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Organic or Not, That is the Question

Would it surprise you if, despite the name of this blog, I told you I don’t buy everything organic? In a perfect world, all my food would come from a local, organic source, but we all know how difficult that can be.

There are many influences that help us make these choices as consumers, and many factors are constantly changing, making it hard to define the issue as a something cut and dry. I wanted to share where my family is right now with this decision, and I’d love to hear what your family chooses as well.

“I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules. Organic may not always be the best choice, especially what I call “boutique organic”– meaning long-distance imports or the fancy, highly processed (and very expensive) health foods that come as packaged meals and snacks. Convenience food is okay in a pinch, but not as a lifestyle. For me, simplicity is usually the best choice; in food, as in child rearing on the whole.”

~Barbara Kingsolver, Thinking Beyond Yourself, an essay in The Complete Organic Pregnancy

Here’s a basic breakdown of my organic choices these days. This list fluctuates based on season, current finances and convenience, of course.


The bulk of our produce comes from our CSA, which is an organic local farm. I supplement however, with a few other “necessities” when I do my grocery shopping, or from the farmer’s market when we make time to go (it’s year-round where I live).

At the store, I go with organic when it’s reasonably affordable, sometimes checking the Dirty Dozen list (I should probably be better about checking that). I personally end up prioritizing local over organic with produce usually.


I buy all organic milk, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream, etc. I do this for a few reasons: taste, less filler ingredients, no added hormones or ingredients, and supporting sustainable farm practices. Financially, I prioritize dairy as organic since we consome quite a bit of it. For milk, we drink cream top (non-homogenized) as it’s the most traditional yet affordable choice I have access to (it also comes from within our state which I like); grass-fed would be another characteristic I would like to incorporate more in our dairy purchases.

I don’t generally buy organic cheese, because it’s less affordable and not as common in my market. I love making homemade ice cream, although we do buy conventional as well.

Meat & Eggs

Our meat-eating follows a quality over quantity approach. As much as we like to eat it, as the shopper/chef of the family I tend to buy/prepare better meat, less often. I buy organic, free-range and or grass-fed when available, and aim for non-farmed seafood as much as I can.

We try to buy eggs from the friends we know who have chickens, but also get them from the farmer’s market or grocery store. I choose free-range and locally farmed when possible. Organic is a bonus with eggs, but not a priority for me.

Photo by woodley wonderworks


The other things we buy and prepare vary on the organic front, including non-food items. If something is readily available and not too much more money than its conventional counterpart, I’ll go for the organic. But I’m not religious about it; rather, I see it more as a bonus when I can get something organic that’s not one of my priority items.

Most of us can’t afford all organic food, nor do many of us even have access to that. I know for me there are several other variables I consider when buying food (such as whether something is local, in-season, fair trade or processed), and I’m sure you have your own methods of weighing out the choices.

Now, it’s your turn to share. The comments section of this blog has always been a place that’s ripe with information, and I know on this subject it will be no different. Let’s just stick to our own personal convictions on this topic, though, rather than making generalized statements, as this is truly a family/individual decision.

What are your priorities when it comes to buying organic or not? Do you consider whether something is locally grown, in season, or just if it’s organic/conventional? Or do you have other variables that you consider?

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  1. Beth @ Smart Green Tips

    Dairy is definitely my first priority. I have young twin daughters and it’s important to me to keep them free of the hormones in non-organic milk. Next on my list is meat — our goal is to avoid hormones and antibiotics and to support local farmers who treat their animals well.

  2. hannah

    well my where to begin! my parents have a diary so we can get whole milk for a great price with which i make my yogurt. In the summer we have eggs from chickens from someone local. we make our own butter with the cream off of the milk. jersey milk is really thick! oh and if you are reading this, Hi mom!:) anyway, we buy fresh produce from shetlers in the winter and whatever we caned from the summer. we also buy coconut oil in a five gallon bucket and we can buy honey from our healthfood store or local sources for really great price! and we make our own soap sothat is even better.

  3. House Mother

    I had not seen the particular quote you posted by Barbara Kingsolver before, but it sums up my individual philosophy very nicely.

    After living on a biodynamic farm for a year, dairy is a priority — I buy local, grass-fed, raw milk even though it’s expensive and I have to go out of way to get it. In addition to drinking it by the glass, I make luxurious yogurt with it and sometimes a soft cheese.

    We all make the best individual choices and prioritize according to taste, budget and locality. And those variables change. Best to roll with it.

  4. Princess Leia

    Our local, store-brand milk says that it is hormone and antibiotic-free. Is there an advantage to buying organic in that case?

    • Nicole

      In my state that is the case, too. But I still choose organic for taste, supporting sustainable farming choices, and hopefully avoiding GMO-fed cows. I also like that I can get a non-homogenized version with no added “nonfat milk solids” which conventional milk often adds. I make sure to also avoid UHT-pasteurized milk as many organic companies do that.

  5. Sara

    I am very blessed to have found local, small farm sources of food for milk and meat that use organic practices, as well as traditional pasturing, though they are not certified organic. The price is high compared to the factory farmed versions, but I consider every dollar spent not only for my family’s health but an investment in the health of the environment and economic justice for generations down the road. We have a single income below the taxable level, but we are able to afford higher food prices by living frugally and simply. One area I am able to save is through a buying club co-op where I can get organic staples such as grain, baking products and cheese at a price lower than the grocery or health food store. I try to buy produce locally in season from the farmer’s market, especially from the ones that use organic practices, and some from those who don’t, but use as few chemicals as they can get away with. The “dirty dozen” is a helpful guide for me as well. Off season I do buy mostly organic produce from the grocery store, such as root vegetables, lettuce and frozen corn and greens. Citrus is also in season in the winter. Oh, and we enjoy fresh eggs from our own free range soy free chickens for most of the year (they lay way better on wild bird seed than on soy feeds).

  6. reb

    we pretty much follow your philosophy in organic food, but after the birth of our son, decided to try buying organic cotton clothing as well. reading up on the many pesticides and chemicals ( that are used to cultivate traditionally-grown cotton got me thinking about what i want next to his skin all day and what he’ll be sucking on when he’s going through the teething stage and EVERYTHING, including his clothing, ends up in his mouth. i think it’s also better for the environment (kind of a no-brainer :)) and for the workers who grow the cotton!

    • Nicole

      That’s a great point. I haven’t ventured much into organic cotton, mostly because of money, but I would love to support sustainably grown cotton, too!

  7. Elizabeth E.

    I agree with so much of what you’ve written here. I too try to buy as much organic foods as I can but it’s very hard (and expensive) to go all around on that. I prioritize things the way you do.

    Organic dairy is a must for me and the one area I do my best to never compromise on. I do this primarily because of the hormones and anti-biotics in the milk and I don’t want to be feeding them to my children.

    I do my best to follow the “dirty dozen” list on produce, but when it comes to frozen fruits and vegetables I do stick with the organic because they are so available.

    And I love to make most of my families treats from scratch so when I make ice-cream, cookies, etc. I’m using organic sweeteners and organic flours and milks across the board. The best part is that they taste better than any other things I can buy.

    • Nicole

      aahhh, homemade ice cream. Nothing compares!

  8. Rachel

    Like a lot of the other commenters, I make organic milk my first priority. I’m trying to move toward buying more grass-fed animal products as well.

    If it makes any of you feel better about not always buying all organic dairy, a lot of milk in the US is hormone-free, even when it isn’t labeled as such. Since Wal-Mart chose to stop selling milk with artificial hormones, a lot of dairy farmers have stopped using them to avoid losing such a large client.

  9. Kathryn

    We’ll be doing our first vegetable garden this year, so we hope to grow our own local, organic produce. Otherwise, we’re fortunate to have a weekly natural/organic farmer’s market in our neighborhood from May to early October. Their prices are very affordable, so I buy produce there first and then fill in any gaps at the grocery store. The rest of the year, our produce has to come in from other states, so I just try to prioritize produce that’s in-season in our region and buy organic versions of the Dirty Dozen when possible.
    We don’t drink cow’s milk, but we consume a LOT of butter, eggs, and yogurt; I buy those organic to limit our hormone exposure and encourage humane livestock practices. We’re about 90% vegetarian, which is just as well, since organic/natural meat is very scarce in our area. If I find some at a good price, I stock up and freeze it.
    For everything else, I just read ingredients. If a store/conventional brand is real food or made entirely of real-food ingredients, I’ll just buy that; otherwise, I’ll spend extra to avoid chemicals or fillers.

  10. Betsy (Eco-novice)

    I agree that organic is not the end-all be-all, especially since some farms can’t afford to be “organic” b/c of the cost of certification. I do much of what you say:
    –most of my produce and almost all my eggs are from an organic CSA
    –organic chicken, regular ground turkey from Costco
    –the only beef I’ll eat is grass-fed through our CSA or some other source I’m familiar with
    –organic milk and yogurt and sometimes cheese, Irish butter (imported, but mostly grass-fed)
    –most baked goods homemade
    –as little packaged goods as possible — when I do buy processed food, no artificial colors/flavors/preservatives, and as few ingredients as possible

  11. Tiffany

    Organic milk, meat, yogurt and eggs are a must at our house. Almost all of our produce is organic, too, except for hard skinned fruit like bananas, watermelon or cantaloupe. I save some money by mixing fresh organic and frozen organic veggies. To balance out the higher cost of the organic items we use, I use A LOT of coupons and buy in bulk when possible. We also split the purchase of a cow with several other families. It’s about $250 and gives us enough organic beef for a year!

    • Nicole

      splitting a cow sounds awesome!

  12. Alicia

    It’s a little easier for us because we eat almost no dairy and I cook vegetarian (mostly vegan). I buy organic as much as possible too, and also garden organically and freeze/can a ton of stuff from the farmers’ market and local farmers in the fall.

    I don’t go by the “dirty dozen” thing so much. I make sure to avoid the things on that list in terms of non-organics, but I also go out of my way to buy organic even when they’re not on the list. For instance, organic bananas are 20 cents more a pound in my local store (sometimes more, when the sprayed ones are on sale). Since I know that the workers are doused from planes with pesticides for those non-organic bananas, it’s just not an option for me to buy non-organic if I have a choice. It’s not just about my health, it’s about the health of families who are being poisoned so I can have bananas for 20 cents a pound, KWIM?

    But no, we don’t get everything organic either. In my rural area, it’s not even possible. I go to 3 stores every week out of town to make the rounds of where I know I can find affordable organic (or in some cases at least non-GMO or all natural, depending on the product) foods, plus order from various places online and do the farmers’ market/garden thing.

    We all do the best we can. It’s just not possible for most of us to do all organic!

    Oh, and to the lady who asked if non-hormone, antibiotic-free milk was as good as organic, I would say no. Those cattle are almost certainly being raised on GMO, pesticide drenched corn in factory farm lots if the label doesn’t say otherwise. It’s better, but still falls short in terms of sustainable farming, health and the treatment of the animals. Of course, organic doesn’t always mean what we imagine when it comes to dairy, meat and eggs either. 🙁

  13. Akemi S.

    After reading your post, I realized that the main deciding factor for me on whether or not to buy organic is: who am I cooking for? I don’t really cook a lot, but I plan to do more of it this year. When I’m cooking for large groups of friends and family, I make it a point to go all organic. But when it’s just the two of us at home? We go mostly organic, but then the convenience factor kicks in.

    If we’re wandering around the grocery store, not shopping with specific recipes in mind, then we’ll look to see if an organic option is available. If not, we’ll just pick up what is available with the thought that having some non-organic produce is better than none in our diets and that wasting gas to drive to another grocery store isn’t worth it.

    With dairy, we go mostly organic, but we sometimes need lactose-free milk, and an organic option isn’t always readily available. With meat, I go organic, but my partner likes to buy in bulk which isn’t always available organic where we shop. Luckily, where ever we go, organic free-range eggs are almost always available these days.

  14. annie

    We buy only local grass fed meat. Our farmer is growing organically but uncertified. Organic meat means nothing if it’s not grass fed. All our milk, yogurt and butter are organic. The butter is grass fed. Our cheese is hormone free because, as you say, organic cheese is hard to find and unaffordable. There are a few things I try to buy organic, like potatoes, but I’m not worried about acute pesticide poisoning myself. The reason I buy organic and local is social, economic, and political. However I am concerned about what pesticides do to children (since they’re smaller and their developing bodies are more likely to be effected by chemical interference).

    We raise our own eggs and lots of our vegetables. Every year we grow more and more. I suspect that within the next 10 years, we’ll be growing nearly everything we eat that it is possible for us to grow, including meat and dairy.

    • Nicole

      “I suspect that within the next 10 years, we’ll be growing nearly everything we eat that it is possible for us to grow, including meat and dairy.”

      That sounds amazing, annie!!

  15. Jackie @ Crest Cottage

    Our meat and dairy products are the ones we are most particular about. We buy local, well-raised products. They are either organic or organically raised. From July-November we buy our produce at the farmers market, but this time of year, the Supermarket is the only thing around. The local “healthy” grocery store has a pathetic selection and it is grossly overpriced. Next year we are going to have our garden going, so hopefully we will be able to eat our own grown and preserved produce.

  16. Renee

    We are in MI, and belong to a raw milk co-op for which I am very thankful. It has opened up so many doors and opportunites for organic food. We did do a CSA this summer which was good! But through the members of our group, I am able to get freshly ground organic grains (of all sorts, but we do make all our own bread), greens (all year round), eggs and of course dairy products from the farm (which, honestly, is hit by the budget cut and we just get cheese and butter at the grocery store).
    One of my questions though, and I go around and around with this every time I shop at a grocery store…organic or local?! Sometimes my organic (apples, bananas~we do live in MI:) produce is from out of the country and so I go for local. How do you all decide this as you shop?
    All my poultry is free range and organic, beef we usually go in with another family and purchase part of a steer. The journey is fantastic!

    • Nicole

      That’s the big question! If you at all can get to know where your produce comes from, you might find out that some of those smaller, local farms actually practice organic farming techniques even though they aren’t certified. My advice is to start researching the local farms and that should help you decide.
      At first I would go straight for organic, but now I’m starting to contemplate the distance my food has traveled, too. It’s a tough choice!

  17. Renee @ Loca-Faces

    I think this is a great discussion topic, because it really is a complex decision space and very individualized. Not to long ago, I did two posts on the similar question of local vs. organic that aggregated the perspectives of several producers (in one post) and consumers (in the other). I think it is fascinating to see what is important to folks.

    We tend to be local over organic in our selections, and that theme is prevalent in my own writing. But, where we can get organic locally, we will gladly pay more. We also purchase from local farmers who grow organically, but are not certified.

    Here’s the post I did from the farmer’s perspective on organic certification:

    and of the consumers:

    I’d like to cross post this, so that my own readers can get the perspective of you and yours as you make decisions. Thanks!

  18. sarah

    I definitely prioritize local and seasonal over organic. “Organic” on labels is poorly defined and mostly about paperwork and beaurocracy anyway. My farmer’s market is year-round, although greatly diminished in the winter. I buy most of my meat from a CSA, which is not technically “organic” because they don’t have the manpower to fill out all the paperwork.

    I don’t drink dairy milk, and only buy it occasionally in small quantities for baking, so that’s not a concern for me. I do buy organic yogurt, although for me that’s more about the chemicals added to most yogurt than about the milk source.

    • Nicole

      I often choose organic dairy products simply because of all the additives in the conventional alternatives! I just want the goods, no fillers!

  19. Andrea

    Local is far more important to us than organic. “Organic” is a huge, expensive, bureaucratic industry and many people are growing organic that cannot label it as such. Most small-scale farmers are too small to have the manpower to go through the certification process. Not to mention how huge ORGANIC marketing is. An organic label slapped on a processed and packaged box does nothing for me. Organic is good but growing yourself or supporting your neighbours or local rural agriculture is best. Grass-fed meat and dairy is most important.

  20. Alissa

    We’ve taken the approach of trying to change one thing at a time. All organic milk since we had kids. I’ll have to look into our other organic dairy options – never occured to me! We do local, organic eggs and CSA produce from a friend. Last year, we switched to organic, grass fed beef, and this year we’d like to extend that to other areas – pork, chicken, etc.

    One thing that works for us on cost is to alternate. One visit, we buy the big bag of Costco chicken. The next time, we stock up on the free range organic stuff. Then, it’s back to the Costco.

  21. Laura

    I try to buy as much organic as we can afford. It seems that most of the people that commented buy organic milk. Non-organic milk is $1.89, while organic milk is $5.99/gallon. We usually buy 4 gallons a week….I just don’t know that we can afford to do it. I do buy most vegetables & fruits organic, & we just joined a CSA for spring/summer/fall 2011….but maybe I should be focusing our $ on the dairy more??? Or switching – one week organic, the next non-organic….

  22. Jenny

    I love your practical tips in this article…it was a great and succinct summary!

  23. Charis

    we are one of the few in the commenting families that don’t have dairy as a first priority mainly because i have two of my four kids are lactose intolerant, so we don’t eat/drink much dairy and i find organic cheese so pricey! we eat organic beef, sometimes poultry, and pretty much always organic produce and grains. we make a lot of homemade bread and, since i used to be a vegetarian, eat a lot of produce and we juice. we don’t eat much meat, but i would like to eventually buy half of a cow locally at a grass fed organic ranch. i am not into the organic packaged foods, or any packaged food because they are so pricey and my kids can fly through them without getting any nutrition. oh, and i try to only do organic corn/popcorn/corn chips because of the whole gmo thing.

  24. Brittany

    Since I was diagnosed with Lupus, I buy whole foods, nothing boxed (except gluten free items…bread, quinoa, rice, etc), and alllllll organic. I’m thankful we are about 5 minutes from a Trader Joe’s. For me, I have to do this. And I want to make sure that my girls don’t end up with this *thing*. I have a very strong feeling that if I had been fed better as a child, I would not be fighting what I am today.

  25. Kate @ Modern Alternative Mama

    We don’t do too much dairy here, so meat/eggs are our first priority. We have a semi-local farmer (2 hours from us, but 10 min. from husband’s parents) that has raw milk, eggs, and meat (chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, pork!). We buy almost all our meat/eggs/dairy through him. He is not certified organic but he follows all organic practices (pastured animals) so his prices are very reasonable — less than what I’d pay at a health food store for food of somewhat lesser quality! So I definitely go through him as much as possible. In fact, right now, my husband is off picking up our WHOLE cow! Yes, we’re crazy. I can’t wait till we get it.

    Beyond that, I actually have many great options for organic produce around here that are about the same price as conventional, in many cases. I will choose certain items on the “clean 15” list conventional if I need to for my budget. I also don’t worry about seafood too much as long as it’s wild (which I can even find at Walmart) as we don’t eat it too often. I don’t buy any packaged/processed foods except on very rare occasions because they’re expensive and we don’t do well with them anyway.

    We are really VERY lucky with the options we have!

  26. Allison Fambro

    For our family local (preferably organic) is definitely a priority. We have gone with Organic Co-ops before that have a variety of foods but from all over the globe. Eating within the season is a new and challenging importance for us but we are doing better. Because of the limits in our grocery budget we have opted to eat more vegetarian dishes than meat, eating meat only about 1-2x a week if that. This afford us to make the higher quality choices that we want in vegetables. That being said we don’t eat organic or free-range anything else but I will stock up on certain higher quality meats when I can. Milk is a non issue for us since we don’t drink it. In the event that we may choose to start there are a few local dairy farms around our area that we would choose over store-bought organic. We are still learning and taking it one day at a time

  27. Diana

    I recently found grass-fed raw milk, but we still supplement with milk from the store (because raw milk is expensive). We often buy a local non-organic milk over the national organic milk brand because it’s local and I know the dairy is committed to quality and sustainability, even though they are not certified organic. Other dairy products are also local or homemade.

    I try to buy local, organic produce as much as possible. I will choose local over organic, depending on the vegetable and price.

    Grass-fed meat is expensive and not readily available for me to buy. I don’t buy a lot and compromise with an ‘in between’ meat. (Higher quality, some pasture fed, but still mostly conventional.)

    Everything else just needs to have simple ingredients that I don’t need a chemistry degree to understand. If it passes that test – I weigh price vs organic, depending on the item and the frequency we eat it. There are many items I’d love to give up all together, but it has to be a compromise in the family. So I buy cold cereal, but it has to be natural with real ingredients – and on sale with a coupon! (And then they are rationed to only eating it once a week!)

  28. Kate the Great

    I struggle with organic versus affordable. Right now, we get WIC checks, and they call for the cheapest brand of whole milk, so that’s what we get. Before we got WIC checks and when we buy milk that’s not covered by WIC, I get the local, hormone-free milk.

    We shop at a supermarket, but it’s a regionally-owned and employee-owned store, which we like. If I had my choice, I’d shop at the smaller, local grocery, but it’s also more expensive and further away. We’ve got one car and one driver and I hate lugging my groceries home by foot. So, instead, we get as much produce as we can from the farmer’s market, when it runs (April to October), once a month.

    I buy local chicken and bulk items, which tend to be organic, along with the milk. I haven’t thought about organic cereal because all I can seem to find is granola, and I get burnt out of that quickly.

    I study the signs and the labels and the stickers of the supermarket and try to buy as locally as is available in one store. Sometimes, I’m pleased because it’s grown here in Oregon. Other times, I settle for grown in the US. And yes, occasionally I still buy stuff grown out of the country and probably from hothouses, but I’m aware of it when I do.

    Thanks for the Dirty Dozen thing. It’s just another way to think about our food, but I like thinking about it. It takes my mind off of other things I want to buy and makes me concentrate on living with quality as much as realistically possible.

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