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Ponder the pepper

Pepper as big as my head, Talley Farm

Another Earth Day has come and gone, and with it the release of a new "Dirty Dozen" list from the Environmental Work Group. Each year, the EWG analyzes the USDA's redisual pesticide tests, and generates a list of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables most likely to have significant amounts of residues on them. They conversely add on a "Clean 15" outlining those that are least likely to have resides. 

It's an imperfect report, and has been criticized for opacity in its methodology. A UC Davis professor published a paper in the Journal of Toxicology casting aspersions on the EWG's methods, and claiming that the risks of consuming conventional produce are no greater than organic. 

The question of conventional versus organic has become more confusing than ever. Consumers are led to believe that organic means free of pesticides and chemicals, but anyone who's read The Omnivore's Dilemma knows differently (disclosure: Amazon affiliate link). In fact, today capital-O Organic is a highly industrialized and regulated industry, and any perceived benefits in health to yourself or the planet may be false.

That said, I do believe that we should be entitled to knowing when our food has been exposed to pesticides, just as I believe we should know when we are consuming genetically modified (GMO) foods. I'm no scientist, and I make no claims that any food is inherently good or bad, but I do believe we should be allowed to make our own choices based on the greatest amount of information available. 

So what's an eater to do?

Last year we were invited to San Luis Obispo along with a few other bloggers to visit some farms. This initiative, dubbed Know a California Farmer, is an effort on the part of Ad Farm, a PR and marketing group whose mission it is to create more awareness and exposure for farmers. 

I was skeptical when I first received the invitation, expecting a slanted display of big-ag farms hawking the safety of their chemicals. But that's not what we got. 

We saw Halter Ranch, a sustainable vineyard and winery in the rolling hills of Paso Robles.

Halter Ranch

We saw Pasolivo, an organic and sustainable olive farm that produced bright, peppery olive oils. 

Tangerine, Pasolivo

Smallest of the small, we saw Negranti Dairy, a husband and wife team raising sheep on a humble parcel of land. Both CalPoly grads, Alexis decided she wanted to raise ewes, getting their starter flock in 2011. She then turns the naturally homogenized sheep's milk into delicious, low-fat ice cream that OH MY GOD I JUST LEARNED THEY ARE SELLING IT AT BI-RITE. I'll be right back. 

Negranti Dairy

All of these were charming and beautiful and memorable. But our final visit was the most thought-provoking to me. In the Arroyo Grande Valley, Talley Farms is one of the biggest producers of green bell peppers in the country.

A third-generation family-owned farm, they are not organic. However, at least specifically in the case of green bell peppers, the warm, dry climate of the valley combined with the methods they use to plant and water the peppers are so optimal to the well-being of the plants that they hardly ever need to spray. It is a last resort reserved for extreme circumstances. 

Sharlene and  the pepper guy, Talley Farms

And so their peppers go out to grocery stores everywhere, anonymous and unassuming. You won't see a sign over their peppers hawking their provenance, as you would Swanton Berry Farm's strawberries or anything from Mariquita. They are nondescript conventional produce, peppers like any other. 

In the grocery store, you might turn away from that pepper, reaching instead for the bin of organics. You might pay nearly double for them. You might not have had to. 

When we go to farmers markets, we have the privilege of meeting the people who grow the food we buy, of asking them questions. When we visit the grocery store, that privilege is lost. Produce is anonymized and commoditized. And in the end, we make assumptions about what is good or ethical or healthy without really knowing. Without asking the questions. 

What would it take for us to gain that level of transparency for all our produce, or for all our food? 

Ikeda Family Farm, POVE

  • Libby Hall (@libbyjuju)

    Sean, I was one of the AdFarmers on the tour with you and have followed Hedonia ever since 🙂 Thank you for such a smart post that asks the right questions. This is one reason we want farmers and ranchers to use social media to tell their stories – so that even if you can’t meet them face to face, you have a direct way to ask and get answers about the food you eat. It’s not the complete solution to the last question you ask, but maybe a tiny step in the right direction.
    And thanks to you I just discovered the NEGRANTI DAIRY ICE CREAM CLUB. Dream come true? Yes. Yes it is.

  • Oh dear lord, if I subscribed to the club it’d be the end of me.

  • Amy

    Thanks for this Sean. We all want easy answers such as “organic is better” but it’s just not that simple. Last Fall I ate lunch in a conventional apple orchard and saw birds and butterflies. I was told the farmers use very little in the way of chemicals anymore and utilize many of the same practices they use in their organic orchards. I was also told they test all the time for chemical residue and don’t find anything harmful. It made me rethink whether apples are as bad as the EWG says they are.