This weekend I was cruising social media and I was quite shocked to see a Chico News & Review article entitled, “Llano Seco drops Organic label“. Now to give you some background into what Llano Seco is and what they do, Rancho Llano Seco is one the largest remaining land owners in Butte County, California. This land, 17,767 acres, was given as a Mexican land grant in 1845 by Governor Pio Pico. The grant extends along the east bank of the Sacramento River, south to present day Chico. Because of it’s location it has played an important part to the Pacific Flyway and Waterfowl conversation. Llano Seco literally means “dry plains” in Spanish and the land has had a rich history of agriculture, livestock husbandry, and conversation since it began. Several years ago, Llano Seco decided to launch a line of pork. They took on an organic certification and invested a considerable amount of money to get the project up off the ground in both housing for the hogs as well as marketing for their brand. Their pork line could be found in markets all the way down in San Francisco and served up among some of the top restaurants in the Bay Area.
Coming straight from their website, here’s Llano Seco has to say about their hogs. “Our pigs are a cross of Duroc and Yorkshire breeds. Our hogs are fed GMO-free, vegetarian grains and legumes, 80% of which are grown on the Rancho. Pigs are raised in deep-bedded hoop barns with continual access to large open air pastures with plenty of sunshine and a great view of the California Buttes. All animals are confinement-free for 100% of their lives, humanely treated with best practices certified by Global Animal Partnership Our pigs are never fed antibiotics or growth hormones, and are never confined. We direct every aspect of our product supply chain, from animal birth through slaughter, butchery, recipe creation, production, marketing and distribution. Our animals are slaughtered in a small-scale, abbatoir, a short 20-minute drive from the Rancho, ensuring a stress-less and humane death. Llano Seco Organic Pork is the culmination of our mission to provide a variety of products while caring for the people, the animals and the land. We pride ourselves in our holistic approach to ranching.”
So why did they drop their organic certification? Well as the article spells out, health of their pigs was a driving factor in their decision. The health of their herd wasn’t doing well under the organic certification because they weren’t allowed to receive de-wormer. Second factor was feed costs. The increase in organic feed costs would have meant a 40% increase in their prices in order to offset costs, on a product that is already selling for a premium price. Other than that, essentially everything else will be done the same. Llano Seco tells its’ customers, “ Our husbandry techniques will continue to be humane and stress-free. By using a common and safe anti-parasitic medication for our piglets, healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal system can take hold early on. With these changes, our production will increase and our pigs will be stronger and healthier. Our pork will always be rich and complex in flavor, and supple in texture.”
Llano Seco has worked hard to become a trusted source for pork in the area and has built a clientele across the board from strict organic supporters to people like us at Chico Locker. So you can see why I was surprised to see the headline, Llano Seco drops organic certification. This is a big deal in the Butte County, CA community and even nation-wide, the ramifications of Llano Seco’s dropping their organic certification has put many of their customers in search of a new source. The News & Review article quotes Jude Becker at Becker Lane Organic out of Iowa, who is the largest single organic pork producer in the country, in saying that he doesn’t struggle with the issues that Llano Seco did. But Becker points out that although they were both under an organic certification, both farm’s style varies according to location.
Which brings me to the point of this post…. Agriculture, no matter how much we want it to be, is NOT one size fits all. What works for one farm in Iowa doesn’t necessarily work for a farm in California. Agriculture isn’t black and white, there are many shades of gray in between. Llano Seco may be dropping its’ organic certification, but it doesn’t mean it is abandoning its’ animal husbandry practices. So their product may not be organic, but it is still humanely and consciously raised. As we see in the example of Llano Seco, agriculture is full of complexities and variables that all change the outcome of your farming business. Llano Seco was following a model that proved not to work out for them. Their herd health suffered and despite selling their product at a premium, their bottom line was suffering.
So what does this teach us? Organic and conventional production isn’t US vs. THEM. It’s not a battle between right and wrong. In agriculture, there is no my way or the highway just as there is no silver bullet when it comes to what is healthier/better for us/better for the Earth. Farmers and ranchers choose the system of agriculture that works best for them and their operation, whether it be organic or conventional. There are pros and cons to both systems but the fact that is so important is that we need them both. Without conventional Ag techniques of administering de-wormers to hogs to fall back on, what would Llano Seco have done to improve their herd health? Would they have just let their hogs suffer and potentially die? Would they have continued their system until eventually they had to declare bankruptcy?
It’s so important when we get into discussions about organic and conventional that we realize the true necessity for both. If we were to take one extreme and rid all of our production systems of things like antibiotics and de-wormers, what we would do when animal health started to fail? If we were to mandate that all of our animals be fed non-GMO and organic feed, what would we do when companies could no longer afford that? In the end, both outcomes effect us, the consumer, directly. Either we could potentially end up with diseased pork OR the cost of our pork could double or even triple. I am thankful that in the situation of Llano Seco, they were allowed the alternative to provide their hogs with a de-wormer earlier in their lives and as a result, their herd health has significantly improved.
The beauty of having choices is that it allows different methods of production to thrive. It allows for me to buy conventional pork or organic pork. It allows for farmers and ranchers to have choices as well. It allows for them to have production systems that may be part organic and part conventional. It also allows for people like Llano Seco to drop their organic line, but continue to be somewhere in the middle… In that gray middle.
One size does not fit all. What works for one farm may not work for another. So the next time you take to the internet and defend whatever method of production you think is “right”, think about Llano Seco. Think about how non-organic practices saved their hog herd. Think about the fact that things aren’t quite so black and white. Open your eyes to shades of gray.