Sustainable vs. Organic "If It's Fresh Just Eat It"

“Organic growers can only use materials that are considered “natural.” Sustainable practices good management practice from a environmental standpoint.” Craig Underwood


Three month old organic African horned melons. Marina D. Sandoval/ El Nuevo Sol



La historia en español: Sostenible vs. orgánico

There was a time when you could walk into a grocery store and know exactly what you were buying, no questions on if the lettuce was organic or not.

The simplicity of grocery shopping is a thing of the past, organic, sustainable, grass-fed, and corn-fed what does it all mean?

Tom Vongnechten is the Bear Creek Ranch manager; he overlooks a 600 acre ranch that grows organic exotic tropical fruit and grass-fed beef. The ranch wasn’t originally certified organic in the beginning, it was a conventional farm that used chemical fertilizers all the way up to the 90s.

“Organic has a lot to do with what product we’re allowed to use,it must be approved by the CCOF for the most part,” said Vongnechten.

In 2003 Bear Creek Ranch became organic and it has been a challenge, it involves a lot of paper work, and having land that has been farmed organic long enough to make CCOF (Organic Certification, Trade Association, Education & Outreach, Political Advocacy) happy. Other qualifications require being inspected once a year and paying a hefty fee.

“We’ve chosen not to go through the three year registration,” said owner, Craig Underwood, Underwood Farms.

Underwood said that his farm practices sustainability, meaning they exercise best management from an environmental standpoint. He says that he has seen really good organic farms, really bad ones as well as good conventional, sustainable farms. As long as they protect the soil by adding organic matter to it and not over using any chemical or fertilizer the quality remains the same.

“When your delivering nutrients to the plant whether it’s organic, conventional, manufactured or synthetic plants take it up the same,” said Underwood.

People assume that organic farming involves no spraying and that’s not true. Organic growers spray the same as conventional does and they may spray more, but they can only use certain materials. There are over 200 materials listed that you can use to spray and apply organically. Another technique opposed to chemicals are beneficial insects. To Underwoods knowledge no one has been able to tell him if there is a difference in taste from organic to sustainable.

“The key is getting it fresh, getting it ripe,” said Underwood. “If you buy a tomato that was picked ten days ahead of when you actually eat it, it’s going to be picked green or mature green and it’s never going to taste the same as if it’s picked right off the vine.”

How can consumers be sure that the produce they are purchasing is organic or not. It’s said that if your produce is abnormally huge, it must have been pumped up with something to make them so big. The altoids, and sugars work better when they struggle a little bit, instead of having sterile soil and nitrate salts being pumped into them, said Vongnechten. In addition to having a healthier field, he believes that it makes a healthier product. Another factor that can be helpful to consumers is produce in supermarket have stickers that indicate if the item is organic or not, but chances are if it’s at the supermarket it was grown in a large scale production which involves a lot of factors. When I look at things I tend to trust the smaller, less perfect item then the perfectly packaged one that consumers tend to like and it comes with a price, he said.


People assume that the majority of the produce sold at farmers markets are organic, but not all farmers who sell at farmers markets are. Marina D. Sandoval/El Nuevo Sol

“It’s been really hard to separate the food from the process of growing it,” said Vongnechten. “It was hard not to look at a banana and not see the diesel I just didn’t like it I felt like I was eating diesel.”

Bear Creek Ranch grows African horn melons, passion fruit, strawberry guava, papayas and papino dolce to name a few. They sell the bulk of their produce whole sale in Los Angeles, but they also sell at local farmers markets and plan to start a CSA program. In addition to their organic tropical fruit, they are beginning to grow potatoes, garlic and other substantial food. Not just high end specialty food that only rich people can eat, said Vongnechten.

“We are trying to actually grow food that is nutritious for people, and we are trying to keep it more within the county instead of sending it all over the place,” he said.

In the past Vongnechten farmed on 5 acres and he explained that it was easier to not have to worry if you were organic or not, because they took the time to talk to their consumers. They never felt the need to display a sticker or sign that stated they were organic, their customers knew that they were “beyond” organic. He did everything by hand, used a hoe, no tractors needed. But with a large farm and having their produce shipped off, they feel that it is a necessity  to state that they are organic so that consumers who are purchasing their produce at a supermarket will know.

“To me everyone at a farmers market should be organic that’s just in assumption, but there’s definitely a lot of people who aren’t,” said Vongnechten.

Different counties and markets have different regulations and standards, when it comes to farmers being organic or not. For instance Santa Cruz requires that farmers be organic and it stretches out to a few hundred miles. This prevents farmers from  other counties or even other states to be able to drive around all over the state, and sell their produce in any farmers market. In San Luis Obispo county there are farmers who are from Bakersfield, Central Valley who are not certified or limited to GMO’s. There are different agencies who are involved in certifying farms, the premier agency is CCOF. Some are non-profit, some are profit that have their own guidelines.

Marina S. on Dipity.

Aside from organic and sustainable produce, grass-fed beef is another practice that is said to be imperative to your health. At Bear Creek Ranch they have yearly healthy herds of Angus and longhorns that are grass-fed. Grass-fed beef is healthier based on omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-linolenic acids. The different compounds in the grass have more minerals and vitamins as a whole. Corn on the other hand is full of sugar and starch making the cows get fat and heavy leaving them unable to process the mineral and vitamin health they need, which leads them to pass it on to the person who is eating them.

Cows that have a much more varied diet are going to be much healthier in the long run. Marina D. Sandoval/ El Nuevo Sol

“Corn-fed works great for people who are trying to make a lot of meat, it doesn’t necessarily work well for people who are trying to eat well,”said Vongnechten.

Upon shopping for red meat supermarkets on occasion have their meat labeled grass-fed. If there is no label a person can tell by the leanness of the meat, the muscle is leaner then grain fed animals. Smelling the meat can be another indicator on how the meat has been grown, if it has a stench then it more then likely is old and has been grown industrially. If there is no smell it is fresh and it’s been raised on pasture.

“In the cut it’s a different texture,” said Håi Võ, community organizer and research fellow, California Food and Justice Coalition. “In grain fed animals it’s much easier to cut and in grass-fed it’s a little tougher but firmer.”

Tasting the meat is another way of detecting how the animal was grown.  Pastured animals are firm and the meat needs to be cooked a specific way. Toxins that have built inside the animal is visible within the fat, the more marble and streaks there are on muscle the more likely it was raised on grain. A darker more yellow colored fat is a sign that the animal is grass-fed and has had more nutrients, white fat is a sign of void nutrients.

“It’s the same thing for fruits and vegetables from what I understand,” said Võ. “Blemishes or fruits and vegetables that are cosmetically challenged as they might be marketed is a sign that chemicals were not used indicating healthier food.”


For more Information:

Food News

University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners

Bio-Integral Resource Center

7 Steps to Organic Certification_1

7 Steps to Organic Certification

Tags:  acceso a comida saludable Bear Creek Ranch California Food Coalition comida orgánica corn-fed Craig Underwood Eating Fresh El Nuevo Sol familias de ingreso bajo farmer’s markets Farmers Fresh Produce grain-fed granjeros grass-fed Håi Võ hierba-alimentado Latinos Los Osos maíz-alimentado Marina D. Sandoval mercados de agricultores Moorpark Nutrición omega-3 Organic orgánico pasture Pick Your Own sostenible sustainable Tom Vongnechten Underwood Farm

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