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Isn't Organic Food Supposed to Be Natural?

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.

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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