Good magazine’s recent food issue (on newsstands now) draws an important distinction that still manages to elude most consumers: the subtle difference between organic food and food grown — for lack of better terminology — to higher standards. People don’t seem to understand that (barring cooperatives like Organic Valley, which legitimately buy milk from lots of small farms) if the same brand of organic milk exists in grocery stores from Oregon to Mississippi, it probably wasn’t the kind of place where the farmer knows every cow by name. The lack of better language to adequately describe the difference is one problem; the dearth of educators is another. That big organic companies have no interest in clearing up the distinction doesn’t help, either.

In the Good article, “Guess Who’s Coming As Dinner?” Peter Rubin writes, “As the organic-foods industry has exploded in recent years, some producers have resorted to streamlining methods that puncture the bucolic fantasy. More than organic, the small-farm movement is humane. It’s [sic] animals are free-range, grass-fed, patiently raised; artisanal meats, resurrected from nearly extinct breeds.”

That might be overstating the case; not all small organic farms raise “nearly extinct breeds” or even grass-finish their animals. But if they observe the spirit of organic — unlike the bigger companies with eyes only for the law and, more importantly, its loopholes — I think they deserve respect and patronage. To me, theirs is the only organic worth supporting — and it’s not even that important to me whether it’s actually certified organic, as long as we can trust that the farmer’s doing a good job.

The French word used to describe what we call “sustainable agriculture” is “agriculture raisonnée,” which translates as ‘rational’ or ‘reasonable’ agriculture. That it’s sustainable is implied; that it’s organic is not, necessarily. That it’s sensible, honest and appropriate is understood. Those kinds of adjectives are easily — and frequently — co-opted by marketers, but I think they’re words we should think of when we talk about farming — just as much as “organic.”

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

The consumer's dilemma: Buy from big or small organic farms?
An important distinction still eludes most consumers: the subtle difference between organic food and food grown to higher standards.