But is it organic?

My recent enthusiasm for local, unadulterated milk has resulted in conversations with various people and often one of the  first questions asked is ‘But is it organic?’

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Fresh from the farm

It’s interesting that this question keeps arising. It’s not so many years ago that no one would have thought to ask, but now ‘organic’ has become the label that we seek to reassure ourselves of quality, ethics, sustainability… a multitude of features that may be real or may be perceived. So what is the truth and does it matter whether an item has the ‘organic’ branding?

Here in the UK there are nine approved organic certification bodies, the largest of which is The Soil Association.

The Soil Association is the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use….
The Charity has a wholly owned subsidiary Soil Association Certification Limited, the UK’s largest organic certification body.  This is run as a not for profit company that as well as helping to deliver parts of the Charity’s strategy also generates financial returns that are ploughed back into the Charity’s wider work.

So the term ‘Organic’ refers specifically to legal certification… but what are producers certified for? Well, the definition is covered by EU law

Organic production respects natural systems and cycles. Biological and mechanical production processes and land-related production should be used to achieve sustainability, without having recourse to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In organic farming, closed cycles using internal resources and inputs are preferred to open cycles based on external resources. If the latter are used, they should be

  • organic materials from other organic farms
  • natural substances
  • materials obtained naturally, or
  • mineral fertilisers with low solubility.

Exceptionally, however, synthetic resources and inputs may be permissible if there are no suitable alternatives. Such products, which must be scrutinised by the Commission and EU countries before authorisation, are listed in the annexes to the implementing regulation (Commission Regulation (EC) No. 889/2008).

However, it’s worth noting that any grower can follow the organic guidance without paying for the certification; in this case, however, they can’t legally label their produce as being ‘organic’.

A little while ago I met someone who was convinced that we should only buy organic produce, but I have to say that I disagree. Many small producers simply can’t afford organic certification, and many producers whose systems are low-input don’t quite fulfil the criteria. And, of course, there’s always the trade-off between locally produced non-organic produce and organic produce transported from hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The answer? Well, nothing is simple, and if you have to shop in a supermarket, then the labels are all you can rely on. However, if you can buy from smaller shops or direct from the producer, then things are different. In these cases, you can have a conversation about the food – you can talk about the way it is produced, how far it has travelled and what chemicals have been applied.

The farm milk I am buying isn’t ‘organic’, but

  • the milking parlour (and other energy required by the farm) is produced by a wind turbine
  • as much of the cattle feed as possible is produced on site
  • the cows are not routinely given antibiotics (they don’t need to be, they are milked twice a day and any problems can be identified very quickly),
  • the food miles involved (from them to us) are very low
  • there is no packaging – I take my own container
  • I can go to the farm and see the animals and judge the standard of welfare for myself and ask any questions I want.

In a supermarket I am relying on others to evaluate the ethics of the food I buy, so certification is useful. Buying direct I feel that I am making informed choices, so the label is no longer a key issue. And, in addition, the more we talk directly to producers, the more they hear what we, as consumers, want and the more we can encourage them (including by giving them our money) to implement the approaches that we would like to see.

So, let’s get creative

At the beginning of this week, the IPCC issued its latest report on climate change. There is now overwhelming scientific evidence that human beings are having a significant effect on the earth’s climate as a result of various greenhouse gasses. We can all expect the effects to become more noticeable over time. What are we to do? The key is reducing our use of fossil fuels (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) and this is something that we can all contribute to.

Chris Field, co-chair of the IPCC working group says this:

We definitely face challenges, but understanding those challenges and tackling them creatively can make climate-change adaptation an important way to help build a more vibrant world in the near-term and beyond.

And that’s what we need to do, to be creative and to understand that we can each take a little bit of responsibility and make a difference. Over the nearly two years that I have been writing this blog, I’ve discussed all sorts of small steps that I (and others) have taken to lead a life that is a little bit greener and, therefore, contributes a little bit less to climate change and destruction of the planet in other ways.

So, I thought that now would be a good time to list some of the creative things that I’ve been doing that help…

First, in our house, we try to mend things rather than throwing them away as soon as something goes wrong. So, this is our solar-powered wind-up radio in its current (much repaired) incarnation:

Solar, wind-up radio in its latest incarnation... still going strong

Our eco-radio

And (much as I dislike it) I do darn things:

And the finished job... not too bad and it should last a while longer

Darned slipper sock

Recently, the base plate on our old Dyson vacuum clearer broke, but we managed to get a replacement secondhand one, so that should survive a bit longer:

Mr Snail attaching the new base plate onto our original DC01

Mr Snail attaching the new base plate onto our original DC01

Second, we try to cut down our food miles by growing our own (remember we only have a little garden behind a modern bungalow):

Some of the outputs

All from our garden

and by buying from local producers like:

All produce comes from the farm

Blaen Camel farm shop

A busy market day

Lampeter people’s market

Beautiful restoration inside the mill

The local water mill

And preserving food so that we don’t waste any surplus:

Potted up and coolng

Storing the apple harvest

We have reduced our use of petrochemicals and fossil fuels by using products that contain natural ingredients:

No need to think about shampoo for a while now

Buying natural and in bulk

Increasing our use of renewables:

Our solar panels

Our solar panels

A roaring success for boiling water!

Boiling water using wood from our willow hedge

Cutting down on the heating bills:

Curtains on a track or rail

Curtains provide good insulation

I love the colours in this yarn

Stylish ways to keep warm

Fingerless mittens in action

Fingerless mittens in action for warm hands

And reducing our use of plastics:

The finished bag

Homemade cotton shopping bag from scrap fabric

We’ve also enjoyed some repurposing:

Esme emerging from the 'woodland' laying box

An old cat litter tray now used as a laying box

Potatoes growing in old dumpy bags

Potatoes growing in old dumpy bags

Five varieties of Capsicums sown

Toilet roll middles as biodegradable pots

Curtains will probably be a more stylish option for insulation!

Curtains would probably be a more stylish option for insulation, but oven mitts did the trick temporarily!

And just, generally getting creative with waste:

Hexipuffs for a quilt... made from sock wool oddments

Hexipuffs for a quilt… made from sock wool oddments

A camping toilet, for discreet and civilised nitrogen collection.

A camping toilet, for discreet and civilised nitrogen collection

Apple scraps, fermenting naturally as you can see from the bubbles on the surface

Apple scraps, fermenting naturally to make vinegar

And, of course, sharing

The route to so many interesting people.

… by blogging…

... but what is my teaching worth?

… teaching…

Brooklyn Blackout Cake - too fiddly to make every day!

… and, of course, over coffee and cake…

Our daily veg (and fruit)

So, here we are in the depths of winter and I realise that we are still managing to eat something home-grown at least once every day. Considering our small garden, I’m terribly pleased about this.

Aliss - star layer

Aliss – star layer

First, there is the fresh produce… currently we are getting an egg every day from Aliss (none from any of the others, but that’s not surprising from the two oldies). In addition, I’m able to go out into the garden and pick kale, broccoli leaves, blood-veined sorrel and a range of oriental leaves (my favourite in salads is red mizuna), or dig up some oca; plus a few chillies are finally ripening up in our very soggy greenhouse. There’s also still sage growing abundantly, which I love to use in stuffing. NB: all photos in this post were taken today (26 December 2013).

Red mizuna (mostly)

Red mizuna (mostly)

Second, we have stored produce. We still have many kilos of potatoes left: we’re currently eating Colleen, the last of our first earlies which have simply been stored in a cardboard box in the loft. We’ve got some of each of the other three varieties left – Valour, Milva and Mira – so those should keep us going for quite a while yet. Maybe next year I will manage to be completely self-sufficient in potatoes. Other stored produce that needed little or no processing are the winter squashes (two big ones left) and the dried beans (Czar runners), dried chillies (Lemon drop), poppy seeds and sunflower seeds.

Broccoli - not sprouting yet, but the leaves are good

Broccoli – not sprouting yet, but the leaves are good

Then we have things that needed some work to allow them to be stored: bottled apple, apple butter, frozen stewed apple* (does there seem to be a theme?); frozen stewed rhubarb; frozen raspberries and blackberries (the latter foraged rather than grown ourselves); frozen vegetable soups; frozen passata; and frozen chillies (Alberto Locoto, which don’t dry well because they are so fleshy).

I know that I couldn’t supply all our needs, but it is lovely to know that we eat food from our garden every day – food not doused in pesticides, not grown using chemical fertilisers, vegetables of heritage varieties, many from local producers or from saved seed and with very very few food miles. To me, that feels like a real triumph that I want to celebrate.

-oOo-

* OK, I confess this is all from the lovely Perkin… homegrown at High Bank rather than Chez Snail.

PS There’s a new square on the Masterpiece page, if you are interested.

Call me Eve

As I mentioned on Sunday, I had an unexpectedly free weekend because a course that I was supposed to be teaching was cancelled. I  filled my Sunday with a fabulous felting course, but I dedicated much of Saturday, in contrast, to the kitchen – baking a couple of cakes (one to take on the course) and making dog biscuits as well as processing apples.

An abundance of apples

An abundance of apples

Some unexpected visitors arrived as I was up to my elbows in apple peelings. Mr Snail-of-happiness made them coffee and entertained them whilst I continued with the apples, and gave them lemon drizzle cake still warm from the oven. They did spend a little time with me in the kitchen, and seemed intrigued by my mountains of apples. ‘Do you really need all those apples?’ one of them asked. A question that rather took me aback because it wasn’t something I had really thought about. I answered ‘Well, they didn’t cost me anything and when I have them I eat them every day for breakfast’.

IMGP1596On reflection, however, this seems like a rather lame answer. It is true that I find it hard to turn down free, healthy, fresh food and that I like cooked apples, but this only brushes the surface. I could have talked about all the food miles we would save by making use of this sort of resource; about these apples not having been exposed to pesticides; about the joy of sharing an abundance; about the value of home-produced food; about the way it is possible to preserve a harvest without industrial processing and the use of artificial additives; about the satisfaction of opening the dresser to see rows and rows of bottles and jars packed with delicious food; of the exchange of plants and seeds and crops that these apples are linked to… I could go on. But, perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t inflict this sort of evangelism on a friend – I think it might have been off-putting… and we all know the trouble that an enthusiasm for apples can cause! Perhaps simply saying that I’m saving money by using free food is all most people want to know! And perhaps that’s one of the answers that would encourage others to enjoy this sort of abundance.

Food metres

There is so much talk about food miles and the environmental cost of transporting food around the world that I always enjoy eating food that has travelled as short a distance as possible… potatoes from the local farm are good, but they have still travelled miles. My favourites are things that come straight from my garden to the plate (perhaps via the oven). Purple sprouting broccoli is winning in terms of shortest distance travelled at the moment because it is planted directly outside the back door. However, I did grow the seedlings in bought compost (wool and bracken based not peat), so there were some miles associated with getting that to me. Perhaps the winner, therefore, should be the rhubarb… a few more meters away from the back door, but a perennial, propagated from a donated root, never grown in a pot and now fed solely with home-produced compost. It has moved house with me (in a bucket), but I think that’s probably ok!

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

I love it when an entire meal arrives from the garden… and has even been cooked using fuel that we have grown. Later in the season, we should be enjoying Spanish tortilla (potato, onion and eggs) cooked on our rocket stove powered by willow prunings, with fresh salad leaves straight out of the garden. The only ‘external’  inputs would be the oil and salt and pepper, plus a match to light the stove. I always forget to take photos of such feasts (I tend to be focused on the eating part of the proceedings!) but I will try to remember later in the year.

Having mentioned pepper, that’s something I would like to investigate. Martin Crawford grows various peppery shrubs and trees at the Agroforestry Research Trust and I think I’m going to try to get hold of a Zanthoxylum piperitum (Japanese pepper) this year… probably too late now. Talking of Martin, his book Creating a Forest Garden is brilliant – even if you don’t want to plant up a forest garden, the information on plants in there is fantastic. His courses are fascinating too.

Some food, however, we can’t grow ourselves, but we do try to source lots of things locally, including wholemeal flour, sweet chilli sauce (although I want to make this myself this year if the chilli crop is large enough) and fish. We do buy feed for the chickens, but because they are free ranging much of the time, they don’t need as much as if they were confined and some of their protein comes from eating slugs and snails (hurrah!). We are never going to be self-sufficient, but it is lovely to feel that pretty much every day of the year we eat something that we produced ourselves.

Rhubarb and friends – 4 May 2012

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