BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Mike and Gayle Thorpe own a 2,400 acre farm just outside of East Aurora that is certified organic. They made the switch from a conventional farm to organic 15 years ago.
“We made the switch because we were sick of dealing with chemicals and handling chemicals,” Mike told News 4 Investigates.
They say one of their biggest challenges is on the production end. “We struggle with weeds. They’re probably our number one enemy. But as the years go by we get a little better at it,” Mike explained.
There are specific requirements that must be verified before products are labeled U.S. Department of Agriculture organic, according to the National Organic Program, which ensures the integrity of USDA organic products in the U.S. and throughout the world.
Organic operations have to demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources; conserving biodiversity and using only approved substances. For example, irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms are not used in growing organic crops.
Organic livestock producers have to meet animal health and welfare standards and use 100 percent organic feed, and provide animals with outdoor access. According to the Organic Trade Association, the use of hormones, antibiotics or other animal drugs in animal feed for the purpose of stimulating the growth or production of livestock are prohibited.
Dan Roelof’s organic farm, also located in East Aurora, is reviewed by a third-party certifying agency.
“They’re looking to make sure you’re doing soil conservation practices. That you’re protecting water around your farm,” said Roelof.
His operation, Arden Farm, is one of 107 organic farms in Western New York, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture.
The sales of organic products continue to grow each year in the United States. More choices are showing up in mainstream retail grocery stores and many consumers are on a mission to seek out those products, like fruits and vegetables.
Some shoppers News 4 spoke with said they prefer organic products because they think they’re better for your health and to avoid chemicals.
“I don’t want any more chemicals in my body than I already have,” Joan Kesner said.
Sales of organic products increased to $35 billion last year, up 12 percent from 2012, according to the Organic Trade Association. Twenty years ago, according to the OTA, organic food sales in the U.S. hovered at just around $1 billion.
According to Tops Markets, organics have continued to grow over 20 percent in both the vegetable and the fruit category.
“They are coming into the store looking for key items like the lettuces, tomatoes, the peppers,” said Jeff Culhane, Vice President of Perishable Sales and Merchandising at Tops Markets.
“We are seeing them [customers] increase their purchases on that, and we see them convert from conventional bananas to organic bananas with the belief that the organic product is a little more healthier,” said Culhane.
“We’ve been playing around with hoop house growing,” said Amy Cimino, project manager for Wegmans Farm. She says the hoop house technology is able to protect crops like baby leaf production.
“We’re focused on season extension at our farm. So we really would like to grow 12 months out of the year,” Cimino said.
And just like organically grown fruits and vegetables there is also a demand for organic milk.
Conor O’Gorman is one of the partners at Eden Valley Organics in South Dayton. He explained that approved organic methods include a certain amount of pasture time for dairy cows.
“We milk the cows twice a day here,” said O’Gorman. “All the cows that we milk here are on pasture a minimum of 120 days per year. And they get at least a third of their diet off of grass that they graze themselves.”
The USDA organic seal means something; it comes with a set of federal standards, and is regulated. Organic agricultural products are inspected and verified from the farm to the market. Inspections ensure that organic products, whether sold locally or from overseas markets, comply with the same organic principles.
According to a May USDA newsletter, the Agricultural Marketing Service’s National Organic Program has levied more than $500,000 in civil penalties in the last four years for egregious violations of the organic standards.
Unlike organic foods, so-called ‘natural’ foods, with the exception of meat and poultry, are not regulated.
Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, says sometimes consumers confuse ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ food products.
“I don’t think it really means anything useful in meat and poultry, and it barely means anything at all in the rest of the grocery store. So we just tell people ignore that word. It doesn’t really tell you anything,” said Lovera.
The United States is the world’s largest organic market, according to the USDA, which oversees more than 500,000 organic farmers who are part of certified organic grower groups.