Organic Revolutionary Grace Gershuny Champions Real Food
by Sarah Galbraith

Grace Gershuny photo: Pete Blose


It’s hard to imagine a time when organic was a fringe concept and farmers’ markets were unwelcome in town centers in Vermont. But that was the environment within which Grace Gershuny—author, educator, and organic consultant—began her work.

Gershuny has played a key role in promoting organic farming and food at the state, regional, and national levels. In the 1990s, she served in the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Gershuny is one of the architects of the rules and definitions behind the US Department of Agriculture’s organic label that we see on our food and fiber products today. This label certifies that the product was produced without certain harmful methods using only certain allowed substances and in a way that follows all USDA regulations and is overseen by a certified agent of the USDA National Organic Program.

Prior to her role at USDA, Gershuny’s professional life was a long string of organizing roles in the grassroots organic movement, including coordinating conferences and educational events and developing an early organic certification program for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Doing business as GAIA Services, Gershuny now works as an independent organic inspector as well as consultant for private and nonprofit clients on all aspects of organic certification, developing related standards and certification systems and training programs.

Against the Eco-fascist Mind-set

Gershuny’s book, Organic Revolutionary: A Memoir of the Movement for Real Food, Planetary Healing, and Human Liberation, self-published in 2016 with an updated version due out in 2017, is her story of hard-fought successes in food activism, set into the ups and downs of her own personal life. The time line from organic as a concept to a federal regulation is interwoven with marriages, divorces, farming, movement within and among social circles, death, and adopting and coparenting her daughter. Says Gershuny by phone from her home on a recent summer day, “I chose to make it a memoir because of my desire for people to understand what drove me to do what I did and what my thought process was, to humanize the process of government regulations.”

These days, through her continued activism and education roles, whether it's writing, guest speaking, or teaching online classes at Green Mountain College, Gershuny frequently encounters critics of the organic label, or people who have a negative attitude about it. "People think it's been taken over by the USDA, or the Organic Trade Association is just a tool of the corporate world trying to corrupt the standard so businesses can take over," she says. Even among the well informed, she hears questions about corporate greenwashing, watering down, and a label that doesn't mean anything anymore.

"There's a lot of unpacking of those assumptions to do," which was the primary reason for writing this book. It's an interesting read and an excellent primer on how government regulations are set. It's chock-full of lessons learned that are applicable to today's food system activists, but it's also a story with many parallels to other social and environmental movements, such as Black Lives Matter, gay marriage, global climate change, safe drinking water, or banning plastics.

Gershuny cautions other activists in her writing, for example, to avoid the trap of "us versus them" thinking, which can be pervasive in social and environmental activism. It's a theme that is sprinkled throughout the book in different contexts. To make the point more clearly, she writes in her epilogue, "we're all in this together, and have to unlearn habits of thought that see any human being (not to mention any other species) as 'alien' or 'other' that is assumed to be a threat. … The enemy is not other people, the enemy is racism and all its related 'isms' that allow any fellow human to be brutalized for the sake of our own need for security and comfort."

The dangers of purist thinking are another theme woven throughout the book, and she has fought against the demand for purity in the organic movement. On this topic, she writes, in chapter 2:

“My gut response is that purity, which is about homogeneity, is anathema to the organic process. A good example is distilled water, which is totally pure, but lacking in the minerals that both make it taste good and replenish some of what is lost in perspiration and urine. Ecological harmony and ecosystem resilience demand high levels of diversity, which is the ultimate impurity. Diversity is crucial to health on many levels—genetic, species, cultural, aesthetic to name a few. And it is health rather than purity that is the ultimate objective of an organic system.”

As she explains in several other places in the book, she adds, “the quest for purity has uncomfortable associations with the eco-fascist mindset.” She likens her dislike for the demand for purity in organic food to the type of purity advocated by racist segments of society, “like the Nazis who were the evil bogeypersons of my childhood,” she writes, continuing, “My feminist and sexual liberation impulses are similarly repulsed by the repression of women in the name of virginal purity, and beyond that, its connotations of whiteness (pure as the driven snow) and refinement.”

Serving the Earth

Gershuny used to be a market gardener but has leased her farmland to a young, energetic couple who operate Joe’s Brook Farm, near St. Johnsbury, which Gershuny says is one of the bigger and better vegetable producers in the area. She has an easy walk to their farm stand, where the couple has turned one of her barns into a point of sale. But despite the neighborly abundance, she still grows her own apples and vegetables and keeps chickens at her homestead. “I try to grow most of what I need,” Grace said over the phone from her home on Joe’s Brook, a tributary to the Passumpsic and then Connecticut Rivers. “I have been trying to cut back because I’m living next door to the best farm in the country. But I have a compulsion, and it really is important to me to grow some of the food I eat.”

Before our phone call, Gershuny had spent the morning weeding and thinning her vegetable garden and sharing the pickings with her egg-laying chickens. The meat birds were scratching around in their outdoor pen. And she was planning to spend the afternoon grading papers as part of teaching her online courses at Green Mountain College. On this sunny day, she planned also to visit her swimming spot on Joe's Brook and to attend a drumming class taught by her neighbor, where they are rehearsing for an upcoming performance at a farmers' market. "I'm in a little paradise here," she said with a laugh.

Our conversation that day covered a range of topics, from why she felt compelled to tell her side of the organic story, to where she found strength in her most difficult times, to the future of food movements and how her story serves as a parallel to others fighting their own revolutions. We ended with her advice to other activists. Snippets from our conversation are below:

Why gardening makes people happy: It’s the microbes. There’s been very strong correlations shown that people who are exposed to the soil from an earlier age have better immune systems and healthier gut flora. The gut is directly connected to the brain and well-being and all of that stuff. It’s not magic.

How government works when setting regulations: Bureaucrats are human beings. People like to blame government for lots of things, and I’m no different, but they’re just human beings. I definitely learned at an early age that government bureaucracy—or any bureaucracy—is really not a good thing. But the people who are working within it are not necessarily to blame.

What organic means: When we talk about it as a labeling term, it means what the USDA says it means, right now. It means it was produced and processed and marketed and brought to wherever you’re buying it in a way that’s consistent with the regulations that the USDA enforces.

What people should understand about the organic label: The term [organic] doesn’t confer any particular qualities on the product—it’s about the process. It’s not something that you can determine in a lab. There has been some research that organic food has less pesticide residues on it, and it’s pretty obvious why that would be, but you can’t put the product in a lab and label it as organic or not because of “x-y” residue. But what it really is about is a positive method of producing food—and, increasingly, fiber—in a way that is going to improve the environment.

What is supported by purchasing organic: When a consumer buys an organic product, they’re exercising what’s called the precautionary principle. There may not be hard and fast evidence that the product is safer than the conventional equivalent, or that the stuff on the conventional product is dangerous, although of course we know there’s been a lot of collusions between the regulators and agri-chemical companies to prevent really proper safety testing … It may not be better nutritionally, although there has been some work indicating that there’s higher nutrient density and more omega-3s in some organic products. But you know that it was grown in a way that is respectful of the environment, that doesn’t pollute, that requires the producer to maintain soil and water quality … you do know there is an alternative to using all these bad things that you know are hurting the environment, people’s health, and livestock health. That’s the precautionary principle: when you have a better option, you can use that instead.

The dangers of purity: I go into a lot of tirades in the book about the dangers of purity. It’s really at the heart of the message in my book, the change of paradigm that we’re going through. Organic has been the leading edge, and it’s not a perfect idea, and it’s also given birth to a lot of these other “beyond organic” ideas. But, before you go beyond organic, you have to be organic.

The role of consumers in the food system: The role of consumers is really to educate themselves—that’s their task and mandate. That little white label is a call to learn more: Learn how food is produced in general and learn why [organic] is different.

Human beings rather than consumers: I really hate identifying people as consumers. I think that the best thing that any informed citizen can do is to become a producer, to whatever extent possible. A better term than consumer—how about human being? We’re all citizens and have rights as citizens, and one of those rights is to know where our food comes from.

What we can do: Grow your own. Learn, educate yourself. Join with other concerned citizens to help advance a policy agenda and support your local farmer without getting crazy about it. When buying food, buy whole food, things you can process yourself. When you’re able to get some surplus from the farmers’ market, can, freeze, pickle, or ferment it. Fermentation is one of those old-fashioned things coming back in a big way. Learn about food processing, and do some more food processing at home.

What keeps her going: I consider myself to be part of the consciousness of the earth trying to save itself. That’s part of why working in the garden is something that’s important to me. That’s why my business name is GAIA Services, I’m really here to serve Gaia. My conscious dedication of my life to the life of the planet, that’s what sees me through. That’s the guiding star.

Advice for activists: Don’t be so hard on yourself. You can aim high, but when you don’t make it, don’t beat yourself up for it. That kind of self-care really leads you to be a nicer person to other people too. Activists in general, because they’re so demanding of themselves, come off as hypercritical of other people, who they might rightfully be critical of. But dealing on a one-to-one basis, it doesn’t convince anyone that you’re right if you tell them “you’re a lousy so-and-so and killing the earth.”

Us-versus-them thinking: We’re really all in this together, and that’s part of the dilemma because there’s a lot of us that don’t really understand that. It’s kind of the terrible quality of our particular culture to see things in black-and-white—it’s us or them. And that’s been the case for a while now. The news this morning [Trump threatened “fire and fury” to North Korea the day before] is about as scary as it gets … if we don’t kill them they’re going to kill us. That’s a horrifying thing. I like my bumper sticker: “There’s no hope, but maybe I’m wrong.” I’m really scared a lot, and the only thing I know to do is just keep trying. Giving up isn’t an option.

The future of organic: There’s a lot of great work being done by black land reclamation [reclaiming land ownership and food sovereignty for African Americans]. I was just in New York a couple of weeks ago with these folks who organized a black land care coalition, diaspora land collation. More and more young people are realizing that they have to take back their land. I went to this great conference in Ithaca, Groundswell, an organization I’ve been following for a while, and it was mostly black led, and that’s really different in the organic movement. The organic movement has been way too white. There’s the food workers alliance [that] is advocating for food system workers who are the most exploited people in our country, and it has its roots in racism, and I talk about that in my epilogue and knowing those connections. Capitalism is really a bad system; it is on its way out. But it’s also a dangerously powerful system, so [we need to] be very careful how you dismantle it. There’s a lot of work to be done on all of those levels—it’s very important to educate yourself about how they all work and where the pressure points are.

For more on the intersections among food, farming, race, politics, capitalism, and more, visit Grace Gershuny’s blog and sign up for her newsletter on her website at www.organic-revolutionary.com. Her book can be ordered from her website as well.

 


 

 

Sarah Galbraith is a writer covering outdoor sports, adventure, local food, and craft beer. Follow her on Twitter @adventurevt