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The Big O

January 22, 2011

As we’ve sold our lamb through the years, we’re often asked if our lamb is organic. Actually, I should probably capitalize that–Organic–since that word is now a specifically regulated term, courtesy of the Federal Government and Big Ag. But what does “Organic” really mean today?

At the end of December, USDA ordered the recall of 34,000 lbs of Organic ground beef due to suspected E. coli contamination. Unlike previous recalls of non-Organic ground beef, there wasn’t a peep out the media that normally feature information about sustainable and Organic agriculture; not a word from Grist or the NY Times. The Times even has a meat recall “Times Topics” section with no mention of any recall since last September. When I went looking for info about the recall via Google, I found it at Consumer Reports. Why do you suppose that the Organic-supporting media had nothing to say about this recall? Could it be that E. coli contamination in Organic ground beef flies in the face of the “Organic is totally safe for you” narrative that has been promoted by this same (now silent) media for the last decade?

Don’t get me wrong, we try to buy organic whenever we can. Anytime we can promote less chemical use with our purchasing dollars, we try to do so. However, we do so with our eyes wide open. Back in the early days of the organic movement, organic was as much an ideal or a way of life as a standard set of production practices. With the market for organic products growing leaps and bounds faster than the market for conventional farm products, Big Ag decided they wanted to get in on this growth industry, so here came the Feds to write a set of standard regulations. Why? Well, industry in general needs an envelope to push–a legalized framework which allows them to make claims or promote labels and still protect themselves from litigation and minimize their exposure to risk. Since there was big money in organic, the Federal Government came up with a set of rules that defined Organic. Did this benefit the existing organic farmers who started the movement in the first place? Not really. But it sure as heck provided that framework the industry needed. This recall case is a classic example of that. What were the brands recalled? Nature’s Harvest and Organic Harvest sound pretty wholesome, right? What company is behind those brands? Firstclass Foods out of Hawthorne, California. Is Firstclass Foods a pioneer in the organic movement? Well, according to their website, they are a privately-held company that has been “providing quality meat products… to the food services industry” for 48 years. Some of their partners include Tyson and Cargill–get the picture?

So, do we raise our lamb Organically? Nope, we don’t. Why? One reason is that the fees and paperwork involved are a pain from a wallet and maintenance perspective. However, we’d put up with those things if we believed in the Organic standards as currently written for sheep. To adhere to those regulations, we’d have to put our sheep at risk. What??? How could that be? Isn’t Organic supposed to be healthier for us and for our stock? That sure is the image that has been promoted relentlessly for the last decade, and some producers in some areas of the country are able to raise their sheep organically.

Raising sheep in central Oklahoma certainly has its benefits–near year-round grazing, pretty moderate weather–if you don’t count July, August, and January :), abundant productive low-cost land, plenty of rain (most years), and a thriving local foods movement. Conversely, it also has its challenges, and most of those have to do with warm, wet weather. In other words: March, April, May, June, July, maybe August, and likely September. That’s more than half the year! Warm, wet conditions foster the growth of two organisms that attack sheep in lethal ways: clostridia and haemonchus. Haemonchus has been discussed here. Clostridia is a bacteria that causes all sorts of nasty things, among them tetanus and enterotoxemia–a potentially fatal stomach infection. How does this relate to the Organic standards for sheep? To be certified Organic, we cannot vaccinate our sheep for clostridia or use chemically-based dewormers. The Organic standards allow for approved vaccinations, though. Right now, the number of approved Organic vaccinations for the sheep species is… zero. So, basically, that’s like me telling you that for you to be certified Organic, you can’t get a tetanus shot or booster. How do we get rid of clostridia in the sheep environment? We can’t–it lives in the soil. Since I’ve lost both un-boostered adult sheep and unvaccinated lambs to clostridia, not vaccinating is not an acceptable option. And while we try to practice parasite management with a multi-pronged approach to minimize the use of chemical deworming agents, the plain truth of the matter is that the Organic silver bullet to kill internal parasites doesn’t exist yet.

A couple of our non-organic lambs lounging in the grass during a warmer time

For us, the choice is between being certified Organic or raising healthy sheep with minimal death loss. Could we certify Organic in our present operation? Yes, but to do so would mean that we’d face 30% to 50% death loss of every lamb crop, depending on each year’s conditions. We’re not going to operate that way, and we’re not going to cheat or lie. To be the best shepherds we can be, we use the minimum amount we can use and keep the lambs healthy. We keep the lambs long past the proscribed withdrawal period for the dewormer before we process them. And we strive to be as open and honest about our production practices as possible.

So what is a conscientious consumer to do? Give up? Throw up your hands and go back to ignoring these issues in making your food choices? Really, how could you, knowing what you have learned. Buy Organic instead of conventional–there’s no doubt it is likely rooted in at least somewhat better production practices. More importantly (where you can), buy directly from your local producer, ask lots of questions, and get to Know Your Farmer.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. lezza22 permalink
    January 22, 2011 12:08 pm

    Great Article. Insightful, and definintely something to think about. They pushed buying local in Louisville as well. Got to meet several of the farmers. Not sure where they stand on this particular issue, but would be interesting to find out. Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts into words.

  2. hightides permalink
    January 23, 2011 10:14 am

    I know there are folks who claim you can do it all without “drugs” but they must raise their animals on bleached concrete floors (whoa, maybe bleach isn’t organic?). I see nothing objectionable to your approach and applaud your transparency. I DO know my farmers and I’m very glad that you’re one of them. We will be transitioning to the big O as part of our hoophouse contract with Natural Resources– but we’re not looking forward to the paperwork or the nuisance factors. We agree that the certification is almost totally meaningless and a waste of resources. Thanks for your comments on this!

  3. June 1, 2011 10:18 am

    I love this post. We raise sheep in Kansas. We rotational graze, garlic drench, diatamaceous earth, etc. as a means to HELP control parasites, but you are absolutely right. If we didn’t use a chemical wormer we would lose many lambs and adult sheep as well. I’m not a fan of many vaccinations for myself or our pets and livestock, but the tetanus vaccination is a must on our farm as well. It is awful to watch a baby lamb die of tetanus and happened to us just this year because she wasn’t vaccinated yet. I really appreciate your honesty. My husband and I try to keep ourselves as “chemical free” as possible, but staying alive and keeping our animals alive is our first priority.

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