James Greiff's myopic column ("Organic may hurt more than help," Saturday) was poorly researched and sorely lacking. Nevertheless, it raises some important points about our food system that readers should be aware of.

Indeed the organic label is nothing more than a label. Growers have essentially replaced conventional chemical inputs with organic inputs often derived from animal carcasses and manures. Tillage practices, irrigation and distribution are identical. Organic and conventional produce alike is packed in wax boxes manufactured in China and used once. Many large-scale organic operations are owned and/or managed by companies that also farm conventionally. Most organic processed products are owned by the same companies that make conventional products. The illusion of choice.

Greiff's comparison of organic vs. conventional animal husbandry is too basic. First of all, he fails to mention the cruelty of animal confinement. For example, chickens and turkeys stuck in such close quarters often peck one another, causing injuries, infections and death. To prevent this, these operations trim their beaks.

Second, large numbers of confined animals are perfect hosts for infectious diseases, and this has led to the gross overuse of antibiotics to keep them alive.

Finally, there is the issue of the sheer volume of manure these houses produce, which is often processed into feed that is fed back to cattle. A confined animal feedlot can feed organic grains and then sell the meat or eggs as organic. Buyer beware.

But enough about what's wrong. The point is that our entire food system is ripe for innovation. It is not sustainable, nor is it beautiful. The organic label is not a cure for this.

The biggest lesson we can draw from Greiff's column is that if we want to know how our food is being produced we must visit the farms and engage the farmers. Find out how the food is raised. Transparency and accountability are easy when you can literally see the vegetable growing or the animal running around on pasture.

In the past decade, we have seen a marked resurgence of farming and new, exciting practices that actually heal the land, rather than take from it.

In Sonoma County, there is a plethora of beautiful farms and ranches like this, such as Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol and True Grass Farm in Valley Ford. There is a cohort of dedicated, intelligent people who are committed to growing healthful food safely, ethically and beautifully. They enrich our community.

So if you buy organic food as an "exercise in personal virtue," as Greiff labels it, take it a step further and buy local. That way you can be sure of what you are getting. Plus, you can know the farmers you are supporting and grow the local economy.

I encourage readers to visit farmers' markets and farms to engage the local food system. And when you do, remember the words of Joel Salatin, "If it stinks or if it's ugly, it's not good farming."

<i>Ryan Power, with Adam Davidoff, operates New Family Farm west of Sebastopol.</i>