If only eating well, or "clean," wasn't contingent upon being financially well off. Yet for those who choose to go organic, local, sustainable and all the other food buzzwords, the price is high. And for those who choose to kick it up a notch and go biodynamic, the cost is even higher.
There comes a point when you're paying north of $30/pound for ramps, a spring seasonal favorite, that you have to wonder, is it worth it?
The jury is still out on that one. However, those in the biodynamic community will tell you the answer is yes.
Biodynamic produce and products aren't new, rather newly re-introduced to those who swear by local farmers' markets, neighborhood Whole Foods Markets and the like. The average customer, however, is a little murky when it comes to actually defining biodynamics.
Executive director of the Biodynamic Association Robert Karp defines it like this: "a holistic approach to agriculture that achieves health of the landscape and soil by working with the farm as a living organism — as a whole, not a series of parts."
That may include specific holistic soil preparations or planting according to moon cycles, (even further broken down, planting specific types of fruits and vegetables during specific cycles and at specified times during the day or night). The monthly calendars and timetables can read like a complex algorithm to the novice.
The result, experts and farmers assert, is heartier and more nutritionally dense crops along with high yields. All the more important, they say, now that weather and pest-related tempests regularly ravage the country's agriculture — then drives prices higher for the remaining tasteless, nutrient deficient produce.
"The practice is based on organics, but goes beyond it," explains Karp. "It's an international system [founded by Austrian philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner] that's over 80 years old, has maintained its integrity and has actually been around longer than organic certification."
Visibility and consumer awareness is on the rise, says Karp.
The Biodynamic Association consistently hosts events and offers education opportunities. And partner organization Demeter, the international certifier of biodynamic farms and products, is introducing products to grocery shelves. Biodynamic pastas, whole wheat flour, tomato sauce, wines, coffee and tea, and personal care products are currently available.
Counting the cost
A random online search yielded a 19.75-ounce biodynamic tomato sauce for $8.59. To some, it is a reasonable price. To others, presumably many, it's outrageous.
"Obviously it's a real challenge," concedes Martin Ping, executive director of Hawthorne Valley Farm established in the early 1970s in Ghent, N.Y. "People are struggling to put food on the table. When they see you pay such high prices they say it's elitist eating."
Not so fast, Ping replies. "I say, 'meet the farmers, look at their lifestyle. There's nothing elite. They're struggling like everyone else — and on the verge of being wiped out by any number of natural disasters at any given time. It's high risk with low yield, and nobody's getting rich.'"
Be that as it may, Fresno area biodynamic farmer Gena Nonini of Marian Farms wouldn't have it any other way. She's farmed biodynamically (and produced biodynamic distilled spirits, too) for over 20 years.
Nonini can cite several reasons she believes conventional farming has higher risks — and costs. Among them is water. "So far this season I've had to irrigate once. A neighbor who farms conventionally has irrigated three times already."
It may seem insignificant, until you factor in the drought equation and escalating cost of water in California. "Biodynamic soil holds the water more," Nonini explains. "Plus there's more life-force and longevity in biodynamic produce over conventional and organic."
Her chief concern, however, is quality, "especially since most biodynamic farmers like me direct market and brand our products. When your name is on it, as opposed to having your produce given to a handler and thrown in a nondescript box with everyone else's, you make sure quality is at it's highest."
Consumers notice, Nonini says. "Eighty-year-olds tell me they haven't tasted grapes like this since they were a kid.
"Sure, it costs more," she acknowledges. When asked how to get around that she says, "I would encourage people to grow as much of their own food as possible. And I'd say look at your priorities. A good number of people value entertainment and electronics, whatever they desire for a comfortable life, more than the type of food they eat."
The kids are alright
Nonini is a realist when it comes to forecasting parity between biodynamics and organics -- at least in her lifetime. That's why she believes in teaching kids, especially those inheriting farms, and attracting them to biodynamics.
Ping's Hawthorne Valley Farm encourages visits. "We start with really little kids, help them form a connection to the land, to how things are grown," he says. "We teach them about the danger of losing contact with the food system." Also the upside and downside of industrial farming.
"From there we can prolong the dialogue," Ping continues. "When they pull food out of the ground, for instance, they understand the difference between food, and as Michael Pollan says, 'food-like substances.' They'll awaken to the importance of growing food in the new food economy in a way that maintains integrity, upholds life principals and honors the land."
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