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.