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Beyond "Beyond Organic"

March 12, 2017

Driving south on route 8 I passed a sign which I could have sworn was advertising Dry Creek Reserve wood pellets. I laughed aloud at the absurdity of exclusive stove fuel, and by the time I got back home I managed to convince myself I’d misread it. I found their website, which proved that Dry Creek is indeed a brand of pellet stove fuel, though it didn’t list a Reserve product.

There are, however, Premium pellets (made from choice hardwoods), Super Premium (made from 100% select hardwoods), and the lowly PA Pellet (made to the original formula from a hardwood blend). These last are a “higher quality wood pellet that’s easy to use” while the Premiums “are specifically formulated to optimize stove performance,” in contrast to the Super Premiums, which “deliver superior stove performance.”

I don’t doubt that the claim that different lines of pellets have different characteristics, even if I don’t have a clear idea of how they might meaningfully improve quality of life. But the naming conventions are still ridiculous, a fact reflected in the descriptions - if the baseline is perfection, why even have more than one product? If the Premium pellets burn optimally, how can the Super Premiums be superior? These attempts to signify excellence and even more excellent excellence across a line of products may be humorous, but they’re mostly harmless, or at least as harmless as any branding effort. And who’s to say they aren’t true? Perhaps all Dry Creek products are better than the dreck that other wood pellet companies crap out by the ton, and if they have to engage in some linguistic contortions to communicate this, it’s not worth worrying about.

Things get messier when it comes to food and agricultural practices, or maybe I just understand them better. (If I were steeped in the intricacies of the pellet fuel industry maybe I would be outraged at the idea of anyone calling a product with <0.8% ash Premium.) When it comes to farming, as with most anything that is marketed, vacuous language is common, but more pernicious is using the letter of the law to circumvent the spirit; most people buying milk with a pastoral picture and an organic stamp on the front of the carton likely don’t suspect it may have come from a 10,000 cow mega dairy.

The fight over which specific practices should be allowed or banned for a given label is complex and contentious, whether it’s organic, GMO-free, or 100% grassfed. There are consumers who may have unrealistic ideas about the realities of production agriculture, small and mid-sized farms that have done the hard work of promoting a new standard and want to both protect it and reap the profits it confers, and large agricultural interests that, with few exceptions, are after as big a slice of the action as possible with the least amount of actual change to their methods.

An easy way for the independent, direct marketing farm to get around this is the neologism. They might use Organic Practices. They might Pasture (or Pasture Raise) livestock. The farm can be Sustainable, a word that is almost as malleable and meaningless as Natural. Whether these are useful, benignly useless, or misleading mostly depends on the context in which they are deployed.

The obvious temptation is to trade on the cachet of established standards without actually following them. Many, perhaps most, farms that describe their practices as Beyond Organic are a case in point. There are some that truly do exceed all established organic standards. But often it would be more accurate, though less marketable, if they described themselves as “Adjacent To Organic” or “Kind of in the Same Neighborhood as Organic” or “Better Than Many Organic Farms in Some Ways but not Exactly Organic in Every Practice for Various Reason, Mostly Having to do with Cost and Practicality,” because usually they are doing something that would be prohibited by any certifier. Mostly, especially with larger farms, this means they are feeding conventional grain to pigs and poultry and buying or making conventional hay. This may be less pernicious than the pictures of sunny family dairy farms on CAFO dairy products, but it is still a threat to local agriculture, because they can erode trust.

I ask a lot of my customers. First, they pay significantly more than they would at their local supermarket. They then wait a minimum of several days before having to use some of their weekend to drive to a drop-off point just to pick up their order. All the meat is frozen, so meals must be planned ahead. It amazes me every time I think about it that people are not only willing to jump through these hoops, but are happy to do so. Some customers are interested about the nutritional quality of their food, some care about supporting their local economy, some are motivated by animal welfare, some by environmental concerns, and some by their palates (our products are much more flavorful than the cheaper versions of the "same thing".) Actually, so far as I can tell, most are motivated by a combination of these. The idea that makes the whole thing work - why people come to me instead of  heading to the nearest Price Chopper - is that by knowing their farmers they can be confident that their food is raised with transparency, in contrast to the misleading doublespeak and impenetrable complexity of the industrial food system. If this trust is lost, the single biggest difference between community scale and industrial agriculture, at least from a marketing perspective, will be lost with it.

Of course, labels and terms can mislead in other ways. My website proudly states that I feed local, non-GMO grain. I am happy with the quality, I like how near to me it is grown, and I am happy that I can support the friends who produce it. But I often think of a study I read (sorry, I can’t find the link) that described how many people conflate non-GMO and organic, even though organic practices are much more demanding. Speaking of organic, here’s another issue: organic practices prohibit the use of chemical ear tags and long acting fly repellents. I don’t use these on my farm. But I am as near to positive as I can be about such things that, if given a choice, cows would prefer the repellent and no flies to a life of irritated purity.

I don’t know how to navigate this. It’s fair to highlight the methods I use that make my farm exceptional, but I also feel a need to communicate the fundamental uncertainty of agriculture, the inevitable mistakes that crop up throughout each season. I don’t want my customers to think things here are perfect, but I do want them to understand that I try to make decisions with both the particulars of the current situation and the farm's long term health in mind.

As is often the case, I am likely over thinking things. Easier, and perhaps more profitable, would be to hype everything I’m doing and selling as much as possible. Maybe we’d all be happier if I just started selling Premium bacon and Super Premium breakfast sausage.

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