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Organic Berries Shipped To Your Door: King Grove Organics

This week’s letter tells the story of one blueberry farmer shipping organic berries nationwide at the peak of their flavor and nutrition. The easiest way to get an organic berry better than any other is to buy them directly so read our love letter to King Grove Organics below.

Acres of green blueberry plants are watered overhead by a mist of water. A light orange sunset is above them.
Real Organic: the biological system at King Grove Organic Farm, biodiverse carbon sequestering soil, tasty nutritous berries.

“Which fairy Godmother do I owe this magnificent shipment of Blueberries to?

You, of course, know, but they are radically better than what we get out here. Taste, texture, color….everything.

– Paul Hawken

Hugh and Lisa Kent and their dog look at the camera wearing white shirts and denim pants. Rows of blueberries and sky are behind them.
Hugh and Lisa Kent, stewards of King Grove Organic Farm, 20 acres of Real Organic certified blueberries.

 

(Re)Meet Soil-Grown Berry Farmers Hugh and Lisa Kent, shipping the best berries you’ve ever tasted nationwide every Spring

Dear Real Organic friends,

One of the farms we have tracked most closely in the last three years has been King Grove Organic Farm in Eustis, Florida. If you are a regular reader, you are familiar with Hugh and Lisa Kent, pilot farmers for the Real Organic Project’s certification program. King Grove was the very first farm to use the Real Organic logo on their farm packaging.

Two people holding red harvest cases full of blueberries smile at the camera. A field of berry bushes are behind them.
The team picking berries at King Grove.

Hugh spoke at our first symposium at Dartmouth. His words swept the audience. He described the devastating invasion of the organic label by the “plastic farms,” as he called them…

Hydroponic operations invading the organic label after they were recently permitted USDA certification. 

A Hydroponic Gold Rush was on. Kent called them “plastic farms” because such soilless production was impossible before the invention of plastic. The plants sit in plastic pots or bags, which sit for years on plastic ground covers. They are irrigated and fed with a system of plastic tubing that delivers the highly processed liquid feed. 

Real Organic? Not at all.


These systems violate the law. How?

  • Organic rules prohibit leaving plastic mulch on the ground for more than a year.
  • However, potted berries will spend years on the same plastic.
  • After three or four years, the whole mess of pots,  plastic, and rootbound plants is hauled to the landfill.

According to testimony presented to the NOSB, prohibited substances are sometimes sprayed between crops in hydro greenhouses. Additionally, it is prohibited to use calcium nitrate in organic, but the coconut coir “soil” is often treated with calcium nitrate to counter the toxicity of the coconut husk.

In its natural state coir is unusable as a substrate. Plus they get a calcium “boost.”The treatment of the coir with calcium nitrate is preceded by the water-intensive drenching of the coir to lower the high salt levels. So much for conserving water.

Of course, the biggest violation of the law is the total abandonment of soil.

There is no effort to “maintain and improve the soil’s fertility” because there is no soil

Soil in organic? It’s the law. Like gravity. These laws are respected around the world. Except in America.

Nowhere else in the world is hydroponic considered organic.

OF COURSE you cannot have organic agriculture without soil.

I have even heard hydro-apostles claim that they were “protecting” the soil by covering it with black plastic. Seriously. This is like “protecting” a witness by putting her into solitary confinement with no food.

Hydroponic Berry Production in a field with farmworkers in the background. Square brown blocks of coconut coir sit in rows on black plastic mulch. Bare soil is between rows.
A certified hydro operation’s version of “protecting the soil.” They could just as easily (more easily) do this in a parking lot. At least that wouldn’t destroy farmable land.

 

Rows of green blueberry bushes in the ground with cover crop between rows. The USDA Organic logo and the Real Organic Logo are both in the upper left hand corner.
The Real Organic reality of healthy soil at King Grove.

An uneven playing field in the organic berry market.

Like many farmers, they went through the three-year transition period to be certified organic. Hugh and Lisa took the “Great Risk”.

The Kents believed that organic farming was the right path. Hugh and Lisa knew that it would cost more to produce organic food, but they made the decision to invest in organic as their livelihood. They believed the USDA had some integrity and would provide a level playing field. And they believed that the law would be respected and equally enforced.

Did I say three-year transition? That is the rule that requires a three-year period of growing organically before the land can be certified.

But there is no transition time required for hydro in a greenhouse.

They say, “Why should there be?” There is no soil to transition. There is no interaction with a soil ecosystem.

In the USDA’s “Brave New Organic”, there is no place for small-scale soil production of blueberries on store shelves. It is now hard to even get a supermarket chain to talk to you. Berries are the most monopolized crop in organic farming, with milk and eggs close behind.

Driscoll’s has proudly claimed that 70% of organic berries in the US come from…Driscoll’s.

From one company. That is a monopoly.

As Hugh said, when you permit a practice like hydroponics in organic, you actually mandate it. (After high initial capital costs, It’s a much cheaper system.) The farmer’s choice is to adopt the cheaper growing system or go out of business. Of course, hydroponic systems are cheaper because their actual costs, to all of us, are hidden.

The same is true for permitting confinement production of livestock. There are not many “USDA certified organic” eggs on the shelves that don’t come from confinement operations. The more expensive (and valuable) real organic eggs simply can’t compete.

Real Organic can’t get shelf space. Real Organic products can’t be distributed.

Hugh and Lisa grow the best blueberries I have ever tasted. I had some frozen ones for lunch in my yogurt today. In a letter from Michael Pollan last year, he had this to say about King Grove’s berries:

Michael Pollan smiles at the camera while wearing a tan button up shirt. Behind him are wooden shelves with stacked plates and bowls.

“The blueberries arrived yesterday in perfect shape, still cold. Dave had prepared me, but not my wife, who was thrilled– blueberries are by far her favorite fruit (possibly even favorite drug), and she declared they were the best blueberries she’s ever eaten. Plump and still hard enough to pop but completely ripe and sweet. Must be the soil!”

– Michael Pollan, after getting a box of King Grove blueberries

How do we build a real organic landscape?

So what do we do? How do we find such good food?

How do we support the farms that bring so many benefits to our world?

I am reminded of an earlier time when we had food coops that met in garages. Members would buy organic foods like whole wheat flour, brown rice, cheese, vegetables, and fruits. Together, we gathered the food from the precious farms and suppliers and broke them down into boxes for each family.

So much has changed since then. Many coops turned into stores that turned into bigger stores that got bought by much bigger stores. Bread & Circus got swallowed up by Whole Foods. Whole Foods got taken over by Amazon.

Progress is happening now as well:

  • Excellent CSAs are around, which hadn’t yet been invented when I was young.
  • Now Booker T. Whatley’s pick-your-own and CSAs (he called them “food clubs”) are common.
  • Farmer’s Markets are thriving.
  • Supermarkets now carry an amazing abundance of “certified organic” food from around the world.

And yet…

 

Rows of trees on a green hill are in the background set against a blue sky. In the foreground, a house and barn are visible behind tall trees.
The beautiful avocado orchard of Traceland Organics.

The more I learn, I am not always finding the food I want in the stores.

I seem to be getting more and more of my food directly from real organic farms:

  • I order avocados from Traceland Organics in California (they NEVER rot and are always delicious).
  • My bread, meat, and eggs are delivered directly to our farm by Trukenbrod, a spectacular local bakery that contracts with farmers for real organic grains grown regionally.
  • I am very fortunate that I can get my yogurt at my local Coop from Butterworks, the rockstar organic farm that has inspired so many others.
  • My ice cream is from Strafford Creamery.
  • My vegetables come from Root 5 and from Cedar Circle.
  • I grow my own tomatoes!
  • My apples came from Lost Nation Orchard.

When we lose a farm or a farmer, we are stunned. We must not take them for granted. My gratitude to all of these farmers who feed me.

And I order my blueberries from King Grove.

Hugh and Lisa are selling their berries in select Whole Foods. They are also going to be showing up in Northeast coops, thanks to the involvement of my favorite organic distributor, Annie Meyers. But the easiest way to get an organic berry better than any other is to buy them directly. They only come in a 5 lb box.

That is a lot of blueberries, but as it turns out, they are so fresh, and so carefully packaged, that they last over a month in the refrigerator! We have never thrown out a single organic berry. It is easy to share a box with a friend. And we have bought many extra boxes to freeze, which is completely easy.

Chef Dan Barber wears a white chef coat and sits in front of a barn door with leaves starting to turn orange growing behind him.

“Hugh, Lisa
I don’t know you but I got a delivery of your unbelievable blueberries this week and I was completely smitten. In a way, I sort of feel like I know you well because of the way they tasted.

I always tell my cooks you can taste the difference between not only real soil and hydroponics (that’s easy) but between real soil that’s well cared for and everything else. What I tasted was extraordinary depth and a perfect balance of tartness and acidity. (As you know, too many people judge fruit by sweetness, when really it’s the acidic elements you want most, to balance everything and keep the flavor clean).

What’s your secret?

And is there any way I could help to promote your work?
A million thanks for sharing your extraordinary work.”

Dan Barber

If you buy these berries, you will be giving yourself a great gift.

These berries are delicious. They are also very nutritious. Blueberries are a superfood. Eating blueberries every day is good for your brain. I hope so, because I need all the help I can get.

But finally, when you support a Real Organic farm like King Grove, you are also doing something good for the world.

How can we have an organic movement without having real organic farms? An organic label without organic farms is like a stove without wood.

So what a wonderful way to take a stand. Buy some real Organic berries today from King Grove! Or request them at your local store.

Eating is a political act.

Click Here to Order

A close up image of large round blueberries on the plant. Unripe white berries are also in the cluster. Leaves are in the foreground.

Other Announcements

I am being interviewed this week by students at the Gund Institute at UVM. We will be talking about how farmers came together to start the Real Organic Project, and how we can bring people together to protect the planet. All are welcome to attend this free session on Wed, April 13 at 4:00 PM Eastern Time.

Can you join us for the next book club session with Paul Hawken? Sign up to be a Real Friend here.

 

Still on the fence? Here’s some praise from King Grove eaters:

  • “Ok, those blueberries were crazy good. I want to order at least 20 boxes and send them out as gifts. Whatever your price is for the box, please create a different box a little prettier and charge a 50% premium because whatever you are charging for those berries it is not enough!!! – Charlie Merinoff, Real Fan of the Real Organic Project
  • “Can I just say, I’ve been eating blueberries my whole life. Climbing high Adirondack mountains just to pick them. But I am pretty sure I’ve never tasted a berry as delicious as the ones that arrived this afternoon.”  – Bill McKibben, founder 350.org
  • “The first thing to comment on is how delicious the plump blueberries are.  For the past couple of weeks, my family has been buying the Driscoll’s product at Whole Foods in Cambridge, Ma.  (On sale at $3.99 a pint, btw).  Of course, they have been mediocre, but we haven’t had a choice here in the Cambridge area. Smiles and grins from all of us.  Delicious, they are.  Thank you. – Dan Pullman, Real Organic supporter
  • “The berries arrived in perfect condition. They taste great and perfect texture and size. And yes, count us in as customers for “pre-season” berries here up north. I know I don’t know the half of why I really should not be buying Driscoll “organic” berries at Whole Foods 365 days a year!” – John Fullerton, Real Organic supporter
  • “The blueberries arrived.  The best we have ever tasted!  – Will Raap, Real Organic Project supporter

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