Strawberry season is starting, and we’d like to take a moment to tell our CSA members and customers about how we grow our strawberries as certified organic producers and the differences between conventional and organic practices. The politics and rules around market signage and marketing claims vary from market to market. We truly appreciate good enforcement of marketing claims, because it gives consumers confidence to shop locally. We know you don’t want to pay for one thing and receive something different than what you were promised. We’ve been asked by a market manager to educate our customers about our production practices, so here we go!
No-Spray has No Meaning
With Plant City strawberries making their way up and down the great state of Florida, you’ll begin to see “no-spray” claims posted at various farmers markets. Some of these claims are made by the growers themselves so you could ask them what they use. Some “no-spray” claims are made by people re-selling berries that they purchased either directly from a grower or at a produce terminal market. While backyard gardeners might swear by compost alone and get satisfactory results, the truth is that any grower on a commercial scale who is trying to pay bills, put fuel in their trucks and stay in business for the next year is not doing “nothing” to their crops. You just have too much on the line to not actively manage your crops. Growing organically doesn’t mean just putting it in the ground and ignoring it until it’s ready to harvest. If it was that easy, organic wouldn’t cost more than conventional products, and most farmers wouldn’t bother to spend the money on chemicals in the first place! I know this may sound obvious to some readers, but I have actually had a visitor to my farm ask “Why does it cost so much? I mean, the sunshine is free, the rain is free.” Organic farmers face all the same challenges of weather, maintaining fertility, insect pests, predation by animals, fungal and bacterial plant diseases that conventional farmers do. We just use a different toolbox to deal with those issues. A toolbox that aims to protect soil resources, our groundwater, wildlife diversity and the health of humans working with and eating the crops.
The claim “no-spray” and “pesticide-free” are completely unregulated, unverifiable and there is no legal accountability for anyone using this marketing claim. In contrast, Certified Organic has a legal definition by the USDA, imposable fines of up to $10,000 for violations of using the term, and our farm and all of our records are audited annually by an independent inspector. Certified Organic doesn’t mean perfect, but it is the next best thing to growing it yourself (or being really good friends with a farmer).
If you buy berries from anyone labeled “no-spray” please take a moment to ask “What do you use for fertility and pest and disease control?” rather than “Do you use any spray?” A good grower should be able to list off for you the materials they used during the season, and why they used them. Ask them specifically about herbicides for weed control, fungicides for fungal diseases, pesticides for insect control. Ask them how do they keep down weeds? Do they put strawberries in the same field each year? How do you control for soil borne diseases? Is their farm open to visitors or the public? If you are buying berries from a non-farmer vendor, can you trust that person has taken the time to verify a grower’s claims that they don’t spray? Do they take a look in that grower’s barn to see what chemicals are stored there? Do they ask to see pesticide application records? (Which all growers in Florida are legally required to maintain, although they do not have to submit them to any regulatory agency for review). Do they ask about pre-plant treatments of soil, or applications of materials using drip irrigation systems which technically wouldn’t be a “spray?” I don’t have a problem with people selling produce someone else grew as long as they represent it that way. I have problem with people making claims that they can’t back up or haven’t verified.
According to the USDA, the term “NO SPRAY/PESTICIDE-FREE” should indicate that no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides have been applied to the crop at any point in its production. Unfortunately for strawberries grown commercially by any mid to large size grower in Florida, “no-spray” is not NOT REALITY. Conventional strawberries are grown using synthetic chemicals at many points during production, including soil fumigation prior to planting, with products like K-PAM or Methyl Iodide to kill diseases left from previous seasons. This is why the question about WHERE you grow the strawberries each year is important. No grower can put strawberries the same ground year after year without using soil fumigants. For a complete list of products approved for use and recommended for strawberry production – see this publication by the University of Florida in the Vegetable Production Guide. Eight out of nine pages are devoted to a list of chemicals to control everything from fungus to arthropods. This production guide describes methods used by most growers in Florida to produce strawberries.
How is our farm different?
We want transparency and honesty in our food – and that’s why we currently only sell fresh produce that we grow at the farmers market, and why we are certified organic. To us, it’s the only way we could ever really know what went into the food. We will tell you openly that we do apply pest control products to our crops and to our strawberries – we even use, gasp, a sprayer! The important thing is what is in the spray tank, not the physical act of spraying. We have used diatomaceous earth and pyrethrin sprays for insect control. These products, while safer than chemicals used in conventional agriculture, still have impacts on other living creatures on the farm. For example, we spray pyrethrin only at night so that it is not being sprayed while bees are actively foraging from strawberry flowers. It means working after dark, but preserving populations of pollinators is worth it in our book.
Even with organically approved pesticides (yes, that is a thing!), you still have to maintain a balance of beneficial insects, so you can’t just try to kill everything. We liberate predatory mites, ladybugs and lacewings for biological controls. We interplant onions to repel pests. We occasionally hunt (and eat) rabbits who compete with you for the opportunity to taste a sweet and juicy berry. It’s all part of the circle of life and death, which is reality even on a vegetable farm. Sometimes the facts of agriculture aren’t as idyllic as people want to imagine, but we’d rather share the truth than tell you a lie that will make you feel good.
What can you do as a farmers market shopper?
1. Buy certified organic strawberries. If organic isn’t available, buy direct from the farmer so you can ask about production practices. Resellers who buy in Plant City typically have no information about how the berries were grown.
2. Ask your farmers market managers to enforce accurate labeling rules so that customers can remain confident in their food choices and want to continue shopping at their market.
3. Ask growers/vendors about where and how they source their food. If you have nothing to hide, you should be proud to tell your food’s story.
Thanks for taking some time to educate yourself about where your food comes from. We hope to see you at the farmers market soon.