on stand signs. But each Saturday at Union Square, the most impassioned ecological eaters can be found buying food from a farm that gave up its organic certification more than a decade ago.

Back in the 1970s, John Gorzynski was a tree surgeon in New Jersey and spent much of his time spraying pesticides to control everything from Dutch Elm disease to gypsy moths. But over the decade he saw his coworkers get cancer. He read Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring. And he observed, year after year, increased illness in the places that had received the most potent chemical applications.

“I came to see there was a natural system, natural controls,” he recalls. “These sprays were disrupting that natural system. I realized it was bad on every possible level.” So he quit and, to make a living, turned his hobby garden into a market garden, vowing to never use the kinds of chemicals that he had firsthand seen destroy human health and the wild environment.

In 1979 he started selling at the Gansevoort Greenmarket.

“By 1982 I realized I could make a living, so I bought my own farm and got married. And that’s either the end or beginning of the story, depending on
how you look at it.”

But John wasn’t just busy with his own farm. He dedicated decades to raising awareness about the perils of pesticides, educating the public about organic
agriculture, and calling upon the federal government to regulate the use of the term to ensure strict standards customers could trust. He was a founding
member of the New York chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and was its chairman when it became a certification agency. And he was his county’s Farm Bureau president from 1983
to 2001, voicing the concerns of organic farmers in that more conventional arena. “I was trying to be a level-headed person within the realm of chemically addicted people.”

For years he and like-minded advocates lobbied for the USDA to create standards governing organic certification, so that Americans anywhere could see that word and know what they were eating was grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. And their work finally paid off — in the final months of the Clinton administration, the USDA moved ahead to create a National Organic Program (NOP) regulating certification.

But as Otto von Bismarck famously wrote, to see laws or sausage being made is to lose respect for either. Indeed, John watched in horror as industrial-ag
conglomerates had their way in Washington. And when the ink was dry on the NOP, a full 142 synthetic chemicals, from tetracycline to stretramyalin, were allowed in agricultural products bearing the O-word.

“It was like my world came crashing down,” says John.

He had lobbied for years for this very law, and was devastated to see exceptions for chemicals that, in his words, “are so destructive to the environment they shouldn’t even be allowed in conventional agriculture,
let alone organic.” (Allowing those 142 chemicals, by the way, is just one of sixty-three issues to which farmers like John so ardently object.) As he
saw it, the certification he’d dedicated much of his life to building was now so lax that it was effectively meaningless.

It took almost a year to come to grips with, but after twenty years of being certified organic by the state, the Gorzynski family decided to give up the term
rather than participate in a certification they could no longer stand by. Still, while so many organic brands are owned by Dean Foods, General Mills, Hershey, Con-Agra, Cargill, Pepsi, and Hain-Celestial, John still believes in the kind of agriculture for which he no longer has an easy adjective. And while he’s legally not allowed to answer in the affirmative when customers ask if his farm is organic, he finds that most are more than happy with his complicated answer.

photo credit: Amanda Gentile

“I explain that I was certified for twenty years and that organic certification now allows 142 synthetics, and I don’t use any of them. That I don’t own a spray rig. And that my farm uses nothing but seeds, sun, soil, and water.”

And in the end, most customers come to realize that the one word they were looking for is actually an inadequate stand-in for exactly what they get at the
market — the chance to meet the farmers themselves and have a face-to-face conversation about how their food is grown.

It’s clear that John’s customers value his honest food more than any federal certification. When his not-organic farm suffered floods, this concerned
community ponied up donations, even demanded that he raise prices. After thirty years selling at Union Square, he sees not only his customers’ kids growing up, but now grandkids too. And customers who have moved away still visit when they’re passing through New York, showing pictures of their families and asking after his.

His crops have grown up too. When he first came to Greenmarket back in 1979, customers had never seen sugar snap peas, delicata squash, or a head of
red lettuce. “People were like, ‘Oh my God, what is that?’” laughs John. “Their base of food knowledge was so limited. But today it’s grown beyond anybody’s
expectations. Within a lifetime to see the number of wild foods available — purslane, dandelion, calalloo, nettles, lambs quarters. When I first started, all the other farmers would make fun of me for the weeds on my table. But the nutrients in those wild things are so superior, up to nine times the nutrients of cultivated crops. To have helped widen horizons so much within my lifetime is wonderful.”

He now grows about 600 varieties of vegetables and 300 of fruit — including well over 100 varieties of lettuce alone. And he saves the seeds for many crops
crossed right on his farm: parsnips, burdock, mustard greens, spinach, beets, and a particular leek he’s been saving for decades. And while his apples next to shiny supermarket specimens look like a seasoned boxer alongside a made-up model, John says he’s growing for flavor, not cosmetics. “They look like apples are supposed to look, and they taste like apples are supposed
to taste.”

Still, there’s the semantic matter of how to describe the way he farms. He sometimes uses terms such as permaculture or nutrient dense or petrochemical- free. But back in 2000 when the family decided to drop certification, John’s wife’s license plate read “GO Farm,” an exhortation that riffed on the name Gorzynski Organic Farm. “We needed another O word,” John says. They landed on one that felt exactly right.

“‘Ornery’ was just so easy. It was exactly how I felt about the government grab. And I continue to be ornery to this day when it comes to that. But otherwise
I enjoy life. Ninety percent of my crops are thriving. The word ‘organic’ in this country is greatly diminished. But I continue to stand here and be ornery and do what I do, which I’m proud of.”

This story is excerpted from The New Greenmarket Cookbook, by Gabrielle Langholtz and available from DA CAPO PRESS/Lifelong Books.

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