Picking over the produce in their local store, shoppers scrutinize fruit for its color, skin, shape and smell. But how many really take a good look at the label? Maybe they should.
“People subconsciously count on farmers like me to grow products that are okay to eat,” says Peter TenEyck of Indian Ladder Farms in Altamont, New York. “But they’ve become uncoupled from their food, where it comes from, and who grows it.” TenEyck is one of 43 Northeast apple growers who have embraced the CORE Values ecolabel, developed by Mothers & Others, as a way to develop a market for sustainable produce and raise consumer awareness about locally grown food.
According to Jim VanKirk, the Northeast facilitator for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) activities, introduction of monocropping and non-native species made it all too easy for pests to get a foothold, putting farmers on what he calls “the pesticide treadmill.” One way for farmers to wean themselves from chemical dependence is through IPM, which integrates many different methods—biological controls, crop rotation, resistant varieties and judiciously used chemicals—in a sustainable approach to managing pests.
But unlike similar ecolabeling programs, the CORE Values’ system is knowledge-based, encompassing whole farm ecology. Growers must submit a farm plan, outlining such practices as good pruning and nutrition, the best use of water resources and the most efficient method of fertilization. They are then inspected and certified by an independent third party, which includes other orchard owners, members of the federal land grant system and IPM specialists.
“The good thing about CORE Values,” says Steve Clark, owner of Prospect Hill Orchards in New York, “is that anybody can enter at any time. It’s a journey on a road, and as long as you’re always moving in the same direction, you can be part of the program.”
An equally important part of CORE Values—the label itself—has already appealed to many consumers. Farmers’ markets and stores throughout the Northeast, including Big Y, Shaw’s and Shop ‘n Save, now carry CORE apples, as do all 25 D’Agastino’s markets in New York City and all 160 Manhattan public schools.
Despite the growth of large-scale mechanized agriculture, the path an apple takes from seed to supermarket is still controlled by the consumer. Clark points out, “If we can get a million people to say ‘I’m going to buy an apple that’s grown well,’ there will be major changes in farming.”