An ongoing examination of what it means to “eat local.“ Please read the previous stories here:
Part 3: Farmers’ Markets
Part 4: CSAs
Part 5: Common Ground, Strawberry Fields, & Bacaro
Part 6: Triple S Farms
Part 7: Pasta Alley & Moore Family Farm
Vendor: Blue Moon Farm Sells: Produce
Owner: Jon Cherniss Location: Urbana, Ill.
Purchased: 1997 Size: 20 acres
Type: Certified Organic Website: http://www.bluemoonfarm.biz/
Blue Moon Farm owner Jon Cherniss started farming in 1988 because he needed a summer job, and he has been farming full-time ever since.
“I wasn’t looking to farm,” Cherniss said. “It was just a good match with my skills and interests at the time.”
Cherniss and his wife, Michelle Wander, moved to the Urbana area and began farming in 1995; they purchased what is now Blue Moon Farm in 1997.
Cherniss said his sister and his wife are agriculture scientists; he said that they had already been involved in sustainable organic farming when he began, and that their influence was what eventually pushed Blue Moon Farm to become USDA Certified Organic.
Blue Moon Farm currently yields 40-50 different types of crops and runs year-round.
“We primarily grow in-season, except the winter stuff,” Cherniss said. “It is an endless cycle…we plant something almost every week.”
To grow the 30-40 different varieties of tomatoes that they do, Cherniss said, he and his staff plant tomatoes six to seven different times per year, beginning in March and ending in June.
Blue Moon has the equivalent of six full-time employees, but the work is divided among 11 people, Cherniss said.
“Everybody does everything on the farm, and some people have specific tasks as well,” Cherniss said. “I have a farm manager; we have people who focus more on the greenhouses and some people focus more on starting the plants. Some people do tractor work or run harvest crew…and for the most part, everybody harvests.”
One of his biggest challenges, Cherniss said, is managing the calendar and matching labor needs with growing conditions.
“We have a steady workforce, but due to weather, we may need to do two major tasks on the same day,” he said. “So we may have to do all of the weeding on the same day we are harvesting based on weather, but unless we can come up with five extra people, we can’t do both.”
Cherniss noted that though the soil in the Midwest is great, his farm “has winners and losers each year, crop-wise.”
“That’s where the diversity really helps us,” he said. “Our farm is fairly robust, but we don’t know which crops we’re going to count on each year.
“When it comes down to it,” Cherniss said, he farms for the taste of the produce.
“I don’t really grow anything that I don’t like,” he said. “When we select varieties, we are selecting primarily for taste.”
Cherniss has been a vendor at Market at the Square since 1995, and noted that, like him, the primary customer is concerned about the taste of the produce.
“We compete with conventional growers, national growers, and non-certified organic growers at the [farmers’ market],” Cherniss said. “I would say we’re primarily competing on taste, quality and price… Maybe 30-40 percent of people want to buy from a certified organic grower or someone they are comfortable with in terms of practices, but most people are buying what looks good to them.”
Cherniss noted that his estimates are just that, and that he hasn’t done any scientific studies.
When he sells at the market, Cherniss said, he gets questions about his growing practices, and he has encountered misconceptions among his customers on more than one occasion.
“You get people who are afraid of organic because they think you are putting manure on your fields,” Cherniss said.
The bigger misconception, Cherniss noted, is that people have difficulty distinguishing the difference between organic and local, and between certified organic and no-spray/natural farms.
“There are a lot of assumptions people make,” Cherniss said. “To a certain degree, the local organic [farming community] is in the same place it was before there was a national certification process, in that customers are busy and don’t know the questions to ask.”
For a grower who is Certified Organic, he said, there is a third-party review by the Organic Materials Review Institute, or OMRI.
“It is not just me saying that I am certified organic,” Cherniss said. “With that, what sometimes happens is that some growers will say that they are not organic because it costs too much, or because there is too much paperwork. That has built in the misconception that we are the same – certified growers and growers that use the same practices.”
The Certified Organic process forces Cherniss to keep good records and to review what he has done every year, he said.
“It forces growers to ask the hard questions like, ‘Am I doing all I can for erosion, or in my attempts to control pests?’,” Cherniss said. “It really forces you to challenge yourself.”
Before the national standards for Certified Organic growing were established, Cherniss said, there was very little organic seed available. Because Certified Organic farmers must buy organic seed wherever it is commercially available, the seed business has become less monopolistic since 2001.
“Instead of having Monsanto and a few seed growers in charge, we have created a whole new seed industry, and we’ve increased diversity,” Cherniss said. “Without Certified Organic, we would be in a lot worse shape.”
Cherniss suggested that consumers ask organic producers whether or not they grow organic seed whenever possible.
“Even they aren’t certified, how close are growers paying attention to the rules? Do they own a copy of the standards?” Cherniss asked. “Some of this stuff might not be important to the consumers, but they should decide for themselves whether or not they care.”
Some growers aren’t certified because they don’t believe in government, Cherniss said; others are great organic growers, but the process “isn’t perfect enough for them.”
“And then you have the people who never would’ve gotten certified anywhere, and who are just floating on the coattails [of the terminology],” Cherniss said. “As a customer, you really have to figure that out for yourself.”
When it comes to why one should eat locally produced foods, Cherniss made some challenging points.
“I think if you look at the food mile issue and sustainability, it is a really tough to decide [whether eating local is better], because it depends on so many things to determine which is more environmentally sound,” he said. “I tend to place not as much importance on that.”
Cherniss noted that there is a “hidden valley” in the discussion about eating local, in that its comparative sustainability isn’t often questioned.
“Even though it may not be more environmentally sound to eat local, it is still a better quality of life for the people who grow the food and those who buy the food,” Cherniss said. “It is a better living arrangement for humans…I think if there are more small farms, there are better rural communities, and there are more small businesses that work with those small farms.”
Cherniss said that to him, “eating local” is about taste, quality, and community and smallness.
“You eat three times a day,” he said, “so it is important that you enjoy it, and that your food be fresh. Local food provides that freshness.”