The other side of organic farming

Warren Hammond is a 16-year-old living and working on his father’s dairy farm in Lachute, Que. Last month, he wore a t-shirt to school that said “Farmers Feed Cities” and another boy in his class told him that it wasn’t true and that “McDonald’s feeds cities.” While the comment was meant to draw laughs, the boy said it with absolute conviction.

This may be an extreme example of ignorance, but we can all fall into the trap of forgetting where the food we eat comes from. This is a sad situation and it’s getting even worse because of the growing number of people who buy into the trend of organically-labeled food, thinking that they know how it is produced. Words like “natural” and “free-run” are plastered all over everything from hand cream to waffles but does anyone know what they really mean?

Take a trip to the grocery store and try to find out where the stuff in your basket really comes from. Fruits and vegetables are easy; you can normally find the names Chile or Mexico written on the rubber band holding your broccoli together.

The middle aisles of grocery stores are usually a writeoff. Unless you buy your salad dressing from a local brand sold exclusively in that store, you can bet that most of what you’re eating was grown in the American Midwest and processed elsewhere in the U.S.

The dairy section is fairly straightforward, unless marked otherwise; everything is Canadian and most of it is produced in-province.

Meat is a little more complicated, but there is a very good chance that anything fresh, not frozen was raised and slaughtered here in Quebec. Other than that, all the frozen burgers and TV dinners most likely started off somewhere in the U.S. or Alberta.

Organic vs. non-organic: myths and misconceptions

If you are able to accept that your food is produced on a massive scale somewhere far away, you are fine. If you believe in a global food economy in which we all share as many resources as we can with countries on the other side of the planet, again you are fine. Go ahead and stick with the Brazilian red peppers.

However, if you subscribe to the growing trend towards organic food because you have been told it is better for you and the planet, farmers in Arundel, Que. would like to tell you that sadly, you have been misinformed.

Gordon Graham and Kristen Larsen, both 26, took over the Graham family beef farm, in Cedarthorne Farms in Arundel in 2005. They converted to dairy in 2007 and it was a calf/cow operation, the first part of conventional beef production. At its peak, the farm held 30 cows.

Then there is Mike Rossy, who owns and operates Runaway Creek Farms a few kilometres from Graham and Larsen’s place. He bought the land as virgin forest in 1995 and opened it up to the public as a retailer of organic produce and meat in 2000.

As organically-labeled food continues to occupy an increasing amount of shelf space in the grocery store, farmers on both sides of the line agree that consumers are less and less aware of what they are buying.

“The thing is, the consumer just doesn’t have a clue,” says Larsen. “We get sent 100-page pamphlets detailing what it would take to be recognized as organic and they are full of technical jargon no regular grocery shopper could understand.”

After finishing college, there was a brief period when she and Graham considered overhauling the family farm and going organic, but the cost was far too high. “I only ever considered it because you can make a killing once you’re set up,” said Graham.

The problem is that switching over from conventional farming to organic is both expensive and difficult. One of the biggest struggles is that the organic certification takes three years. During this time, the farm has to run organically, which involves much higher operating costs and more labour, but still sell as non-organic.

Conventional farming: the steps and process of raising beef cows

The beef sector is divided into three main kinds of operation. The first is the calf/cow farm, like Graham’s, which raises the beef from birth to about eight months. Then, they are typically sold at auction to a feedlot, which bulks them up before they are sent to the third type of operation, the slaughterhouse.

The life of a beef cow on the Cedarthorne farm before they made the switch to dairy seemed quite idyllic. They lived outside all summer in nice green pastures and in the winter the cows heading for slaughter would go inside while the rest stayed outside eating hay in cozy shelters. At birth, each calf was injected with some vitamin D, a vitamin needed to grow healthy bones and maintain nice skin. They were also injected with selenium, another supplement in most daily vitamins highly recommended for good health. They were not given any kind of growth hormone or appetite enhancer. And, if a cow got sick, which was very rare, it was given medication.

The biggest difference between an organic beef cow and a non-organic one is the use of antibiotics. Regulations in Canada permit lower use of penicillin in livestock than in the U.S., but it is still quite common, depending on the size and type of operation. Feedlots will generally use more antibiotics simply because the cows are crowded together and are more vulnerable to contagion.

Think of it like taking public transport during flu season. “When a person gets sick, they go to the doctor and they get an antibiotic to make them well again,” says Larsen. “When a cow gets sick, the organic people want you to do a voodoo dance and give it a saline solution,” finishes Graham. “What does that say about the animal’s quality of life?”

Graham and Larsen made the change to dairy for primarily financial reasons. Graham says that to be profitable, it takes a minimum of 130 cows over which to spread expenses like machinery and labour. A dairy operation is much more labour-intensive, but overall is a safer bet for the young family working to support their children, one-year-old Aiden and three-week-old newcomer Colby.

According to Larsen, the difference in scale is really the key factor in how organic a farm is. She says there is not a definite line between organic and non-organic operations and that it is more of a continuum.

Cerdarthorne is probably more organic than some certified organic farms in the area, simply because she and Graham don’t believe in pushing their animals to produce. There is also the question of enforceability. As remote as the area is, there aren’t many representatives of the certification boards making sure no organic farmer buys straw or hay from a non-organic neighbour.

To add to popular confusion, there are multiple levels of organic certification and they don’t all have the same requirements. Last year, Canada imposed a federal standard that would apply to all the provincial certifiers, but that does not mean that they are in line with the standards of other countries. Furthermore, and perhaps most damning, there is no governmental board of control for organic food in Canada. All certification boards are privately owned and operated and do not necessarily agree with each other.

So, how does the average consumer come to know about all this? Graham’s answer is that they don’t.

The media focuses on how organic food can stop global warming in its tracks and feed the starving populations of Third World countries, not on the fact that the label “organic” is rapidly losing its meaning. “Unless you know a farmer, you’ll just never be exposed to reality.”

Organic production: one farm and its struggles with certification guidelines

Mike Rossy started his organic farm in 1995 after having made his fortune with the family retail business in Montreal. While growing up, Rossy says that he always dreamed of being a farmer, and he worked hard and saved money until he could afford to do it.

“Starting up a farm has an astronomical cost,” he says. “Because I didn’t inherit anything, I had to start from scratch, clearing land and building everything from the ground up.”

Rossy and his wife Yasmin run Runaway Creek Farm, a farm that will fill the niche market of local organic food for Montreal and the North Shore. They have a home-delivery service on the island as well as a small store on their property in Arundel. There, they sell all kinds of produce and meat most of the year, except January through March when they leave for vacation in the South.

Runaway Creek Farm does a bit of everything, from chickens, goats and baby beef to rare varieties of vegetables and herbs. Baby beef is defined as cows that are slaughtered between 12 and 20 months old; though no longer a baby, the cow is not full grown yet either.

Like the Graham cows, they live outside in the summer and are not given anything to make them grow bigger quickly or eat more. The difference is that when a cow gets sick and cannot be cured using natural homeopathic remedies such as garlic and hot pepper, the animal is eliminated from the herd. Then it is either sold to a conventional producer who can give it antibiotics or killed outright.

Unlike the conventional beef operation, Rossy’s farm skips the feedlot step and goes straight to the abattoir. From there, they go to Rossy’s local butcher then either straight to the freezers at the store or to store clients. Rossy believes in Organic (capital “O’) as a concept and practice, but is seriously coming to doubt the certification process.

“It’s a money grab,” he says. “What started out as a movement of farmers and consumers wanting to do things a better way became a big money-making industry that prefers to cater to big companies than pay attention to the small local farm.”

This year, Rossy paid Ecocert, a Quebec-based certification company, $1,200 for the right to advertise his products as organic. Certification for a company like Heinz would run closer to $30,000. “Which do you think the certifiers will go after?” asks Rossy sardonically. “I’m really considering letting it slide this year. My customers know how I run my farm and they don’t really care about the sticker in the window.”

Further proof of the inefficiency of the private certification boards came with the last visit Rossy had with an inspector earlier this year.

Because the position turnover rate is high, the same inspector never visits from year to year. Rossy recounts how the inspector showed up with the wrong paperwork, thinking that Runaway Creek was an organic dairy farm. Rossy took this as evidence of the waste of his money and came away feeling conned. “If these people can’t even get the kind of operation I run straight after 14 years, how can I trust them to keep anything else in line?”

Slaughterhouse rules: a look at what happens after the farm

Both Cedarthorne and Runaway Creek Farms take care of the production side of things and, by law, have to leave the processing to someone else. Graham’s beef cows were sold at auction in Vankleek Hill, Ont., mostly to feedlots that would take them up to the abattoir a few months later. Rossy’s baby-beef cows are taken directly to the Thurso abattoir, about two hours away.

Theoretically, the cows from both farms could wind up at the same slaughterhouse and be processed on the same line.All abattoirs in Canada need to adhere to certain standards and each has its own government inspector and veterinarian who inspect the beef before and after slaughter to maintain a rigorous high-quality standard. Any questionable meat is immediately removed from the line and taken away.

There is no further inspection for organic beef. The stipulation is that organic cows have to go through the line in the morning when all the tools and surfaces are clean. Rossy does not necessarily think this is actually the case. The slaughterhouse floor is off-limits to all but employees, so Rossy can’t see for himself that his cows are being slaughtered in accordance with organic norms.

Again, the certification boards like Ecocert do conduct inspections of abattoirs used by organic farmers, but they also charge the farmers for this service. Furthermore, if the abattoir is certified by a provincial organization, the beef processed there can only be sold as organic in the same province. The cost to operate a federally certified slaughterhouse is prohibitive and as all slaughterhouses are privately owned, most have opted out of this classification.

Finding a solution: what to do and who to trust

So, if as a consumer you can’t trust the organic label on your meat in the grocery store and you are unable to tell where anything on the shelf came from, what are you supposed to do? The worst part is that you thought you knew what was going on with your food when you bought organic and now you feel a bit cheated. The answer is not to go back to the land and only eat the food you raise yourself. The beef market is already flooded right now and you’d just make it worse. Also, your neighbours would not appreciate the smell.

The answer, according to both Gordon Graham and Mike Rossy, is to get to know a farmer. While Graham probably wouldn’t greet you at the door and give you a tour, Rossy most definitely would. In fact, his stipulation to his customers is that they come and see his farm for themselves before he will sell them anything. “There’s your certification process,” he says. “If you walk around and ask questions and are satisfied with the answers, you really don’t need an expensive sticker from a company that has an interest in certifying as many things as they can.”

Currently, it is almost impossible to eat anything without making a statement of some kind. There are so many buzzwords flying around, and terms like “all-natural” and “grain-fed” don’t have a concrete standardized definition. This makes it hard to know what they actually mean. Yet people are attracted to them anyway.

Many conscientious eaters have decided to consume only locally-grown food. A popular version of this trend is the 100-mile diet where only food produced within a 100-mile radius can be eaten.

All this would seem to lead down the path to apathy and cynicism and to some degree it does. We have to accept that we cannot and will not eat perfectly according to the latest study, and move on. The best we as average people can do is to really think about what we are eating. Try not to just consume it; ask questions about where our food comes from. Do your best to support local farms and, in the best case scenario, you may get to know a farmer whose production methods you can trust.


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