Colorado has been a national leader in the organic food industry, with Boulder at the forefront of the transition to an organically-supported food culture.
“In Boulder we’re pretty fortunate to have an educated populace with people that get it,” said Zach Gart, executive chef for Alfalafa’s Market.
Alfalfa’s is the only local and organic grocer in Boulder, with one other location in Louisville.
“Organic is part of our mission,” Gart said. “In fact, it’s the reason that most of us are here — to really know where our food comes from. It’s fun to trace it back and to go, ‘Okay, we’re supporting sustainable agriculture by directly sharing our message with guests.’ I think we present people a choice to say this is the right thing, and hop on board.”
Since the Colorado Department of Agriculture became the first state agency to develop and impose organic certification for farms, the state has become home to leaders in organic milk, herbal teas, soy products, natural meats and organic food processing, with many of those companies producing and selling their products right here on the Front Range.
But what exactly does the term “organic” mean?
Organic food, USDA-approved, is defined as produce and other ingredients “grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.”
Dennis Duncan, a Colorado farmer and founder of High Altitude Rhubarb, started his company after he saw the opportunity to build a farm from unique circumstances. Rhubarb, a vegetable often used in pies, tarts and sauces, thrives in this climate, which Duncan described as unusual due to the lack of farming in this part of the state.
“People refer to farming with chemicals as conventional farming, but in fact, it’s not. It’s modern farming,” Duncan said. “We did virtually nothing but organic farming right up to about World War II. When I was first experimenting 15 years ago, I experimented with chemical fertilizers, but I couldn’t see there was any real payoff for it. It wasn’t necessary.”
As one of a handful of organic farmers in Colorado, Duncan stressed the importance of public education on farming practices, including the harm that so many of today’s conventional farmers could impose on the people they sell their products to.
“I don’t want to be around all kinds of poisons and chemicals myself,” Duncan said. “I don’t want that on my property. I take some satisfaction out of knowing I’m providing people with healthy, fresh food.”
Boulder is a mecca for the organic and natural food industry with a wide variety of organic products available. But some may confuse an organic product with others labeled “non-GMO,” “fair-trade” or “all-natural.” By definition, the term “non-GMO” refers to products free of genetically modified organisms and genetic engineering techniques.
“Fair trade” is used to define products that contribute to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to marginalized international producers and works.
The FDA has not developed a clear definition for “all-natural,” but the agency has not objected to use of the term, so long as products labeled as such do not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances.
So why has this trend caught on so heavily in recent years?
For starters, it’s healthier for you. Organic milk has 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic milk, and organic crops have higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants and 48 percent lower levels of a toxic metal called cadmium, according to The Organic Center. Pesticides are also found four times more frequently in conventional produce than organic.
The environment also has the rising organic industry to thank. Organic trade contributes to long-term environmental sustainability, more nutrient-rich and energy cycling soil and helps control soil erosion, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. It also has a reduced risk of groundwater pollution, increases the biodiversity of the earth and contributes to mitigating the greenhouse effect and global warming. Consumers can rest easy knowing that organic is the most heavily regulated and closely monitored food system in the U.S.
Despite the many positive reasons to choose organic, many arguments still arise as to the industry’s importance and impact.
“I think the scope of understanding is growing, but it’s still kind of limited,” Gart said. “When an argument’s presented there’s so many pros with organic, and there’s almost no cons.”
One of those cons, Gart said, is that organic farming can sometimes take a little more space because farmers refrain from planting monocultures row to row, or fence to fence.
“When we take a look at all the things that we’re doing to our soil with conventional farming and our top soil degradation,” Gart said, “it’s pretty obvious that organic farming is quite literally the only practice that sets the standard of how you should take care of your land.”
It’s also no secret that organic products are all-around more expensive than conventional, but not everything you buy needs to be USDA-certified organic. Each year, the Environmental Working Group identifies produce with the highest pesticide loads, commonly referred to as the “Dirty Dozen.” For the current year, you should prioritize: strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers. Other produce to consider buying organic include hot peppers, kale and collard greens.
Though organic hasn’t necessarily taken root elsewhere as it has in Boulder, local consumers are fortunate to live in an area home to a plethora of organic and natural food companies, resources and grocers in the Boulder area.
Naturally Boulder is a not-for-profit economic development initiative that provides education funding and a voice for the natural and organic industry. Many nationally recognized organic food companies are based on the Front Range, including Horizon Organic, Boulder Brands, Izze Beverages, Justin’s, Bobo’s Oat Bars and Noosa Yoghurt.
Grocers like Alfalfa’s Market are doing an excellent job of providing organic, local produce and other products to its consumers. Natural Grocers, Mile High Organics and Lucky’s Market also boast mostly organic products, and popular chains like Trader Joe’s, Sprouts and Whole Foods are sprinkled throughout the area.
“It’s so important and it’s pretty incredible to think that there’s still an argument there,” Gart said. “In my mind, it doesn’t exist. There is no turning back.”
For more information on the organic industry, visit Organic.org.