Last time you were in the grocery store, chances are you saw at least a few items on the shelf that were labeled organic, or at least had the word organic somewhere on the packaging.
Chances are, too, that you've wondered what it is that qualifies an item as organic.
Most likely, one of the characteristics of organic food that you have noticed is that the price for organic food is often marginally higher than that of its conventional counterpart. Although it's human nature to wonder if labeling something as organic is simply a ploy to get consumers to pay more money for the same product. Rest assured, it's not.
Above are several calves with ear tags. USDA-certified organic farms are only allowed to mark cows by ear tags or ear tattoos.
P-J photos by Remington Whitcomb
However, those who are not familiar with the criteria that USDA-certified organic foods must meet are grossly less likely to purchase them, and rightfully so.
In almost all occasions, food which is USDA-certified organic and food which has been conventionally grown visually appear the same. Furthermore, both organic and conventional food items often share similar, if not identical, nutritional values.
However, this is where organic foods and conventional foods end their similarities. The green pepper in the grocery store which is labeled USDA-certified organic is the consequence of decisions made more than half a decade ago by the farmer who grew it. The decision to transform a conventional farm into an organic farm is not one which can be made overnight; rather, it takes years of transitioning and strict compliance with USDA standards to become a certified organic farm.
And regardless of the time and dedication it takes to become a USDA-certified organic farm, many organic farmers will defend it as the right thing to do. For many, the decision transition from conventional to organic farming is based on moral and ethical principals, rather than the desire to sell a $1 pumpkin for $2. For many associated farmers, growing organic is a way of life.
WHAT IS ORGANIC?
Dan Brown, Great Valley town supervisor and owner of Snow Brook Farm, made the decision to transition his farm from a conventional farm to an organic farm in 2007.
"It's a three-year period from conventional to organic before you're certified organic," said Brown. "We're certified through NOFA-NY. That certification needs to be accepted by the milk company we ship to, which is Horizon Organic."
NOFA-NY, which stands for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, is accredited by the USDA National Organic Program and provides organic certification for farmers and processors in the country.
After three years of compliance with the regulations set by NOFA-NY, a farm can begin labeling its products as certified organic. However, during the three transitional years, farms are still considered to be conventional. This is because the switch to organic is extraordinarily multifaceted and takes almost every aspect of farming into consideration, from feed to bedding to identification practices.
According to NOFA-NY, the requirements to have a dairy and livestock farm, such as Snow Brook Farm, become certified organic include:
Farm land must not have any prohibited substances applied to it for at least three years.
Treated wood, including fence posts, must not come into contact with any organic land or animals.
A three-year history on every friend and pasture must be submitted to NOFA-NY. The report must include what crops were grown and what substances were applied to those fields and pastures.
Buffer zones must be placed between where organic and conventional fields meet.
No treated seeds may be used.
Pastures must be managed in a way that prevents erosion or water quality problems.
Livestock over six months old must have access to managed pasture with edible forage during the entire grazing season.
Appropriate housing must be created for animals, including young stock.
Hay, straw, or corn stalks used for bedding must be organic.
The primary means of animal identification must be ear tags or tattoos.
The use of antibiotics or other synthetic substances to treat animals is prohibited. Any animal treated with antibiotics or other synthetic substances must be removed from the herd.
Slaughterhouses must be certified organic if the farm plans to market certified organic meat.
Though NOFA-NY offers guides and suggestions for transition into the conversion process, all aforementioned criteria, plus more if the farmer wishes to sell organic poultry or produce, must be met and sustained for a farm to be certified organic. Once a farm is certified organic, that farm then must undergo routine inspection by NOFA-NY. NOFA-NY visits every certified organic farm once a year for scheduled inspection and at least once a year for a surprise inspection, although surprise inspections can take place several times a year if NOFA-NY wishes.
As tedious as it is to become and remain certified organic, farmers like Brown defend the practice as the ethically correct thing to do.
THE MORALITY OF ORGANIC FARMING
According to Brown, the animals on his farm are acting more energetic and are living longer since he's made the transition into organic farming. He even advocates that his animals seem happier since the transition.
"The transition seems to have taken a lot of pressure off of the animals," said Brown. "We do produce less milk per cow than we used to in the conventional system, but the cows are lasting longer and longer. ... Sooner or later, animals wear out, whether it's organic farming or conventional farming, there's no compromising when it comes to that. But if the cows are under less pressure and maybe doing more of what they want, they have much better health. It's not uncommon for us to have cows that are reaching double digits in age and give us eight calves in their lifetime."
One of the ways that Brown has taken the stress out of milking for the cow is by allowing his cows to decide when and for how long they wish to milk.
Recently, Brown has implemented the use of a state-of-the-art milking machine which, when approached by one of his cows, automatically milks the cows, void of any human assistance.
"As the cow comes in to be milked, they approach the machine and the gate shuts behind them," said Brown. "It takes about six minutes per cow to milk. When the cow is done, the machine sanitizes the udder with teat-dip solution and discharges her out the other side where she can go out to pasture."
Brown said that since the implementation of the machine, cows have been coming to be milked at all hours of the day, which would not be possible if milking machines were still hooked up by hand.
"It really is amazing," said Brown. "Cows are lining up in the middle of the night to be milked three to four cows an hour."
Brown said that his cows average about 2 visits to the milking machine every 22 hours and some even milk three times a day, which is more than what cows would normally milk on a conventional farm.
"Some conventional farms have milking cycles set up every eight hours, but normally it's run in 12-hour shifts," said Brown. "That means twice a day you need someone physically there to hook up the milking machines. With this system you don't. I have a few cows that are pretty lazy and will only want to milk once a day, so every now and again I may encourage them into the machine, but other than that every cow gets the freedom to choose when she would like to milk and you can tell how much easier it's made the cow's lives."
However, Brown could not emphasize enough that "laid-back" cows are hardly the only ethical benefit to organic farming. Quality of life and life expectancy of the cows have nearly doubled since the transition to organic.
"It's so much larger than 'organic milk tastes better,'" said Brown. "We have a higher standard that we have to meet in order to produce the milk and ship it to Horizon Organic. Farms are rated on the bacteria of the milk and the somatic cell of the milk and we have to meet a higher standard than conventional farms to even get out milk on Horizon Organic's truck. However, it's a much broader picture than that. To produce that milk, we're not using chemicals, we're not using pesticides, we're not using hormonal drugs. There's an argument out there, 'Are the drugs that are being used by a lot of large farms for hormonal reasons to make cows pregnant (bad)?' The average age of a dairy cow is five years and it takes two years to mature them, which means you're only getting three lactations out of them. Here, we're getting nine and 10 lactations out of our cows, so I think the answer to that question is pretty evident."
And the ethical argument extends past Brown's dairy cows, as well.
"I've got two little girls, a 1-year old and a 4-year old, and there's nothing on this farm as far as chemicals or anything like that they can get into and hurt themselves," said Brown.
ORGANIC FARMING MEANS LOCAL FARMING
If strict compliance with regulated standards and improved animal treatment isn't enough to encourage you to try organic foods, perhaps knowing that organic food is always local will.
According to Brown, all of his milk and the milk from other certified organic farms in the area stay in the area for consumption.
"All of the organic milk from Western and Central New York is processed in East Aurora and put on the consumer shelves here in the area." said Brown. "All the organic milk that is produced in Western New York is consumed in Western New York. We're not shipping organic milk across the country, which conventional milk could be."
That means when you buy organic, you're supporting local farms and your local economy.
"When somebody buys an organic product, they're not supporting the huge multi-corporation farms," said Brown. "They're supporting the much smaller fraction of people where the bottom line is not the dollar - the bottom line is the health of the animals, the health of the land and the health of the environment."