By Joanna Mouming
My organic living “Aha!” moment was when I first discovered the quality of organic food.
I am fortunate to have grown up eating meals that were prepared using fresh ingredients, rather than canned and frozen foods. I served, in a way, as sous chef to my mother in the kitchen as I became old enough to do so. I can’t snap beans, toss a salad or shuck corn without being reminded of doing so for the many years I lived in Syracuse, New York, with my family.
But despite having been raised on freshly prepared meals, I wasn’t raised on organic foods. While I was a young foodie in college, my interest in, and eventual commitment to, eating organic foods didn’t surface until a friend joined the New Pioneer Co-op in Iowa City, and I went there with her. The food I saw on the shelves and the many farmers stopping in to deliver organic vegetables, fruit, flowers, eggs, etc., piqued my interest in organics.
I was taken aback by the organic free-range chicken breasts that sat immediately next to conventional ones. The organic ones were dramatically more plump and fresh. They were nearly twice the size of conventional chicken breasts. Once I’d purchased organic, free -range eggs, I was delighted at the bright orange/yellow yolks as I cracked them open; I’d been used to drab and pale yellow yolks of conventional eggs. I was surprised to find cream on the top of the organic milk I first purchased. I noted the richer, sweeter flavor of non-homogenized milk compared to the bland flavor of homogenized milks. I also noticed how the cream top changed color through the year. (The more yellow appearance of a cream top tells you the cow is on fresher pasture at the time of milking.) I was similarly surprised at my first taste of organic heirloom tomatoes. The intense flavors and colors of the heirloom tomatoes made me an immediate convert to organic heirloom produce as both a consumer of produce and as a gardener. As you might guess, I quickly became a co-op member.
Bringing home the value of organic growing
Several years after becoming a co-op member, my husband and I found our dream farm. It’s a hilly Iowa farm with a beautiful, private view overlooking a valley and tree-covered bluff. Our lives on the farm gave us new opportunities to explore the value of organic growing.
As vegetarians, we were excited to get our first garden of organic heirloom vegetables started at the farm. Sadly, the first year in the garden produced some sorry plants and hardly any harvest. We’d been accustomed to a bountiful heirloom vegetable crop from our garden in our prior tree-lined neighborhood in town. We had high hopes for our garden at the farm.
Our disappointment led to research on organic gardening. We were attracted to the organic gardening books of Eliot Coleman, an organic CSA farmer in the upper Northeast, and we also consulted with neighbors who were farming produce organically. We learned our main efforts in the garden require “gardening” the soil itself.
We now employ the organic techniques of planting cover crops of winter peas, buckwheat, clover, etc. We add many truckloads of organic compost each year. Companion planting is our approach to planting in our gardens — planting vegetables and flowers which mutually benefit each other side by side. We also rotate the vegetables in the garden so that no vegetable is planted in the same location from one season to the next. This helps diminish the potential for pests and avoids overuse of a garden area. Tomatoes, for example, are heavy feeders — meaning you will do well to move them to another garden spot each year. Alliums (garlic and onions) are beneficial crops. We typically plant our tomatoes where we last grew our 300 heads of garlic the previous year. Some spots in the garden are left fallow each season to restore their fertility. We also replenish the soil nutrients with intensive cover crop rotations.
Each year our soil and harvest have continued to improve since we began these efforts in 2005 — with last year being our best year to date. Last year, I canned 85 pounds of organically grown heirloom tomatoes for use through the year. I also canned other produce, such as sweet and chili peppers, green beans, carrots and salsa.
Beyond the garden
We’re converting forty-plus acres of the farm that previous produced conventional corn and soybeans to a restored tallgrass prairie. Avoiding conventional farming methods on our hilly farmland has already greatly slowed erosion. (Years of erosion depleted the land of nutrients before we moved to the farm.) Native prairie grasses and forbs now cover our farm, providing much needed habitat for pheasants, wild turkeys, doves, hawks, eagles, herons, harriers, woodpeckers, deer and other wildlife. Our years at the farm have given us affirmation of our efforts to enhance the land and create an organic haven for all who inhabit this little piece of earth.
About the Author: Joanna Mouming has worked in the organic food industry for the last decade and is currently a Quality Analyst at Frontier Co-op. She is a yogi and a longtime user of holistic body work therapies. Joanna loves to cook from scratch and entertain. The home she and her husband built on their farm was recognized in 2009 as one of the Best Homes in America by Dwell magazine.