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One size does not fit all with organic farming rules

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POLSON — Chickens clucking throughout a bed of lush grass, pigs basking in the warm sunlight, and cows roaming an open pasture is what many people picture when they choose to buy organic; however, that portrayal may not always be the case, according to Mark Kostell, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute.

“This is the romantic image that the industry loves to tell,” Kostell said. “It is a breach of consumer trust. We want to make it aware that just because a product has an organic label does not make it enough … you have to dig a little deeper and do your homework.”

Recently, the National Organic Standards Board reviewed animal welfare practice within the industry. The board is a Federal Advisory Board that examines and gives suggestions on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products. The recommendations are then facilitated by the National Organic Program, a regulatory program that falls under the United State Department of Agriculture. The USDA enforces and executes the standards set by NOP that organic farmers must follow.

“It is my understanding that some of these large-scale farmers are bending the rules,” Polson resident Barry Flamm said. Flamm serves on The Cornucopia Institute Board of Directors and also served a five-year term on the NOSB. “Unfortunately organic poultry agriculture farms are being certified that are pretty bad.”

For example, some large-scale farmers are defining outdoor access as screened-in porches with a dirt bottom. However, in a document titled “Livestock Healthcare Practice Standards,” Cornucopia states, “the standing rules regarding the health care, transport, and living conditions for organic livestock already require that all organic livestock have year-round access to the outdoors and living conditions that promote natural behaviors.

”The document specifies further that poultry must “display natural behaviors of dust and sun bathing, hunting for insects, eating grass, scratching and pecking at the ground, and socializing with their flock mate. Screened porches do not allow for any natural behaviors.”

While Cornucopia wants largescale organic farming operations to comply, the rules also affect smaller, local operations.

Problems with USDA standards for organic agriculture arise because rules are “cookiecutter,” according to Mission Mountain Organic Eggs farmer John Walkup. He believes that “cookie-cutter” doesn’t work for various ecosystems and seasons.

Walkup agrees that all poultry should have access to green grass, yet believes the USDA should take in consideration the different climates in each state.

“In Montana and the Mission Valley, we have very hot summers and cold winters,” Walkup said. “When the USDA makes a blanket standard for all organic farmers, it makes it difficult to make management decisions for the welfare of our birds.”

For instance, Walkup mentioned that if he were to give open access to chickens during a Montana winter, the pipes in his barns would freeze.

“The USDA is trying to do good things; however they don’t have the best approach,” Walkup said.

He believes that farmers who use screened-in porches should label their eggs to consumers as “not getting any grass, bugs or natural food eggs.”

Currently grey areas in organic standards are being questioned by Cornucopia.

“When consumers are buying organic, they are most likely doing it for health and ethical reasons,” Flamm said. “But I feel like people are misinformed and don’t know what the National Organic Program is actually doing.”

Kostell, Flamm and Walkup remain advocates for organic farming and encourage consumers to continue buying organic because standards are higher than non-organic farms. They also hope discussion with the USDA will lead to an improvement in the entire organic industry.

“This bending of the rules is a gross violation to consumers and a grave injustice to the hundreds of ag producers that are following the law,” Kostell said.

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