"Organic": Semantic Manipulation Examined

by Hillary Lindsay

The meaning of the word "organic" has become a semantic debate that has changed and divided a movement. The discrepancies in the definition have led to many misconceptions about the truth of organic farming. Francesco Mastalia has been working on discovering that truth through interviews and photographs with 136 farmers and chefs of the Hudson Valley — an epicenter for the local, organic, sustainable food movement — in a project entitled ORGANIC: Farmers and Chefs of the Hudson Valley. Excerpts from interviews are included below.

As described by Mastalia in his project statement, "'Organic' is one of the most misunderstood and often misused words describing food today. In narrating their stories, the farmers and chefs share their philosophy about what it means to grow and live organically and sustainably. 'Organic' is not just about growing and producing food, it is about the life of the planet. It is about preserving an agricultural tradition that will safeguard farmland for future generations."

Mastalia's photos are purely captivating. These photos that illustrate the interviews were created using the wet plate collodion process, a technique developed in the mid-19th century. It seems that their antique appearance reflects the organic techniques of the past, which are being revitalized by these true organic farmers and chefs in the present. Like their techniques, the subjects are natural. The photos display an intense realism that celebrates the gravitas of their wrinkles and ware. You can see their hard work and dedication in every image.

A common theme in the interviews is abandonment of the organic certification when the USDA took over. Opposition to chemical pesticides used in conventional farming began after WWII when there was an excess of chemicals being produced. However, it should be noted that even relatively recently "conventional" farming wasn't big industrial agriculture but rather organic farming — which in present times has become the new alternative.

Organic farming became regulated by the USDA in the 1990 Farm Bill, which defined organic farming by what it must leave out: GMO's, chemicals, and radiation; however, the sustainable practices used by organic farmers was not included in its definition. In 2002, the USDA Organic Certification became a strict legal requirement for any farmer who wanted to label their food as "organic" and the USDA's National Organic Program began to actively control the word. Organic farming proved to be a good economic investment and grew rapidly both domestically in the United States and globally. Due to the potential of success, some farmers industrialized organic farming, turning themselves into "Big Organic" (Michael Pollan's term), which became a contradiction to the original ideals of organic agriculture.

The parameters of USDA organic farming have continued to expand because of a loosening of restrictions, largely for marketing purposes, and the integrity of the word "organic" has declined. Since the connotation of "organic" changed and the USDA Organic Certification was so costly, many farmers began to instead take a pledge to be sustainably organic, in the truest sense, through grassroots organizations, such as Certified Naturally Grown, an interactive community of farmers, and NOFA, the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

John Gorzynski of Gorzynski Ornery Farm was one of the founders and the initial chairman of NOFA New York starting in 1982, as well as one of Mastalia's featured subjects. In his interview, Gorzynski explains how they decided to create their own organic certification agency with "standards that were among the strictest, if not the strictest in the organic industry in this country." For his own certification history, he states:

The first 20 years of my farming life I was certified, from 1979 up until the USDA took over. As soon as the USDA became involved the definition was diminished to point where I would no longer be certified. It didn't come near to my standards of what I felt organic should be, and there was no way I was going to validate or lend my credibility, that of my farm and my life of 20 years worth of work, of making the word organic mean something. I totally withdrew my name from the word. I can look back and know I did no harm, and I'm leaving things better than I found them.

Excerpts from the interviews are extremely enlightening on this topic:

Organic farming is a tremendous amount of handwork. We're growing a lot of things in one field and they all need different types of care. We pick everything by hand; we're not using any machines and planting all the time.

One of the benefits of organic is I don't have to ride a sprayer. There's no farmer in the world that wakes up in the morning and says, 'Oh boy I get to spray today.' You have to put on all that gear and you're working with nasty chemicals. Then, of course, there are no earthworms and you're killing the birds.

We were certified for years but when the federal government took over the program we dropped out. I didn't see why they had to run it the way they wanted to run it. The USDA organic program is driven by the big guys.
Guy Jones - Blooming Hill Farm, Blooming Grove, NY

When we started this farm we couldn't afford the chemicals and fertilizers to begin with. So, I started plowing and all these giant worms started coming up, which is a great thing. The life in the field is just amazing, and it's such a drastic change from conventional farm.

I think organic is a great thing. But the publicity surrounding the word, the branding, is unfortunate. I don't think the two match up. What people think of the word organic, and what organic is, is not necessarily the same thing. People have this halo around the word, that every thing is perfect. Organic is the way people did things 100 years ago, 150 years ago, 500 years ago, this is the way it was done then, and this is how we should do it now.
Jeff Bialas - J&A Farm, Goshen, NY

Being certified organic is a lot of paperwork, and it's a lot of money, and we don't have the time to do the paperwork, or the money to spend on it. We don't need it for marketing purposes, because usually when we are selling our produce, we're there to explain it. It's organic, but without the sticker.
Sam Wildfong - Obercreek Farm, Hughsonville, NY

The government owns the word organic. I don't think the government can own a word, they can't take the word from people and say, look, we own it now. If you want to use it, you have to be certified by us otherwise we are going to fine you.

The intention is so important. Whether it is certified organic or not, it's a question of how does a farmer farm. I wanted to produce something that was good; do something that was correct, and produce a food that I was proud of; food that was pure.

Even after I gave up my certification, people continued to buy from me because it was local, it was small, and you could talk to the farmer, me. It's an old fashioned way of doing business; where you have a relationship with your farmer, and your farmer has a relationship with the people he grows for.
Eugene Wyatt - Catskill Merino Sheep Farm, Goshen, NY

The concept of word ownership is a fascinating subject. Through the creation of the USDA Organic Certification, the government claimed ownership of the word "organic" and is free to manipulate its semantic meaning as they please. This ownership causes these farmers to feel powerless against the government and big corporations, like Monsanto. Hence, instead of fighting back, they separate themselves from the "big guys." If they can't reclaim ownership, they can at least present an alternate meaning to counteract the semantic change and preserve organic integrity.

The chefs who use these real organic creations also have a great deal to say:

I asked my students what organic means, they replied, 'Organic means sustainability, it means all natural, nothing synthetic or synthesized by man.' When I think of the word organic, I think about nature, doing the right thing with the planet. I think about something more flavorful, and about sustaining the community and employment.

It's an art. You have to commend the farmers to be out there from sun up to sun down, as well as the chef who enjoys and understands the beauty of how they grow their vegetables and raise their animals. To just harvest a carrot and give it to me and let it sit in my walk-in for three days, I might as well just buy something off the supermarket shelf then. But to take that simple carrot and make something beautiful with it, shave it or pickle it, serve it at that moment, and reduce the time from farm to table, where all you have to do is drizzle a little something on it. It's an art.
Dwayne LiPuma - St. Andrew's Café, Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY)

To be a good cook, you have to use great products. Your job as a chef is to find people who can give you the best ingredients; that's what it's about. The better you can source great ingredients, the less you have to do; for me, less is more.

Organic is a description of a lot of things. The first thing I think about is the soil, something that has some soul and essence. Also, I think there is some negative connotation to it. It has become mass marketed, and big business. But my initial thought is positive; it's something that comes from the earth, it's natural, it's based on carbon. That's what it starts from, and there's nothing else added to it.

The industrialization of food is a really dangerous thing. As a negative mass-market, media driven thing, it could be positive, because it wakes people up and makes them more aware. The biggest thing is educating people to what that is, the truth of it.
Jeremy McMillan - Bedford Post (Bedford, NY)

The simplicity of organic food truly is an art. The less the manipulation, the better. A natural connection to the food we eat is an elemental bond that many of us lack. A growing awareness of the truth is critical for our society if we are to make a change.

ORGANIC: Farmers and Chefs of the Hudson Valley finished its installation run in Beacon, NY at the BAU Gallery but the images and interviews will be published in a book this September by powerHouse books. Look for it on Amazon! The photos, along with more of Francesco Mastalia's works, can be see at: francescomastalia.com/#!/portfolio/organic/farmers-chefs/1

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* Note: All quoted and italicized text is copy written material. All photos ©Francesco Mastalia.


Hillary Lindsay is a NYC resident with an anthropology degree who explores culture through food by engaging in work on farms, in restaurants, and in shops, as well as through blogging and social media. Check out her blog at fttdeconstructed.wordpress.com.


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