Pasture-raised poultry farms opt out of organic certification without sacrificing sustainability

Abra Morawiec and Chris Pinto of Feisty Acres Farm in Southold. (Credit: David Benthal)

When Abra Morawiec and Chris Pinto founded Feisty Acres poultry and game farm in 2015, there was no question the products would carry a USDA-certified organic seal. After all, the symbol had been the guiding light for consumers who held certain standards on how they wanted their food to be grown and raised.

“It is a really effective symbol,” she explained. “We thought it would be a good way to carve out a place in the market … and it was. People took notice.”

Feisty Acres, which was launched on leased land at Biophilia Organic Farm in Jamesport, remains true to sustainable methods at its new seven-acre farm off Route 48 in Southold. The couple still employs pasture-raised practices on the property, which is leased from Peconic Land Trust. Its French guinea fowl, chukar partridge, silkie chicken, heritage breed ducks, heritage breed chickens and various heritage breed turkeys, are all raised on pesticide-free grounds with organically grown, non-GMO grain and given no antibiotics — except Feisty Acres is no longer certified organic by the USDA.

And they haven’t lost a single customer.

“Before we made the jump, I literally just asked all my customers what they would think if I dropped my organic certification,” Morawiec said. “I told them I’d be operating the farm in the same way and all my customers said they didn’t care as long as we weren’t changing anything. I realized people weren’t buying from me because of the certified organic label, they were buying because they can talk directly to me, their farmer, and I would answer questions and it tastes good.”

Feisty Acres poultry and game farm in Southold. (Credit: David Benthal)

The couple decided to drop its organic certification earlier this year, a move that frees up the time and money associated with obtaining and sustaining the certification. Actual costs or fees vary widely depending on the third-party certifying agent the USDA relies on to monitor organic practices at farms seeking the seal. The size and type of operation also affects the costs, which may range from a few hundred to more than a thousand dollars annually, according to the USDA. The required bookkeeping, which includes keeping records of everything from feed orders to meat sales and processing schedules, can be unmanageable for a farm the size of Feisty Acres.

“Being certified organic is great if you’re a larger operation with multiple employees who can help do paperwork and hundreds of CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] members to support you, but for a small operation like ours, it just doesn’t make sense anymore,” said Morawiec, whose meat and egg sales are limited to 20 CSA members (there’s a waiting list) and weekly farmers markets in the New York City area, as the farm is not open to the public without a reservation. “It is a lot of work if you’re only two people running a farm.”

Similar to Feisty Acres, neighboring Deep Roots Farm, which cultivates 10 acres of land, eight of which are leased through Peconic Land Trust, raises its chickens on rotating pastures and non-GMO, organically farmed feed without antibiotics. Deep Roots also grows its fruit, vegetable, herb and flower selection through organic methods without the seal of approval.

Tom Hart and his mother, Michelle, opt not to use the term organic to label their products, but they do incorporate those standards into their growing practices, including only using organic potting soil without synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides or pesticides.

“We consider ourselves sustainably minded, which means with all our major decisions we look at if it helps us be more environmentally, socially and financially sustainable,” Mr. Hart said. “With the livestock, we’ve decided that the restrictions on what we can feed our animals to be certified organic doesn’t help us get any closer on those fronts.”

Deep Roots Farm in Southold. (Credit: David Benthal)

Free from certified organic livestock guidelines, Deep Roots can use a less cost-prohibitive “transitional” feed for its birds, grown through organic methods on non-certified organic land. The farm is also able to supplement its supply with food scraps from a local juice bar and bakery as well as neighbors and customers. If the farm were certified organic, all the feed would also need to be certified organic, Mr. Hart explained.

“We have been using scrap products from around the neighborhood since the beginning,” Mr. Hart said. “It cuts down on food waste and it makes a difference in the taste of the meat when they are fed a varied diet. If someone comes to the farm stand and wants certified organic, we send them to Browder’s Birds [in Mattituck.] We’re happy to do that because we have incredible respect for the organic livestock farmers out here and the hard work they do.”

Feisty Acres is now able to do the same, opting for transitional feed and incorporating scraps from local restaurants, such as Wednesday’s Table in Southold.

“I can buy less feed because I can get food scraps from Wednesday’s Table or my neighbors and customers,” Morawiec said. “When I was certified organic I couldn’t take food scraps from restaurants at all. I could take them from Sang Lee Farms, because they are certified organic, but I would have to provide a certificate to my certifying agency saying that I am getting certified organic scraps through a certified organic farm. I’d have to tell them how many pounds I was getting a week and what type of produce … the process was daunting.”

Though sometimes taxing on a smaller farm, the effort to acquire a USDA-certified seal remains practical for farmers who already subscribe to organic methods of growing, especially in regards to produce. Deep Roots Farm is planning to earn USDA organic certification for its fruits and vegetables. The operation, which has grown from two people to four, has more resources to dedicate to the process.

“It will definitely take more time, effort and cost, but I want to officially be able to use the term ‘organic’ to describe what we’re doing,” Mr. Hart said. “We were small enough in the beginning, only selling everything at the farmers markets, where I could explain to everyone how we raise our crops. Now that we’re getting bigger, we’re selling wholesale and we have a farm stand where we’re not always there, so it is tough to describe our produce without an organic seal.”

Browders Birds in Mattituck. (Credit: David Benthal)

Long Island’s first certified organic and pastured poultry farm, Browder’s Birds in Mattituck, had its USDA seal since it was founded in 2010 on five acres of Southold land leased from the Peconic Land Trust. Pasture raising chickens on non-GMO feed was always the intention of owners Chris and Holly Browder, so becoming certified organic was a natural step after researching the costs and benefits.

“Providing healthy chickens was our priority,” said Mr. Browder, who has served on the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York board of directors since 2014. “I was concerned about the price of the feed being cost prohibitive and I wasn’t sure if we could make it work economically, but we learned there is a market for people looking to pay a little bit more for a healthier product. The certification gave us instant credibility when we were starting.”

In 2012, the Browders purchased their 16-acre Mattituck homestead and began the multi-step process of converting existing farmland into organic pasture to meet USDA organic certification guidelines before moving the chickens, turkeys, ducks and sheep there in 2014. Browder’s Birds also added an on-site mobile organic processing center, the only one of its kind on the East End. It’s an added convenience since organic poultry cannot be processed in conventional facilities that do not carry an organic certification.

Despite its growth over the past decade, the Browders continue to do the majority of the labor themselves. Mr. Browder is responsible for the record keeping.

“The requirements I have to meet are worth it,” he said. The paperwork and record keeping are something I’d be doing anyway. I can’t think of a single thing that wouldn’t be good to know as a farm manager in what I am writing down.”

The watering down of the term “organic” is also an increasing concern for Morawiec, Hart and Browder alike. The USDA relies on various third-party certifying agencies throughout the country to inspect and grant farms of all sizes organic status. The loosely outlined standards for birds include standards for feed, housing and management; though the farmers point out that much is left up to the interpretation of the designated third parties.

“On the federal level, a livestock operation really only needs to change its medication practices and they have to feed their animals certified organic feed,” Morawiec said. “There are certain third party agencies that would certify a hydroponic farm, which was one of the things that happened as a certified organic farmer that made me think twice. Organic agriculture by definition means conserving and regenerating the soil, so if no soil is involved in the growing, how could it be organic to begin with?”

Feisty Acres raises turkeys as well as quail, chickens and other poultry. (Credit: David Benthal)

Changing regulations and open interpretations, Mr. Browder said, adds to his resolve to remain certified organic.

“Most of our customers know us and our practices so well now that I don’t think we’d need the certification, but I like being part of a community of like-minded farms fighting to maintain the integrity of organic,” he said.

The bottom line for Feisty Acres and other small non-certified organic and USDA-certified farms, is being proper stewards of the land beyond anything a label could provide.

“One of the greatest things we can do as farmers is to be transparent in our growing practices and why we make the decisions we do,” Morawiec said. “If you are raising your animals in a responsible way and growing your produce in a respectful way, then you’re regenerating the soil and being a steward of the land, which is at the heart of organic farming anyway.”