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Produce options sprouting up (Myrtle Beach Sun News)

When it comes to your fruits and vegetables, which is better: buying organic, sustainable or local? It's like a rock-paper-scissors game, and the rules aren't clearly defined.

It turns out you can't have it all - you can buy organic produce, which is not grown with any artificial pesticides or fertilzers and is subject to U.S. Department of Agriculture certification. Or you can buy produce that's grown sustainably, which involves using as few nonrenewable resources, such as gas, as possible. Buying directly from nearby farmers is an option as well.

While at least one local farmer strikes a middle ground between organic and sustainable, in most cases health- and environment-conscious shoppers will have to prioritize.

The organics industry has mushroomed in the past 16 years. The Organic Trade Association says sales have increased 20 percent to 24 percent each year since 1990, and they continue to grow.

Even Wal-Mart is going organic. It launched an environmentally friendly Wal-Mart store in Texas that features about 400 organic products, and is pushing for more organic selections "at the Wal-Mart price."

As organics become more mainstream, the meaning of the word "organic" has changed from the movement's original goals, said Jeff Zehnder, who works with the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Clemson University.

"From one point of view, Wal-Mart becoming the largest seller of organics is be a good thing for health-conscious people," he said. "But it can also raise concerns about driving prices down and about local sustainability."

As a result of large companies going organic, produce might be organic, but not sustainable; or produce could be sustainable, but not organic, said Robert Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association.

Organic food's popularity stems from research suggesting the potentially harmful effects of pesticides and chemical treatments used in conventional crops, said Holly Givens, communications director of the Organic Trade Association.

Additional research suggests organic produce has more nutritional value than its conventionally grown counterparts, though both claims are debatable.

"The biggest difference we see as dietitians is you have a higher cost," said Jennifer Hogan, clinical nutrition manager for Georgetown Memorial Hospital.

Hogan says she trusts in the USDA's recommendations for safe and effective levels of chemical residues. She also does not find organic produce's added nutritional claims conclusive.

But the difference in price is pretty indisputable.

"This sign that says 99-cent tomatoes? If they were organic, it'd say $3," said Skeeter Dombrowski, owner of Lee's Farmers Market in Murrells Inlet.

He sells five times more conventional produce than organics, largely based on price. Unlike Hogan, he considers organic's health benefits indisputable.

Even with the high prices, Dombrowski has seen his customers' interest in organics increase in two years.

But the high prices aren't limited to Lee's. For example, the Bi-Lo market at Plantation Plaza in Myrtle Beach sells a conventionally grown head of lettuce at $1.79; the organic version clocks in at $2.19.

Dombrowski said most organic crops yield less than conventional vegetables, so each vegetable costs more to cover the cost.

Moreover, the demand for organics has increased so much that they are often imported, if not from across the country, then internationally, Cummins said.

Because the demand has grown faster than American farmers can supply, grocers are importing their organic supplies from China and Peru. Flying food in from around the country or world requires considerable fossil fuel, which defeats any sustainability efforts, Cummins said.

Dombrowski said organic foods, since they lack regular produce's chemically enhanced fortitude, spoil faster and require more intense shipping and handling. This not only contributes to the cost, but also can affect the quality, he added.

"It can be organic and it doesn't mean it's good," Dombrowski said. "It could be on the supply lines for two weeks, and we don't know until we get it." Local alternative

Four acres of Sam Bellamy's 240-acre plot at Indigo Farms near Calabash, N.C., is devoted entirely to organic produce, including strawberries, multiple varieties of lettuce and carrots, spinach, turnips and collards. Once Bellamy perfects his organic farming craft, sweet corn and peaches will be on their way.

Bellamy began growing organic about two years ago, and he wants to expand his organic acreage within the next year.

Zehnder has seen many farmers such as Bellamy invigorated by organic and sustainable farming.

Bellamy sells his organics at his own market on the property - there's no freight costs to factor into the price, only the cost of raising the crop and his own profit.

His organic cabbage sells for $1.79 a head, which is the same as the conventionally grown price at the Bi-Lo at Plantation Point.

They fluctuate depending on the crop's yield and other factors, but his produce prices usually strike a middle ground between supermarket's organic and conventional prices.

Bellamy was surprised by the response when the crops went on sale, developing a fervent customer base.

"Not everyone will go out of their way to buy organic, but if the quality's there, they'll buy it," he said. "I'm still really wanting to work with those who really want it ... making sure I have it available.

"When you grow something and you got them in mind, it makes a difference."

Striking a balance

Though Cummins' organization strives to make both organic and sustainable produce available to everyone, they set priorities.

"Once the consumer is starting to buy organic regularly, then we're asking them to think about food miles and issues of justice," he said.

Cummins said the easiest way to purchase organic produce within reasonable costs involves changes to lifestyle rather than budget: eating at home more and creating organic buying clubs with like-minded individuals to disperse the cost. Buying seasonal items from local farmers or farmers markets also helps.

Zehnder said locally raised produce, even if it's not certified by the USDA, is reliably less chemically ridden than most commercial farms' products .

Also, not all conventional produce requires the exact same chemical treatment.

Some produce, such as strawberries and green peppers, have higher chemical residue than other vegetables, Dombrowski said.

He suggested spending the money only on organics yielding the greatest benefits and otherwise buying cheaper conventional produce to balance out the prices and health benefits.

Hogan said washing softer vegetables in a full sink with a teaspoon of detergent will remove most pesticides, and scrubbing root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots also will reduce the residue amounts.

Cummins said the increased attention to organics has prompted some consumers to set their own rules on what food they purchase and eat.

"We're just trying to get people to think when they're pulling out their wallets."

Contact RUSS LANE at 444-1762 or rlane@thesunnews.com.

Farmers marketsConway | Conway's market will open 8 a.m.-noon the first and third Saturday of the month beginning in June and lasting through October at the corner of Main Street and Third Avenue.

Georgetown | Opens 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, continues every Saturday through Nov 11.

Myrtle Beach | 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday at the corner of Mr. Joe White Avenue and Oak Street, beginning Friday.

Produce with highest levels of pesticide residues | Strawberries, green and red bell peppers, spinach, cherries, peaches, cantaloupe from Mexico, celery, apples, apricots, green beans, grapes, cucumbers, pears

Produce with the lowest levels of pesticide residues | Avocados, corn, onions, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts

Source: Organic Consumers Association

Where to buy organics

Area supermarkets | Local Bi-Lo, Kroger and Piggly Wiggly stores have a growing organic produce section, though the selection varies among stores. Wal-Mart has some organic food, and the company recently announced it intends to increase its selection in the coming months.

Lee's Farmers Market | 4883 U.S. 17 Bypass, Murrells Inlet. Locally grown herbs and a variety of organics from California, including apples, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, three varieties of Swiss chard and three varieties of beets.

New Life Natural Foods | 556 U.S. 17, North Myrtle Beach; 3767 Renee Drive, Myrtle Beach; 1209 38th Ave. N., Myrtle Beach. Stores offer a large variety of organic foods.

Indigo Farms | 1542 Hickman Road, Calabash, N.C. Carries a variety of locally grown produce and the owners accommodate requests for produce when possible.