On an early summer night
Under trees and soft light
The thought came to me
“I am where I wish to be.”
Some moments are best said in poetry. This was my impression after the recent premiere of Shelley Roger’s documentary film, “What’s Organic About Organic?”. The event was held in a precious, private Brooklyn backyard. On a wide plank table, the hostess offered high notes from local farmers, bakers, and cheese mongers. Shelley and her “characters” — the people interviewed in the film — along with journalists and bloggers, gathered in front of the screen centered between two trees.
Her beautiful film digs deep into what organic means. Told through personal stories and official decrees, the word organic can be used many ways. But this film isn’t interested in what it means to poseurs. At its core, it’s about the farmers and consumers who vigilantly ensure the integrity of organic.
For example, the wording on grazing pastures for organic cows was once vague. Some operations were stamping a hoof on grass occasionally, rather than having days in open pasture. The truly organic dairy farmers were outraged. As a result of their protests, the USDA strengthened its wording on these practices. Now the organic label means something again.
Farmers go to these measures for “organic” because they are the stewards of their land and animals. They serve a community they know. To explain why they care, Andy Grant, of Grant Family Farms, tells a tough story from his childhood: He lost his family dog to pesticide exposure. His little boy perception saw then that something was fundamentally wrong. Once an adult, he became an organic farmer.
Organic also has cultural importance — in the name of social justice. To many, the principles also include fair wages and treatment for farm workers. Wende Elliot of Wholesome Harvest, a co-op of family farms in Iowa, explains that she and her husband go beyond the U.S. organic standards and adhere to international codes. In doing so, they promise their customers that the workers make a living wage in good conditions. Similarly, Andy Grant shows his respect for his team as he inspects a box of lettuce packed by his field workers. Gently handling the lettuce heads, he says, “These guys are artists.”
Back under the moonlight in Brooklyn, the crowd around the table talked late. In addition to making a film, Shelley and her conspirators, are building a coalition. These are kindred minds coming together. It’s not enough to just say organic and go home. Those who care remain watchful, promising integrity in word and process.
Now our table gets bigger. If you are in NYC, then pull up a seat. The team behind “What’s Organic?” has a wonderful series of events coming in June. Shelley and many of the people interviewed in the film will be ready for questions. And together, with Shelley, her characters, and our expanding community for delicious, fair and safe food, we’ll find the answers.