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.
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