It used to be that buyers of organic food could make some safe assumptions: the food was made close to where it was bought, by someone the buyer could visit or call up; the farmer or food producer cared about the environment and the importance of locally grown food; producer and consumer were likely to read alternative weeklies and listen to the same radio stations.
Once federal standards were passed, in 2000, that picture changed. Large industries, seeing that there was real money to be made, moved in. In supermarkets and food co-ops alike paper bags and bulk containers are giving way to slickly designed boxes of cereal and even frozen dinners, whose ingredients can be assembled from vast farms in California or the Midwest—or, for that matter, anywhere in the world that meets U.S. organic requirements. They may include synthesized flavorings just as artificial-tasting as the ones in anything else in the supermarket: under the new standards flavorings need not be organic if they are used in sufficiently small quantities.
Buying and judging organic products has thus become considerably more complicated, as a recent comparison of several organic yogurts showed me. I liked yogurt well enough before; I love it now, having found a yogurt made with the milk of a "closed herd" of cows fed only on grain grown at the farm that makes it. That farm is strictly organic—and so are the producers of other yogurts that may be admirable but are by no means revelatory.
Flavor, in fact, seems to have fallen fairly far down the list of what motivates consumers and producers of organic food: health concerns and simple market share are taking priority, not only over flavor but also over the environment. Market growth and adoption of the national standards have, of course, brought good things: a wider range of organic products, and attractive rather than gnarled and frankly old-looking fruits and vegetables. As industry encroaches on what was once the domain of artisans, consumers of organic food must decide whether they care about the ideological trappings that used to come with it or simply want organic food to be reliably free of chemicals and pesticides—and the less expensive and easier to find, the better.
I recently visited two New England yogurt producers I admire: the maker of that yogurt I love, and the country's largest producer of organic yogurt. Both are fervent supporters of family farms and a spectrum of environmental causes. The similarities between them pretty much stop there. The head of the big organic company has created a pioneering and successful model that I hope other large producers of organic food will study closely and copy. I fear they won't. As for flavor, I had to conclude that in this case, at least, small organic still tastes better than big.
With his bushy silver beard and bright blue eyes and denim overalls, Jack Lazor looks like an organic Santa Claus. When Lazor, a late-1960s radical, met his future wife, Anne, they had something in common: both had worked at Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum in central Massachusetts, Jack as a farmer and Anne as a milkmaid. The two decided to use Anne's graduate-school money to buy a farm in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, near the Canadian border. Their idea was to raise dairy cattle and grow enough corn, wheat, and barley to feed their livestock and themselves (dense, dark bread was a talisman of the era; think of the added prestige home-grown grain conferred). Butterworks Farm may or may not be "Vermont's original organic dairy," as its label claims, but it is still held up as the small-scale ideal—a place where young people dream of apprenticing so they can learn how to make land sustainable and support themselves doing it.
The achievement the Lazors are proudest of is nurturing their soil. Everything flows from that, Lazor told me: the milk is sweet because they have spent more than twenty years returning the land to rich health, and because the compost they spread encourages particularly fine clover. Luckily, milk tastes the way forage smells and not the way it tastes. I was reminded of this during my Vermont visit by a young farmer, Earl Ransom, of Strafford Organic Creamery, whose subtle and wonderfully full-flavored ice cream has given rise to a Northeast Kingdom cult, and was the reason I called him up. Ransom told me that as the summer goes by, he can trace the forage progression from dandelion to red clover and orchard grass in his ice cream.
In the yogurt Lazor makes for himself (whole-milk, of course; I have yet to meet a yogurt producer who likes anything less), I sampled the full range of flavors in Butterworks milk, from herbal to slightly pungent. The long pasteurization required for all commercial yogurt erases many but not all of the herbal and floral grass flavors, and not the pure, sweet flavor of Butterworks milk. The yogurt he spooned out of a big mason jar for me to try was straw-colored, with the texture and richness of soft sour cream. "This," Lazor said, taking a spoonful for himself, "is sort of divine."
I was already sold. The Butterworks Farm yogurt I regularly demolish—nonfat, which is almost the only kind I find in Boston stores, and is 80 percent of what Butterworks makes—is a thing of delicate beauty. It breaks into miniature canyons and bluffs, like junket. What Lazor calls a "tender set" results from the absence of the jelling agents that other manufacturers use—chiefly pectin (found in fruits and used in jams) and starch. The flavor is lightly sour, with none of the harsh vinegar sting of many unflavored yogurts. It's just tart enough to be refreshing.
I much prefer yogurt without pectin, which in excess can give a rubbery texture, and without starch, which often leaves a chalky flavor. But manufacturing yogurt without them is a high-wire act. Pectin helps keep the yogurt from separating to form a layer of whey—the liquid at the top of many yogurt containers. (My reflexive draining of the whey, I recently learned, throws out protein and minerals; for the full nutritional benefit of yogurt, stir the whey back in.) The makers of a newly available Greek yogurt I like very much, Total, also omit the pectin but strain out the liquid in advance, putting into small tubs a lightly tangy yogurt almost as thick as whipped cream cheese.
My visit was cut short by a call from Lazor's daughter. "I have to go and chase some cows," Lazor told me. He took me to the barn where his wife was doing the evening milking, helped by their future son-in-law. I saw what Lazor meant when he called their forty-odd Jersey cows "a bunch of pets": each has a name (Menorah, Vetch, Milkyway), and they are much smaller than Holsteins, the usual New England dairy cow. While the Lazors pulled the errant cows back to the barn by their collars, I quietly left with several containers from the big storage refrigerator.
I was surprised by how firm the contents were. The knocking around that cartons get as they are loaded and unloaded (Butterworks Farm yogurt is sold on the East Coast as far south as Raleigh-Durham) disturbs the structure formed while the yogurt cools and sets. As Lazor had recommended, I took a pint, the smallest container Butterworks makes, of maple yogurt, made with New England syrup and no other flavoring. I had always thought that whole-milk yogurt was too rich to eat much of at a time, and of course sinful—although the new bad-guy status of trans fats, found in nearly every packaged baked or fried good, makes cream and butter seem positively virtuous. This was silken and sweet but not too sweet, with none of the blaring synthesized maple flavor we now take for granted. The taste was slightly smoky and reminiscent of butterscotch. The container was empty by the time I turned in.