There’s no question that the food industry has gone through change and controversy in recent years. Documentaries like “Food, Inc.” and “Super Size Me” flourished in popularity, exposing questionable aspects about the American food industry. People began to wonder, “What are we actually putting in our bodies?” Food and agricultural studies came to the surface as a result, providing answers and deeper questions.
Organic food seemed to be an answer to consumers. The Economic Research Service division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported a steady increase in organic food sales from 2005 to 2014, growing from a $13 billion market to an approximately $35 billion market.
This seemed too good to be true for some consumers. Some wonder what it means to pay the extra dollar for the organic label, and whether the food industry can gain back their trust after becoming #woke from food documentaries. ing Magazine got in touch with some local organic farmers to find out.
Winter Romeyn is currently a junior at MSU studying mechanical engineering. He grew up on an organic farm at Central Lake within Michigan and learned about organic farming from his parents, who established Providence Organic Farm (Providence) in 2006. Since then, the farm has grown to 26 acres of land and includes vegetable produce, fruit produce, free-range animals and hay.
With organic food sales on the rise, it’s no wonder Providence has grown. But the family isn’t solely there for the profit.
“My parents didn’t start farming organically to make money,” Romeyn said. “For us, it has always been the only way to grow food. It’s a better way.”
Animals will produce manure all around the land, then consume the hay and vegetable compost they help create. Providence also provides a family atmosphere for customers and employees, offering activity days on the farm as well as volunteer opportunities.
“The farm is very biodiverse,” Romeyn said. “There’s a harmony between the animals and the land because they’re free-range.”
If there’s one significant difference between organic and non-organic food, it’s the price. Romeyn references labor as Providence’s biggest farm expense, due to weeding labor that costs more than seed, equipment and fuel. Providence doesn’t use herbicides, harmful pesticides or genetically modified seeds, which help curb the growth
When asked about the biggest problem with pesticides, Romeyn referenced the decline in the bee population. The Environmental Protection Agency cites Colony Collapse Disorder as a problem affecting bee populations since 2006, referencing pesticide exposure as a major cause.
“It’s an environmental problem all around, too. Some of these genetically modified things weren’t meant to be as highly concentrated as they are, and they get into the watershed, which spreads them around,” said Romeyn.
Romeyn assures that in comparison to conventional farms, organic farms have to go the extra mile in verifying their certifications. Providence has yearly inspections from a USDA certifier and pays dues in order to keep their organic label. Organic farmers also check seeds to ensure they’re non-GMO, keep records of all crops and turn in documents during their inspections.
“It’s a different story for every farmer in the end,” Romeyn said.
Often, we think of buying organic food at a fancy, overpriced new grocery chain, but it’s a lot simpler than we think. In fact, organic food is grown and sold right in our backyard at MSU. Staying true to its founding name, Michigan Agricultural College, MSU is dedicated to educating students about sustainable farming.
Since 1999, MSU’s Student Organic Farm has been a student-run initiative with a goal of providing a hands-on resource for students interested in sustainable farming. Located on College Road, the farm consists of 15 acres of land and about 20,000 square feet of greenhouse space where organic produce is grown year-round.
“We feel that it’s really important to keep undergrads engaged, so we offer work and internships on the farm, and there are lots of classes that come out and tour on the farm,” Denae Friedheim, program director of the Student Organic Farm, said.
From horticulture to biosystems engineering, the farm has provided a learning ground for majors across campus.
“We consider ourselves a ‘learning laboratory’ for undergrads at the university and it’s a really great and important resource for undergrads to get that hands-on experience,” Friedheim said.
Degen Gembarowski found her passion for sustainable farming and switched majors to horticulture with a focus in sustainable and organic farming, shortly after volunteering for the Student Organic Farm during her sophomore year.
“Organic farming has all sorts of benefits,” said Gembarowski, “It disallows the use of nearly all man-made chemicals, which can be harmful to the environment, and requires the use of physical and cultural strategies to control pests and diseases before chemicals can be used.”
The Student Organic Farm goes beyond campus borders and works to promote sustainable farming methods among local farmers. The farm runs an organic farming training program for people who are just getting started with farming, or who work with a farming organization. The farm also has a workshop-style farmer field school that works with beginning farmers.
“The cool thing about that is that we are providing more of the logistical structural pieces, and sometimes the content, but it’s run by famers from all over the state,” Friedheim explained.
The majority of the resulting produce is bought and distributed to businesses across the state; some produce is even bought by the residential dining halls, so students on campus can rest assured knowing they’re getting home-grown veggies. The farm is also one of the first to implement a year-round Community Agriculture Service, and 60-70 percent of the food grown at the farm is distributed to the service.
Community Agriculture Service allows interested markets to buy food in advance, which gives the Student Organic Farmmoney for seeds. When the food is grown, buyers can pick up their produce once it’s harvested every week.
While sustainable farming is on the rise, Freidheim has not noticed the same growth in organic farms.
“We are certified-organic and our principles and practices are based on those from the national organic program, but I would say a lot of the farmers that we work with are not certified [as] organic,” explained Friedheim. “In terms of certified-organic operations, I wouldn’t say that we’ve seen a huge increase in those, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t growing organically; they’re just not paying for the certification.”
Organic or not, sustainable farming methods serve to provide earth-friendly and even human-friendly benefits.
“Everybody eats, and while there are many different factors related to how things are going in the economy, something that is inevitable — that we will always need — is food, which means we will always need farmers,” Friedheim said.
With the pressures of climate change, a special importance has been placed on researching sustainable farming methods. Working toward farming methods that will better impact the planet is what drives students like Gembarowski to study sustainable farming methods.
“Organic farming is a lot of work, but in a way, it requires us to be very intelligent and intentional about our practices,” Gembarowski said.
Want to try out your organic green thumb? For more information on how you can get involved with the Student Organic Farm, visit msuorganicfarm.org.