As a child, you were told to eat your vegetables. Now, you’re told to buy them local and organic too. Calls to buy sustainably sourced groceries are often and easily said, sure, but actually buying them is becoming more easily done. Farmers’ markets are multiplying like heritage-raised rabbits, and grocers sized from regional chains to national behemoths are greening their stores and the offerings inside.
This week, we'll help you make environmentally friendly decisions wherever you shop.
"You don’t have to know the names of a bunch of big chemicals to understand their answers," Cummins said. "A very environmentally sustainable farm will be doing preventative things to manage their pests, such as rotating their crops or planting habitats for beneficial insects."
Suppose the farmer says he or she doesn't use any sprays.
"I like to dig a little deeper and ask them what they mean by that. Sometimes you’ll see signs that say 'pesticide free' or 'no sprays,' but that doesn’t mean 'herbicide free' and that doesn’t mean they don’t spray, for example, methyl bromide, a fumigant they use before putting the crops in the ground."
Cummins says the best answers indicate "holistic ways of viewing how to prevent pest problems." Working with pests, orchestrating them as a productive apart of the whole farming process, likely evidences a farm practicing polyculture.
"Ecosystems create checks and balances, and a polyculture does the same thing," Cummins said. "For example, if you have one pest that really likes lettuce, but then you have another crop that when it flowers it attracts an insect that might eat the lettuce pest, it creates a more healthy ecosystem in terms of the pests — more checks and balances."
No methyl bromide necessary. Cummins also calls polyculture — essentially just "growing many things" — nature's insurance policy.
Which leads to the second question to ask your farmers: how do they take care of their soil?
"Each crop has a different profile of nutrients that it takes out of the soil," Cummins said. "There’s a number of soil pests, like diseases that live in the soil and feed on a crop. If you plant the same crop over and over, that disease will continue to bloom."
Just as sustainable farming mirrors the shifting complexities of nature, planting myriad crops is no guarantee.
"Polyculture doesn’t necessarily create a healthy soil," Cummins said. "Farmers do a lot of work to create healthy soil by adding compost, using cover crops that put nitrogen into the soil, not tilling the soil when it’s really wet.
"If you hear a farm say they’re pesticide free, but they’re not certified organic, that’s one area that they might kind of cut corners by using synthetic fertilizers on the soil as opposed to compost or other natural ways of boosting soil fertility."
Sustainable farming, it seems, isn't "organic" or a "polyculture," full stop. It's an ever-undulating series of inputs and outputs, one of which is an informed consumer.
"You can develop a relationship with a seller over time and really ask these questions and continue to ask them, 'How’s it going on the farm?'" Cummins said. "You really get a sense of what kind of stewards of the land they are."
Check back tomorrow for tips on shopping green at the PBR of national grocers, Whole Foods.
Mackenzie Mount is an editorial intern at Sierra. She's cleaned toilets at Yellowstone National Park and studied sustainable cooking at The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas.