When we first started dreaming about our farm, “organic” was high in our priorities. This flows out of our family mission, to glorify God in all ways, and to live that out on our farm by raising, managing, and using His creation in a healthy, sustainable, humane, and respectful manner. Since we planned to produce food for others, organic certification seemed like the way to pursue this mission.
Rhode Island Red Free-Ranging at the Flying T
However, as we started researching exactly what organic certification involved, our dream crumbled a little. This crumbling was due to two primary factors:
1. A realization that “organic” just wasn’t the utopia we’d imagined, and…
2. The unrealistic requirements for a very small farm to maintain both organic certification and solvency .
At the risk of making ourselves vulnerable to claims of “sour grapes,” I’ll say that the first reason was the most disheartening to us. Previous to our research, we had held special reverence for the word “organic.” We’d paid extra for organic produce, animal and vegetable, and assumed a lot about organic certification.
Organic certification requirements are pretty complicated – not as bad as the US tax code, but it’s obvious that the authors went to the same law schools.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it helps make sure that folks that stamp their goods with “USDA Certified Organic” have met certain standards. For animals, those standards in a nutshell are:
1. Appropriate housing that permits natural behavior, including outdoor access. Depending on the animal, this may include a minimum number of days on pasture.
2. Certified organic feed, including pasture. Again, some types of animals require a certain amount of their feed to come from pasture (I believe Dairy cows are now above 30% of total Digestible Dry Matter, which is a good thing).
3. No antibiotics, drugs, or synthetic parasiticides unless they are published on the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) list.
4. Organic processing of meat, milk, and eggs.
5. Record keeping in accordance with the regulations.
6. An “Organic system plan,” a lot like a business plan that shows how the farmer plans to maintain organic practices.
7. Measures to prevent contamination of soil and water from production (such as manure runoff).
8. Absence of genetic modification, ionizing radiation, or other such interventions/contaminations.
This sounds pretty good, and it is. But any time you get a bunch of lawyers to write rules for folks to follow, those folks are going to hire lawyers to make sure that those rules don’t get too much in the way. Let’s use the organic chicken industry’s lawyers as an example, and to keep this from becoming a book, let’s focus on rules 1, 2, and 8:
Rule #1: When the lawyers get here, they run square into the 2010 Access to Pasture rule, requiring that any bird raised indoors must have free access to pasture except in certain circumstances. What this has been interpreted to mean is that a factory organic farm can raise 2,000 chickens in a 100′ x 40′ pen (2 sqft per bird) as long as those birds have free access to outside “pasture.” This pasture can be enclosed and covered, and doesn’t have to have anything growing on it. Access can be satisfied with some small openings leading to a few 30 sqft outdoor “porches.” All the food and water is inside the big room, but if the birds want to leave that behind to go see the reflection of the sun, they’re free to do so.
Organic chicken farm, from http://www.myessentia.com
Rule #2: Now if you’re running that many birds in that little space, there is no way they can support a majority of their dietary needs on forage. Any vegetation that might exist at the beginning will be gone in a matter of days, and with it will go all insect life. So 100% of their feed will have to be what the farmer provides. Rule #2 requires that this feed also be certified organic, and most of this will come in the form of processed grains from organic farms, the various components of which were grown, harvested, and transported to the mill with fossil fuels, processed using more energy, and then trucked through the distributing train, again with fossil fuels. Of course, it is possible that this farmer lives next to a grain mill that in turn has local access to organic corn, soybeans, alfalfa, limestone, monocalcium phosphate, kelp, diatomaceous earth, clay, salt, DL methionine, vitamin & mineral premix, garlic, horseradish, anise, and juniper berry (all ingredients of one brand of certified organic chicken feed).
Sadly, the Toyota Prius Combine release date has been pushed back again
Rule #8: What can the lawyers do with this rule? They can ensure Cornish Rock Cross hybrid chickens, most likely the organic or non-organic chicken you buy at the supermarket or farmers market, qualify as organic. They’re not genetically modified, just specifically bred to grow extremely quick (usually harvested from 8-12 weeks of age), with sparse white feathers (easier plucking with no pigment left on the skin), and broad, tender, white breasts. They also can exhibit extreme mortality rates past around 4 months of age due to heart failure, exhaustion, or skeletal problems. They taste great, by the way, and I don’t have any problem with folks that raise them. They just don’t fit into our plan right now.
Cornish Rock Hybrids - from tinyfarmblog.com - notice they're growing faster than their feathers
These principles, of course, also apply to other areas of agriculture, whether producing fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, milk, or other products.
This isn’t to say that organic practices or certification are bad. We are not to the point yet where we can produce even the majority of our food on our farm, and though we patronize several farms in the area as well as farmers market, we still do a lot of shopping at the grocery store. When making food choices for our family there, we lean heavily on certified organic produce. The National Organic Program (NOP) rules and regulations are far from perfect, and subject to a bit of controversy, but by and large, they provide guidance under which which healthier and more wholesome food can be produced.
Not certified organic, by the way...
That’s where the strength of the NOP lies. Though it’s obviously not perfect, in a world where the vast majority live in densely-populated cities far removed from farms, the NOP provides a framework for consumers to make smarter decisions about the composition and quality of their food. It does this by holding larger producers accountable to these better (again, not perfect) practices.
Why do I say “larger producers?”
That gets us to point #2. Besides the fees involved in organic certification, maintaining organic practices obviously carry some expenses that can be difficult for a small operation to bear and still present a price consumers are willing to pay (Slowmoneyfarm has several excellent posts on this topic, particularly this one). Much of this is because of competition with larger producers both able and willing to take advantage of the loopholes in the system such as discussed above.
Ability is one obstacle. A volume producer will always have advantages that come with being able to purchase in larger lots and lower prices while combining and reducing other production expenses. Still, if small farmers can find a supportive market, it may be possible to approach competitiveness here if they are willing to take advantage of some high-volume practices, though again Slowmoneyfarm does a good job explaining how this is extremely difficult.
That willingness to do this is the second obstacle. Profitability (or perhaps even solvency) requires taking advantage of practices such as use of non-heritage breeds, stocking stables/pastures/pens at much higher rates, using higher levels of confinement to minimize labor costs, culling rather than treating many sick/struggling animals, and stockpiling feed.
Willingness is the obstacle that stopped us. We have the facilities that with a bit of modification would make this work with organic chickens and ducks. It would mean confining them and stocking both our laying and meat flocks at what to us seems an absurd density. We would need to use non-heritage high-production hybrids for both operations. Besides the problems these present to our values, such confinement would eliminate the benefits of free-range poultry.
Do you really want to put us in a pen?
We could do this also with meat goats. Again, we would stock at much higher rates, and manage both the confinement systems and available pasture to ensure they maintained a 100% organic diet. This would include separation from our poultry, horses, visitors (and probably our kids) to make sure that they didn’t end up eating something improper.
For all of our livestock, this would drive us to breed for size and speed of production, not non-production values such as temperment.
So what is a small farmer to do?
Photo by John Vachon.Oct. 1938. From the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. America From the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the Farm Security Administration-OWI, 1935-1945.
I believe the solution is an old one. In lieu of third-party state-managed certification processes, farmers and customers need to know each other and talk face-to-face. The farmer needs to know what the customer values and desires, in product, quality, and methods. The customer needs to be able to trust that the farmer will produce according to those values and desires. Both need to come to an understanding of what this will cost.
The only way this can happen is through local consumption… and that is a subject for another post.