Is Organic Food Really a Better Buy?

Marin County organic beef rancher Dave Evans stands in a pasture calling his cows, and it's a sight that could make an old cowhand cry.

Watch "World News" Nov. 28, 29 for our continuing series on organic food

"Hey boys. Hey girls. Come on," he said. They look and moo, then they come ambling in. No lassos necessary.

In Marin County, often called the birthplace of organic food, cows are so happy they come when they're called.

The lush seaside community north of San Francisco embraced organic farming decades ago and continues to promote the foods as the fast-growing industry expands well beyond the region.

Propelled by food scares over mad cow disease and E.coli infection, organics have boomed nationwide, growing by as much as 20 percent annually. Americans spent $14 billion on organic food last year, according to the Organic Trade Association.

In some regions, the demand for organic products exceeded supply.

"Most people come into the organic marketplace and the key motivating factors are health and nutrition. That's the message that is really getting out to consumers," said Sam Fromartz, author of "Organic Inc." about the growth of the organic foods marketplace.

Setting a Good Example for the Industry

In Marin, farmers run successful small organic operations that sell to local markets and high-end restaurants, because the Bay Area, home to fresh California cuisine, takes healthful food seriously. The major selling point in organic is the lack of pesticides, fertilizers, growth hormones, radiation or bioengineered products.

Federal organic standards require that animals have access to outdoor pasture. Marin farmers are so committed to organic principles that they often go above and beyond basic requirements by giving their cows room to roam in fresh air and bucolic environs, and providing them with excellent nutrition and an overall good life.

Anita Sauber, who works for the county to certify that Marin's farmers uphold U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards, said this group does not require a lot of policing. In fact her employer, the Marin County Department of Agriculture, has rarely had to issue sanctions for failing to meet organic standards.

Six years ago when they began issuing certifications, there were only a few hundred acres of organic farms. Today it's pushing 20,000 acres, still only 20 percent of the county but growing rapidly.

Paying More 'Worth the Money

But who can afford organic food ?

A major complaint about these items is high prices. By one estimate some organic products can cost as much as 50 percent more than conventional grocery products, as the extra time and energy used to grow organic food combined with small-scale production leads to higher prices.

But that's not turning away all customers. Los Angeles resident Nicole Lewis is raising two boys, ages 1 and 4, and said she first began buying organic food after her first baby was born.

"Everything changes when you turn into a mother and you are 100 percent responsible for a human being," she said.

In a recent shopping trip to natural foods wholesaler Whole Foods, she discussed the difference between grass-fed and organic beef with the butcher before deciding to buy a cut of organic filet mignon for the holidays.

Looking at baby Isaiah in the stroller she said, "It's worth the money to know that I'm not going to be giving him pesticides. If there's an organic option I'm pretty much always going to pick the organic option."

Last spring megaretailer Wal-Mart began offering mainstream brand organic foods, signaling the products on the shelves with special green signs. Wal-Mart's idea is to bring the cost down for those on tighter budgets.

The company promises the best prices in the organic marketplace. According to Fromartz, this is evidence that "organic has really gone into the mainstream."

But megaretailers in the organic family are not always welcome by the organic diehards.

Dave Evans in Marin favors growing and selling locally, and worries that when organics go mainstream quality is lost and the environment suffers. "Does it make sense to fly an organic product 2,000 miles when you can buy an equally good organic product right down the road?" he asked.

He said local food distribution saves on fossil fuels both in costs and pollutants released into the atmosphere. He raises cows at his Marin Sun Farms, and also sells the beef at his butcher shop in nearby Point Reyes Station.

He estimates that his beef never travels more than 200 miles, allowing him to cultivate rapport with his clients. His farthest customer, Stanford University, buys hamburger patties

"I am a relationship marketer, which means I sell to everyone I know. I know my customers," he said.

And he promises that you can taste the difference in the meat he sells. Holding a slab of rib eye with a line of flavorful fat intersecting it, he said he also knows a great organic zinfandel to go with it. You can bet that with neighbors like the Napa and Sonoma wine countries, the grapes were also locally grown.