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How important is the word “organic”?

USDA Organic SealAbout 40% of the teas we offer at our tea bar are certified organic. Generally speaking, those teas run about 50% higher in price than the non-organic alternatives. In most cases, however, they outsell their non-organic counterparts by a fairly healthy margin. In tough economic times, that says something. But what does it say?

UPDATE 2017: The price difference between organic and non-organic teas is a lot smaller now. There are also a lot of alternatives to USDA organic programs, like the ones I wrote about in 2015.

Let’s say you were to prepare two cups of tea, processed identically, with tea grown in neighboring plantations. Identical weather and soil, but one organic and the other not. Would you be able to tell those two cups of tea apart? I doubt that I would. Yet as I write this I’m drinking a cup of USDA Organic Earl Grey tea, for which I paid quite a bit more than the “brand X” earl grey that I could have prepared instead. Why? Because I like it better. But the real question is why I started drinking that particular earl grey in the first place.

To me, the “organic” label doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better product. Conversely, lack of organic certification doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it. But when I’m looking at new tea for home or the tea bar, I look for the “USDA Organic” logo because it means somebody went to a lot of effort to get that certification. They cared enough to wade through the mounds of required paperwork and certify the origins of every ingredient. That’s a lot of work, and it means they take pride in their product.

On the front page of the current issue of our local paper, The Carbon County News, there’s an extensive interview with Bonnie Martinell, one of the owners of the On-Thyme Gourmet, the farm that grows the sage and apple mint tea we sell. They quoted her as saying:

“We were certified organic but the process became so burdensome. We tried to keep up with the forms but they are about five inches deep to start with and they keep coming back for changes with another five inches. You can’t function with all the paperwork.”

I’ve heard the same thing from other farmers and ranchers in this area. When I had my ranch, I couldn’t certify my cattle as organic because they had grazed for six months on BLM land, where I had no control over what they might have eaten.

If there’s an organic tea that I like, which sells well in my tea bar, I’m not going to stop selling it if it suddenly becomes non-certified. To me, it’s still the same product. I consider the “Certified Organic” label to be a shopping aid, not a label requirement. It guides me to producers who care enough to put extra effort into their product. I think it helps me to find good tea.

What about the price issue? Well, most tea is pretty inexpensive. The majority of our organic loose-leaf teas sell for $3.00/ounce or less. Even a big 16-ounce mug like the one I use at home only needs 5 or 6 grams of tea, which means about five cups per ounce. I generally use my leaves twice, which doubles the yield to ten cups per ounce. That’s 30 cents per cup for the organic tea, versus about 20 cents for a non-organic equivalent. A dime a cup difference. I’d have to drink a lot of tea before a dime a cup would break my budget!

And in the tea bar, I charge the same price for a cup of just about every tea in the store (we do charge more for some specialties, like boba and chai), so as a consumer, you’d pay the same for the organic as you would for the non-organic.

My conclusion: argue all day long about what “organic” really means, but I don’t think it matters. When I’m buying unfamiliar tea, I’m going to look for that label!

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