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One Farmer's Take on Organic Vs. Conventional

On the surface, the question of whether to buy organic or conventionally-produced meat seems pretty simple. To be certified organic, animals must be fed 100-percent organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and they can't be fed animal byproducts or be treated with antibiotics.

Because of those regulations, the choice between organic and non-organic meat seems like a no-brainer, but free-range chicken farmer Makenna Goodman argues that the answer is more complex than that in a Huffington Post article.

Goodman points out that although the USDA requires that organic chickens have outdoor access, many organic farms are hardly the bucolic fantasies that we might imagine. When it comes to humane treatment of animals, the regulations can actually be quite lax, and many certified-organic chickens actually spend most of their lives in confinement houses.

Here's Goodman's explanation for why her chickens aren't organic:

I have laying hens, and believe me when I tell you they have a good life. They're free range to the point of too free, and spend warm days by the pond, eating bugs. They lay eggs with neon orange yolks, a sign they're low in cholesterol and high in good protein. I feed them food scraps, and along with their "salad greens" of grass and plants, this cuts down on their grain consumption substantially. I'm considering getting scraps from the local elementary school, too. Use waste, be sustainable, cut down on fossil fuels, that kind of thing. I am 100% against hormones, large-scale corporate food production, caged livestock, and mistreatment of animals of any kind. But I don't use organic grain, because it's twice as expensive, and since the hens are so free-range they get most of their diet through food scraps and plants, and eat very little grain anyway (which, although not certified organic, is all-natural, hormone and antibiotic free.)

The question of what food to buy is never an easy one, but in most cases it comes down to knowing where your food is coming from, and in the case of animals, how they're being treated.


Reader Comments (7)

When organic started to gain traction back in the 60's and 70's, folks who were "organic" understood that organic is about the soil and the practices of good soil management without using artificial fertilizers and chemicals, and that (presumably) better food (produce, eggs, meat) resulted from these practices. Over time this has morphed into something quite different with free-range, pasture raised and other such terms being confused with organic - there are different topics.

Over 40 years "organic" has become a means for raising barriers to market entry and not higher quality food. The government has been enlisted or co-opted in this effort at market protection. However, free market economics and market success has made entry into the "organic" marketplace worthwhile for the big players. If we (the small players) want to remain or become successful, we should bear in mind that success was born through high quality products, sold in a niche market, to discerning customers.

Local food is better than food transported 1500 miles only if it tastes better, has better nutrition, and is as safe or safer than out of area food. The same goes for organic or sustainable or natural when compared to conventional.

As business men and women we forget, at our peril, that this is about marketing a quality product to our customer base. As small players we are never going to successfully compete with the commodity businesses - the investment requirements are far too high for the razor thin margins in that business. We should also remember that a nicely marbled ribeye steak from a steer raised in a feed-lot 2000 miles away (with hormones no less) will always win over a locally produced, grass-fed, pasture raised steak if the former tastes better than the latter. We use our agricultural practices, whatever they are, to satisfy customer demand.

May 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJames Page

I was reluctant to highlight Gary’s reply to the flamboyant post on organic eggs as it is full of hyperbole and statements that are difficult to substantiate but it was in the spirit of the original post and it’s always good to have high profile public figures highlight positive answers to distorting information about organics.

But there is a part of Gary’s reply that distorts the situation and undermines the organic producers’ position: “We're proud that Stonyfield's organic ingredient purchases -- those include fruits, sugar, as well as organic milk -- support 100,000 acres of organically-managed farmland. Thanks to organic practices, those acres feature healthier soil, greater biodiversity, higher water quality, better yields, and more humane animal treatment -- and organic dairy farmers are being paid more to boot.”
While it is true that organic farmers are being paid more, relative to the conventional market, the truth is that they are hanging on to less as their costs are much higher than conventional farmers, both in terms of inputs and time spent on paperwork/certification etc. It is unfortunate that Gary missed this opportunity to highlight the plight of organic producers and ignore the hardships that are now being endured by organic dairy and other organic producers who have seen their organic margin erode while their costs have remained high.
It is also unfortunate that he allows HP Hood to market organic milk under the Stonyfield label while HP Hood is treating its farmers badly.
It is well proven that organic farming reduces pollutants in groundwater and creates richer soil that aids plant growth while reducing erosion and, in one 15-year study, organic farming used 50 percent less energy than conventional farming practices. Organic foods have higher nutritional value than conventional food and are guaranteed to contain no herbicide or pesticide residue. Organically certified livestock are not treated with antibiotics or artificial growth hormones.
They should not be fooled by non-certified labels that claim they are, for example, antibiotic free, all natural, or produced using organic methods, as there is no guarantee and no third party inspection. If you do give into these false claims, they will be playing into the hands of the corporate lobbyists and commodity subsidy advocates that proclaim that ‘milk is white stuff’ and ‘produce needs to be a uniform color and size and cheap,’ or in other words, ‘genetically modified, full of chemicals and produced by factory farms.’

I support the concept of more humane treatment of animals, always have, sometimes at the expense of my own family.
We need to ask our public supporters of organics to also support humane treatment of organic farm families. When they write their books, their newspaper columns, give their speeches, make their movies, and travel the world, they need to remember that without committed farm families they will not have any organic food to eat. Getting paid more for a product when your costs are higher means that you still are not breaking even/making a profit/getting a reasonable wage.
A farmers wage is what is left when everyone else has been paid, which, for many efficient and skilled organic farmers, is less than their conventional neighbors.

I would like to bring up the option of a vegetarian diet. It can be a lot cheaper especially if you are eating organic foods, you just have to do your research, like many people do not know that rice and beans together have all the almino acids making a complete protien and they are very cheap foods. Go around and research where your meat comes from, know what you are eating and the impacts on the world from your choice in diet. And if you plan on going vegetarian find a support group, many people online (and in your community) can be very helpful.

May 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Goodman points out that although the USDA requires that organic chickens have outdoor access, generally many organic farms are hardly the bucolic fantasies that we might imagine. It is observed that when it comes to humane treatment of animals, the regulations can actually be quite lax, and many certified-organic chickens actually spend most of their lives in confinement houses.

March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJulius

Several times a year, I hear someone complain about the development of farm land in our area. These complainers consider it a crime that so much of our farm land has been converted to housing, business, shopping, etc. They seem to consider the farmers and developers to be criminals.

May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAiza2010

Good content,Keep it up.

September 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterweb design arizona

We really can't tell if what we are eating or to be consumed or to be marketed will be organic or not. The mere fact that most grocery stores don't label where they got the stocks.It is quite hard to make them do it, otherwise if there will be a new supermarket who do this for the sake of the consumers who want to stay away from non organic...

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November 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJan Robert

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