Beyond Organic


East Meredith, New York—One of Tom Warren’s 200 goats is impatient to be milked—she keeps getting out of her pen and following behind when he tries to show a visitor around. He orders her to go wait patiently, but she just stands there stubbornly until he escorts her back to the others.

Warren used to renovate homes for rich people while his wife, Denise, worked in PR, but they tired of city life. The final straw came when their youngest son’s school installed a metal detector, prompting the pair to flee Park Slope to take up organic farming in the upstate town of East Meredith, about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the city.

Determined to live a life close to the land, 12 years later they’ve found success with goats, cows, sheep, chickens, and turkeys, providing meat to a local clientele and goat milk to about 40 city stores, including the Park Slope Food Co-op. True to the Warrens’ philosophy, goats chew on wild blackberry bushes and scrub. Chickens don’t just “have access” to the outdoors, as USDA Organic regulations stipulate; they live outside all day, scratching for bugs in the grass and taking luxuriant dust baths. Denise says they are “above and beyond organic.”

As Kraft, Dean Foods, Smuckers, General Mills, and other powerful members of the Organic Trade Association lobby rejoiced following the passage on October 27 of a congressional amendment affecting organic standards, many small farmers and ranchers like the Warrens regret what they feel is the loss of the true meaning of the word organic.

The approved rider attached to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations bill reverses last year’s federal judgment in favor of an eccentric Maine blueberry grower who successfully argued that synthetic additives have no place in prepared food labeled organic by the USDA, and now producers of yogurt, pudding, and soft drinks will be forever free to use small amounts of additives like xanthan gum and bleach—while still carrying the organic label.

The agribusiness lobby, which represents 200 large and small producers and distributors, says the additives are harmless and that the move was necessary to insure the continued growth of the industry. But while there may be no evidence that any of the approved synthetics are bad for your health, those opposed say it is just one more blow to the label that used to stand for a movement.

Synthetics are anathema to purists, and an organic carton of yogurt, they believe, should mean it comes from an animal raised by environmentally sustainable methods providing it with the best life possible and that the finished product is sold regionally. But to major industry players, an organic animal is free from hormones, gets organic feed, and has time outside in a yard, period.

“The USDA did give us free PR,” says Steffen Schneider, who sells breads, meat, cheeses, and produce at the Union Square Greenmarket. “So many people had no concept of the word organic. But now the term is so watered down.”

Unhappy with what they consider a reductionist definition of the word they helped create, farmers are looking to alternative ways to describe what they make. Schneider’s Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County is certified “biodynamic” by the Oregon-based Demeter Association, a group that advocates “holistic social and environmental change for the natural food market.” Others don’t bother with certification at all, relying instead on personal relationships with customers who share the same worldview.

There is some experimentation with the word slocal—a combination of slow food and local—and though farmers are finding ways to get their message across, there is also some bitterness. “The ultimate losers here are people relying on the USDA logo to assure them of something,” says Warren.