Local and Organic in Up-State NY (March green-biz interview)
For Erick Smith and Cayuga Pure Organics, it’s important for food to be BOTH organic AND local. Smith points out that while organic products have many pluses for your health and for the environment, most of the organic dry beans in the US were actually grown in China, and incorporate a huge carbon footprint.
“Ultimately it is up to consumer to be as sure as possible that they know the connection between the farm and the organic label on the food they buy,” says Smith, whose farm in upstate New York supplies organic beans and grains to the New England area and elsewhere, via online sales.
We asked Erick to tell us more about his increasing use of renewable energy, the goal of getting more young people invested in local agriculture, and how a commitment to keep GMOs out of his food supply creates a packaging conundrum…
Green America: What does your business do and what are your most popular products?
Erick Smith: Cayuga Pure Organics (CPO) is an organic grain and dry bean farm located in central NY. We are also partners in Farmer Ground Flour, the only 100-percent local and organic mill in upstate New York established specifically to grind organic grains from local farms. We market our beans, grains, and flour throughout New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and southern New England, and we also sell both beans and flours online. Our single largest-selling item is black beans, but some of our customer favorites are our heirloom beans (particularly yellow eye and Jacob’s Cattle), our heritage grains (particularly freekeh and emmer farro), and our polenta.
What makes Cayuga Pure Organics a sustainable, green business?
Erick: We would like to think of ourselves as a sustainable business, but realize that in reality all we can do is to do whatever we can to move towards being sustainable. In addition to farming organically, which includes focusing on building soil quality through crop rotation and residue management, eliminating all synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other petroleum-based environmental poisons, and eliminating all inputs (including packaging, seed, etc) that may be genetically modified. Although we are still dependent on petroleum fuel, we are now using B-10 and increase the percentage of biodiesel each year.
We use recyclable or compostable packaging to the extent possible and focus on bulk sales through farmer’s markets and food coops that reduce packaging needs. Nearly all regular employees are paid at a rate that exceeds the local living wage. The exceptions are part-time and temporary employees, though side benefits such as supplying food raised on the farm nearly make up for this. All regular employees are on flex-time with responsibilities that involve completing the work that needs to be done rather than putting in specific hours.
Our mission is to grow a variety of crops using sustainable practices that meet or exceed USDA organic standards; to provide local sources of basic, healthy food; to enhance the vitality of our local community; to minimize the use of non-renewable resources in our work; and to attract young people to sustainable, commercial-scale food production.
What motivated you to start Cayuga Pure Organics?
Disker ready to prep
fields for bean planting.
Erick: In my life I have alternated between teaching and farming. I have been interested in organic farming since the 1970s and followed many organic practices through the 70s and 80s. After teaching full-time in the 1990s, I realized that my heart was not only in farming, but in doing whatever I could to make our environment safe and sustainable. That combined with a relative diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s whose cause was attributed to exposure to herbicides, convinced me of the need to be completely organic.
We started in 2003 as a small organic grain farm supplying feed to organic dairy farms. However, with a growing interest in being part of the local food movement, we began growing dry beans and food-quality grains in 2005. We partnered with another organic farmer to start the flour mill in 2008 and started marketing at Greenmarkets in NYC in 2009. It has been both very challenging and very satisfying to see our business develop into a farm focused on beans, grains and flour – with all the challenges involved in creating high-quality food-grade products while maintaining our own standards for quality and sustainability.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Erick: Although we face many challenges, the biggest single challenge is to reduce our reliance on petroleum fuels. Because we grow crops that cannot be planted and harvested efficiently without the use of diesel-powered equipment, we need an alternative fuel source. As it become available, we would move towards more bio-diesel, but there are two factors working against this move:
For one thing, we operate on a very thin to non-existent profit margin and need to be very careful about making rapid changes that could have unexpected consequences.
And secondly, we operate almost completely with older equipment, most dating in the 1970s and 80s. There are potential problems with using biodiesel in these older engines, though nobody seems to be able to provide a clear answer about what level is safe. Several years ago we experimented with using straight vegetable oil mixed with diesel fuel. That did not work out and was an expensive error. There is much to be learned about how to use these bio-fuels safely in older equipment and we have neither the resources nor the expertise to do this research. So we are gradually increasing the percent of biodiesel and hoping that we will notice any potential problems before they become real problem. (interview continues below photo)
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Erick: Dry beans and whole grains are not what most people think of as jazzy or exciting foods, so it has been incredibly rewarding to see the acceptance we have received in New York City, and the real excitement that exists both for our products and for what we are trying to do. I consider it a true privilege to be able to play such a role in the effort to rebuild the food system sustainably and humanely.
It has been very satisfying to see the “local” movement become broadly accepted and institutionalized – meaning, hopefully, that broad public support is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
At the same time it is disheartening to see how corporate entry into the organic world has undermined, in the minds of many, the value of being/buying organic. Because a few large companies try to skirt the rules or even to distort them, people have recently tended to be more skeptical about organic. Recent polls have shown that more people think that foods labeled “natural” or foods labeled “kosher” are better than organic foods. Despite all the problems that exist enforcing real organic standards, at least there are standards that relate directly to environmental and nutritional issues. Since there are absolutely no standards for using “natural” and since the standards for kosher, though related to food safety, have no direct connection to either environmental or nutritional issues, these terms really have almost no connection to sustainable production or the quality of food. For example genetically modified crops are permissible in kosher products as are pesticides (and, of course, there are no rules at all regarding “natural”).
What is the next green step you’re working on right now?
The “beanery” where CPO cleans all grains and beans.
Erick: We have grown so fast that our immediate goals involve improving efficiency and developing better systems for serving our customers. Neither of these goals seem very jazzy in terms of making those big green steps that are needed. But both are directly connected to being more green in more modest ways . Efficiency ultimately means less dependence on non-renewable energy sources and customer satisfaction is what makes any green business viable. We do have plans for expansion in the future as long as their are crops that can be grown locally that currently are sourced outside of our foodshed. However, first things first and for the time being we are focusing on the small steps.
What I would love to find as a next step — perhaps from another member of the Green Business Network™ — is a sustainable package for retailing our dry beans and grains. We feel that a small plastic window on the package is necessary as customers want to see what is in the bag. We currently use a small brown coffee bag with a window for holding 1 lb. of either beans of grains. We experimented with the plastics produced from corn but found them brittle without sufficient strength. Also, the corn used to produce this material is almost certainly GMO which means that it would not be allowed for our organically certified products in any case. If any one in the network has a potential solution, we would love to know about it!
What green product can you not live without?
Erick: With our orientation towards food, there are many categories where organic is essential to me: most fruit because of the heavy use of pesticides, poultry because of the heavy use of hormones and antibiotics, and dairy because of the growth hormones added. And of course any product made with nonorganic corn, soy, or canola almost certainly contains GMOs. They can be difficult to avoid.
Overall I always choose organic and local when I can. There are just too many unknowns in the industrial food supply to be able to put any trust in any of those products.