The debate over the future of agriculture reentered the news this election cycle with the defeat of I-522, a law proposed in Washington state requiring the labeling of all foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) sold on supermarket shelves. Supporters of the measure claimed that it would give shoppers more control over their purchasing decisions, while opponents feared that the bill would create an unnecessary regulatory hurdle for farmers and manufacturers working with products already approved as safe by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration.
Commentators such as Dr. Robert Wood of Seattle have argued that initiatives such as I-522 are often driven by a distrust of science rather than a rational consideration of the benefits and drawbacks. Indeed, a recent Canadian poll found that nearly half of those surveyed were skeptical of scientists on the issue of GMOs, while a poll conducted by ABC found that over half of Americans believe GMOs are unsafe to eat (despite their rigorous approval by the FDA).
Yet for some agriculturalists concerned with the practices of industrial agriculture that often accompany genetic engineering, such as increased herbicide use, reduction of biodiversity, and aggressive patent protection, science is a powerful ally. Casey Jones Fraser, owner of Garden Grove Organics in Covington, Kentucky, provides the tools and scientific expertise for aspiring gardeners in the Greater Cincinnati area to produce crops with organic and/or hydroponic systems. Fraser agreed to be interviewed about his business and the role science plays in his work.
Sword of Science: What inspired you to open Garden Grove Organics?
Casey Jones Fraser: After graduating college, I got a job with a company called Worm’s Way that sold garden supplies. Unfortunately, they were owned by a manufacturing and wholesaling company, so they could only carry limited brands and products. I helped a friend open a store similar to [Garden Grove Organics] in Cincinnati, but he didn’t find it profitable enough. When he closed his shop, our customer base – all these sciencey, techy local gardeners – weren’t going to have a diverse supply house. I opened this place because I knew there was going to be a void in the market.
SoS: Would you say that scientific gardeners are your target niche?
CJF: Yeah, definitely. People who want to take gardening a step further than just buying plants and popping them in the ground, who really want to pursue the science of growing plants.
SoS: Science in the current agricultural narrative – genetic modification, industrial agriculture — is often portrayed as a negative force. How does that conflict play out with your customer base?
CJF: Well, I hate that some people say, ‘If you’re against GMOs, you’re against science.’ A lot of the gardeners that are growing their own food and herbs are pursuing a different branch of science; they’re not at all ‘anti-science.’ While occasionally we get the ‘hoodoo-voodoo, moon cycle–type’ gardeners, most of our customers are science-oriented gardeners who want to pursue the science of growing plants without altering the genetics. It’s almost science vs. science.
All of our plants are non-GMO, and we try to make sure that all the products we sell are safe for food crops. There’s a lot of complacency in modern agriculture in terms of safety, because it’s more about production. There seems to be an undercurrent of gardeners who want to pursue as big a production as possible within the limits of safe crops and safe products. So we’ve got the safety science guys, as opposed to [those with] a total yield orientation. Our guys are more quality-oriented, more safety-oriented, more [concerned with] nutrition density. It’s really about quality, then getting as good a yield as you can while maintaining that quality.
SoS: How many of your customers are trying to make this kind of production economically feasible?
CJF: We occasionally have some local farmers shop here. We also get regional greenhouse owners, because a lot of the equipment that we sell works really well for controlled environment agriculture. We’re a destination if you have a large facility and you need small, techy parts. We do get some farmer’s market people; there’s also a lot of community garden people, and we have some Covington restaurant owners who shop here to grow herbs for their own businesses.
The vast majority of my sales [in terms of volume] are smaller gardeners. I feel like that’s really who I’m here for, the small people who pursue this as a hobby. That’s the most fun, and that’s my target market.
SoS: What kind of scientific expertise do these small-scale gardeners most often need getting started?
CJF: Probably plant propagation, whether it’s seed starting, starting plants from cuttings, or even tissue culture. Getting plants going and then continuing to produce plants year round can be a real bear. You might have a spare room in your house; in the heat of the summer it may be 90 degrees, in the cool of the winter it may be 60 degrees, and you want the 75! That’s where people struggle the most at first, is setting up an environment that’s appropriate for propagation.
Second to that is setting up an environment that’s appropriate for full-time growth. The biggest struggle is turning an indoor environment into the equivalent of an outdoor environment. Replacing the sun, replacing wind, replacing rain, replacing naturally occurring nutrition; you’ve really got to put a lot of work into it, and if you don’t do it just right, you will fail.
SoS: What’s the state of nutrition like in hydroponic growing?
CJF: We pretty much know what plants need. The biggest struggle with nutrients is the number of products out there on the market, knowing what’s worth the money, and then understanding the difference between minerals and organics. Some of the hormones out on market right now are dangerous and shouldn’t be used on food crops, but sometimes companies want to sneak them into their products so that they perform better. So knowing what not to use is equally important as knowing what to use.
SoS: How do you plan expand your business in the future?
My dream is to put a greenhouse on the roof of this building someday. I would like to be in full-scale greenhouse produce growing, as well as to give tours. As a philosophy, we’re a retail store, but we’re committed to our customers producing, not consuming. We have products that are for sale, but they’re really just tools so that our customers can be producers. In everything we do, that’s really our goal: to create production, and not consumption
SoS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CJF: Always question manufacturer claims. Any time there’s a lot of hype behind any product, always do the research before spending the money.