We had our annual visit from our organic inspector this week. This is a relatively painless, though tedious, process that makes me again wonder why it is that administrative positions are the ones that are considered the top of the heap. Why do we go through the trouble to get certified? In my early years of farming, I thought that it made sense to get certified for products that are being sent out to the anonymous marketplace, but that for a direct marketing relationship, it wasn’t neccessary. If you can come and have a conversation directly with your farmer, who needs a third-party to come out and certify that they are following organic practices? Over the years of talking directly with my customers, I’ve come to realize that very few people are informed enough, and even fewer are inquisitive enough, to really quiz me on why I make the management decisions I do. Nobody ever asks me how much of my seed and planting stock is grown organically, and what I’ve done to source those things organically. What do we do for weed control, and what fertilizers are we using? The organic seal is your assurance that someone has come out and asked those questions and has verified that I am doing what I say I am doing.
With all of that in mind, and in the interest of full disclosure, I want to share with you why we choose not to certify our livestock as organic.
Our chickens are fed organic feed, and have access to at least as much pasture as is required in the organic standards. Everything we do once they arrive at our farm is consistent with organic standards, but they live the first 5 weeks of their lives in a conventional confinement operation. We buy our pullets as teenagers because we tried for years to raise our own chicks, and just found it to be not cost-effective. It costs us more than $20 to raise a chick organically, and we have a risk of losing them when we raise them in the cold winter in our barn, where we can buy them for more like $7.50. The price of our eggs is already high to meet our production costs, and the difference in the cost of the pullet is the difference between a profitable business and a losing proposition for egg production. This is a compromise, but the hens are in our control for a few weeks before they start laying, so we feel like any toxins that may have accumulated from the conventional feed will have mostly flushed out of the system, especially where our birds are eating plenty of anti-oxidant rich pasture (like eating a giant salad with every meal.)
Our beef cattle are grazed on pasture for 8-9 months of the year, and during that period, they are consistent with the organic standards. Our land base can only support so many animals, however, and for the winter months, we buy in hay. Even if we did have the land, cutting hay involves a whole different set of equipment and would demand our time and attention at a time when vegetables are tugging us away. We could buy in organic hay, but most of the small farms nearby who cut organic hay are feeding it to their own animals. To get organic hay, we would have to ship it in from New York, Vermont, or even Ontario. As anyone who has done hay baling can tell you, hay is heavy stuff. The environmental costs to ship in hay are significant; it may well be that the carbon footprint of hay shipment would offset the sequestration that occurs when we graze cattle. So we have chosen to buy local hay, even though it is not organic. Hay growers typically do not use toxic chemicals, but do use conventional fertilizers. The main objections to conventional fertilizers are the carbon footprint for it’s production, and the groundwater contamination from applying fertility in a very soluble form. A hay crop will typically take up a high percentage of the fertilizer since it is a full ground cover and an actively growing crop, and for the carbon footprint part, see above.
So those are the things we do that don’t allow us to call our livestock products organic; we hope you’ll agree with those decisions! And the next time you want to buy some sweet corn or apples from a non-organic grower, maybe you should ask them: what is your spray program? Do your cultivate for weed control or just use herbicide? What are you doing that doesn’t qualify you as organic and why?