By ISABELLE O’BRIEN:
A crisp Inner-Sydney Autumn morning at Orange Grove Farmers Market and the leaves have just started to fall. As the sun peeks through the Saturday-sport-threatening clouds and streams down through the market stall canopy, the pram-pushing, latte-sipping inner-westies flood in, before many store holders have even finished setting up.
Most are here for the freshness of the produce, in a push back against supermarket cold-storage fruit and vegetables, attempting to buy local to know where their food is actually coming from. Although some, if not the majority, are also here for the fresh, organic fruit and vegetables, making Farmers markets the most popular place to buy and sell organic produce…or at least that’s the perception.
“I think it’s better for me compared to when I eat fruit and veg from the supermarket”
Looking around any Sydney farmers market, you’ll notice shoppers are eager to get the best of what is available to stock their fridges for the week or to impress dinner party guests.
“Organic produce tends to keep better and longer, especially potatoes and pumpkins”
“I don’t want chemical laced fruit and vegetables to feed to my children. Peaches alone are sprayed up to 9 times”
“It tastes better…like the apples I used to get from the family farm”
It is true that certified organic produce tends to be fresher looking, fresher tasting and generally a higher quality product, depending on where it’s sourced from and stocked. This is because there is no residue on the outer layer of the produce from pesticides and the fruit and vegetables tend to look a little more ‘real’ because they have been cultivated from old-fashioned seeds, rather than genetically modified.
It’s estimated that 2’400 tonnes of pesticides are used worldwide and the most popular chemical, ethephon, is used to ensure blemish-free, picture perfect fruit and vegetable crops. The most commonly used pesticides are; insecticides for the prevention of insects and herbicides to keep away weeds.
Any sort of change to a natural occurring cycle comes with side effects. Since the Industrial revolution, the aim of agricultural practice in Australia has been to maximize production while at the same time, minimizing the cost of food. One way of maximizing production is to ensure the crop doesn’t suffer from disease or pest invasion. This therefore relies on chemical input via the use of pesticides and fertilisers.
Between 1950 to 1990 the value of Australian farm output increased by 250%, the highest rate of land productivity growth of any country involved in the Organisation for Economic CO-Operation and Development (OECD).
This concept of ‘organic’ refers to farming and agriculture using traditional farming methods in order to preserve ecosystems, by growing plants that attract beneficial insects rather than using pesticides and chemicals to prevent destructive ones. Before the introduction of crop-enhancing pesticides and fertilizers, organic farming methods were simply the norm.
Applying fossil fuel based fertilizers suffocates the soil and doesn’t allow it to re-generate. The organic equivalent is to distribute legume seeds through the crop area, which naturally fixes the nitrogen levels in the soil.
Organic farming practices are designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce pollution. Without conventional fertilizing and pest control methods, you don’t need conventional fertilizing or pest control methods.
Matthew Hopson is an organic melon farmer from the New South Wales Upper Hunter Valley. Mr Hopson grew up on the family farm on the riverbanks of Gresford, 40 kilometers South West of Singleton. After attending Tocal College, local agriculture college, and witnessing the struggles of both his family and other farmers in the area use conventional pesticides and chemicals, he decided to go organic.
Genetic diversity has declined globally, especially among cultivated species. Agricultural diversity acts as a basic, instinctive insurance against crop disease outbreaks. Much like with non-sprayed plants developing a higher antioxidant disease fighting skin, organic plants also have diversity within species in order to preserve themselves.
Farmers can gradually increase crop resistance to pest and diseases by choosing the strongest plants from the crop, and keep those seeds to re-plant the following season, therefore cutting out Darwin as the middle man and creating a stronger more resistant crop with ideally a larger yield.
Like Mr Hopson, organic farmers use more sophisticated crop rotations and spread mulch or manure to keep weeds at bay.
Needing a point of difference within the increasingly competitive produce market, Mr Hopson decided to find his niche in organic melons.
“Basically it’s better for the soil and it’s better for my young family not having to spray and use chemical fertilizers.”
Because fertilizers are an unnatural way of restoring the soil to a level where it can be used for more crops, it’s a case of the more you use, the more you need because the soil loses its ability to self-restore. So is the cost of chemicals to create a larger crop yield enough to validate not using chemicals and saving on that cost to compromise with a smaller crop?
“I used to see fertilizers and herbicides as a necessary cost and a big one at that. Now I can sell watermelons at a lower price, the same as conventional growers, only mine taste so much more like a watermelon.”
While it may not seem it at first, organic farming can decrease production costs, especially long term.
Mr. Hopson says “Farming for local markets and independent retailers, I can get to know my area well, which led to my niche market of melons…. They are much less susceptible to disease and the ratio of output to melons to space is very good and incredibly low maintenance in terms of weeding.”
Overall, Mr Hopson finds it cheaper now also not having to buy seeds from big agri-businesses, as he re-uses the same seeds each year, that he knows performed well during the season.
Organic farming in Australia is focused on producing a high caliber of products with minimal environmental impact and its popularity is skyrocketing, not just at the farmers markets. According to the Australian Organic Market Report, the organic sector is showing strong patterns of sustained growth, with the growing presence of organic products in mainstream markets.
Although according to industry reports and consumers, organic products in supermarkets are not seen to be as organic and fresh looking as produce sold at a farmers market.
Shoppers looking for local or at the very least, Australian produce are more likely to head to the local markets believing they get better value for money and quality when buying directly from the source.
“I like that at the markets you can usually only get what’s in season, whereas at the supermarket you can have asparagus all year round…from Mexico. It feels unnatural”
The demand for organic products has however reached a new level of acceleration with the entry of major supermarkets, Coles, Woolworths and Aldi in to the market. In a recent report by the Australian Organic Association, Pierce Cody, CEO of Macro wholefoods (attached to Woolworths), explained that mainstream markets will be a key market for organic products. Ideally this would increase the popularity of Organic produce and therefore boost the market, although supermarkets still only have small organic sectors at the stage.
For Mr Hopson, organic farming produces a better quality product through safer and more economical faming practices.
So, is it worth the price tag? Nutritionally, only for some foods. The Americans call it the dirty dozen, or the top 12 foods that have a particularly high pesticide residue for that particular season- in the cases of these 12 fruits and vegetables, it is best to buy organic.
While organic produce doesn’t have any proven higher nutritional value than conventionally farmed food, certain fruits and vegetables can be higher in antioxidants and minerals, such as tomatoes and other vegetables/fruits with higher water content like watermelon and cucumber.
A recent study commissioned by the Organic retailers and growers association of Australia stated that organic vegetables have a higher mineral content than conventional grown produce. Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby agrees, as when plants aren’t sprayed with pesticides, they produce higher amounts of minerals and bitter tasting antioxidants to deter potential threats.
The most supported reasons for buying organic produce are in relation to the agricultural sector. Agriculturally, organic farming is far more ethical than conventional farming and indeed, more sustainable.
Although chemical residues in food and the environment are commonly raised concerns, the very small quantities found are not yet known to have detrimental effects.
Conscious farming with careful consideration of local conditions and historical understanding can prove to be hugely successful, as Farmer Matthew Hopson can attest.
So if it seems that the grass always looks greener at the more expensive looking, organic stall at the markets, that’s because it probably is.
So even if your apple has a dent in it or your banana isn’t beautifully curved, I’ll bet it will taste ten times better than a perfect looking one. Remember size and shape aren’t everything. It’s what’s inside that counts.
THUMBNAIL IMAGE COURTESY OF: THE FREE GEORGE ONLINE MAGAZINE