When you go grocery shopping, how difficult is it for you to decide between organic or conventional? And then there’s the question of whether or not to go with the non-organic Virginia farm or the organic California farm? One has to wonder how many gallons of war-ravaged oil was burned to transport the organic stuff.
There’s no question that the organic industry is booming. According to a 2012 Roper survey, one of the world’s leading archives of social science data that specializes in data from surveys of public opinion, 63 percent buy organic foods and beverages at least sometimes. As a result, organic food sales have grown to over $35 billion according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Take note that consumers have been willing to pay up to twice as much for goods with organic labels.
So, what does it take to get the organic seal—now celebrating its 12th anniversary? The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) has standards that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labeled “certified organic.” For organic livestock, “The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.” The NOP also stipulates that any land used to produce raw organic commodities must not have had prohibited substances applied to it for the past three years. Until the full 36-month transition period is met, you may neither sell, label, nor represent the product as “organic” nor use the USDA organic or certifying agent’s seal. Anything done to the land must be documented. After reams of paperwork there are still the organic certification fees to be answered. These are based on what kinds of products—whether it be fruit, vegetables, beef, pork, chicken, eggs or milk—are produced. Up to 75 percent of that annual fee—not to exceed $750—is subsidized by the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program. That’s federal funding administered through state agriculture departments and is part of the Farm Bill.
Twenty-five thousand farms produce organic food according to the USDA. California has the most certified organic farms (over 2,800) followed by Wisconsin, which has 1,016 farms. The Midwestern states of Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska have some 1,200 organic operations combined. Most of them are small family farms, but food giants like Kraft and Kellogg actually dominate the organic food market and soon Walmart will, too, with their recent purchase of Wild Oats. This will put organic foods at non-organic prices—roughly 25 percent less.
Big operations don’t have a problem paying for the extra record keeping and inspections that go along with organic certification. But for small operations like Whiffletree Farm in Warrenton, Virginia, organic certification isn’t necessary. Jesse and Liz Straight began raising pastured broiler chickens and turkeys in 2009. In 2011, they added free-foraging pork, grass-finished beef and pastured laying hens to their repertoire. The Straights admit that the additional fees are the number one reason why they haven’t chosen to be organically certified. It costs more than double to raise an “organic animal,” and this would be an added expense that would have to be passed down to their customers. “Our customers know us and our farm. They see how we farm. They do not need [to see] a certification to know this. We are not looking to create an empire where we would be providing our food to people who would only know the nature of our work from a label. Rather, we aim to connect directly with our customers who know us, our farm and our practices.”
Should you ever have the opportunity to visit Whiffletree Farm, you would see that the poultry is actually on fresh pasture. Pigs graze seven acres of lush woods on the farm, and its cattle are 100 percent grass-fed and are moved to fresh grass every one to three days. Similar to the NOP’s standards, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, wormers, washes, preservatives, antibiotics, hormones and GMO grains are not used. The Straights claim to have never had a veterinarian to their farm. “Industrial organic meat is often raised in warehouses on organic feed. That is about 30 percent of the way there. But it is cheaper as it does not require the labor that we put into providing our animals [with] fresh outdoor, healthy, natural lives.”
The Straights admit, “Our food is often more expensive than conventional food or industrial organic food, but it is not because we are getting rich or are ‘inefficient.’ It is because we are not cutting corners.” Boneless, skinless, chicken breasts from Whiffletree Farm is $13 per pound, whereas Whole Foods sells their certified organic chicken breast for almost half the price at $6.99 per pound. According to its website, Whole Foods guarantees the NOP standards and claim that their practices have been certified Global Animal Partnership’s Five-Step Animal Welfare Rating program. This guarantees no crates or cages, an enriched environment and enhanced outdoor access even if they live in buildings, and when living outdoors, chickens and turkeys get to forage, pigs get to wallow and cattle get to roam, and that they are “animal centered.”
Interestingly enough, Whole Foods found the need to distinguish its certified organic meats with this additional certification. “Organic certification means less and less,” says Jesse Straight. There are ‘organic’ chickens that never see a blade of grass, are raised in a concrete warehouse with concrete porches—where 1-3 percent of the hen population can fit. This is deceptive and a far cry from what our chickens get—moved to fresh grass twice a day. Our standard of a healthy animal life is much higher than what organic certification requires.”
You may have seen the label Certified Humane Raised and Handled® on a product. According to its website, this means that consumers can be assured that the food products have come from facilities that meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment. This is kind of like a union that represents farm animals.
Some organic farms, like Ayrshire Farm in Upperville, Virginia, use this seal on all its animals. Its chickens are not debeaked at birth–a painful mutilation which prevents natural foraging–the practice of starvation that forces them to molt and increase egg production is prohibited, and chickens have constant access to shelter, food and water. Ayrshire’s laying hens are allowed natural periods of darkness to rest and sleep. Its birds are slaughtered according to strict humane procedures to guarantee that the birds are subjected to minimal stress and pain. And its chickens are raised in a natural environment that promotes their natural behaviors, with unlimited access to wholesome food, shelter and water, and daytime access to organic pasture. Because Sandy Lerner must adhere to USDA standards to make sure her meats at Ayrshire Farm get that organic stamp, every animal is an investment gamble. Should one of her animals get sick, let’s say it gets pink eye—which is common with cows—and must be treated with a non-approved organic solution, the animal is no longer organic. How does this game of Russian roulette translate for customers? Ayrshire’s online store, which also offers home delivery, prices its chicken breast at $12.99 per pound, which is very close to Whiffletree Farm’s pricing at $13 per pound. So, at these odds, why does Lerner continue their organic certification? According to Ayrshire Farm’s rep, Vicki Bendure, “It’s the only way people really know and can trust that a farm is organic and is following the regulations that make it organic.”
According to USDA data collected, the nation’s certified and exempt organic farms had average sales and production expenses that were higher than those of U.S. farms overall. A USDA organic farm can net $20,000 more than the same size conventional farm. And that figure could save a family farm.