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