Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Does Organically Grown Food Taste Better?

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Summer 2003 \ Taste

Toki Oshima drawing
Toki Oshima drawing

By Mort Mather

If you know that I’m a past president of MOFGA, you might think you know how I will answer this question. It is not that simple, though.

To begin with, taste is, to a large extent, subjective. Add to that different varieties, different weather conditions, different soil types and different soil management practices, and you can see how foolish you would be betting someone that organic carrots in the supermarket will taste better than conventionally grown carrots in the supermarket.

What if we take out all the variables – same variety planted at the same time side by side in the same soil type by two equally competent farmers – one using organic methods and the other conventional? Now will the organic carrot taste better than the one grown using water soluble fertilizers? My guess is that it would be difficult to tell the difference but that if a difference did exist, the organic carrot would be more likely to taste better.

The reason for this is the complex nature of soil – and of nature. Last time I checked, 17 nutrients were known to be used by plants. Most plants can get by with imbalances in these nutrients. However, imbalances cause stress, and some stresses can cause some plants to be more attractive to attack by some insects and diseases. The advent of chemical fertilizers about 70 years ago enabled farmers to give plants the major nutrients in water soluble form without adding organic matter. Organic matter is a more complex substance, returning micronutrients to the soil. However, the stressed plants started developing problems with pests. The chemical companies were quick with a solution: pesticides.

Farmers using chemical fertilizers have come a long way, and the good ones are quite aware now of the problems of an unbalanced diet for their plants. The fertilizers are better balanced now, with more nutrients available, and other soil amendments are available. A good grower is likely to rotate crops and use green manure crops. Some conventional growers are even using compost. Just because farmers don’t choose to label their food organic doesn’t mean they are not growing good food.

The opposite is equally true. Just because something is labeled “organic” doesn’t mean it was grown by a conscientious or especially skilled farmer. With the surge in demand for organic produce, we should, perhaps, be more concerned with the skill of the farmer. Just because someone raises food within the dictates of the organic standards doesn’t mean the result will be quality food.

The Economics of Building Healthy Soil

Most of us who have been growing organically believe that healthy soil is the most important ingredient. To attain a healthy soil, we know that we have to keep adding organic matter every year. For a gardener, that may mean spreading a load of manure from a local farm and touching it up with rock powders if the soil test warrants. Just spreading the manure may be enough, because we may be using more than is needed. The humus in the soil produced as organic matter is broken down provides a buffer, and the plants do well.

Fine for a gardener who is not trying to make a living from the plants grown. However, a farmer must produce crops at a competitive cost. The farmer can’t afford to spread more manure, or any other soil amendment, than is needed. Cover crops are nice but they take up space and time on land that could otherwise be growing a cash crop. There may not be enough organic matter around. The farmer may want to fertilizer with an organic material such as blood meal, which has a lot of immediately available nitrogen and adds little else to the soil; thus it acts similarly to chemical forms of nitrogen.

The point is, food can be produced many different ways within the organic standards. A variety of methods are perfectly fine and will produce excellent crops. Within that variety a farmer can make mistakes. If I had my choice of buying food from a good conventional farmer and a poor organic farmer, I’d go with the conventional farmer.

However, if you don’t know the farmer, and I mean that you can look the farmer in the eye and you are welcome to visit the farm and talk about his or her philosophy, I’d go with the organic label, because it is much more difficult for an organic farmer to cover up mistakes. If the radishes are not getting the nutrients they need, they will probably be attacked by root maggots. Most likely the radishes will not get to market at all, but if they do, you will be able to see the damage.

I am so happy that we no longer have to say that organic produce should look as good as conventional. When I was selling organic vegetables 25 years ago, I had no competition for good looking produce. What did make it to shelves labeled organic was pretty miserable looking stuff that didn’t move, so it soon looked even more miserable. I’m not trying to claim that I was an exceptionally good farmer. I was the only local farmer selling organic produce in Portland. It was easy for my vegetables to look and taste better when delivered. They came right out of the field.

An Organic Story

My son is a chef. He not only will buy anything I can raise for him, he picks it up so that I don’t have to deliver. Sometimes he will even harvest it. He claims that any time he has my vegetables on the menu, they sell quickly.

My favorite story is one that starts out sounding not so good. My son goes through a couple of bushels of snap beans a week. Last year I was able to supply him with 5 to 10 pounds occasionally. He told me that the only time he got complaints about vegetables was when he was serving my beans. People said the servings were too small. He assured them the serving size was the same.

My beans are organic, but I don’t think that would produce enough of a difference for people to ask for more. My guess is that the varieties I grow and freshness have at least as much to do with the flavor as does the way they are grown. I usually choose varieties that I have come to like for their flavor. I was picking three varieties of pole beans (Northeaster, Rattlesnake and Fortex). I don’t think many commercial growers grow pole beans.

When I had a market garden supplying several restaurants, I took the opportunity to run my own trials on zucchini. Gardeners can get a bit tired of zucchini about half way through the growing season, but I still love it. Planting 200 row-feet enabled me to test six varieties. Elite (Harris Seeds) was my favorite. Surely it was just a coincidence that Elite was the most prolific and easiest to pick.

Costata Romanseca is my favorite in the garden now. Gardeners have no problem with the fact that it isn’t particularly prolific. Unless a garden is cramped for space, it doesn’t matter that the plant is two or three times larger than Elite. Costata is also difficult to harvest because of the way the plant grows, and the spines on the stems dictate that one pick very carefully. My chef loves it though. The shape of the zucchini looks wonderful on a plate, and it does have an especially nutty flavor. I will plant a row for him, but he is going to have to pay a premium price for me to harvest with long sleeves and gloves. I’m also planting a row of Elite, just to compare flavor.

I also grew Provider and a bush wax bean. “Were those as popular?” I asked. “Anything you grow flies right out of the place,” he responded. OK. My beans are probably a day or more fresher, and they probably came out of the field sooner, but something else may be going on here. Flavor, a subjective judgement, can be influenced by the story that goes with it. I have also considered the possibility that my son is playing on my emotions to get me to raise more produce for him. If so, its working. I’m planting half an acre this year.

A farmer growing for local markets has another advantage over farmers growing commodities that they will ship long distances. The local farmer doesn’t select varieties because they will ship well or because they have a particularly long shelf-life. Local farmers can choose varieties for flavor.

Knowing when to buy some produce is important, also. I’m sure most gardeners roll their eyes when they see ears of corn for sale in the supermarket in the winter or spring. Why would someone buy fresh corn at that time of year? Why would anyone buy corn on the cob any time but when it is coming fresh from the field? We all know that the water should be boiling before the corn is picked, and if you drop an ear on the way to the kitchen, you shouldn’t stop to pick it up. Undoubtedly the story makes fresh-from-the-garden corn taste better, but there is some truth in it. The sugar in corn does start turning to starch several hours after picking.

Carrots and parsnips are biennials. They grow the first year without flowering. In the fall the energy collected during the growing season is concentrated in the roots. The next spring, new top growth emerges and soon a flower stalk is put up. The sweetest carrots and parsnips are harvested after the first hard frost and before they start their second year of growth.

Five Factors for Best Taste

To summarize, good practices with the edge going to organic, freshness, best varieties, a good story and timing all contribute to taste. I’ve studied that list to see if some reasonable order of importance exists, and I can find none that fits all produce. One factor that I do recommend to anyone looking for the best tasting tomato or apple or asparagus or lettuce is to go shopping for good farmers. They can be found at farmers markets, roadside stands and in such directories as the certified organic growers listed in The MOF&G and at www.mofga.org, and growers listed with the Maine Department of Agriculture (www.GetRealMaine.com). Talk to the farmers about the varieties they are growing and their methods. Through dialogue with farmers, you can learn a lot about flavor. Consider this dialogue:

“The carrots I got last week were wonderful, the best I ever had. Were they a different variety than I got last time.”

“Nope. Same variety, planted at the same time.”

“Am I crazy? They sure tasted better.”

“You’re not crazy. We had a frost. It makes the carrots sweeter. You know, you could buy a bushel of these if you have a cool, moist place to store them, and they’d be good into March.”

About the author: Mort Mather served several terms as MOFGA’s president in the early years of the organization. He currently administers a grant program for Coastal Enterprises, Inc., called Farms for the Future that provides business planning help and cash grants to farmers in Maine.
MOF&G Cover Summer 2003