Pure Nelida: the story of one Viva Farms participant

Nelida was born in a subsistence farming community in Oaxaca, Mexico. She escaped an abusive alcoholic household at 14 by going to live with her (soon to be) husband’s family, who took her in, then took every opportunity from that moment forth to remind her what a burden she was for them.

After marrying at 16, the young couple migrated north to the US in search of a better life where they found farm work. They toiled 12 years on commercial farms in California, then headed further north, seeking farm work in the lush Skagit Valley in Washington State.  They added children to their household until they were nine in all…plus a steady stream of cousins, brothers, nieces, nephews, uncles, and others who’d joined them in their search for the good life. With family, Nelida’s work multiplied: farm worker by day, Oaxacan mother/wife by night.  Life in Washington wasn’t exactly the American dream, but Nelida knew it was better than the nightmarish situation her relatives faced back in Oaxaca.  Then, one day, things took a turn for the worse.

One of Nelida’s sons fell violently ill. When the traditional herbal remedies she learned from her grandmother failed, Nelida pleaded with her husband to take the boy to the hospital for tests.  Her husband refused, petrified of hospital bills (he had no health insurance) and of being fired for missing work. But a man’s greatest fear is no match for a mother’s love.  She looked her husband straight in the eyes and told him, “Si tu no eres lo suficientemente hombre para salvar tu hijo, yo mismo le llevare’ al hospital.” (If you’re not man enough to save your son, I’ll take him to the hospital myself.) She didn’t have a driver’s license at the time so she carried him to the closest hospital.

The doctors diagnosed the boy with late-stage leukemia and ordered treatment immediately. They told Nelida that if she’d waited even a few more days it may have been too late. Nelida quit farming and dedicated herself to her son’s recovery. She accompanied him back and forth from Mount Vernon to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle for weekly chemo treatments. Between treatments she made and sold tamales, empanadas, pan de burro, fresh tortillas, anything friends and local Mexican stores would buy. She needed every penny she could earn for the cancer treatment, which she was determined to pay for herself.

When her son achieved remission, Nelida did not return to being a farm worker.  She stepped up the organic production like she’d always done at home. She crammed pots and trays of vegetables and herbs into her kitchen window-sills, into her tiny balcony, her front doorstep, anywhere she could put them. When a community garden was created in her farm worker housing complex, Nelida was the first to sign up for a plot.  She was delighted with her garden plot but wanted more ground. Couldn’t she just use the whole 1/2 acre, she would ask the residential director. That would be enough space to feed her family and even sell a bit of surplus.

That’s when I met Nelida. When she told me how she had transported special plants and seed with her from Oaxaca to California, tended them in the migrant camps and then moved them up to Washington with her, I knew she was an ideal candidate for the new Latino farming program I was helping WSU Skagit Extension launch in the valley.

Nelida enrolled immediately in our first bilingual Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course. She graduated and signed up for the more advanced Farm Business Planning course, in which she developed a business plan for a three acre diversified organic farm.  She now leases 1 acre at Viva Farms (Washington’s first bilingual farm business incubator) and two acres at a second site. Her goal is to purchase 10 acres with a house, where she can live and expand her organic produce sales that now complement her already established food business.

When we met to develop a name and logo for Nelida’s one-woman organic farm and food business, I could think of only one name to encapsulate her brand personality: PURA NELIDA, like the saying pura vida but with Nelida as the life force.  I asked Nelida what symbolized pura vida* and purity for her. She thought for a moment then smiled and replied, “una cebolla blanca“(a white onion). So that’s what she is seen cradling in the logo we designed for her farm.

So to those who feel discouraged by how long it has taken for us to farm as if we love and cherish life…I offer one of Nelida’s organic white onions: let its crisp, sweet, spice and purity cure you of your ills. Soon you’ll understand why, when I stand and behold Viva Farms, I am apt to repeat “Pura Vida…” again and again, like a mantra.

For more information about WSU S
kagit County Extension and Viva Farms, please view our websites at http://www.wsu.skagit.edu and http://www.vivafarms.org. [Note: Nelida (via Viva Farms) is offering a weekly box delivery in partnership with Growing Washington, another non-profit that serves beginning and Latino farmers. 20 weeks, mid June-Halloween. $25/wk small share, $36 large share. It’s a great way to support the next generation of sustainable farmers. Contact sarita@growfood.org to sign up.]

Don McMoran is an Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Education in Skagit County, Washington.  You can reach him at donaldm@co.skagit.wa.us

Want an organic source of nitrogen that isn’t shipped from halfway across the world? Urine luck

There are lots of organic fertilizers out there:  Fish emulsions, corn gluten meal, guano.  Many of these fertilizers (all that I listed above with the exception of the guano) are by-products of some other industry.  Still, they need to be shipped from somewhere to somewhere to get to our garden and so they cost energy — and of course they cost us money.  But there is a high nitrogen fertilizer that you can use which doesn’t come from a long way away, and that’s pee.  Holly  mentioned using pee to help compost piles of stray a few months ago (you can find the news story on the right side of this blog), and I, for one, think it’s a great idea.  But really, pee can be used as a fertilizer without the compost.

Yesterday I was working on a project and decided to goof off a little by figuring out how much nitrogen was actually in urine.  Here’s the conclusion — Urine contains about 4,000 pats per million nitrogen.  In terms of what plants can handle, that’s a lot (which is why dogs produce “dog spots” when they pee on a small area of ground — too much nitrogen in a small area).  400 parts per million nitrogen, applied once a week in irrigation water, is what you might apply to encourage the growth of greenhouse plants.  Urine, by the way, is also relatively sterile (unless you’re dealing with a bladder infection) and so using urine is relatively safe as long as it’s used quickly.  It also conserves water because you don’t need to flush.  So, the way I figure it, you could mix 1 part urine with 9 parts water and have a really good once a week (or two weeks) fertilizer application for your flowers (I don’t know if I could bring myself to fertilize cabbage, broccoli, or tomatoes with it…).  You’d be saving yourself the cost of fertilizer, saving the environmental cost of shipping the fertilizer you might otherwise purchase, saving water, and you’d have something unique to tell your gardening friends about.  Win – win situation as far as I’m concerned.

Organic farming study at – gasp! – a research university

There is a common misperception among some that university researchers are in the pocket of Big Ag (see June 11 and 13 posts). So here’s a link to an article in today’s Seattle Times about the benefits of organic farming from a study at Washington State University.  The research was published in Nature (one of the most revered of the scientific journals).

Dirty Dozen?

Nobody in their right mind considers pesticides safe.  They are, after all, poisons which we have created to kill things, be those things plants, insects, fungi, rats, or whatever.  The idea that we could have foods with no pesticides on them is attractive.  Now I’ve got to admit that, as a general rule, I don’t think that the levels at which most pesticides are found on foods is concerning.  Our methods of detecting poisons are just too sensitive today and so we end up saying that a poison is “present” on a tomato or whatever even if it’s there at a harmless parts-per-trillion level.  Still, I won’t deny that I’d prefer it if there were no synthetic pesticides on any food.

A couple of days ago a report came out from CNN about the “dirty-dozen.”  http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/06/01/dirty.dozen.produce.pesticide/index.html This is a list of the twelve fruits and vegetables which are most likely to have detectible levels of synthetic pesticide residues.  Along with this list there is a suggestion that, when purchasing these fruits and veggies, you should select those that are organically produced whenever possible.  I don’t have a problem with this list being reported.  In fact, I think it’s a good idea to give people all of the information that we can about pesticides.  While I, personally, am not particularly afraid of conventionally produced fruits and veggies because of the synthetic chemicals which they may contain I appreciate the fact that others might be.  I do, however, have a major problem with the idea that organically produced fruits and veggies are necessarily safer than those produced with synthetics.  You see, organically produced food is not tested for residues of potentially damaging organic pesticides, and those same foods that are slathered by synthetic pesticides in non-organic growing systems are typically slathered by organic pesticides in organic systems, particularly if you’re dealing with foods produced using what has become known as “industrial organic production” which fill most of our large grocery stores with USDA Certified Organic Produce nowadays.  These organic pesticides may be present at higher concentrations than synthetic pesticides and may have similar effects on humans, and even worse effects on the environment than synthetics (though it depends on the exact pesticides used and how often they are used of course).

The myth that organic foods don’t have pesticides used on them is one that really needs to die.  No farmer, organic or non-organic, wants to use pesticides, and sometimes they can get away without using them.  Certain crops are rarely sprayed regardless of whether they’re produced organically or not.  Pesticides cost money and are dangerous, but when faced with the potential loss of a crop producers will do what they need to do to avoid losing their crop, and if that means applying pesticides then so be it.  Organic farmers may choose to use different pesticides, and they might wait longer before they spray (although often they spray sooner because the relative efficacy of their sprays are inferior to synthetic sprays) but let’s not say that organically produced foods are free of pesticide reside.  Just because we’re not testing for it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Visiting Professor guest post: Organic foods

There are lots of reasons consumers give for buying organic foods, but a few reasons are very common.  Among them is the notion that organic foods are better for you.  Really?  Are organic fruits and veggies better for you?  Depends on what you mean by ‘better for you’.  But as far as we know, the answer is probably ‘no’, especially if you’re buying organic fruits and veggies (F&V) at the store.  It might seem crazy, but there’s no good evidence to support the notion that you will be more healthy by shopping for organic F&V.  There are some complicated reasons for this, and some areas we aren’t quite sure about yet, but I’ll try to explain.

If ‘better for you’ means ‘fewer pesticide residues,’ you’re right.  But if you think ‘fewer pesticide residues’ means ‘better for you,’ that gets murky.  Why do we apply pesticides?  We do it to protect our food from pests and diseases.  It’s cheaper and more productive than destroying blight-infected tomatoes, individually wrapping apples in a protective barrier, or throwing away heads of cabbage with worms.  But why do those things matter?  It turns out we’re just consumers.  Two big things we look for when buying F&V are appearance and cost.  If a person has a choice between a spotty, more expensive apple and a uniformly bright and shiny lower-cost apple, he’ll probably choose the latter.  And which would be better, buying 2 heads of cauliflower because it’s pretty and low-cost (conventional), or buying one head because it has a slight cosmetic defect and costs a little more (organic)?  You guessed it; in terms of your health, it’s more likely that 2 heads are better than 1.  If that isn’t complicated enough, consider that there are no good long-term human studies concerning the health effects of pesticide residues ingested from food.  There’s no evidence that eating conventional F&V, even with the elevated risk of consuming more pesticide residues, is worse for you than eating organic F&V.  But there is evidence that eating more F&V is better for you than eating less.  So why eat less?

Some of the best health care in Minnesota comes from the Mayo Clinic.  What?  Who cares about the Mayo Clinic?  In Minnesota, we worship the Mayo Clinic. [undeserved pride] They represent some of the finest health care in the country [/undeserved pride].  And what does the Mayo Clinic have to say about pesticides on our food?  “Most experts agree…that the amount of pesticides found on fruits and vegetables poses a very small health risk.”

But what about nutrients—don’t organic foods have more nutrients or something good in them?  Maybe they do have fewer nitrates (which may be bad for you, especially if you’re too young to read this), but that really depends on how the specific growers use fertilizers.  Maybe some organic produce tends to have more vitamin C, but that can vary too.  And even if the organic tomato you’re eating has more vitamin C than the conventional tomato you passed up, is that physiologically relevant?  Does it matter to your body?  We don’t have any good evidence that it is.

Why am I being so down on organics?  Mostly because I like to play devil’s advocate.  I buy a lot of organic F&V.  There are some reasons to buy organics that may be more legitimate than “it’s better for me”.  Sadly, research seems to indicate that I buy organic F&V to make myself feel good for buying it, not because it’s actually better for me.  But in general, eating healthy means eating more fruits and vegetables.

Charlie Rohwer is a horticultural scientist at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center.  He has an MS from Michigan State University and a PhD from the U of M.  He currently studies vegetables and things that make them good for you.

Organic or local?

I grew up on a small farm (30 or so acres) near Tacoma, Washington. We raised our own Herefords, I gathered eggs from my frizzle chickens, and we all enjoyed apples, plums and cherries from our fruit trees.  Neither of my parents were farmers by profession, though my grandfather owned a dairy farm in Oregon.  Eventually, my husband and I hope to move back to the family farm, if for no other reason than preserve it from the surrounding encroachment of houses.

I’ve been thinking about things I might do for fun or profit on the farm.  Home grown beef for sure.  A veggie garden – finally – on some of the only native soil left in the area.  We’ve got lots of options and the space to try them out.

Now back to the question in the title: organic or local?  Our family property has been managed gently since we moved there in the late 1960’s.  Nothing’s been added to the pasture soil other than what the animals deposited themselves.  We’ve had the apple trees sprayed yearly (a requirement because of apple maggot), but this is a targeted application with little affect outside the trees.  The cattle were never treated with hormones or other additives – they were about as free range as you can get.

I’ve heard from others that organic certification standards have become increasingly difficult to meet and some growers think they have become increasingly meaningless.  On the other hand, locally-grown products are becoming more available.

Is it time for a new standard – locally grown, with some requirements (e.g. soil tests) to demonstrate safety?

Sunday rant – the evils of chemicals

It’s days like this that I am so grateful to have this blog at my disposal!

It’s 7 am on Sunday and I’m just finishing the paper, drinking Earl Grey tea, and listening to NPR.  Liane Hansen just finished an interview with Martha Stewart, who among other things was discussing healthy eating for the new year.  She’s a proponent of organic food (as are many of us), and mentioned two reasons she doesn’t like conventionally grown produce.  The first – residual pesticides – is a legitimate concern.  But then she stated her second concern that “chemical fertilizers in the soil are taken up and stored in the plant.”

No kidding.

Plants really don’t care (excuse my anthropomorphizing) where their mineral nutrients come from.  Nitrogen in ammonium sulfate is the same element as the nitrogen in cottonseed meal.  The plant uses it for amino acids, chlorophyll, alkaloids, and many, many other compounds.

Martha’s faulty thinking falls into the “organic is safer than chemical” mindset that way too many people hold (you can read a column I wrote about this in 2001 here).  “Chemical” is not intrinsically bad and “organic” is not automatically safe.  This is an emotion-based argument and inspires fear rather than thoughtful discussion.  When someone parrots this mantra, I can’t take them seriously.

I believe that organic methods in production agriculture, ornamental landscapes, and home gardens are superior to conventional practices and support a healthy soil-microbe-plant-animal system.  I also believe that many fertilizers are misused and/or overused – but this includes both conventional and organic varieties.

Gerald Holton, a science historian at Harvard, once stated that “persons living in this modern world who do not know the basic facts that determine their very existence, functioning, and surroundings, are living in a dream world.  Such persons are, in a very real sense, not sane.”

This is the quotation that came to mind this morning.

Invasives! Natives! No, wait, biodynamics

Just had to get your attention there.  We’ve had a great discussion over native and nonnative plants over the last few weeks.  I’m going to completely switch gears and move on to another topic  – biodynamics.

If you’re not familiar with this term, let me refer you to my online column here.  Biodynamics is a set of agricultural practices based on a belief system, not science, but is an increasingly popular approach, especially in the wine industry.  (You can read a discussion of biodynamics in the vineyard in The Skeptical Inquirer here.  This article is engaging as well as accurate – my column is pretty dry by comparison.)

Biodynamics is steeped in mysticism and includes special preparations that are used to treat soils and plants.  Preparation 500, for example, is created by mixing water with manure that has been packed into a cow’s horn and buried for a set amount of time.  Other preparations are more gruesome, requiring a stag’s bladder or cow’s intestine.  A whole certification process has emerged in support of these practices.

While it may be easy to dismiss these practices, it turns out that biodynamic farms or vineyards are generally healthier than conventional systems.  Does this prove a mystical force at work?  Not at all.  Biodynamic systems are also organic – using all of those good practices (low or no till, reduced pesticides, reduced fertilizers, polyculture, etc.) that have been demonstrated to be effective over decades of research.  When comparisons are made between biodynamic and conventional systems, the impact of organic practices are hidden.

The few scientific studies that have compared biodynamic to organic systems – in other words, specifically testing the effectiveness of special preparations – have found no repeatable, significant differences.

Why do I even care about this?  Well, it’s because it’s pseudoscience.  It’s a practice that takes on the mantle of science, but doesn’t stand up to repeated scienific testing.  Belief systems can’t be tested – even the inventor of biodynamics asserted that his methods were “true and correct unto themselves” and didn’t need to be tested.

Apparently simply being organic isn’t sexy enough anymore.