Whatever happened to 'Organic'?

Written by Warwick Quinton. Posted in Stories

Years ago, I was an organic zealot. 

'Technically Illegal'

In the early days of the organic industry in Australia, 'organic' produce was technically illegal. It was illegal to bring unsprayed produce into Flemington Markets in Sydney, as I discovered many times from agents who worked there. The same applied to other produce markets and depots around the country. The issue was 'contamination'. Unsprayed produce, travelling across borders, could assist the spread of pests.

At that time, I was helping to run a little food cooperative in the Blue Mountains of NSW, and I would go down to Flemington each week to smuggle out various shipments of organic fruit and vegetables which would arrive there early in the morning, before the inspectors were on duty, and transport them up to the eager punters at the coop's little shed in the industrial area in Katoomba. It was a great adventure, and was well appreciated by the coop members, who would aid and abet the enterprise by purchasing everything we would bring back each week, no matter what condition the produce was in when it arrived. Such was the zeal for 'organic' back in the day. 

Dirt isn't a dirty word. It's just soiled.

The committee running the coop, as well as everyone who frequented it, would forever procrastinate and deliberate about all things organic, and I suppose my zeal grew as I got to know more about the produce, and how committed the growers and customers were. I learned about dirt, which we referred to as 'soil', and how to keep it healthy. I learned about 'good' and 'bad' fertilisers, as well as good and bad pest control regimes, and the various, often diametrically opposed, schools of thought within this broad church of evangelical foodists. We began to try to 'certify' produce, so that consumers and farmers could all be on the same page. This proved to be a veritable minefield - everyone thought that everyone else was shonky - but that's a story for another day.

Buyer Beware

Soon after, I went to work for a little business called Macro Wholefoods, who in those days were pioneers in sourcing and selling organic products and produce to the broader Sydney public, as well as various hard to get macrobiotic foods. I had many job titles in my time at their shop at Bondi Junction in Sydney - I was a packer, a buyer, a store manager (when they opened a new store in Newtown) and eventually the organic veggie section person. Among the many roles I tried to fulfil over the few years I spent there, one was more instrumental in setting my future course than others. 

When my job title was 'buyer', I was sent to a meeting of organic and bio dynamic growers in northern NSW, and found myself chatting with wheat growers. These farmers were very appreciative of Macro's efforts to train the public on the virtues of organic flour, and by packing and selling it in one kilo bags to keen folk who liked to make home made bread (including myself). They pointed out that this practice was all well and good, but that they needed to find homes for the other few hundred tonnes of grain they were currently producing each season. They needed some bakeries to use their flour, so that they could divert more of their grain to the premium priced organic sector, rather than making a loss, selling their labour intensive produce through the conventional wheat markets. It transpired that without finding some customers who used lots of their grain, these committed farmers would go out of business. They were already supplying Demeter Bakery in Glebe, and another one in Melbourne, but these grain growers needed far more critical mass to continue successfully.

I dutifully approached some bakeries I knew, and showed them the organic flour. They had only one question. 'How much?'. It turned out that my best price was double that of their most expensive flour at that time, and triple the price of their basic flours. Quality wasn't even part of the discussion - nor was any talk of the human and environmental advantages of organic farming and eating.

Before long I decided that I had to start baking more bread, so that these farms would survive.

Enter the baker (or organic flour salesman)

To cut a long story short, I started baking bread at home for markets on the weekend and workmates through the week. My flour purchases went from one bag at a time in the beginning, to two pallets (that's eighty bags) by the time the bakery had moved a few times to end up in a factory in North Katoomba.

North Katoomba BakeryThis all happened over an eight year period. During the early days of the bakery in the Blue Mountains, I had been approached by Harry and Wendy Neale of Wholegrain Milling at Gunnedah, who had begun stone milling organic grain, and were looking for more customers. They were very successful in their quest, and, with recommendations from me, picked up more bakery customers in Sydney and further south as well. I could sense that things were changing in the organic industry. Bakers were beginning to see the point of organics. Or so I thought.

So what happened?

Many years later, organic flour is still at least twice the price of conventional flour - as is much of the rest of the huge product range labelled as 'organic' on the supermarket shelves. Of course, in some things, organic products are price competitive - but in most cases this price competitiveness demonstrates that marketing and industrialisation have triumphed over 'real'.

The word 'organic' has come to mean many different things, and has become somewhat diluted, as the marketing bods have done their work and created the 'brand' of organic in 'consumers' minds.

So, what have we done? 

One one level, we created a premium product class for the upper and middle classes who care about chemicals in their bodies. They also care about being seen to be doing the right thing. For them, the environmental aspects of organic agriculture are secondary; it is assumed as a given that organic agriculture is 'green'.

On another level, there has been a widespread understanding that organic agriculture should be green, environmentally sound, and sustainable. 

So I guess we changed the world a bit. Years ago, we came to the party with high ideals - to heal the soil, to make truly nutritious food, to create a sustainable, kinder world through farming practices that in themselves were not as hard on the planet.

Some of us were intending all this to be a local movement, which would ramify globally.

Meanwhile, industrial scale agriculture has almost completely taken over. The organic market is much larger now also, and it too is utilising the same industrial agricultural/marketing machine to grow and sell more wares in a competitive marketplace. Is this industrial scale organic agriculture actually sustainable? The mind boggles.

It's globalism's triumph over localism.

Prices down and staying down?

There is a widespread movement to drive food prices down. I guess this is so that there is room in the shopping basket for a widescreen television, a smartphone and a new car every three years. The industrial agricultural machine has indeed achieved this - prices for food over the past twenty years have become proportionately less of our total spend throughout the western world.

I stepped off the organic treadmill long ago. I became disillusioned with the results we had achieved. I thought, in my naivety, that it should be possible to change the way agriculture is done. The change I envisioned would involve less chemicals, less additives; at the same time, there would be more time spent on soil health, on farm health, and environment health. Thus, sustainabliliy would be the result. 

I guess this deeper movement is happening in certain sectors of the marketplace. People buy organic because of various reasons, and top of mind would probably be that they want food that is clean. I suppose that people are also more concerned that the farming practices used are better for the environment as well. And for this assurance, there is an acceptance that the clean produce may cost a little more. I think that is reasonable - but unless the aforementioned industrial organic machine is used to create the food, people will end up paying more than just 'a little'. Let's face it. To do things properly is never cheap. 

Market Stall

Certainly, the people who buy my bread are prepared to pay a bit more for it, though the price I charge per kilo is comparable to the price they pay for quality bread per kilo at the supermarket. That price is relative to the cost of labour I put in. I don't want to make that price too expensive. I want people to be able to afford the bread, and see it as a valuable part of their shopping mix. As such, my labour isn't valued any more highly than the labour of any other workaday baker.

In order to do these things - make bread properly and inexpensively, I've had to sacrifice my organic ideals. Organic flour, even to a baker, is still two to three times the price of what regular bakeries use every day. So for the ingredient side of the equation, I've had to concentrate on sourcing flour that is at least coming from a less industrial scaled mill. Flour that is not made by the corporation. And for many years now, I've been able to avoid supporting the big millers. 

Movement at the mill

Wholegrain Milling flour millRecently, though, there has been movement in the flour business. About a year ago, I found myself up in wheat country near Gunnedah, and decided to drop in on a mill that I had once done a lot of business with, back in the days when I was using a couple of tonnes of flour a week. This mill, Wholegrain Milling Company at Gunnedah, has always milled organic and bio dynamic flour. It has, in recent years, also done both roller milling and stone milling, very, very well. And I've always loved their flour. Since I've become a one man show using a woodfired oven, though, I couldn't afford this wonderful flour. 

Chatting with Craig Neale, who has taken over the reins of this family business from Harry and Wendy, who I mentioned earlier (Harry having passed on, I discovered sadly) in recent years, I learned that my concerns regarding organic flour prices are only part of the bigger picture. It turns out that as a result of the success of the organic marketing machine, coupled with complexities in the certification processes involved with getting the organic product to market efficiently, simply and cheaply, a lot of farmers and millers have just walked away from growing organically - for them, it has all become too hard.

Craig NealeThis is only a small part of the range of issues that Craig and his milling company face. In the mix is drought, and farmers not planting grain as a result, as well as pressures on small bakeries to constantly compete for price with bigger ones. The industry, at least in Australia, has been facing some hurdles in recent years.

Craig and I agreed that organic certification in this country is both expensive and complex. While it may be possible for a farmer to grow organically for a reasonable price, being able to bring that product to market as 'certified organic produce' is expensive, with certification costs layering percentages upon each other at every stage of production - grower, miller, freighter, processer and retailer. Thus, the products arrive on the shelves at inflated prices.

The question I asked myself years ago was 'Does anyone care about organic?' Those who are tied into the system certainly care - and of course, they have an economic interest in caring. But at the market stall where I sell my bread, I can tell you they don't. A tiny percentage of customers ask about the origin of the flour, I tell them about it, and they buy happily - though it isn't organic.

Bread basket

So the answer is no, they don't. They do care about authenticity. They do care about 'real'. They do want to know the story about their food, and can smell bullshit a mile away. Our artificial world is beginning to melt away, methinks.

So here I was, chatting about all these things with Craig, finding that the pre eminent miller in the country, who for years had followed the organic path, was struggling to come to grips with what had been created - just like me. He knew that I wasn't about to become a customer again - not because I didn't think that growing organically was important, but because I saw very little reason beyond a warm fuzzy feeling to go down that path again.

More importantly, I also saw a very real potential problem in returning to organic flour - that by pushing up my price due to substantially increased input cost, I was going to frighten my customers away. My bread was already perceived as 'premium price' - even though I could easily prove that it was in fact price competitive. Perception is all that counts, in business as in politics.

Rethinking the supply chain

Meanwhile, back in my world, I discover that my own long time flour mill, in the Central West region of NSW, has been struggling with this season's wheat, and has chosen to add 'conditioners' to the flour. Fundamentally, these conditioners are a type of bread improver. All the other bakers they supply are happy about the better bread they are making from it, and don't care - but I'm pretty sure that bread improvers are a huge issue and have never used them. Indeed, I've gone out of my way to educate people about why they are actually a large part of the reason why the western world has slowly become gluten intolerant. So I'm certainly not happy to discover that I am now part of the problem.

I decide that I'm going to have to rethink my supply chain. While I was in Gunnedah a year earlier, part of the conversation I was having with Craig Neale was about a new type of certification he was working on with a number of farmers. These farmers were interested in sustainability, but also had been spooked by the organic certification regime. They were trying to do the right thing by minimising the harmful chemical inputs widely used in the industry - things like glyphosate, a common herbicide which was beginning to be used throughout the growing cycle both here and overseas much more widely. This weedicide has proven issues, and while the companies marketing varieties of it swear by its low toxicity, the issues of residue and associated risk from using it continue to emerge, and in the European Union it has actually been banned. 

Craig's idea was to simplify the certification process, so that these and other chemical additives are minimised. His approach was to simply test for them in the grain. If they showed up in chemical testing, the grain would not be sent to the mill at all. If nothing showed up, the mill would pay the farmer a premium price for their grain, and Wholegrain Milling would mill it and sell it under a new category, called 'Sustainable'.

Wholegrain milling sustainable flour

It wasn't organic, and didn't pretend to be. It was simply labelled as a product that had been tested for common chemical residues, and was found to be free of them. This process put the onus back on the farmer to do the right thing, and to eliminate or reduce the use of harmful chemical additives in their farming practices. Thus, the 'consumer' could be sure that there would be nothing to worry about in the food they were eating. Most importantly, though, was the fact that this simple system would enable Craig's company to market the flour at a reasonable price - one that wasn't double that of chemically treated flour.

Thus, when I phoned Craig to see if he had made any progress on this idea from a year ago, he happily informed me that he had, and filled out the details of the certification process, which were indeed very thorough and well thought through.

Woodfired sourdough bread

It looked like I was able to once again be treated to using some of the best milled flour in the country, without having to dramatically increase the price of my bread. I took my first shipment of the new sustainable flour a month ago, and was once again reminded of just how good Wholegrain Milling Company's flour is. It's hard to describe to someone who just enjoys good bread, but to a baker, everything about the dough is really lively. Now I have a variety of colours of flour, from white, to honey coloured, to full wholegrain to work with. And the bread is more flavoursome, more nuanced as well. To a baker, good flours are so important. And knowing that these flours are sustainably produced is a step in the right direction.

I'm a happy baker once again.  



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