Sunday, November 11, 2012

Why False Organic Claims Matter

If the product is raised on pasture, locally, by farmers I know, fed feed from a local mill and sold at my farmer's market, what difference does it make if the organic claim is legitimate or not?

A lot.

There are a few key factors involved in this somewhat loaded question and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that this particular entry is inspired by some serious (and repeated) false organic claims made by La Ferme Springbrook, based very near to where I grew up.  The Times & Transcript (Moncton, NB daily newspaper) recently featured a piece on the farm, with pictures of their chickens including a claim of certified organic status and even a statement from Paul, the owner, suggesting that he was organic before organic was even a 'thing'. 
I've never been to the farm, and when I looked them up online, I was struck by how similar many of their pictures look to ours.  They've got meat birds out on pasture in movable pens similar to ours, and layer hens running around in the grass.  They've got lambs with long tails and some very pretty landscape shots.  It looks like a great little farm, trying to do all the right things.
It has come to my attention before, that at their stand at Dieppe Farmers Market, there are visible organic claims and nothing to substantiate it.  So when I was at a meeting this summer and happened to be sitting across from Paul, I took the opportunity to ask him about his organic claims.  He gave me a quick well-heeled explanation of how they do things 'naturally' and that it really is organic, but they don't have the certificate. 
"So where do you source your grain and feed?"
"Miramichi Feeds.  It's a good mill."
"And would contain a fair bit of soybean and corn I suspect, right?"
"So those would be GMO, right Paul?"
"Well, I don't know about that."
"Ok, well, let me confirm for you, that unless it's organic feed, which I know Miramichi Feeds don't make, that it is with certainty, GMO feed."
stutter, briefly, " It is good, local feed, I have bought from them for years and years. I've never had a problem."
I am still unsure as to whether he really didn't understand the concept of GMO's or whether he was dodging a reality here, but either way, I feel the need to clear up just exactly why this deception doesn't just hurt the organic community, it hurts agriculture and in particular the buy local movement.

1)the cost of grain is without a doubt, the #1 prohibitive reason for people considering livestock, organic or not.  Organic grain continues to be considerably more expensive than conventional and those who make the effort, pay the big bucks and suffer the challenges of supply, sourcing and paperwork have earned the extra level of credibility.  They have taken the extra step in ensuring that the nutrition they are providing for their livestock is confidently, GMO-FREE!  Be it for ethical reasons, scientific reasons, marketing reasons or personal reasons, they have chosen to bear the burden of the extra cost and likely hope to recoup some of that cost by marketing their product as legitimately, truthfully, certified organic. 

2)Consumers want to do what's best for them and their families.  If they are making the effort to come to the farmer's market they are already a step ahead, a demographic concerned about the sources of their food and wanting to support a good, local product.  They WANT to believe that friendly looking face behind the counter and to take that trust for granted, by deliberately telling mis-truths hurts every other farmer out there.  I don't have a problem with local, not-organic food.  If you can trust your farmer and you are happy with the product you're buying, at the price you're paying, then please enjoy and consider those producers each time you cook whatever it is you've purchased.  I WANT people to have their own farmer, just like they lay claim to a doctor or a hairdresser.  I WANT there to be a trust between those who grow our food and those who eat it.  But I'm struggling with creating a trust over a product whose label doesn't live up to reality.

3)Not everyone who learns the truth will care.  Many won't.  But some will.  And those who will, will understandably have a difficult time trusting another farmer again.  Be they organic or not.  And not just the farmer, but logo, the standard, the label, ruining it not just for another organic farmer at that market, but for organic food across the country.  CFIA is supposed to be the body responsible for investigating false claims, but with spotty (read:none in most cases) provincial regulations and fewer and fewer resources, it's simply not something that gets done as often as we'd all like.  So it comes down to organic inspectors (who only inspect organic farms) and the individual consumer. It simply isn't a fair way to treat people who are your bread and butter.

There is growing interest over "GMO-free feeds and products", which is to say they are not organic, so don't necessarily hold the other standards of animal welfare, environmental impact, etc. etc., but THAT is a fair claim in my eyes. Once again, the farmer is making the extra effort and paying the extra money to source a product outside of the conventional, GMO system and although they may not be certified, it doesn't matter, because THEY'RE NOT CLAIMING TO BE.

If Paul's ignorance about the significance of GMO's is truly based on just that; ignorance, then I guess it is up to his customers to demand a change.  As far as I am concerned, in this day of national organic standards and a public who is generally aware of what that means, it is absolutely, undoubtedly unacceptable to be feeding a prohibited substance as part of the daily diet of livestock and unabashedly use the certified organic claim. 

In one way, I hate being the bearer of news like this, because if even one of Paul's happy customers read this and actually care, then I've just been the carrier of the confusion and mistrust.  I just laid the trail of evidence which leads to someone potentially turning their back on local agriculture at all, and returning to the anonymous grocery store shelves.  Or maybe I've just cleared up some questions and caused someone to think, "Hmmm...well, I guess next time I'll ask for an up to date organic certificate, or ask that farmer about what she feeds her animals and won't take a vague, pretty sounding explanation in response."
Probably not, but if there's even a small chance, then it was worthwhile potentially alienating someone with this entry.  This thing wouldn't be much fun for anyone if I couldn't be honest, would it?

I am getting really excited about the ACORN conference coming up.  If you're at all interested in anything organic, you should really check out the program, which is jam-packed with awesomeness.  Although it is guaranteed to be a busy time for Mark and I, I always look forward to that feeling I come away with of assuredness in what we're doing and confidence that this is the right track.  And soooo many ideas.   And for the first time we're bringing the kids to much of it and I'm kind of excited for their first hotel experience (it helps that it has a pool).

I had a bit of trouble today for the first time, with pregnancy toxemia in a ewe, who I don't think is going to make it, despite a very pricey visit from the vet on a holiday Remembrance Day.  It has given me pause and is probably the unfortunate wake up I needed to re-prioritize a few things.  Lambing is due to start in the next week or two and will likely hold off until Mark and I have been trucked down to Ch'town for our week-long National Outstanding Young Farmers event.  I have been losing sleep over this single fact for a few nights now, but at this point there is very little I can do, so I'll just cross my fingers and hope they all go overdue and wait until December.

I hope this finds you anticipating a long, snowy winter, full of cozy warm drinks and perhaps pretty seed magazines to browse.  Ah, sounds like heaven right now.



  1. I checked their facebook page, the entry in the moncton market guide and anything google could produce about "la ferme Springbrook" in New Brunswick. I found the word organic (small o) twice in 6 entries - referring once to gardening and once to methods. I did not see the word certified anywhere. Without subscribing to the Times and Transcript Newspaper, I cannot view the article you mention, so could not observe directly any reference to certified organic. Since I live on the other coast, I am not likely to ever see their signage at the Dieppe Market, but La Ferme Springbrook's web presence does not indicate that they are misrepresenting their products to me. Perhaps they changed their farm description after their conversation with you?

    That said, I do take your point about the certification label and what it's saying to customers and other producers, and how important the trust factor is not just between farmer and customer, but in how it affects the integrity in the farming community as a whole. I know there are farms that do misrepresent their methods, whether intentionally or not, and it doesn't just hurt the customers but also the other local farmers who are marketing honestly.

  2. Thank you for this Sally.
    We work really hard to raise certified organic chicken for meat and eggs. We're the only farm around Eastern Kings County that does as far as I know.

    I have a friend who free ranges her birds etc. She told tell me her chicken are everything that organic birds are. She's a very good friend, a committed small producer and supporter of our local market. And she's also very wrong.

    As you point out, feed is the number one issue. Feeds contain various supplements. Are they organic? Do they contain animal parts and by-waste? Commercial feeds not only contain GMO, the crops can be sprayed with pesticide and anti-fungal/bacterial agents. There is also the matter of sustainable farming. Are commercial feeds being produced in a sustainable way? Or are we just kicking more environmental damage a little farther down the road?

    Each year I get an update to the organic standards. It's up to me to incorporate these standards into our operation. I have to assume that growers who don't go through certification don't really know what the current organic / sustainable standards are. How would they?

    We go through a lot of daily effort, annual planning, record keeping and yes money to be certain that we are in compliance with organic/sustainable standards. And we are willing to go a step ahead of the current standards if that will give us something better to offer our farm partners and customers.

    See you at the conference Sally! I'll be there on a panel discussing The Best of Heritage Breeds. We'll be talking about finding the perfect pasture chicken.

  3. I bought 15 of your chickens about a month ago and can't wait to start devouring them this winter. Keep up the good work!
    I love your blogs!!!