Isn't Organic Food Supposed to Be Natural?

My Generation

Bugs and worms are, indeed, natural on the farm, but that doesn't mean a consumer wants to see them. Or really, even know they exist.

Published on: May 25, 2012

It was back in college when I had my first brush with the realization that some people's food standards might be a little different from mine. Like when the girl from the suburbs handed back a glass of lemonade because, "It has a speck in it."

"Really?" thought those of us living at 4-H House at the time, who'd offered up the lemonade. "A speck?" The girl was both horrified and disappointed that we'd offer her such a thing. And although we would've liked to have responded with a hearty "So what?", instead we graciously served up another speck-less glass of lemonade.

In that moment, the farm girl in me recalled how we'd just spent the summer showing cattle with an orange cooler of water positioned on a bucket next to the showbox, and a tin cup turned upside down on top. When we wanted a drink, we grabbed the cup, swooshed a little water around in it to rinse the straw out, and filled it up. Everyone in the family used the same cup. Probably a few friends, too.

This all came to mind the other day as I watched a conversation unfold on Facebook. My Chicago mom friend, Sara, had posted the following:

"Ok Whole Foods Market Chicago - there's organic broccoli and then there's broccoli crawling with small bugs in the frying pan after dousing with water. I think I'm over organic produce at the moment."

And I thought for a moment that, well, yes, of course there are bugs. Food grows outside and bugs happen and in an organic produce situation, you may well have bugs. So I shared with her my farmwife mother-in-law's time honored trick of soaking the broccoli in a bowl of saltwater – kills the bugs and floats them to the top. Works every time.

But then I watched the subsequent comments from her Chicago peers flow in. Some folks noted that organic doesn't actually mean that it's grown well and that Whole Foods is notorious for flying in Mexican organic produce.  Some suggested she join a CSA or buy local. Great ideas, but again, bugs are gonna happen.

The thing that surprised me – but shouldn't have, given the speck experience above – was how horrified everyone was. By a bug. On the broccoli. The conversation was peppered with words like gross and ewwww. Some even suggested she call the store and complain, or better yet, take her receipt back in for a refund.

I can sympathize, to a certain extent. I, too, have found the little green worm on my garden broccoli, which God happened to make the exact shade of green as the broccoli. And bugs in the lettuce. And those big, fat tomato worms give me the absolute willies. I don't like them but as farmers, we know insects exist. We find ways to control them. We deal with them and we move on, whether in the field, the garden or the kitchen sink. Same with the speck in the lemonade.

Our consumers have told us over and over they want their food "natural." But they also want it perfect. They don't want it sprayed or genetically engineered. But still, they want it perfect.

There was a day when I'd have been sorely tempted to tell that prissy suburban girl with the lemonade to get over it and just drink the lemonade. That is, in essence the message that we in agriculture have been telling consumers for a long time: get over it and eat your food.

But this conversation? It's another reminder that when you're disconnected from the reality of how your food is grown, you can't accept bugs, because they are gross and imperfect. As farmers, we don't like it and maybe we don't even get what their problem is. And we can tell them from now till next Tuesday to deal with it. But more than ever, it appears to me that farmers are the ones who are going to have to find ways to, well, deal with it. Because the bug clock isn't turning back.

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  2. Bob says:

    Would you rather eat bugs by accident, or harmful chemicals and additives on purpose?

  3. Dave says:

    I'm an organic farmer , I use limited organic sprays and wash all produce with a touch of cloroxs in it,no bugs for my consumers.

  4. Phillip Swartz says:

    That's the truth. I personally don't mind eating a few bugs or some dirt. I rarely wash my carrots before eating - just wipe them off with my shirt. This is why it's important for farmers to have a relationship with their customers. When people go to a grocery store all they see is mostly perfect produce and not the tons upon tons of produce that was composted or sent off to processors. I think it's simply that far too many consumers are incredibly detached from where food is grown and how it is grown. Heck, I'm elated that these people were even attempting to eat real vegetables instead of something made from processed corn and soy.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I most certainly dig this particularly regarding the points!

  6. Anonymous says:

    You pin pointed a huge problem in the organic industry, especially in produce. An organic apple farmer friend of mine fights constantly with consumers who want organic Gala apples. Apparently these apples are very tough to grow organically, but they are what consumers expect. The huge disconnect between food and the farm it was grown on makes us organic farmers (and I am sure conventional farmers) pull our hair out. Emily Zweber-Zweber Farms

  7. Anonymous says:

    Nice blog post and I had to laugh at the memory it brought back. As a kid I used to sit on the truck box during wheat harvest and grab a handful of wheat fresh out of the combine. My dad taught me the glutein in the wheat allowed it to make a "gum" to chew. There was often lady bugs and grasshopper legs in it and I didn't really mind unless I got a whole LIVE grasshopper as they were kinda scratchy kicking around the back of your throat.

  8. Anonymous says:

    love the I\article. I'm just a want to be farmer but have enough sense to know that bugs are growing and enjoying the farm plants. From Kroger, Publics, or Whole Natural Foods, the bugs have been there and always will.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I have been trying to make your last, and most important, point of this article to my farm friends for some time. Delivering to a customer who is well-fed and wealthy enough to be very picky about what is "food" is going to take a change in mindset in agriculture. As commodity growers of wheat, etc. we have learned that lesson through the discounting our grain takes when it doesn't meet the expectations of our buyers. A lesson met with screams of anguish and "unfair!" This is who are customer is. If you don't like it, raise gravel. Oh, wait, there are specs for gravel, too!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Nice blog post and I had to laugh at the memory it brought back. As a kid I used to sit on the truck box during wheat harvest and grab a handful of wheat fresh out of the combine. My dad taught me the glutein in the wheat allowed it to make a "gum" to chew. There was often lady bugs and grasshopper legs in it and I didn't really mind unless I got a whole LIVE grasshopper as they were kinda scratchy kicking around the back of your throat.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Isn't it too sad that herbicides and pesticides and pollution doesn't leave an easily visible yucky fluorescent color behind? So it can be seen. I will take a bug anytime over the invisible poisons in our environment.

  12. Anonymous says:

    You pin pointed a huge problem in the organic industry, especially in produce. An organic apple farmer friend of mine fights constantly with consumers who want organic Gala apples. Apparently these apples are very tough to grow organically, but they are what consumers expect. The huge disconnect between food and the farm it was grown on makes us organic farmers (and I am sure conventional farmers) pull our hair out. Emily Zweber-Zweber Farms

  13. Anonymous says:

    I'm sure it was an organic bug, so what was17 the problem...

  14. Anonymous says:

    I'm sure it was an organic bug, so what was17 the problem...

  15. Anonymous says:

    a little protien never hurt anyone.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I've got to admit that I now check inside my raspberries before eating them straight off the bush. One experience of a beetle inside a raspberry... they taste terrible! I've been better about getting the bugs off produce since then. But yes, bugs happen, and food is grown in dirt. Stephanie http://groundcherry.wordpress.com

  17. Anonymous says:

    Great post. I have friends who throw away entire potatoes and melons and other produce, when all they need to do is cut out the 'bad' part. Heaven forbid that meat might have a blemish!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for sharing. Here's a piece written for our farm regarding "hitchhikers" that show up on produce. http://www.suziesfarm.com/index.php?/site/comments/buggin_out/

  19. Anonymous says:

    I would have been a little grossed out before as well but now that I grow a garden myself I would be thrilled to see a bug because then I know the veggie is relatively fresh and if they think its yummy so will I.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Funniest thing I've read today.

  21. Anonymous says:

    How sad people are so far away from what real food is. If the bugs don't like it we shouldn't either.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Maybe those who grow the "perfect" food should take their share of blame for "no bugs" produce, creating such a spoiled population? Candi paulsproduce.me

  23. Anonymous says:

    Thank you! Our consumers have totally lost touch with how and where their food is produced. They dont understand why organic cant be bug free. My mother always said that a little dirt never hurt anyone. I think that the american consumer needs to take an active role in understanding where their food comes from and I think we as farmers need to help educate them, its a give an take.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Sort of like when we make about 250 Gallons of Burgoo. Bugs= protein. We sell out in about 2 hours.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Sort of reminds me of the old joke, "What's worse than finding a worm in an apple when you take a bite out it? Finding half of a worm!