The Politics of Planting

Life on an organic farm isn’t as peaceful as you think

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/15/2006

Barry Logan starts most of his days at 6 a.m. with a cup of organic, fair-trade coffee mixed with a splash of fresh goat’s milk. With KPFA-FM, a liberal free-speech radio station based in Berkeley, streaming loudly from his laptop sitting nearby, he sips his coffee and plans his day. The sole owner of La Milpa Organica, a 20-acre organic farm in Escondido, Logan has a lot to do between sunup and sundown-and he’s got even more on his mind.

On a recent fall morning, Logan’s first after-coffee task was payroll. As he clipped together stacks of cash to pay his two apprentices and six field hands who help run things, he broke down the basic economics of La Milpa.

“Little farms are really expensive to run,” explained Logan, 51, a compact man who wears his hair in two long braids that frame his face. “Water’s expensive, maintaining the equipment is expensive, seeds are expensive, labor’s about half my cost, insurance on all the vehicles is expensive, and gasoline is outrageous with me driving six days a week to farmers’ markets and restaurant deliveries.”

A former computer programmer who got so fed up with mainstream America that he once shot-literally shot with a gun-his television set, Logan is fully committed to a life of grassroots activism and counterculture living (not to mention a life without TV). He’s a vocal critic of the so-called Green Revolution, the increase in agricultural production by use of new technologies like pesticides, fertilizer and mechanization that began in the 1940s, and has decided to absorb the extra costs and work that comes with operating a 100-percent-or as close to 100 percent as he can get-organic farm.

If you ask Logan about the meaning of the term “organic,” he’ll refuse to give you a straightforward answer. He agrees, somewhat, with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program standards, a dizzying list of requirements and regulations put in place in 2002 that includes ecologically based practices, an emphasis on sustainability and the ban of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers-but he says the standards fall short.

“They don’t talk about process,” Logan said. “It doesn’t talk about your relationship with the land.

“One of the things about organic growing,” Logan continued, “we don’t feed the plants; we feed the soil.”

That means chemicals like Miracle-Gro are a no-no. Instead, Logan and his crew rely on traditional farming practices. They rotate the crops, use chickens and beneficial bugs (like ladybugs) to help combat aphid and other insect infestations, collect compost and rock dust to use as fertilizer and-as Logan’s dirty jeans and cracked hands demonstrate-they get down on their hands and knees and pull weeds one by one. “Organic is the hard way to do things,” said Logan.

But he wouldn’t have it any other way. Logan says communities need small farms like La Milpa so people can know exactly where their food is coming from.

“The stuff you get at Vons,” Logan said, “we call that old food from far away.” He crouched down and grasped a bright purple eggplant growing on a vine in front of him. “Look at the color of this guy-now, see, these are really alive. What you find is that the quality imbedded in this living food, when you eat it you get the benefit of that, and the further it travels away from the plant, it diminishes, it diminishes, it diminishes….”

Logan has company. According to the USDA, certified organic cropland for grains, fruits, vegetables and other crops more than doubled from 1992 to 1997, then doubled again for many crops between 1997 and 2003. A report released this year by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), one of the largest and oldest USDA-accredited organic certifying agents in the state, says the number of organic farms in California is growing by approximately 100 new producers and processors a year. Louis Christie, the local CCOF regional service representative, estimates the current number of certified organic farms in San Diego County at 150. “But that number’s growing because a lot of people are transitioning,” said Christie. “It’s a hard number to keep track of.”

But while the organic market keeps growing-especially for vegetables and fruits-and places like Wal-Mart continue adding organic-labeled foods to their grocery aisles, the overall adoption level remains low. According to the USDA, less than half of 1 percent of all U.S. cropland was certified organic in 2003.

There’s another trend in U.S. agriculture that may be helping keep that number low. While some farmers are going organic, others are turning to biotechnology. More and more U.S. farms are growing crops with altered genetic material, Genetically Modified Organisms, known as GMOs or transgenic crops.

The U.S. is the largest producer of transgenic crops in the world. A high percentage of all U.S. crops of cotton, soybeans and corn are transgenic-according to the USDA, 85 percent of U.S. soybean acreage in 2004 was transgenic.

Logan cringes at the mention of transgenic crops. Earlier this month, he hosted the Zapatista Corn Harvest Festival, a fundraising event sponsored by local nonprofit Schools for Chiapas, to raise money for a program that supplies GMO test kits to the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico. Logan is among those who say the traditional maize (corn) seeds in Chiapas and other parts of Mexico are getting mixed in with the United States’ transgenic corn, which is not only illegal-the planting of transgenic crops has been banned in Mexico since 1998-but has vast cultural implications. About a third of the indigenous people of Chiapas are of Maya descent, and because of Maya mythology, they consider themselves “The People of the Corn.”

Logan stood in front of a small patch of Chiapas corn planted on La Milpa as a symbol of his support. While a row of small black ants marched across the brim of his faded mint green baseball cap, he decried the spread of transgenic crops. “It’s not only scary,” said Logan, “it’s sacrilege.”

Whether or not transgenic crops are mixing with traditional Mexican maize is still up for debate. A controversial study published in the science journal Nature in 2001 found traces of transgenic corn in Mexican maize but was later retracted by the journal, which stated that “the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper.” Another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found that “transgenic maize seeds were absent or extremely rare in the sampled fields.”

But Logan and Schools for Chiapas founder Peter Brown, who lives part-time in Chiapas, have no doubts that Mexican maize is being “contaminated.”

“The way people [in Chiapas] are finding it now,” Brown said, “they go look for the shittiest looking corn in the fields and that’s the corn with the contamination.”

Both Brown and Logan are committed to helping the people of Chiapas eradicate all transgenic corn. “I’m a professional Don Quixote,” Logan said. “I’m this eccentric guy working on a farm sustaining 11 people, but someone’s got to do it. You just got to get up and keep doing it every day.

You can find La Milpa produce at the Oceanside, La Mesa, Poway and Hillcrest farmers’ markets. http://www.milpaorganica.com.

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