In the middle of the fertile Willamette Valley in western Oregon, farmer Bob Wilt walks the rows of his 75-acre organic blueberry farm critically plucking ripe fruit for analysis. What he’s looking for is not sweetness or pest resistance (though these factors are certainly involved), but the fruit’s nutrient density. Thus far, his berries measure up. “I usually pick a few of our competitors’ blueberries, too, and send everything to a lab in Washington for tests,” he says. “Our berries usually exceed theirs by having significantly more vitamin A, vitamin E, calcium, zinc and magnesium. Not only are ours healthier, but more nutrients means a sweeter, longer-lasting berry.”
Wilt is part of a slowly emerging group of growers taking organic and biodynamic farming standards a step further. The value of nutrient-dense crops, they say, is in the pudding, or pie filling as it may. Farmers boast of higher yields, less disease, more pest resistance and longer shelf life. On the retail end, nutrient-dense crops produce better-tasting fruits and veggies that store owners say can increase traffic and encourage return customers. “People may not know the term nutrient dense, but they do recognize good produce,” says Ron Leppert, who buys Wilt’s blueberries for Sundance Natural Foods in Eugene, Ore. “They’re more colorful and they do taste better. A lot of produce departments don’t make money, but ours does—even with all the farmers’ markets that have been popping up lately.”
Dan Kittredge, a grower in North Brookfield, Mass., leads a campaign that among other things aims to ensure nutrient-dense crops are available across the country. His first hurdle? Explaining exactly what nutrient dense means to farmers, consumers and retailers.
Nutrient-dense foods have higher levels of vitamins, carbohydrates, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants and trace minerals, making them ideal for improving health and guarding against disease, says Kittredge, who runs the The Real Food Campaign (a project of the nonprofit Remineralize the Earth).
The base minerals in our soil are insufficient for producing rich crops due to years of misuse, Kittredge says. The reason for this, he explains, is best understood with a brief history lesson. Through time, most agricultural communities grew up in areas that were regularly flooded by rivers such as the Nile or Amazon. This flooding, he says, enriched the earth with the minerals and microorganism needed for healthy, nutrient-rich plants.
“In America’s breadbasket, which rarely floods, farmers must add nutrients to the soil to support plant health,” Kittredge says. “Adding these nutrients and then ensuring plants are absorbing them is largely foreign to most farmers, be they organic or conventional.”
Kittredge is working with professors at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst to prove that comprehensive nutrient levels in plants can be significantly improved in one growing season. He is also seeking funding for a project to determine a base standard of nutrient levels and ratios in nutrient-dense crops. And the RFC runs a series of grower-training workshops in the Northeast to teach farmers how to put nutrients back in their soil beyond relying on the traditional one-two-three punch of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Still, exposing growers to the benefits of nutrient density does not mean all are interested or able to adopt the farming methods.
Limited supply, high demand
To get on board, farmers must analyze the soil on each acre of their land and the factors keeping it from producing high-quality crops. In one field there may be too much boron, in another, a lack of calcium or microorganisms. For growers who rely on outside entities (typically fertilizer companies) to understand soil analysis reports, learning to grasp the science behind good dirt can be particularly nebulous, but it’s the only way to ensure an unbiased reading, says Mark Nakata, a grower in Fresno, Calif., who is working to introduce West Coast farmers to the principles of nutrient density.
Recognizing soil needs is only half the battle. It then takes time and money to put nutrients back in the earth and send produce off to a lab for nutrient tests. The additional effort does not necessarily guarantee farmers a price premium for their harvest because, Kittredge says, the market currently supports yield over quality—something he and his cohorts hope to see change as more farmers get interested in nutrient-dense crops.
A consistent supply chain would make nutrient density easier for retailers to market. “It’s just not popular enough for [retailers] to have an interest in,” Nakata says. “How can I sell my produce at an added value when I’m the only guy doing it? Consumers will latch onto the idea and retailers want to provide high-quality crops in their stores, but we just don’t have the growers.” Until the idea’s roots take firmer hold, farmers like Wilt stay driven for other reasons.
“A lot of growers are looking for simplicity, and life isn’t necessarily simple,” he says. “I’ve made up my mind that if I want to be a good grower and have some of the best berries around, I’ve got to go the distance. And in the end, I’m selling something that does people good.”