Organics 

BW's guide to safe food

Listening to local organic meat gurus Marvin and Diane Hollen give their interpretations of what food labels really mean is not unlike watching a magician reveal the secrets behind his colleagues' tricks. The current trendy title "grass-fed," for example, means that a cow has "spent at least 80 percent of its life on pasture, but as much as 20 percent on a feedlot." Likewise, "antibiotic free" signifies to the Hollens that the animals "haven't had any antibiotics for 72 hours before being slaughtered and processed." Free range: "A 10-foot-by-10-foot concrete slab built on the edge of a building with 800 chickens inside." All natural: "Nothing. No verification. No accountability. It is just somebody's word."

After several hours of these and similar exposés, a simple interview begins to feel like a lost agricultural episode of The X-Files. But what sets the Hollens apart from conspiracy theorists and nutritional paranoiacs is the extent to which the pair's rants are based in actual administrative experience. Marvin, a four-decade dairy and beef veteran, was the sole farmer on the National Organic Standards Board for a five year stint ending in 2002--a position requiring numerous nominations from industry representatives and congressmen. While he became internationally notorious during that time for striving to make organic beef standards more stringent, the 65-year-old now calls his tenure a "sentence," which is indicative of both his commitment to and frustration with what he labels "the o-word."

"Getting rid of the little family farmer to make way for the big guy--you see it every day, even in the organics industry," Marvin explains. "Someone is always trying to weaken the standards so that the big boys don't have to change their practices, but still get to use the word 'organic' to increase their profits. All I tried to do was to look out for the family farmer and protect the integrity of the organic product from industrialized influence. It has simply got to come from small operations, because corporate people are of a different mindset than the rest of us."

Different mindset--it sounds like a dolling-up of "dishonest," but 62-year-old Diane insists that big companies are actually not lying. They're like teenagers: you just have to ask the right questions to get the whole truth." In response to the USDA's ever-fluctuating standards, the Hollens have striven in their own organic distributorship, the Nyssa, Oregon-based Daily Blessing Foods, to inhabit a realm beyond "the right questions." Though no longer personally involved in the day-to-day toils of farming, the pair still wear a passion for small family farms on their sleeve and are thus able to hold themselves to standards that are best described as "über-ganic."

The organic cattle sold by Daily Blessing, raised in Rigby, Idaho, aren't just grass-fed; they are completely grass-fed, not even consuming organic grain during their lifetimes. Likewise for their prairie-raised buffalo and pasture-raised lamb, which arrive frozen from Nebraska and Montana due to a total lack of certified organic operations in Idaho. Daily Blessing chickens aren't only "free-range," they are grown on a pasture at an Amish farm and dine on grass, bugs, organic cow's milk and soybeans. Pigs aren't just synthetic-substance-free, they are allowed to run, play and root for worms on an organic pasture--a life at which I wouldn't sneeze, even knowing the end result.

Admittedly, because each type of animal has to be raised under different conditions to be organically ordained, it can be daunting to keep track of the scores of rules, regulations and practices that sound like rules but aren't--such as Daily Blessing's devotion to grass in lieu of grain, a choice based on the high levels of the proven cancer-inhibitor conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that only occur in grass-fed meat. But rest assured, despite any concerns about watering down of standards, the life of an organic animal is still one that is tightly watched by scrutinizing governmental eyes. Not only does each individual calf, lamb or pig require its own paper trail, but a USDA inspector must also be present at the butchering to check for signs of synthetic agents or needle marks in hides. The Hollens' delivery van, storage space and records are all combed over regularly for signs of corner cutting, and Diane insists, "The IRS is easy compared to the USDA looking over your records."

The result of all these institutionalized safeguards and personal infatuations is a style of meat that looks, smells and especially tastes different than commercial meat--in Marvin's words, "Stronger. More beef-y, chicken-y, lamb-y or buffalo-y." But it also represents an astonishing number of independent entities necessarily working together in an atmosphere of mutual trust, as Marvin explains, "In organics, we're all connected; the producer, the distributor and the processor. The industry has had to stay vigilant and band together, which is a mindset that corporate America has tried to drive away over the last few decades. If we don't treat each other respectfully and work together in this industry in particular, we're in doodoo."

Though the Hollens have faced far more than their share of national corporate opposition in the nine years since turning organic, particularly during Marvin's stint on the National Organic Standards Board, Daily Blessings has grown by 15 times since it became their sole obsession in 2001. On any given day they can be seen on Idaho's highways for up to 18 hours a day, delivering customized orders to homes across the state in a single Ford minivan, and following the family farm inspired credo, "[Consumers] spend the money, they should call all the shots. We've gotten away from that in this country, and we're working pretty hard to bring it back."

For more information about Daily Blessing Foods, call (541) 372-2373, e-mail dailyblessing@yc2.net or log on to www.organic-meat.com.

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