Learning about Organic Farming

When I went to New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine a few weeks ago, I’ll admit I didn’t know a whole lot about the ins and outs of organic. I knew there were rules, I knew standards had to be met, I knew there was something about GMOs, I knew that some organic food packaging had stuff like “no antibiotics” or “no toxic pesticides,” but I didn’t know if it was a USDA standard or if that’s just what they were putting on their food packaging. I knew that sometimes I buy organic because I like the product and sometimes I buy it because I feel guilty and sometimes I buy it because it’s the only option and sometimes I buy it because it’s the same price as conventional, so why not? On the flip side, there have been times when money was tight and organic hasn’t even been an option. So. I didn’t know a whole lot about it, including why I was (or wasn’t) buying organic stuff.

What is Organic?

In order for food products to be labeled as organic, they have to meet rigorous standards established by the USDA. Here’s a brief, unbiased run-down of what organic means (I actually found this information very helpful and it addressed a lot of questions I had and has helped me make informed decisions regarding organic. Charts like these are also very helpful to help visualize what is and isn’t considered organic.

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Kate’s Disclaimer

I’ve been putting off writing this post because I have had some conflicting feelings about the stuff I learned. From what I saw of organic farming, I came to believe it’s an awesome, ideal way of doing things. It’s good for the Earth, it’s good for our bodies, it’s good for the animals. Chemical pesticides are used as a last resort and they have to be naturally based. I love that they use natural methods to control pests and weeds (like ladybugs, crop rotation, etc.) I love that the farmers we talked to said their vet bills went down drastically after they switched to organic and that instead of using antibiotics as a first resort (or even preventatively) they were a last resort (and an organic animal treated with antibiotics is no longer considered organic, so they are usually sold to a conventional farmer.) That said. I live in an area where real, true poverty is an everyday reality for many families. I’ve had lunch at my kids’ school with kids who haven’t seen their parents for 4 days because they’ve been working multiple minimum–wage jobs (the kids have stayed with friends and family) and whose lunchboxes are very sparse. Personally, there have been times in my adult life when eating organic would have been no big deal and other times when fresh bananas are the only produce we’ve had because they were cheap and money was tight. So. No judgment calls from me. If organic chicken is going to use up your entire grocery budget, then that’s not okay.

What I Saw on Organic Farms

I grew up in dairy country in a town with a university that that has agricultural college roots (go, Aggies!), so while I didn’t spend a lot of time on dairy farms, I saw (and smelled) plenty. Most of the farms I saw were all very, very large, like thousands of cows, although I’m sure there were many small farms as well. I don’t know if any Cache Valley farms have transitioned to organic, but I don’t think organic dairy was much of a thing when I left home in 1999. 🙂

There are no very large New England organic dairies.

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Due to the nature of organic farming, it’s just harder to go big, although they said there are some large organic dairies out West. For one thing, organic cows must get at least 30% of their diet from fresh pasture for at least 120 days out of the year.

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Hello, ladies. They really love their apples. 

One thing I noticed was that these dairies didn’t stink. I don’t know if it was because of their small size or because of their largely forage-based diet or if it was a, um, waste management issue, but these were very un-smelly farms.

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Ideally, an organic cow would get at least 50% of their diet from fresh pasture,

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about 40% from stored alfalfa and hay, and 10% from barley, oats, and grains (and all of this has to be organic, which is a huge expense for farmers), but that would obviously have to be adjusted based on where the cows live (apparently they like it cold, which is confirming more and more that the cow is actually my spirit animal.) By contrast, conventionally farmed cows eat much more corn and soy, which is inexpensive, but is also less healthy for the cow and leads to less healthy meat and milk for us. Organic dairies require about 1-2 acres of pasture per cow in order to comply with the Organic Standard, which is a lot of land, which is expensive for farmers (and is one of the reasons organic is more expensive.) The land the cows are on also can’t be treated with pesticides, chemicals, etc. (see my lovely booties? These helped prevent us from contaminating the farmers’ organic land.)

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One of the biggest reasons why organic costs more is because there aren’t too many organic farms and dairies. Good ol’ supply and demand. But the last farm we went to, Wolfe’s Neck Farm, actually has a really amazing program they’ve just started where they are actually training farmers how to run organic dairy farms. It’s not, like, a 2 week crash workshop; it’s a 2-year residential program where they learn all aspects of running an organic dairy, from cows to finances (I feel an obligatory 8-cow wife joke coming on, but I’m not quite sure how to implement it.)

How Has This Changed My Shopping Habits?

I’m an animal lover. We have more pets than we need. I also love eating animals (I don’t eat pets, let’s just make that clear in this very awkward transition), which is a constant source of personal conflict for me, because I love animals so much and I also find them so delicious. Seeing them up close and happy on an organic farm didn’t help with my feelings of conflict. 

If I had unlimited amounts of money, I would buy all my fresh meat, produce, eggs, dairy, etc. (basically, single-ingredient items) organic. I do not have unlimited amounts of money, and while we have a farm that sells local organic meat in my town, I would be homeless if I bought it on a regular basis (I really can’t spend $50 on a chuck roast…those are, like, Pepperoncini Beef Sandwiches for when William and Kate bring George and Charlotte over for dinner.)

have switched to organic milk. I learned that all organic milk is coming from the same places because there just aren’t that many organic dairies. We’re not huge milk drinkers, so a gallon a week of Kroger’s Organic Simple Truth milk, which is almost always on sale (here, at least) doesn’t take a huge chunk out of my grocery budget. I actually really enjoy drinking it (and this is coming from someone who has not been a huge milk fan in the past–in my opinion, organic milk really, really tastes better).

I try and buy organic eggs, other dairy, and produce when I can. Sometimes it’s my only option–at Sam’s Club, often the only choices are organic produce and the organic eggs are roughly the same price as the conventional eggs. And at my regular grocery stores, things like carrots, green onions, and potatoes are often the same price as their conventional counterparts. But if the tiny organic green pepper is $4 and the big green pepper is .69, I’m going to get the .69 green pepper, I’m not going to lie. There are organic yogurts that I love (Stonyfield), also yogurts that I love that are not organic (hi Fage with your little honey cup). And they’ll have to pry the Tillamook cheese out of my cold, dead hands.

There are some organic products I was already using. Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar, Angie’s popcorn (not all of it is organic, but I checked and everything I have has an organic label on it), Honest Kids juice boxes, Seeds of Change Quinoa and Brown Rice packages, Pacific Foods Roasted Red Pepper Soup–they’re all delicious, high-quality products I already have in my house. I also frequently buy the organic chicken from Sam’s Club; it is expensive, but not prohibitively so. Kroger also often has organic meat on sale (rarely beef, sadly), so I’ll stock up when it is.

There are things I probably won’t switch. After learning more about organic labeling, I realized the more ingredients are in something, you’re probably getting fewer and fewer organic ingredients. If I like a processed product that happens to be labeled organic, I probably won’t stop buying it. Or if I can find a great deal on the organic counterpart, then I’ll give it a shot. But I’m not going to pay twice as much for sugary breakfast cereal or macaroni and cheese, you know? At least not any time soon.

I learned so much on this trip and am so appreciative to Stonyfield for bringing me along on their adventure! If you have any questions about organic, let me know and if I can’t answer them, I know people who can and I’ll make sure you get answers!

10 comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading and Learning more about your organic farming. I grew up in dairy farm country in Idaho, thankfully upwind from the dairy smell most days. 🙂
    Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  2. This may be my all time favorite post of yours! You captured the way I feel perfectly. I am a bit of a tree hugger and would love to own my own farm to raise my healthy, happy little organic animals on (although I’m with you – don’t think I could eat them if they were mine). I love the IDEA of eating all organic, but we would be living under a tree somewhere. My little shout out to eating organic is that we have our own little flocklet of chickens (4). They lay the most delicious, yummy, eggier eggs. There is a huge difference if flavor and appearance. When we can afford it we buy the organic feed, but sometimes we don’t, so technically they aren’t truly organic but we try. They also spend most of their day outside scratching happily and eating bugs. I always go organic if the price difference isn’t much and really try to go for the spinach and strawberries (I remember reading that they’re some of the biggest pesticide users for conventional farming.)

    My novelette is over now. 🙂 Have a great day – love your post!

  3. I really appreciate your post and your quest to find the answer for you. My main comment though is; I do fear that in your efforts, you have not given agriculture as a whole a fair shake. What I mean is, most farmers (‘Conventional’ or ‘Organic’) want the same thing. A healthy, safe farm that will turn a profit to provide for their families and those they employ while providing a safe, healthy, and secure food source for consumers.

    Having been raised on a farm, worked in processing facilities across the PNW and working in variety development now, I have seen a lot of good on both sides of the ag debate. Ultimately what I have learned is, the more you learn, the less you know because you begin to realize the things you never thought of and one way is not 100% better than the other.

    I personally feel that organic agriculture can bring very good practices for sustainability (in your case smell), but so can ‘conventional’ ag. Additionally I feel that the majority of the organic movement is misleading to the consumer and not fair to them because there are many half truths. One example: Yes, the USDA standard is to not irradiate produce (your flowchart above), but what is not clear to many is how that produce was first generated. A surprise to many is that varieties are commonly developed through a process called ‘mutagensis’ where they either irradiate seeds or treat them with chemicals that will cause the DNA to mutate to develop new traits. After a variety is chosen, they are ran into a production pipeline or breed again. Both organics and conventional use this method and the majority of the mutations are not beneficial. So why would it be safe for variety development and not ‘organic’ production? This is just one area that I feel the term ‘organic’ is not fair/honest to us, the consumer.

    In conclusion, I appreciate that you are clear with the fact that you do not have experience with ‘modern’ or ‘conventional’ ag, but I would encourage you to visit modern farms like you did for the organics to gain that experience and insight. There are programs out there where farmers host tours for people that want to know more. Additionally, to post this comment you now have my email. I would be happy to try and answer any questions that you may have. I do not have all the answers, no one does, but I do have 30+ years of experience/insights that I am happy to share.

    Good luck in your quest.

    1. Oh, I totally agree with so much of what you said. In fact, part of what took me so long to write my post was to sift through the language of what I was researching. I felt like a lot of it was very emotionally charged and somewhat misleading.

      I think all farmers, organic or conventional, are incredibly hard-working and generally want to be producing the very best product they can. I think there are conventional farmers who care very much about their animals and I’m sure there are organic farmers who are in it for the job security, and there’s villainizing/victimizing going on in both directions.

      If anyone is going to be voting with their dollar, they need to research it out for themselves and realizing there are HUGE dollar amounts at stake, so they need to use those critical reading and analyzing skills they learned in school. 🙂 Who’s publishing the research? Are they trying to sell me something? What, if any, inflammatory language is being used? Are we seeing both sides of the issue?

    2. Totally agree with jake, you need to now visit a regular farm. When it comes to organic there is a lot of misleading information. It sounds great to thinking organic is more natural but there is a larger amount of ecoli in organic. When you read up on what organic means you find that it isn’t as organic as you may think.organic isn’t more nutritious. Definately talk to a conventional farmer.

  4. This was super informative! thanks for putting it together. I’m a girl who in the past has never had a budget for organic food. Now that the husband has graduate from grad school and has a job, I’ve been curious how to implement more organic foods into our grocery budget. I like the idea of buying single ingredient foods organic!

  5. Hey, Just wanted to leave a supportive comment. Organic is awesome and bank breaking both. We try to do our best with eating healthy and go organic as often as our budget will permit, and try not to focus on the extreme “you are killing and poisoning your family by eating that broccoli” attitude. Thanks for your perfectly sane and informational post!

  6. Thanks for all the information! I especially loved the chart. My hubby and I have often stood at the grocery store and wondered what the difference was between “organic” and “non-organic” goldfish and whatnot. Before, we just went with whatever was cheapest cause we have to be super budget conscious, but I will admit that all too often I just ASSUME that organic mean $$$ and don’t even bother to see if it’s on sale, cheaper, or a better deal than its counterpart. But, at the end of the day, a veggie is a veggie and I’m just happy we have the money to buy any form of tomato 🙂 Thanks for the info!

  7. I really loved this post!! Super informative. I also have the constant organic struggle!! Good to know a bit more about it now.

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