“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Hippocrates

Winter is clearly the time when we rest from the physical garden pursuits.  We can leisurely think about the season that has passed and plan for the upcoming one.  Our diets naturally change with the cold weather and the slower pace.  It’s a holiday time where the fruits of labor can feature prominently at both festive and ordinary meals.

Yet still a lot is going on in the garden.  The winter produces freezes and thaws, periods of wet and dry– all have a mellowing effect on the soils.  Weeds finally stop growing, bugs stop eating (and at last their reproductive cycle is checked!) By spring the soils will have been opened and revived, friable again.

I’m sure many of you have begun perusing seed catalogs and maybe have chosen a gardening book or two for winter reading.   Some may even be planning to attend area conferences for fruit, vegetable and livestock producers.  With all the information available, considerations of seed sourcing, best varieties, alternative techniques, more ergonomic tools, budgets and even funding come up.  It is all rich fodder for conversation.

For example, what does organic really mean?  What am I supporting when I buy organic seed or groceries?   I love to answer these questions because there is some resistance to organics because of the cost as well as some suspicions about the integrity of the products.  So here is my response:

When a product, whether it be a seed packet or a grocery item, has the USDA green and white organic label, the consumer is assured (through rigorous annual certification processes) the following:

  1. Produce is grown with the primary goal of improving the soil and protecting the local ecosystems. To this means, only a very restricted selection of fertilizers and pesticides are permitted by the organic standards. 2.  Genetically modified organisms are absolutely prohibited.  3.  Animals must be raised without growth hormones or antibiotics.  4.  Animals must be fed foods that they would naturally eat with no animal by-products in feed produced for vegetarian animals.  5.  Animals must be allowed movement and access to the outdoors so they can experience a natural relationship to the soil, to their food and to each other.  6.  Processed foods (frozen, microwaveable, etc) may not contain artificial additives.

These assurances come with the organic label and, I dare say, with the biodynamic label (less frequently seen).  It absolutely is not assured with words such as “natural” or “healthy” or any other words unaccompanied by the USDA organic label. It is also not assured by casual conversation:  “oh yeah, I grow organic” though many farmers (including myself) do use some or all of these organic practices without choosing to certify through the USDA.

If these assurances aren’t enough to make you feel good about your purchase, consider that organic farms generally require more labor which means more jobs.  They also produce lower quantities of greenhouse gas emissions and generally use more sustainable packaging then their conventional counterparts. Organic products often use packaging from certified sustainable forestry councils and ocean ingredients from marine stewardship councils which provide guidelines not only for ecosystem protection but for protection of the livelihood of the local people who use the natural resources.

Increasingly, organic certified processors (those who combine ingredients from several organic certified farms) are adopting “fair trade” practices as well.  These include:  1. The farmers must receive a minimum and fair price for their goods.   2.  The workers must be paid living wages, have safe work conditions and enjoy freedom of association.  Exploitive child labor is not permitted.  3.  When using imported goods, they often purchase directly from fair trade farmer groups.

And, hard science continually discovers ways that products in as close to their natural, unadulterated form have higher nutritional/health benefits. In my research for this article, I learned, for example, that:  A plant naturally produces antioxidants when it is under attack from pests or weeds.  If these are killed off by chemicals, plants stop producing these antioxidants (which we now know are very useful defenses against cancer).

The best part about organics and returning to sustainable farming communities is that it is now being recognized that these kinds of systems could be the solution to the food supply and economic problems in much of the world, including within the U.S.!

But I digress from the typical scope of this garden column with the only justification being that, really, it is all related.  Our daily choices, what we value as evidenced by our actions, our daily pursuit for right livelihood –all form who we are and what our impact on others can be.

I’ll leave you with that thought as this will be my last column for a while.  I so much appreciate the opportunity to have shared my garden musings with the Democrat readers for the past three years.  I expect I’ll return to this public forum in one way or another while I continue to learn and grow here in Memphis.  As always, do feel free to stop by and visit if you see me gardening or just about town.  Many blessings….Gigi

Gigi Wahba is a devoted organic gardener with a deep interest in local foods, sustainability, health and right livelihood.