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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PST

Organic To Be or Not To Be

Organic: To Be or Not To Be

(With Apologies to Hamlet)

by Dan Macon of Flying Mule Farm

Occasionally, a customer (or potential customer) at our local farmers’ market will ask whether our grass-fed lamb is organic. In nearly every case, the customer will make a purchase after I explain our reasons for not being certified organic. Because we’re able to sell directly to our customers (usually with face-to-face contact), organic certification has not been advantageous for us. For me, there are both practical and philosophical reasons not to become certified.

First, the practical (and perhaps economic) reasons…

We currently raise nearly 200 sheep, and have with plans to expand this number to more than 400 ewes. We own (along with our bank) just 3 acres, which means we rely almost entirely on rented pasture and contract grazing. This year, we are leasing property from at least 6 different landowners. We’ll be getting paid to graze on at least 5 additional properties, each with yet another landowner. For us to certify our live animals as organic, we’d not only need to certify our husbandry practices — we’d also need to work with our landlords and our grazing customers to certify their land. In other words, we’d need to obtain organic certification on 11 separate properties (with separate owners) in order to call our live lambs “organic.” For our landlords and grazing customers, this would be an unnecessary expense; for us, it would be an undesirable expense, as I’ll explain below.

Organic To Be or Not To Be

To call our meat “organic,” we would need to have our lambs processed in a certified organic processing facility. Given the current meat inspection and environmental health rules, we must have our meat processed in a USDA-inspected plant, of which there are limited options in Northern California. Our current processing partner is Superior Farms in Dixon. Despite the fact that we are a very small fish in their big pond (they process more lambs in a day than we’ll process all year), they do an outstanding job for us. Our lambs are handled humanely (just like we’d handle them), and our meat is processed with care and quality. Superior is not, however, organically certified (and neither are the other facilities we might use) — there is not an economic advantage for them to go to the expense of certification for my 250 lambs this year. In other words, even if we had our production practices and land certified, we would not be able to put the “O” word on our meat label.

These practical barriers are related to the philosophical barrier that exists in my mind. To me, many of our food processing and marketing rules are designed to facilitate a food system where farmers and consumers don’t need to know one another directly. In other words, these regulations (including the National Organic Program) exist to maintain the anonymity of farmers and eaters. Perhaps this is necessary for a system that is large enough to feed 300 million people, but the regulatory system seems to favor very large producers and processors. If you’re buying lamb at the grocery store without any connection to the farm or farmer who raised it, I suppose it’s reassuring to know that a trained inspector approved it or that a third party certified the production practices used by the farmer. I’d rather look the farmer in the eye and ask him or her how their food was produced.

Perhaps these thoughts sound like a rationalization on my part for not becoming certified organic, but let me explain our production system. Our lambs are 100 percent grass-fed — they consume nothing except their mother’s milk, grass, and some extra minerals. We do vaccinate our lambs and ewes against the diseases that are common in our region, but we observe (and go beyond) all of the label restrictions on these vaccines. We feel like we have a responsibility to our animals AND to our customers to raise happy, healthy sheep.

How do our customers know that we’re accurately representing our products? That’s the key, the reason that a third party verification system was created, right? I think this is the beauty of a smaller-scale, community-based direct market food system. During parts of the year, my customers drive past my sheep on their way to the farmers’ market. At all times of the year, we welcome visitors to our farm. In other words, our production practices are entirely open for our customers to see. If you don’t count the trip to the processor (which is just 65 miles from Auburn), our meat is usually consumed within 25 miles of where we raise our animals. The key then is a local, transparent farming and food system. Eating local won’t solve all of our food safety issues, but knowing our farmers (and as farmers, knowing our eaters) is a huge step in the right direction.

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Cultivating Questions: Alternative Tillage & Inter-Seeding Techniques

Our intention is not to advocate the oddball living mulches we use with this single row inter-seeding system, but just to show how it is possible to utilize the between-row areas to improve insect habitat, reduce erosion, conserve moisture, fix some nitrogen, and grow a good bit of extra organic matter. If nothing else, experimenting with these alternative practices continues to keep farming exciting as we begin our twentieth season of bio-extensive market gardening.

Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden

Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have … “At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked…

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

Evolution of a Permanent Bed System

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After three or four years we could see that the nature of our farming practices would continue to have detrimental effects on our soils. We were looking for a new approach, a routine that would be sustainable, rather than a rescue treatment for an ongoing problem. We decided to convert our fields to permanent planting beds with grassy strips in between where all tractor, foot and irrigation pipe traffic would be concentrated.

Walki Biodegradable Mulching Paper

New Biodegradable Mulching Paper

Views of any and all modern farming stir questions for me. The most common wonder for me has been ‘how come we haven’t come up with a something to replace plastic?’ It’s used for cold frames, hotbeds, greenhouses, silage and haylage bagging and it is used for mulch. That’s why when I read of this new Swedish innovation in specialized paper mulching I got the itch to scratch and learn more. What follows is what we know. We’d like to know more. LRM

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Carrots & Beets – The Roots of Our Garden

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Carrots and beets are some of the vegetables that are easy to kill with kindness. They’re little gluttons for space and nutrients, and must be handled with an iron fist to make them grow straight and strong. Give the buggers no slack at all! Your motto should be – “If in doubt, yank it out!” I pinch out a finger full (maybe 3/4” wide) and skip a finger width. Pinch and skip, pinch and skip, working with existing gaps and rooting out particularly thick clumps.

Making Sorghum Molasses

Making Sorghum Molasses

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Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut, then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens.

Peach

Peach

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The Peach is a showy tree when in bloom. There are double-flowered varieties, which are as handsome as the dwarf flowering almond, and they are more showy because of the greater size of the tree. The flowers of the Peach are naturally variable in both size and color. Peach-growers are aware that there are small-flowered and large-flowered varieties. The character of the flower is as characteristic of the variety as size or color of fruit is.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

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The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

Cabbage

Cabbage

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Cabbage is the most important vegetable commercially of the cole crops, which include cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, collard, broccoli, and many others. It also ranks as one of the most important of all vegetable crops and is universally cultivated as a garden, truck and general farm crop. The market for cabbage, like that for potatoes, is continuous throughout the year, and this tends to make it one of the staple vegetables.

Beautiful Grasses

What follow are a series of magnificent hundred-year old botanist’s watercolors depicting several useful grass varieties. Artworks such as this are found on the pages of Small Farmer’s Journal quite regularly and may be part of the reason that the small farm world considers this unusual magazine to be one of the world’s periodical gold standards.

Asparagus in Holland

Asparagus in Holland

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The asparagus culture in Holland is for the majority white asparagus, grown in ridges. This piece of land used to be the headland of the field. The soil was therefore compact, and a big tractor came with a spader, loosening the soil. After that I used the horse for the lighter harrowing and scuffle work to prevent soil compaction. This land lies high for Dutch standards and has a low ground water level, that is why asparagus can grow there, which can root 3 foot deep over the years.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden

One of our goals when we first started farming here was to develop the farm as a self-contained nutrient system. Unlike the almost complete recycling of nutrients which can take place on a livestock operation, we are always amazed – even a little disturbed – to see how many tons of fertility and organic matter leave the market garden each year with so little returned to the good earth.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT