Saturday, February 13, 2010

"USDA Organic" - pasture requirements rule

One of the reasons that I have not pursued an organic certification for my farm is that I feel that the term "organic" is being co-opted by industry to something that is meaningless. 

A recent story in the Seattle Times makes this pretty clear.

When I buy pastured beef, or organic beef, my belief was that this animal was on pasture until the end of its life.  While it may have been fed something in addition to pasture, pasture, grass, comprised a big portion of the cows diet.  In fact, there's a rule that the USDA has adopted that will be effective in June 2010.

One day out of each 3 days the cow has to spend on pasture.  That means that 8 months of the year the cow can be on a dry lot or feedlot, which is the opposite of what I'd like to see, as a farmer who pastures his critters. 

After being in the dry lot for 2 out of 3 days, the last 4 months of the cows life can also be spent in a feedlot.  In fact, will probably be spent in a feedlot. 

So what this new rule does is basically allow the same practices that have always been used, but people can now put the label "usda organic" on their packages of feedlot beef. 

Well, I guess it's better than spending your entire life on a feedlot.  But is it really what you think of when you think "organic" or "pastured"?

I feel the same way about "free-range" chicken.   Normal industrial chickens are raised in huge barns, with thousands of birds standing shoulder to shoulder.  They are fed a prepared feed, normally of corn and soybean with trace elements and coloring agents like marigold petals added, to make the chickens yellow. 

"free range" industrial chickens are raised in huge barns, with thousands of birds standing shoulder to shoulder.  They are fed a prepared feed, normally of corn and soybean, with trace elements and coloring agents like marigold petals added, to make the chickens yellow.  After 4 to 5 weeks of their 8 week life, a door in the side of the barn is opened during daylight hours, and the chickens in theory can go out this door and find some grass.  In practice, chickens stick pretty close to the food and water, and their flock and never go outside.  outside is scary. 

The "free range" chickens usually sell at a 10 to 20% premium in price to the non-free range chickens.  What do you get for your money, honestly?  They are the same birds from the same hatcheries fed the same thing in the same conditions, with a door cut into the side of the barn. 

This sort of thing is why, if you really want a different product, it's a great thing to know your farmer.  If you want to know what I do with my chickens, and how their life is, you can ask, or just look through the blog.  It's all here.  I do charge a premium price -- and it's for a reason.  It represents a very different husbandry style.    You're eating it.  Please ask the questions to make sure your food dollars are supporting your personal views. 


StefRobrts said...

Do you find people are willing to pay a premium for well cared for chicken? I guess I roll with a crowd that doesn't have a lot of extra cash to spare, and sometimes you can't afford to have high morals about things. Although I realize how bad the industrial food production system is, when I can get Foster Farm OR/WA grown chicken on sale for 99cents a pound, I can't imagine how I would raise meat birds and expect people to pay a price that would cover the cost of raising them. Are the birds otherwise superior to the industrial raised birds in taste or quality?

Lee said...

Good post. Lately, I've been increasingly suspicious that organic vegetables and grains may well be in the same camp. Sure, the label says they can't use the most common chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but what other factors do we not know about. One example: Three Mile Canyon farm near Boardman, Oregon is a massive feedlot dairy (which incidentally supplies a lot of milk to Tillamook Cheese Company -- so much for happy pastured cows), but the farm also raises 2300 acres of "organic" corn, wheat, potatoes, onions, etc. Just across the freeway is Boardman Coal Plant, the largest single pollution source in the state. How organic is that produce when it receives the immediate windfall of thousands of pounds of of coal dust, sulfer dioxide, nitrous oxide, mercury, and so forth? How organic is it when the primary fertilizer comes from the manure of stressed, feedlot, non-organically raised cows? And how organic are the countless secondary products made from the ingredients grown at this farm? I think the point is that with vegetables and with meat, if you don't know where your food comes from you can't really just trust a label.

StefRobrts said...

On organic veg: I know this is just 'friend of a friend' so believe it if you want to, but I have a friend we go camping with a few times a year who sprays fields by plane out in north eastern OR. He says the 'organic' farmers would come to him and pay him cash to 'accidentally' make a pass over their fields, no contracts, no paper trail. He claims that is a pretty common practice. He's a pretty straight up guy, I believe him. So how can you be certain those veg are as 'organic' as they would like you to believe?

Lee: I didn't know that about Tillamook getting their milk from other producers. Just one more place to be disillusioned about our food supply.

Lee said...

StefRobrts - Yeah, my brother was working in the area recently (he travels) and mentioned the horrible ammonia smell for miles around the farm. One of the locals tipped him off that much of the milk went into Tillamook cheese. I did feel pretty disillusioned when I confirmed this with a little research. So much for that warm-fuzzy feeling about Tillamook. This article [pdf] from 2001 says that they planned to double Tillamook's cheese production. It also talks about only 15,000 cows, but they're up to around 41,000 on site now (from their web site.)

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Tillamook is Threemile Canyon Farms. Each "farm" of several thousand cows is "owned" by a different corporation, that way they can get around all the environmental regs. This all kind of jelled for Tillamook when they got the Costco Contract. They also ran Bandon Cheese out of business - both used to be good co-op's, turning out a quality product - now it's just big business. Tillamook markets under the Bandon label and both cheeses now have the texture of Velveeta. Local farmers tried to fight the dairy expansion, but the state allowed it. It was quite an issue in the Capital Press during the expansion.

As for organics, if you do buy local and are wanting organics, buy from farms that have been third party certified by Oregon Tilth. Look for farms that were certified prior to the NOSB guidelines took place. The guidelines are stricter but not difficult to meet if you are truly an organic farmer. The running joke in Oregon used to be if you couldn't hack Oregon Tilth's regs, just get certified by Washington State, it's easier.

And a side note, certified organic doesn't necessarily mean the soil isn't contaminated from prior farming practices, it just means there may be an "allowable" amount of chemicals, and certain crops can't be grown in that soil due to uptake issues. Food that is grown on contaminated soils is tested for residue and if it's too contaminated it is sold as conventional. Yum... . That practice is very common in Calfornia where the large corporate organic farms are.

BTW - nice post Bruce!

Enjay said...

I prefer to buy locally grown direct from the farmer. Unfortunately our income hovers just above the poverty line, esp now that hours have been reduced to cut costs, which means big name brands sold in big box stores gets far more of our money than I'm comfortable with. I do grow my own and can as much as possible, plus I can what I can get from local growers, but it's hard.

Regarding the beef labeling, is it one third of their life since birth or one third since moving to the lot? if they can consider it since birth and buy a 6mo pasture raised calf and finish it in a lot by 18 months, well, that doesn't seem much different than what they already do.