“Certified organic” — those two words can pack a powerful marketing punch for today’s health-minded, transparency-minded consumers. But for many small farmers and producers, the “certified” part of that often means jumping through federal government regulatory hoops they can’t afford.

As a result, bakers who rely on some of those smaller producers for the ingredients that go into the products they ship to instore bakeries have to tread a fine line. Especially since many products that don’t qualify for the official United States Department of Agriculture seal of approval are nonetheless grown in ethical, responsible ways — and are the highest quality around.

Middlesex, Vermont-based artisan bakery Red Hen Baking Co. does everything it can to bake certified organic breads, says baker/owner Randy George. All but two of the breads shipping this spring from Red Hen had earned the United States Department of Agriculture’s organic seal.

But that’s not to say George apologizes for shipping the occasional “non-organic” bread. “We’re not going to turn our back on something just because it’s not certified organic,” he says. “We’re not wedded to the idea of being entirely organic.”

That’s the case for at least a couple of reasons, George says. Both can be illustrated by Polenta Red, one of the two Red Hen breads now shipping that isn’t certified organic. The flour is organic, the polenta and honey added to it are not. With the honey, George couldn’t find an organic version that suited his taste buds. “It wasn’t a question of cost,” he says. “It was just flavor.”

Taste was also a factor in Red Hen’s choice of a non-certified organic polenta for its Polenta Red. Sourced from a grower in South Carolina, George calls it his favorite polenta. But something else besides taste played a role in his decision to use this particular ingredient. “We know the producer personally.” As a predominantly organic shipper, Red Hen wouldn’t source from just anyone. George says his polenta grower’s agricultural practices are basically organic. But because he’s a small grower, he didn’t think it was worth the investment to get the government’s seal of approval.

All of the breads baked by Lake Katrine, New York-based artisan baker Bread Alone are organic. Company founder Dan Leader left New York City for the Catskill Mountains in 1983 because he had a dream of baking organic breads on the hearth of a wood-fired brick oven. Meeting with local farmers before his move convinced Leader of the virtues of organics, says his son Nels, who joined Bread Alone in 2012.

But while organic is central to its identity, Bread Alone, like Red Hen, doesn’t take an absolutist position when it comes to organic vs. traditional. Not all of its pastries, for instance, are organic. Baking organic bread is difficult enough, Nels Leader says. Pastries can be a whole different level of hard. “With pastries, you more frequently run into limitations,” he says. “It can be a real challenge to design an organic version.”

Bread Alone’s solution to this problem is similar to Red Hen’s. “We source as much regionally as we can, from places that may not be organic but are places we know,” Leader says. Bread Alone sources its apples, for instance, from orchards just 15 miles away. The grower isn’t certified organic, but the Leaders know he shares their attitudes toward the land and the foods they produce. Nels Leader agrees with George that for some small growers, it’s not feasible to jump through the USDA’s hoops. “There’s a lot of work involved in getting certified.”

Organic certification – the good and the bad   

“It’s interesting how things have evolved,” says George, referring to the current state of the organic food industry and its evolution since the USDA began overseeing certification in the early oughts. “There are good things and bad things about the mainstreaming of organics. There are way more options for consumers now, which is definitely a good thing.”

On the negative side, George says, the USDA certification process has been become more “corporat-ized” in the years since it was adopted. “It’s increasingly dominated by big producers,” he says. “It changes what it means to be a small organic producer, and we’re fairly small.”

When certification becomes too burdensome for the growers and processors Red Hen works with, the company will still support them. And George says the tide is beginning to turn in the court of public opinion: people are starting to recognize that foods can be grown and produced in sustainable, healthy ways, even if they’re not certified organic. Red Hen’s customers, for instance, are buying more “Red Hen” than they’re buying “organic,” George says.

And while it is a big deal to get the certified organic stamp on a product, producers who don’t earn it can still use the word “organic” in the ingredients panel for all of the ingredients that are organic. Red Hen and other companies also make a point in their marketing of letting customers and consumers know that their foods are made in sustainable ways, aren’t grown with chemicals, are “pure,” etc. “I see it a lot at farmers’ markets — more than of the farmers are non-certified,” George says. “We’re seeing a little bit more education about what ‘organic’ means. It comes down to how you market it, how you tell your story.”

Despite his approval of different interpretations of what “organic” can mean, the fact remains that the majority of the breads George bakes at Red Hen are certified organic — and for very good reasons.

“It’s largely the case that organic producers are smaller, and, more often than not, the quality is higher,” he says. “Food grown in real soil with all of its micronutrients tastes better and is better for you.”

Thirty-five years after Bread Alone was founded, its embrace of organic and its virtues has not loosened, Nels Leader says. “What my dad could only intuit back in 1983, we now know,” he says. “I feel very confident that organics are better for the people working the land. The research is cut and dry. I also believe they’re better for (consumers).” And there is no doubt, Leader says, that organic farming is better for the planet.

And speaking of the planet, this spring Bread Alone completed construction of a solar array on its roof that will generate 200 kilowatts of energy, enough to power the majority of the company’s bread-baking operations, Leader says. “We covered every square inch of the roof we could,” he says.

The rise of rye

The latest big venture for Red Hen is a greater emphasis on rye breads. It started when a local farmer began growing rye as a cover crop. There was only one problem: there was no mill to mill it in. Red Hen took care of that by buying its own mill, and George set to work learning as much as he could about milling. Red Hen now mills rye grown on several local farms, and the company currently sells five different products that use local rye.

“Right now the thing we’re most excited about is rye breads,” George says. “It’s still a small percentage (of Red Hen’s total production), but it’s a growing a lot. We’re seeing a lot of increased attention in these breads. And I’m excited about it from a baking perspective. It’s handled so differently than wheat. And it’s another flavor, a fun departure.”

George characterizes rye as more of an “earthy” flavor, compared to wheat’s “nuttiness” — “a flavor you can’t get anywhere else,” he says. The company is contemplating expanding beyond rye breads and exploring the possibilities for rye in pie crusts, galettes and other baked goods. 

Bread Alone also is ramping up its use of rye. The company’s new line of Nordic breads, which it will officially launch at the Specialty Food Association’s Fancy Food Show in New York in June, will contain New York- and Pennsylvania-grown rye, spelt and einkorn. “They tell an interesting ‘grain story,’ and we also just love the taste of them,” Leader says. “There’s been a lot of energy invested in growing these grains regionally in recent years. The climate here is much more hospitable to rye and spelt. We think this new line is a viable way to support this regional grain economy.”

Taste, a good story and supporting local and regional growers aren’t the only things these breads, known for their density and long fermentation, have going for them, Leader says. “They have really good shelf life and wonderful shelf life.”


Retail sales of organic bakery products in the U.S.