How to Buy Organic
Local Resources For Buying Organic Dairy Products, Produce and More
When people are asked to weigh in on the subject of organic foods, their responses often fall into two categories. There are those who genuinely believe organic foods are better for us. And there are others who think “organic” is just a euphemism for “costs a lot more for no good reason.”
Warren Shaw and Brian Cramer are working on converting the skeptics.
Shaw owns and operates Shaw Farm in Dracut (ShawFarm.com), which has been in his family through four generations since 1908. Dairy and beef cattle live on the farm, which offers wholesale, retail and home delivery dairy products. A farm stand on the property features homemade products such as ice cream, along with a variety of other food and goods. And since 2006, Shaw has sold whole, 2-percent and fat-free milk with an “organic” tag attached.
Cramer is the farm manager at Hutchins Farm in Concord, Mass. (HutchinsFarm.com), where all crops are organic and where, over nearly three dozen acres, he oversees “a full spectrum of just about all the vegetables and fruits and edible herb crops that can grow in this climate.”
There was a time when dairy or crop farmers who went the organic route did so more out of a sense of environmental responsibility than good business. Cramer, for example, jokes: “In some ways, farming organically is like farming with one hand tied behind your back, and you get to pay for the privilege.”
But those days are changing. “Overall, [going organic] has been a good move,” Shaw says. Organic dairy products account for nearly a quarter of the dairy farm’s business, and he has seen sales of his organic milk triple since its introduction.
“I do look forward to growing my organic line as a business,” he says. His New England Organic Creamery by Shaw Farms products are already available locally at places such as Wilson Farm in Lexington, Verrill Farm in Concord, Mass., and some Whole Foods Market locations.
“There aren’t five people in New England who could step in and do what I do on my farm,” Shaw says. “There is only one [dairy line] made in Massachusetts that is directly marketed to consumers, and it’s Shaw Farms.”
Still, Shaw admits that producing the organic line “is a little difficult.” So much so that despite the terrific growth of his organic milk, only 20 of his 90 dairy cows are used to produce it. And for good reason. First of all, he had to buy cows out of Maine that had already been certified organic. You can’t just select a favorite farm bovine and convert her.
“The requirement for certified organic,” Shaw says, “is [for the cows to] be outside all the time, and during growing season [for them to] feed themselves. You have to have enough land to pasture them.”
And when they do need to be fed, they can only eat a “very, very expensive grain,” usually from Vermont.
You might ask: If Shaw cheated a little on the organic stuff, who would know?
Well, Shaw would, and so would Baystate Organic Certifiers, a national USDA accredited organic certifying agent based in North Dighton, Mass.
“They are very protective of the organic process,” Shaw says. He must reapply each year to have his products certified organic, and Baystate also does one or two spot inspections each year to make sure he is meeting all necessary standards.
Hutchins Farm must meet the same certifying standards, pass the inspections and also answer to Baystate, Cramer says. And he understands why. “Organic is really the part of the food marketplace that is consistently growing,” he says. “The organic label is really the only one out there with credibility. It means something that is certifiable, where a term like ‘all-natural’ really means nothing to anybody.”
Hutchins Farm sells its produce to a handful of local restaurants and specialty stores. Its main business is its Concord farm stand, which is open in season and offers more than 50 different fruits and vegetables.
Asked what makes organic fruits and vegetables unique, Cramer says, “It’s shorthand for a whole bunch of things … you’re looking for minimal spray residue and a generally more environmentally sustainable approach to growing food.”
It’s a serious distinction. If a certain crop is diseased one season and has to be sprayed in order to be salvaged, Cramer says that field can’t be used to grow organic products for the next three years.
“The farmers who started this organic farm had worked on conventional farms and, like me, had been disturbed about the seemingly careless use of pesticides and other toxic things without thinking of the repercussions,” Cramer says.
“Ten years ago, I think most growers weren’t thinking about going organic from a sales perspective, but from an environmental stewardship perspective. But now, organic has become a potent brand.”
Organic. It’s not just a label. In Massachusetts, at least, it’s a carefully guarded process.