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Growers say organic food worth extra effort, cost

Although the popularity and availability of organic fruits and vegetables continues to grow, for many consumers the whole thing still comes across as a bit of a fad — a movement created by stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to get even more of their hard-earned cash.

Why pay $4 or more for a bunch of asparagus at Fresh Market, after all, when you can pay half that at Publix? Who has the time or patience for a 20- to 30-minute trek to a local produce stand when there’s a two-for-one sale at the Wal-Mart down the street — and you can pick up those razors you need as well?

Even for those ready to embrace a healthier lifestyle, there are lingering doubts about safety, taste and, of course, cost.

With all of these uncertainties floating around, the big question is this: Is the extra effort and money really worth it? And if so, how can organic food providers make it a little easier for the average person to get their hands on the good stuff?

Quality

“I think for most of us, we want to know that what we’re eating is pure,” said Cathy Hume, co-owner of Urban Oasis Hydroponic in Tampa. “Logic tells you that eliminating as much false product in your system is bound to have a healthy effect on you.”

Hume and her husband, Dave, have been naturally growing produce for eight years on a seemingly barren concrete slab on Linebaugh Avenue. They specialize in vertical hydroponic growing, a soilless technique that uses a nutrient solution to turn out sustainable produce.

They are not certified organic, Hume said, but they practice organic principles. “We are not certified. We don’t need to be. Our customers appreciate that they can come here and see their food; they can talk face to face with the people who actually go out there and plant it. We have relationships with these people.”

Just down the road in Town ’N Country, Sweetwater Organic Farm abides by the strictest rules of USDA Organic certifications.

“In the beginning, we went through a pretty intensive audit,” said Kaitlin Hennessy, program director at Sweetwater. “They look at land use, what fertilizers and insect repellent you use, and then every year afterward we are audited again to make sure we are continuing to do those practices.

“For example, an acceptable fertilizer might be the use of liquefied seaweed. It’s super high in nitrogen and is an organically occurring substance.”

Unlike Urban Oasis, Sweetwater sticks to the traditional way of growing food: in the ground. They use animal waste from Lowry Park Zoo for their compost and water from a well on the property.

“Organic really means using the land in a sustainable way without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, irradiation or fertilizers,” Hennessy said. “You still use inputs, but they are put up to very tough rigors to determine whether they are completely derived from nature. A lot of people think organic is just like you throw seeds in the ground and it just happens; it’s not like that.”

Plus, when it comes to safety, the less your food is handled and added to, the better. Many remember the salmonella outbreak in leafy greens in 2006 and then again in 2013, causing a massive recall of different brands of spinach. Even today, researchers at Iowa State University are attempting to educate produce handlers about how easily such diseases can contaminate their veggies if not properly treated (or untreated). According to Food Safety News, older adults are particularly susceptible to these food-borne illnesses.

Cost

“Organic is expensive only because it’s grown with a little more love and care than regular produce,” said Erica Stamps, executive director at Tampa Bay Organics. “Conventionally grown foods have pesticides and chemicals thrown on them from the time they’re baby seeds in the ground.”

The Humes have a more blunt reality check for the anti-organic naysayers.

“We work really hard to be below organic prices but above conventional,” Cathy Hume said. “One of the things I often say to people who come to me and say ours is more expensive than the grocery store, I’ll tell them, ‘Yes, I understand, you want me to compete with Publix prices, but you aren’t asking Publix to compete with my product.’ ”

And when stores like Publix do compete, as with their GreenWise markets, those prices go up.

One way to cut the cost is to pick and choose between organic and conventional produce. “We all do,” Hennessy said. “I don’t even eat organic 100 percent of the time.”

She advises using the “dirty dozen” list, which the Environmental Working Group updates each year on its website. The list’s goal is to inform the public about which fruits and vegetables to avoid because of the high risk of pesticide residue. (According to their recent findings, there are 15 detected pesticides on a single grape.)

A good rule of thumb is to go for produce with a skin that you wouldn’t normally eat. For instance, avocados have very little pesticide residue due to their thick skin.

“Trying to buy seasonally is also really important, if you aren’t going to go fully organic,” Hennessy said. “Like right now, organic cucumbers are incredibly expensive because they’re not in season for where we are. However, your leafy greens are a lot cheaper since they are grown in abundance.”

Convenience

All of this careful consumption takes some work, of course. And let’s face it, when it comes to food, many Americans are lazy. A 2014 study in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine found that participants “adapted to their local food environments by choosing to shop at stores that met a wide range of social needs.”

Essentially, consumers want to buy their produce at the same place they buy their toilet paper, toothpaste, etc. Urban residents are “defaulting to shop at the stores closest to home” rather than venturing outside of their immediate area. The study shows that convenience eventually trumps all other factors when buying food, from price to quality.

This is exactly what Tampa Bay Organics is trying to combat. The delivery service outsources certified organic produce from around Florida, packages it and sends it to your doorstep. It offers customizable boxes in three sizes, and will deliver those boxes directly to their customers.

“The one thing about us is that we make it so easy and convenient, and make it all about you,” Stamps said. “We make it very easy for you to just click and it comes right to your front door.

“There is no one else in the middle here. When you go to a grocery store and you pick up an apple, you’re not the first person who’s touched that apple. You’re probably the 12th.”

Ultimately, it’s up to the consumer to decide whether organically grown produce is worth an extra few minutes on the interstate, but it doesn’t get much easier than picking out your food from the comfort of your couch.

When everything is said and done, an organic lifestyle comes down to two things: education and effort. We all should strive to be knowledgeable consumers, whether we’re picking out our tomatoes or our socks. Once you know exactly what is in your food, you can make the decision to put in the extra effort — or not — for organic products, and judge the price point as well.

The biggest factor is you.

Lauren Richey is a Tribune intern and a student at the University of Tampa.

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