Big Organic, Small Organic

Organic food may be coming from bigger and bigger producers, but the best flavor is still coming from organic farms, as a case study of good and great yogurt makes plain

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.

Gary Hirshberg, the head of Stonyfield Farms, calls Jack Lazor his hero. When executives from Danone, the large France-based conglomerate that bought a 40 percent stake in Stonyfield two years ago, come to visit, Hirshberg's sister Nancy, the company's director of natural resources, drives them several hours each way to Butterworks Farm, so that they can see the kind of organic dairy farm Stonyfield is committed to supporting. Stonyfield, which is based in southern New Hampshire, began selling yogurt in 1983, a year before the Lazors did; for a very few years Hirshberg and his founding partner even had a few Jerseys. Briefly the companies were rivals for shelf space in co-ops and natural-foods stores. Then they went in very different directions.

Stonyfield sold its cows, bought the milk of many breeds from cooperative organic dairies, and pursued the goal of putting its product in every supermarket and convenience store in the land. In the late 1980s, when I first visited Stonyfield, I was surprised to find a low modern factory. Today Stonyfield is among the top five brands of yogurt in the United States, and the only one of the five that makes organic yogurt.

Hirshberg was after market share and the purchasing power that comes with it, which he knew could help keep many of the hundreds of threatened New England dairy farms from having to sell their cows. His background was as an environmental activist; in 1994 the company pledged to donate 10 percent of its profits to environmental causes. The more profits, the more donations.

"To change the food system," Hirshberg says, "means moving toward where people are." This meant making a yogurt that didn't taste like yogurt—or at least one without the sourness that people, especially children, object to. So Stonyfield continually selected bacterial cultures that produce the least amount of acid, evolving an ever milder yogurt. The company has had great success with YoBaby, the first yogurt marketed on a large scale to parents who buy organic foods out of concern for the health of babies and small children—a significant portion of the organic market. YoBaby comes in four-ounce cups, the other Stonyfield yogurts in individual six-ounce portions. The company has phased out eight-ounce cups altogether, following an industry-wide pattern. Some criticize this as deceptive marketing, but I hail it as one way to address the problem of oversize portions' leading to oversize people.

Stonyfield acts like mainstream companies in other ways. It adds plenty of sugar to its flavored yogurts, and offers flavors that appeal to the mass market and make use of essences formulated to its specifications at the same flavoring houses that supply the rest of the food industry (recent flavors include Crème Caramel, very good, and Key Lime, artificial-tasting like everyone else's). Its new "smoothies" no longer say "Drinkable Yogurt" in large letters on the curvy plastic bottles—appropriate, given their almost total lack of acidity. Now Stonyfield is launching a dessert yogurt, Moo-la-la, to take advantage of a rise in sales of full-fat products. (I like rich dessert yogurts, too; my favorite is the non-organic but lovely Yoplait Saveur d'Autrefois, made in France by what the label calls traditional methods, and sold in little clay pots.)

Shrewdly following the concerns of organic-food consumers, Stonyfield now emphasizes health more than the environment. It was among the first producers to add "probiotic" bacteria to its yogurt—that is, more than the two strains required by U.S. standards of identity. Probiotics (the name is a 1900 coinage to designate beneficial bacteria) occupy an increasing amount of shelf space in nutrition stores. Popular strains include acidophilus and bifidus, both of which Stonyfield added several years ago; it also adds L. reuteri, which is thought to help prevent diarrhea, especially in children.

Claims for all these bacteria are manifold and disputed, and come down to a matter of faith. There are no national standards concerning how much of any bacteria is required in order to make any health claim. (The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates most food labeling, does not permit a panoply of health claims for yogurt. This is why Dannon first sold Actimel, a drinkable yogurt with added bacteria, as a dietary supplement—a category that has come under considerable fire for permissive regulation.) What is undisputed is that any yogurt with live, active cultures—meaning any yogurt that has not been heated after it is made, since all yogurt begins with live cultures—helps maintain and could restore beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, particularly after they have been depleted by a course of antibiotics. Also, the two definitive bacteria in yogurt eat lactose as they ferment milk, making yogurt a safe bet for the lactose-intolerant.

Last spring Stonyfield added a "prebiotic," a nondigestible ingredient that is thought to help good bacteria multiply: inulin, a carbohydrate found in plants such as chicory root and Jerusalem artichokes. This was more than a marketing ploy, although it does lend itself to a fifties-style claim: "And now—with inulin!" Stonyfield values inulin not just for the enhanced calcium absorption it advertises on the lid but also as a thickener. In diet salad dressings and similar products inulin is used to mimic fat, and it does make nonfat yogurt surprisingly creamy. The tradeoff is a viscous, ropy texture and a slightly bitter aftertaste, at least in the unflavored yogurt. But then, few people seem to prefer unflavored.

I greatly admire Gary Hirshberg, who always advances his causes in interesting ways. His latest venture is a chain of organic-food restaurants, O'Naturals, that he hopes will go national and give fast-food chains, already threatened by class-action lawsuits, a run for their money. Stonyfield has helped turn numerous farms in Vermont and Maine organic, by promising to buy all of their milk and to pay a significant premium over the going price of regular milk. It hopes to do the same for fruit growers from California to Chile. And its factory, radically expanded since I first saw it, is a testing ground for innovative environment-friendly production methods.

Hirshberg says that although he began as an adherent to the credo that small is beautiful, he now submits that big can be beautiful too. The company he built is proof that it can—but then, he got a head start on what with luck will be a sustained organic boom. I can't help doubting that other companies will take executives from their parent corporations to visit equivalents of Butterworks Farm, let alone have any interest in helping them.

It will be up to consumers of organic food who are interested in flavor to seek out Butterworks Farm and its fellows—and experience divinity, however transitory.

One way to take initial steps to nirvana, even without transcendent yogurt, is to make one of the many simple condiment sauces eaten daily in India, where milk is a main source of protein in the diet and yogurt a common way to consume it, because yogurt is so much easier to digest and to store. Raita, yogurt with (most often) cucumber and mint, is always cooling; the variants are endless, as books by Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey show. I like sev ka raita, a condiment offered by Jaffrey in her A Taste of India: Stir together one and a quarter cups of unflavored yogurt, preferably whole-milk, with a half teaspoon of roasted ground cumin seed, an eighth teaspoon of cayenne pepper, a quarter teaspoon of finely grated peeled fresh ginger, and a half teaspoon of salt. Cover and refrigerate the sauce for several hours while the spices are absorbed. At the last minute stir in a coarsely grated peeled and cored tart apple, such as a Granny Smith. This can go with any number of stews, especially vegetable ones that could use some protein, and is perfect for kebabs. It can also persuade you to seek out the best plain yogurt you can find, and flavor it at will.