We are living in a world today where lemonade is made from artificial flavors and furniture polish is made from real lemons.  ~Alfred E. Newman

In July, we get to harvest many favorite foods:  tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, carrots, cabbages, etc.  With the harvest comes a lot of non-edible plant material that can be composted to enrich next year’s crops.  And, the open bed space that remains can either be nourished through cover cropping or replanted with fall vegetables.  For crops we do not grow, careful attention to food labels can help insure high nutritional quality, protect our natural resources, and support sustainable farm communities.

The basic rule of composting is to layer “greens” and “browns”.  Greens include stems, weeds and roots. They provide nitrogen required for decomposition.  Browns include tree leaves or straw which provide carbon for decomposition as well as air space for aerobic digestion.  For every 2 inches of greens, layer 9 inches of browns.  Locate the compost pile in a spot where it can heat up and retain even moisture.  Periodically turn it to blend and aerate it.   Compost is ready when it resembles dark, crumbly soil.  A 12 inch layer of straw on an active pile will help keep it from drying out and retain its heat.  To kill harmful microorganisms a pile needs to reach 161F for 3 consecutive days.  Special compost thermometers with extra-long probes are available for monitoring.  A pile built over the summer will, in general, reach these temperatures and be available the following year for late spring planting.    In addition to garden debris, kitchen food scraps work well in an active compost pile.  I like to say that compost piles do well with a low fat, vegan diet.  (Meat and dairy tend to attract critters; oils tend to shut out air flow.)  Since compost is destined for future garden beds, do not include disease or insect infected plant material.  Likewise, do not include weeds that have gone to seed as they will typically survive household composting temperatures.

Once a crop is harvested, the soil is susceptible to drying out or washing away.  It is good to replant and continue to build rich soil.  In our area, most root crops, cabbages, greens and lettuces do well planted in mid to late July for fall harvest.  Carrots, beets, and rutabagas are particularly sweet in the fall; cabbage family crops often are less bothered by insects.  Getting seedlings started in very hot weather can be tricky; consistent moisture is key.  Another option to preserve soil integrity is to use cover crops between main crops.  Summer through early fall, I recommend buckwheat and oats which grow quickly, compete with weeds, and help trap moisture.  These crops will winter kill and provide a pre-mulched, ready bed next spring and look pleasing in the meanwhile.

Even though we are lucky to have a long garden season, it is unlikely that we will grow all our produce needs. This brings up the subject of food labeling.  I am a strong advocate of organic practices both for human health and for long term health of the land and watershed.

If a product is labeled as “organic” and  displays the “USDA organic seal” as well as the name (or seal) of the “organic certifying agency,” then it is assured to be a product grown without pesticides, irradiation, GMOs, or herbicides. And, it has been grown using specific, sanctioned land practices. Certified organic producers are required to maintain detailed records for on-site, annual inspection. Soil amendments, minerals and other inputs are approved with the OMRI seal on the label.  There are many products which use the word “organic” without displaying these seals.  This is misleading.  Organic meats, for example, require “hormone free”, “free range” conditions yet non-certified organic meats often also make these claims.   What’s the difference?  Organic meats have further restrictions on the feed and medications used on the animals both for animal welfare and land health considerations.  Irradiation is not allowed.

What about the word “natural” on labels?  So often I see high priced, “natural” products displayed in health marts alongside certified organic foods.  According to the USDA, food can be labeled “natural” if “it contains no artificial ingredients or added colors and is minimally processed.”  While this may sound good, there are no detailed standards, no certification procedure, and virtually no verification or enforcement of the “natural” claim.  As the methods of production and inputs used in these “natural” products are uncontrolled, the consumer has no assurances about residues in the food, production impact on land and water resources, or the associated animal husbandry practices.

What is “fair trade”?  Fair trade refers to how workers are treated and paid, particularly with food sourced from outside of the U.S.  Again, this claim needs to be verified with a “fair trade agency” seal which assures the consumer that the workers are receiving something close to a living wage and their working conditions are also inspected and meet prescribed standards.

Why are organic products expensive? First off, no petrochemicals are used which necessitates more field hours, more labor.  Also, organic farms generally operate at a much smaller scale than conventional farms however they do not receive a proportional share of government subsidies and loans.  And, organic farmers are typically not aligned with the mega grower associations so they do not receive marketing and lobbying benefits.  So choosing to buy organic is choosing to invest in a nonconventional vision of how we can achieve food security as our planet grows in population and resources shift.

Whatever your values or your budget, here are a few tips for reading labels to buy the healthiest food possible (organic or not!):  (1) Don’t purchase anything with ingredients whose names you can’t pronounce. (2) As much as your time allows, choose for the least processed, least packaged food options. (3) Purchase products with ingredients that make sense to you.  For example, tomato sauce could have tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices.  What else do you want to eat with your pasta?  (4)  Stay away from products that have some kind of refined sugar—including corn syrup, malts and artificial sugars–early in the ingredients list.  (5) Avoid flavor enhancers such as MSG or salt. (6) Buy foods fresh, in season and process for off season consumption. (7) Do buy products that have a pleasing flavor resembling the home grown version.  (8) Do consider buying local food and talking with your local producer about their inputs and practices.

From my perspective, growing food requires planning and stamina.  Buying food requires thoughtfulness and creativity–all good qualities to develop.  Bon appetit!

Gigi Wahba was produce manager at Sandhill Farm for 15 years.  She now pursues a variety of projects related to sustainable agriculture.