Walk by the organic section at a store, and you will see pictures of happy cows, rolling hills of green and small family farms plastered on everything. This is our ideal image of organic farms: small farms, plenty of roaming room and blue skies. But is that what we are getting when we buy organic food?


The New York Times recently ran an article titled Has 'Organic' Been Oversized? in which Stephanie Strom writes:


“The fact is, organic food has become a wildly lucrative business for Big Food and a premium-price-means-premium-profit section of the grocery store. The industry’s image — contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms — is mostly pure fantasy. Or rather, pure marketing. Big Food, it turns out, has spawned what might be called Big Organic.


"Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo, of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Healthy Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.


"Over the last decade, since federal organic standards have come to the fore, giant agri-food corporations like these and others — Coca-Cola, Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft and M&M Mars among them — have gobbled up most of the nation’s organic food industry. Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore."


I’ve seen something similar happen with many local businesses in Portland, Ore. Whenever a company becomes successful enough to prove its worth, it is “gobbled” up by a big company — much to the locals dismay. This includes everything from specialty coffee shops to local health food grocery stores.


It is not hard to understand why they do. Typically, some big business is willing to pay a lot of money for a business that is doing well and has a lot of room to expand. Money can be such a tempting thing. If you are curious as to who owns what, I found this cart helpful.


One man and business owner who hasn't sold out is Michael Potter, who owns Eden Foods. While a big company on his own, he has chosen to retain control of his company, to fight for better standards for organic labeling, and to refuse big offers to buy his company.


Potter was initially enthusiastic about organic labeling, but he has chosen not to have his items labeled because he has become disenchanted with the board’s decisions.


Storm writes, “By 1996, he realized that the National Organic Program was heading in a direction he did not like. He said as much at a National Organic Standards Board meeting in Indianapolis that year, earning the permanent opprobrium of the broader organic industry. ‘They think I’m liberal, immature, a radical,' Mr. Potter says. 'But I’m not the one debating whether organics should use genetically modified additives or nanotechnology, which is what I’d call radical.' "


For those who value the historical advantages to chemical-free, ecologically friendly farming, it's disturbing that controversial additives are on the table to be considered for inclusion under organic labeling. Also disturbing: that six out of 15 board members voted that an herbicide should be allowed for organic farming. Those votes came from board members from Generals Mills, Campbell’s Soup, Organic Valley, Whole Foods Market, Earthbound Farms, who had two votes at the time. I’d really rather that General Mills and Campbell’s Soup not be making decisions regarding organic labeling in the first place. You can read more about this issue in Storm’s article.


What I currently do

Investing in my local economy is something I value. With my family's current budget, it would be nearly impossible to do solely organic item, and I have no problem buying some nonlocal food items anyway. If everyone just invested a small portion of their food budget every week to local foods, they could transform their local farms. It is not an all-or-nothing situation. So with that in mind, I buy a lot of local produce, local meat (through a “cow share” – I buy a quarter of a cow from a local farmer), some local seafood, and almost local oils and grains.


But sometimes my budget doesn’t allow me to buy the best of the best. One small example is carrots. You can get glorious bunches of carrots at the farmers markets in this area. They are reasonably priced, I am sure, but we use a lot of carrots in this family. By the time I use them in broth, soups, salads and snacks, I’d be paying a heck of a lot of money to buy them at the farmers market. However, I only have to spend $5 for a large bag of organic carrots at the store. This allows me enough to even enjoy juicing them. Unfortunately that means buying from a really large, definitely not local, organic brand. I don’t think that the standards for organic labeling are enough, and I am concerned about the future of organic labeling. But I am thankful to know that those carrots are still held to higher standards, and that this large organic company has not sold out to even bigger, nonorganic companies.


What I’d like to do

I want to support better labeling of organic foods, and better enforcement of those standards, if necessary. But I’d also like to continue to invest in small, ecologically sound local farms as much as I can. Sometimes they will be certified organic, sometimes they won’t be.


If organic labeling continues to allow more and more unnatural, nonorganic ingredients, it just highlights the importance of not trusting a board to get you the food you want. Buying local, well-produced food was the point of the original organic movement. We always have that, regardless of where official organic labeling goes.


Is organic labeling a victim of its own success?
Don't let bucolic images of small, locally owned farms cloud your judgment. Our blogger says do your homework and buy local when you can.