July 27, 2008

More Consumers Are Purchasing Organic Meat

By Simone Peloquin, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.

Jul. 27--hese days, with skyrocketing food prices, stories about animal cruelty at corporate farms and food disease outbreaks, many consumers are turning to organic foods.

"I would never buy meat from a grocery store. I would rather become a vegetarian," said Janet Brunner, co-owner of Midvalleyvu Family Farm in Arkansaw.

In particular, many people are turning to organic meats. In 2007, there were 918 certified organic farms in Wisconsin -- a number second only to California. The number of certified organic farms in Wisconsin has been growing for the past few years.

From 2006 to 2007, the number of certified organic farms increased by 111 in the state; the number continues to grow. In the past three years, the number of farms certified in Wisconsin has increased by 29 percent and the number of raw meat processors has increased 79 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Brunner owns Midvalleyvu with her husband, Wayne. They have been farming for eight years and have been certified as an organic farm for five.

The Brunners started raising Holsteins and then experimented with Jersey cows as well as a Devon line.

"We really prefer those hardy animals meant for grazing, ones that are extremely well-adapted to life without grain," Janet Brunner said.

To the family, an organic farm was "just a transitional thing," she said. "We always butchered our own meat, and then family and friends started asking for it. So we said, 'OK, we better figure out how to do this.' "

There are two kinds of farmers, she said, "ones that do it for the money and those who do it because they love what they do. Farming is what we love to do; it is in our blood."

The Brunners have vowed not to raise prices on their organic products, even as food prices are rising elsewhere.

Brunner attributes her recovery from systemic candida -- a hypersensitivity to yeast that can affect the bones, brain, esophagus, eyes and digestive tract -- in part to the nutritional benefits of organic foods.

"Not a whole lot of things were affordable, but I would not have made it without these foods," she said. During her illness, she could not eat processed foods. "The price of organic foods should not prevent people from purchasing them."

Midvalleyvu has an on-site, members-only store. Memberships cost $25 the first year and $10 each successive year.

"Since organic foods can be expensive, we want to make these products available to the everyday family," Brunner said. While her family keeps its prices lower, she said organic meats generally cost a few dollars a pound more.

Along with the certified farms in the state, several noncertified farms follow organic farming and free-range practices, in which livestock and poultry freely graze or forage for food.

What was important to the Brunners was not receiving the official certification, but being able to sell their milk for the higher price that certification brings.

"We get a better price for the product when it has a certification label," Brunner said. "But it didn't matter one iota to anybody that we were certified or not."

The state ag department encourages farms to select a private certifier. The state does not have its own program.

"With the high number of private certifiers, the state decided it did not need a state program," said Laura Paine, organic agriculture specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Certifiers are accredited by the National Organic Program, she said. They are listed in the Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory.

For farms to be certified as organic, they must document seed sources, crop rotations, tillage practices and weeding practices. They also must keep detailed records of animals' history, including treatments for illness and injuries.

"More than anything, people want to know where food comes from. They want to avoid chemicals, and healthwise, people come because they know we can provide them with good food," Brunner said.

Inspection fees can run anywhere from $300 to $600. Different certifiers charge differently based on acreage and farm income.

The certification process increases assurance for consumers that the farm follows proper organic practices. Farms that produce less than $5,000 in revenue annually are exempt from the annual certification fee.

Farmers who sell products directly off their farms do not need to be certified, Paine said. Farms are required to be certified if they sell their products as organic in a retail market. Restaurants and grocery stores require certification in order to ask a premium price for the retail product.

This preserves the integrity of the organic certification and does not allow loopholes in rules, Paine said. "People need to know organic means what it says it means."

Organic food sales have increased 20 percent in the past 15 to 20 years.

"People have a growing concern for the environment and an interest in supporting agriculture, growing concerns about food safety," Paine said. "There is a perception that an organic seal on food brings with it a certain level of safety. It is a label that people can latch onto."

Corporations are entering the organic scene, too. For example, the Midwest Vegetable Processing Association has been working with the Department of Agriculture to start producing organic vegetables.

Brunner said most of her clients buy a half or quarter of an animal, or purchase meats by the package from the member store.

Clients then can work with the meat processor to choose the cuts they want. Most store the meat in chest freezers, Brunner said.

"It is important to have a good cold freezer, and the meat will keep a good long time," she said.

While some farmers offer cooking classes and recipes, Brunner said she thought organic meat did not require special preparation.

She also said their animals remained free of stress hormones, which results in more tender meat.

"In our case, our animals are exposed to humans; they are not out on the back 40," Brunner said. "If an animal is raised around people and is comfortable and not stressed out around them, then stress hormones will not get into the meat."

Stress hormones can be released when animals are rounded up for slaughter.

Depending on the cuts ordered, Brunner said it can take 10 days to two weeks after the animal is butchered for the meat to be ready. Hot dogs and sausages take longer to prepare.

Client Lila Sikora said she would not return to conventional supermarket foods. Sikora, of Arkansaw, has been buying from Midvalleyvu for five years. Buying organic has become a way of life, not just an eating habit, she said.

She attended a seminar at Midvalleyvu, and she and her husband, Gary, became members that night.

"I started buying for health reasons," she said. "There is most definitely more flavor, and it is more filling. You don't have to eat as much to be satisfied. It is a known fact that organic foods are pesticide- and fertilizer-free. Whatever is put on land is in the food."

Sikora attributes the increasing popularity of organic foods to people who are more health-minded and concerned about where their food comes from. "They want to know it isn't pumped through with antibiotics," she said.

Sweetland Farm in Menomonie is another certified organic farm. Karen Bumann and her husband, Dave Schmidt, sell organic products to about 150 families.

"It is now a conscious choice for people of all walks of life," Bumann said. "People want assurance of food integrity."

Bumann and Schmidt have been farming for 13 years. They also have a store on their farm where they sell their products to members.

"We get comments about how the organic products taste like 'real food,' " Bumann said. "People remember getting farm-fresh when they were younger, and they want the more flavorful food again."

Bumann said their clients know how they raise their livestock.

"They know we take the time and care about how we raise our livestock. It means a lot to them. They are sick and tired of getting food from places without ethics."

Jim and Julie Dickerson of Eau Claire have been buying from Sweetland Farm for two years.

"Food raised conventionally with phosphorus tastes like soap," Jim Dickerson said; referring to phosphorus-containing food additives used in food processing. "The taste of organic is so much better."

The Dickersons also have been buying buffalo meat for about 26 years at a farmers market. They buy a whole buffalo each year -- about 1,600 pounds -- and share half with family.

Half a buffalo lasts about 11 months. They also buy about 50 chickens and a whole pig each year. They have two chest freezers to store the meat. Dickerson said the price he pays for the meat and processing is "unbelievably reasonable."

The meat is extremely lean and has almost no fat, he said.

"It is frozen so cold when we get it, it travels well," he said. "And we only go shopping for the buffalo meat once a year."

Peloquin can be reached at 833-9203 or [email protected]


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