FAQ: Is Waterloo Ranch An Organic Ranch?

FAQ: Is Waterloo Ranch An Organic Ranch?

We occasionally get questions about this and it’s time to address the issue for our current and potential customers.

Let me start by saying that, as of this date, our land has not been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides so long as our livestock have been here. We’ve employed a combination of tactics to avoid use of pesticides and herbicides (thus far), such as overseeding, targeted grazing, non-selective vinegar weedkiller, and hundreds of grueling hours of hand-weeding.

Let me also say that, as of this date, none of our animals in our harvest channels have been treated with oral or injection antibiotics, hormones, or de-wormer. We’ve employed a combination of tactics to avoid use of medicines thus far, such as buying premium feeds, seeding bioactive forages, rotational grazing, rigorous sanitation protocols, and spacious shelters.

Despite these early efforts and successes, our lamb and beef cannot be considered organic because, at this time, we do not purchase organic grain feed (for our cows) and organic hay (for our sheep and cows). In our quest to source the most measurably nutritious, local-as-possible, and affordable premium feeds, we’ve yet to find viable organic options in grain and hay. This is not an uncommon dilemma among producers. Even in the coolers of the most upscale and natural grocers, organic meats are either not available, (mostly) only available in ground meat, or they are prohibitively expensive. As a result of this low supply and high pricing, ‘grass-fed’ has come to be considered the ‘cleaner’ and more affordable alternative to organic meat; but while the latter is certainly true, the former is very rarely an accurate assumption. The idea that grass-fed (and finished) meat is sort of organic-adjacent is accepted at the (witting or unwitting) disregard of hay-feeding season. The reality is that most all producers, including grass-fed producers, are not feeding organic hay due to availability, hay quality metrics, concerns of importing devastating, invasive weeds, and/or costs. An organic hay on par (equivalent nutritional value) with our current hay, for example, would come at a price 40% higher, and in the clime of seven month hay-feeding seasons (and most other climes), our product would be rendered unaffordable for us as a producer, and for the vast majority of consumers. One workaround for producers is to feed what is called a ‘meadow hay’ which is effectively (uncertified) organic, and affordable, but extremely low in nutritional value, and results in under-nourished animals and low-quality meats. The other workaround is to have the millions of dollars of land, the hundreds of thousands of dollars of infrastructure and equipment, and a free irrigation source sufficient for multiple annual cuttings, to produce one’s own organic (certified or not) hay. The latter is a great option, but it’s an option only available to a tiny portion of large ranches across the country with existing healthy hayfields.

This is all to say that the choice to feed our livestock organic feed or not, is not an ideological choice, it’s one of ranch and industry viability. While we instinctively prefer the most ‘natural’ of options in every scenario, the question of how a fully organic agricultural industry would reliably feed 8 billion people remains unanswered. There is undoubtedly a worldwide over-reliance on synthetic agricultural products, and there certainly is an unholy ‘Big Ag’/government alliance, but the fact remains that an absolute, worldwide ban on the use of these products in the production of hay and grain (and other products) would not be based on actual evidence of harm to humans due to consumption of non-organic meats, and would absolutely result in an almost-immediate global food supply and cost crisis. This is not some hyperbolic, Monsanto or Dow Chemical propaganda, it’s just the economic math (more land, more labor, and lower yields), so as small regenerative ranchers, we must accept the reality that organic agricultural practices are not always inherently sustainable and a net good by nature of being ‘natural,’ and conventional agricultural practices are not always to be avoided at all costs. What this means is that we don’t get to deal in absolutes, and our mission as ranchers is more of an unfolding journey than it is some clear path to a rigidly-defined destination.

Though we have our values as our guide, they often present us with competing demands. We endeavor to support our greater community by buying and selling as locally as possible; we endeavor to raise and grow the most natural, highest-quality, affordable products for our customers through regenerative agricultural systems that ensure the happiness and health of our animals, and the long life of our soil. Our feed (and all other) choices have been run through this filter, and while not organic at this time, we remain immensely proud of our premium feeds and our premium meats. Our premium, hay-tested hay comes at a 30% higher price than average hay, and our premium, non-GMO grain feed mix free of corn and soy, comes at a price 500% higher than the most affordable grain. The organic grain options we’ve researched come with concessions on ingredients and measurable nutritional value, and they come at a price more than 200% over our current (already-expensive) premium grain feed mix.

Personally, we are incredibly discerning consumers when it comes to food. We read every food label, we buy organic products quite regularly, and we fully trust the safety and quality of our products; we hope you will as well.

Our promise is to always be meticulous in our sourcing of our feeds and always be transparent about our agricultural practices. Numerous times I’ve been sent to feed producers that were allegedly, effectively (not certified) organic, only to find out that their products were not effectively organic at all. In fact, many hay re-sellers can’t even tell you what synthetic products were used in the production of their feeds, and they either admit that or speak vaguely about it when asked. Many producers and hobby farmers have just been so discouraged by the prospect of finding affordable, organic feeds that they just quit asking the questions, or they allow their fears to be assuaged by low-nutrition products or sellers who speak inconclusively. Many meat consumers have taken a similar approach, as in the aforementioned case of many grass-fed meat buyers, but as diligently inquisitive feed buyers and honest business people, we invite your questions and promise you conclusive answers. Our goal is to earn your trust and respect, even if we don’t earn your business.

As regenerative ranchers continue to seek more natural solutions to agriculture at a scale beyond hobby farming, it’s important that everyone keep a couple of things in mind. Firstly, it’s good to keep in mind that ‘the dose makes the poison.’ There are any number of natural and unnatural potential toxins/pathogens in all of our foods and in all of our bodies right now that could easily be found with our absurdly-sensitive, modern testing technology. Nutmeg contains myristicin, for example, which in excessive amounts, can cause seizures; green potatoes contain glycoalkaloid, which can be fatal; and your rice almost certainly contains high levels of arsenic. As consumers, many of us accept these toxins without much worry, and to a degree, that’s a good thing. Literally almost anything, natural and unnatural can be toxic/poisonous to us and the planet at excessive enough levels. This isn’t to say that we should completely disregard potential toxins and expose ourselves to them without any consideration, it’s just to say that we should consider the ‘dose’ for the planet and for our bodies, be honest about the evidence available to us, and avoid a sort of unproductive and out-of-context doomer-ism that is commonplace in much of modern discourse all across the political spectrum.

Secondly, it’s important to keep in mind that, though we often use the generally accepted term ‘natural,’ agriculture in all forms is not ‘natural’ in a pure sense of the word, and that is precisely why this is such a complicated issue. In any case, since we’re not about to return to (natural) cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer days, we believe that aspiring to mimic natural processes where possible in agriculture (i.e., regenerative agriculture) is a worthy endeavor. Beyond boutique settings, or settings with very specific and exclusive sets of favorable circumstances, this is an incredibly elusive goal, but we’re on that complicated journey as ranchers.

Let us be clear, we are by no means apologists for the overuse of synthetic products in conventional agriculture, and we will continue striving for a more natural agriculture. In the meantime, it’s already the case that you will not find a more natural lamb or beef that even approaches the value and quality of what you can purchase from our ranch, and we hope you’ll take the opportunity to see this for yourself.

Thanks so much for allowing us to shed light on this very complex agricultural question. If you have more questions, related to this topic or not, reach out to us any time. In any case, we hope we can share our harvest with you soon.

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