When I began my career as a freelance writer, I had the opportunity to work with a fantastic farmer based in New Paltz, NY, helping him to sell his produce at the busy Fort Greene market in Brooklyn. I often look back at that summer Saturday gig, and think about the lessons that I learned just from my time spent with Hector from Conuco Farm. Many might hear me talk about my short-lived job at the market and assume it was but a small blip on the radar screen of the life of a freelance food writer, cobbling together income here and there when first starting out. But, that weekend job remains one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had. Working with Hector taught me about unique varieties of greens and other veggies, but passing the time with him on Saturdays was also a constant education about where our food comes from, how it grows, the trials of a small-scale farmer, the sacrifices that are made for us to enjoy nutritious, delicious food at our tables and also the pleasure he took in his vocation. Every story he told as we sipped our early morning cold brews, every explanation he gave to a customer, his rapport with the other farmers and producers at the market – there was learning in it all.
And Hector always made it very clear that he was 100% uncertified organic, with prominent signage boasting that fact – and I’m sorry if you were a market-goer that passed him by because he wasn’t organic - it means you missed out on an opportunity to taste some of the tastiest greens and veggies that I have ever eaten anywhere, cultivated with more love than you can imagine. When questioned, he would explain that the cost and paperwork associated with applying for organic status for a small-scale farmer like him was prohibitive in both the cost and time it required, but you would also find out that he grows his stuff with the most minimally invasive interventions he can, never using chemical pesticides, fungicides or GMOs.
Hector is the reason that I always choose local over organic. Because I know firsthand that organic labeling has become a big, confusing business that isn’t always as pristine as we assume, and that there are lots and lots of small-scale, local farmers doing the right thing by the land and the food that can’t or won’t get organic status for a variety of reasons that don’t necessarily include the use of harmful chemicals or GMOs. This is why I’m hopeful with Governor Cuomo’s recent announcement of a NY State initiative to educate, support and certify small, local farmers throughout the state, helping them to bring their goods to market and providing them with a platform that conveys assurance to consumers that this food is traceable, grown under a vigilant eye, from local sources. I know that all that glimmers is not gold, particularly when it comes to government initiatives, but expanding access to fresh, locally sourced food to underserved areas and increasing education and support to the farmers of NY State can't be all that wrong. One thing is for sure, if I were working at the market on Saturday, this new initiative would be the first thing I would pick Hector’s brain about - but, not before our first sips of coffee.
I write about food and I talk about food and I eat a lot of food. Co-writer of Amanda Freitag's, The Chef Next Door and Cooking in my Street Clothes by Missy Robbins (Fall '17). Co-founder of Family Meal, cooking classes that allow family members to learn, cook and eat together, taught by pro chefs.