What Is Organic? A New Photo Documentary Reveals the Truth About Organic Food and Farmers

Products labeled “organic” sound like they’re worth the extra bucks you pay for them. But the term can be misleading

So, with farm-fresh food popping up everywhere from Haverstraw to Hudson, many people assume that they’re chowing down on organic produce. But are they? And what exactly does it mean to be “organic”?

Most folks have a foggy notion that “organic” refers to food that is grown in a healthy manner without the use of pesticides. But apart from that, they are not really sure what the designation means.

The USDA says the goal of organic farming is to “integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

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Sounds good, but many people don’t realize that after the USDA took over the organic certification process in 2002, many small farmers actually opted out of the organic program. “If you want to be certified, you have to fill out a lot of paperwork — spending up to 10 hours a week — and pay a certain amount of money,” says Warwick-based photographer Francesco Mastalia. “At that point, a lot of farmers who were organic said that they didn’t want anything to do with this, and gave up their certification.”

Adds Mastalia: “So, you can go to a farmers market and a farmer might be growing his food in the purest way possible, but he doesn’t have the word ‘organic’ up. If you are not certified by the government, and you get caught, you can be fined — up to $10,000 each time.”

Mastalia knows his subject: He spent three years — and logged 17,000 driving miles — crisscrossing the Valley, photographing and interviewing 136 farmers (two of whom are shown here) and chefs. To take his photos, Mastalia used the wet plate collodion process, which was invented in the 1850s. “It’s the way the Civil War was photographed,” he says, noting that he uses an old wooden camera with a big brass lens. The photos are done on glass plates; each one takes five to 10 minutes and needs to be developed immediately on site. 

The result? The powerful photo documentary Organic, which is on display at the Moviehouse Gallery in Millerton through the end of the month. A 224-page book, with 100 of Mastalia’s photos, will be published in October.

“This story is about a word that has been redefined,” says Mastalia. “But a lot of people don’t know what the new definition is.” 

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Mastalia says that the bulk of the farmers he photographed do not have organic certification, and many are finding that with loyal customers, they don’t need it. “One farmer told me, ‘I have nothing to hide. Customers know they can come to my farm at any time to see what we do; it’s based on trust. We farm this land in a sustainable way. It comes down to taking care of the soil, and replenishing it.’ ”

Mastalia notes that many people gravitate toward organic food in their local supermarket. “But it may actually come from China or Mexico. It’s very, very different from going to your local farmers market,” he says. “It’s a great thing to be able to develop a relationship with the person who is growing your food.”

When Mastalia asked these farmers if they thought there was an organic movement afoot, they all told him, “No, there is a local movement going on.”

Capturing the entire spectrum of local farmers was Mastalia’s goal. “There are a lot of women who are farming, a lot of husbands and wives. Among young people, it’s suddenly a cool, hip profession to go into it. It’s a broad mix,” he says, noting the oldest farmer will turn 100 this fall. “Their passion was inspiring.”

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