By Victoria Boecherer
It’s one of the small, nagging ironies of life in the United States: Since the implementation of the “certified organic” label in October 2002, there has been infinitely more confusion about how our food is produced, not less. This is especially difficult and disappointing for Hudson Valley residents, who have been at the forefront of the sustainability movement for decades, and photographer Francesco Mastalia has published Organic: Farmers and Chefs of the Hudson Valley in order to define what organic means to this region, specifically. I’ll give you a hint: there’s nothing “certified” about it.
More than one hundred local farmers and chefs were interviewed and photographed for this book – men and women of all ages, from all walks of life, and with very diverse professional backgrounds – and nearly every one of them has a problem with the “certified organic” distinction. Some have waded through the bureaucracy to certify their food, but most reject the label, claiming that it does not sufficiently reflect their practices and beliefs. Even some of the certified organic farmers admit it has little meaning to them. Farmers and chefs would much rather discuss their individual philosophies on organic farming, and Mastalia has provided them with an opportunity to speak for themselves in Organic.
What becomes apparent is that Hudson Valley farmers and chefs carry with them a love for their community which motivates them to cultivate the most nutritious crop they can produce. And though the passion is present, the soil is fertile, and the consumers are educated, this is no simple task. Ric Orlando of New World Home Cooking explains, “The one thing about being an organic chef, a sustainable chef, a clean chef, is that every day you have to weigh decisions, you have to decide what’s best overall,” meaning that one must produce a healthy crop for the consumer without damaging the environment which supports all life. “That’s the biggest challenge,” Orlando says, suggesting that conventional producers don’t address or even recognize that this principle applies to every aspect of human life on earth. Orlando’s comment speaks to the larger picture, that the community includes all elements of nature which work together to support life of all kinds: soil, insects, animals, natural gases (including oxygen), sunlight, and so on. If just one of these factors in compromised by our negligence or willful ignorance, all forms of life will suffer for many generations. Sustainability, organic living, green living, clean living, whatever you want to call it – it is our past, present, and future, and though it’s not easy, thee farmers clearly understand that nothing worth having is. Together, Mastalia and his subjects create a nuanced argument encouraging environmental consciousness. When the reader comes across the same themes -- respect for all life form, responsibility to one’s community, furthering the education of consumers, et cetera – one hundred and thirty-six times, it is virtually impossible not to be persuaded as to the benefits of such a lifestyle.
In light of the notorious physical and lifestyle challenges of the farming and restaurant industries, Mastalia wisely explains why so many people take so much enjoyment from their jobs. Readers who have long considered farming to be an extremely practical lifestyle, ruled by government regulation and terrorized by Mother Nature, will be surprised to learn that many farmers describe their jobs as creative outlets. Bob Walker, of Kinderhook’s Katchkie Farm, raved about building his farm to his own specifications, and implied that the sense of satisfaction he got from executing his vision framed the rest of his career. “Being able to design and build from scratch was a really great project. It’s still going, we’re not done. That keeps it interesting, instead of planting the same head of lettuce over and over again.” By illustrating how a farmer examines his job and how he is mentally and emotionally stimulated throughout the process, Mastalia injects emotional depth into what is a misunderstood way of life. But hopefully, not for long.
Unlike many photography books, the persuasiveness of Mastalia’s interviews is only heightened by his images. Large, bold, and soulful, his portraits capture the passion and history which permeate the book. Gail Buckland, author of Organic’s preface, provides a detailed description of Mastalia’s photography process, which painstakingly involves using nineteenth-century methods with period equipment to create images (Julia Margaret Cameron and Matthew Brady favored camera models which were nearly identical to Mastalia’s). Between the minutiae involved in keeping the outdated equipment in working order and the precarious mixing of necessary chemicals, Mastalia’s process would leave Annie Leibovitz agog. An awareness of history can neither be stripped from the images, nor their subjects. It is in the identifiably ragged frames, the slight blurring caused by windblown hair and clothes, the solemnity of the faces and modest, natural poses. It is most certainly in the eyes -- their steady gaze, the lightness of the irises encompassing the dense black of the pupils. See if you can look away.
My only contention with Organic is that Mastalia overlooked the major complaint of those who ignore organic goods: that it is too expensive. Though some eagle-eyed shoppers argue that prices of conventional and organic produce are no longer as divergent as they once were, many still claim that organic foods are cost-prohibitive; given the state of the economy, there must be some truth to this argument. It would be interesting to know if these farmers’ methods are more costly than conventional methods, or if the chefs featured pay more for organic local produce (certified or non-certified) than they would for their conventionally grown, imported counterparts. Perhaps Mastalia avoided this topic because it might divulge farmers’ practices in the process, leaving them in compromising positions. Overall, this unaddressed issue is outweighed by the book’s unique artwork and inspirational and informative effects on the reader.
By producing this lovely book, Mastalia has (perhaps unknowingly) made the most overarching point of all: he has illustrated the principles of the Hudson Valley. By including a Foreword, Preface, and Introduction he has offered the reader a community within a community, with each providing his or her own experiences, motivations, and perspectives. He has proven the relevance of history by producing timeless images with photography equipment most believed to be defunct museum pieces. He allowed the people most intimately involved in the production and presentation of organic produce the opportunity to illustrate that they are literally the foremost experts in their fields.