Niagara’s Guide to a Certified Organic Lifestyle

By: Lauren Charley

Agriculture is and always has been an important part of the Niagara Region’s past, present and future. We pride ourselves for having rich farm land, prosperous vegetation, flat terrain, and a mild climate which is perfect for harvesting locally grown crops throughout various times of the year. Not only does the agricultural industry benefit the sustainability of our economy, through exporting our products to other communities and cities, but the beautiful crops, trees, and vegetation provide picturesque landscapes, attracting many tourists every year. Living in a community where such an importance is placed on agriculture, it is no surprise that residents have become increasingly aware of the benefits of buying Certified Organic products and local produce, such as the selection available at The Organic General Store in Virgil, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Organic General Store (OGS) is Niagara’s only organic lifestyle store, whose mission is “providing high quality service and customer satisfaction for your organic lifestyle.” The store opened in 2003 after the owner and proprietor, Laura Kozloski decided to utilize her food science degree, farming background, and educational experience beyond the traditional classroom setting. Her education and skills combined with her interest for certified organic food and products prompted her to research ways to bring more of these lifestyle options to the Niagara Region, as at the time the selection here was very limited. Laura is the main proprietor of the store, but also has help from family and friends who work at the shop, as well as volunteers interested in learning the certified organic business.

The OGS serves consumers throughout the region, and especially the four communities within Niagara-on-the-Lake. A high percentage of the business comes from a loyal repeat base of customers as well as referrals, and also by tourists who order products ahead of time to take home with them. “Recently we had a team of Robotics students from Barbados that sourced our food via our website, ogsniagara.com, for their weeks stay by pre-ordering all of their food, which we delivered to their guest house prior to their arrival,” says Laura, who is happy to be able to share the organic experience with visitors by offering the local goods available in the region.

Some customers like to drop by the store to do their shopping, whereas others take advantage of the certified organic “Produce Home Delivery Program”. For a monthly fee of $160, customers receive a weekly basket of fresh produce delivered directly to their home, with a selection of local fruits and vegetables. Members of the program also receive 25% off any regular priced items in the store including dry food such as nuts, seeds, grains, beans, personal hygiene products, baby supplies, and even clothing. The OGS will also order special request items such as certified organic furniture and building supplies. In addition they carry a unique array of vintage collectibles and antiques that support the concept of “recycling and reusing”.

“Proximity buying” is the main focus of the OGS, as they strive to provide the best quality certified organic produce from farms and retailers in locations as local as possible. Although Laura’s produce comes from around the world, she sources from a “market list” of local distributers first to get the products when in season and then buys elsewhere. “Our focus is on Certified Organic produce, and always as local as we can get it,” says Laura. Often times, vegetables and fruits may be available in regular grocery stores, but it is rare to come across those that are certified organic, which is why buyers turn to The OGS to insure they are getting the best quality products. Some unusual items that are quite popular with the customers include: Jerusalem artichokes, fennel, dandelion greens, and broccolini.

Niagara grows an abundance of tender fruits, however, it is challenging to produce specifically certified organic crops in this area, due to weather conditions and high humidity which has a tendency to create a mold mildew problem. This issue forces farmers to spray their crops with fungiscides to prevent them from being destroyed. Therefore Laura often outsources fruitage from other parts of Canada whose climate does not endure this complication. The OGS also carries a selection of produce and dry bulk goods which appeal to a variety of different ethnic cuisines, such as edamame, ginger, garbanzo bean flour, coconut milk, and okra. “If a customer requests a unique item, we try our best to source it,” Laura says, as she aims to appeal to everyone’s certified organic needs.

An interesting fact about The Organic General Store itself is that it is a “green inspired store”, as its upkeep is maintained using only organic materials. Although Laura did not have the luxury of constructing the building from scratch, she used eco-friendly materials on the renovations, including the parking lot, which leaves a “small footprint” by allowing water to permeate through the soil. Other eco-friendly additions to the building include the titles in the antique studio area, flooring in the apartment, the toilets which were installed during the renovations, European heating and air units, as well as utilizing many recycled materials in the building processes.

When it comes to learning about the benefits of consuming organic foods and products, many people are misinformed or mislead by the confusion of certain terms such as “organic”, “natural”, “whole foods”, and other phrases we associate with being healthy for us. The OGS sells only “certified organic” foods, which means the entire process, from seed and plant selection, to processing, until it’s final purchase is conducted in a certified way, inspected by a third party so that no synthetic chemicals are used at any stage of production. “Much care is taken to make sure that no bleach is used in any of the water sources, that the soil is maintained in a healthy manner, and that no chemical preservatives or hydrogenated oils are used,” explains Laura.

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Certified organic produce is also entirely GMO-free: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have had their genetic material altered by using genetic engineering techniques. The certified organic process is much more labour intensive and a large investment for the farmers, who have to grow “barrier crops” around the certified organic crops to prevent cross contamination.

“Many try to use or refer to the word “organic”, however, unless it is CERTIFIED, organic does not mean the same thing. Certified Organic is a whole process that a grower and/or producer has to go through to make sure that the quality of the seeds/plants/animals are grown and maintained with the strictest of standards to maintain health and sustainability (environmental that is) for years to come, from the water, to the soil to the air surrounding these operations – which ultimately transfers to humans since we are a part of our environment and at one with nature.” – Laura Kozloski, owner of the Organic General Store.

Organic clothing and personal hygiene products which have been certified also serve customers by providing added health benefits. For materials, the benefits stem from the processes involved in growing fibers, conducted to a standard and 3rd party tested in order to ensure that they are free of synthetic chemicals. Because organic clothing is not synthetic, it is very breathable and feels smooth against the skin. Materials such as certified organic cotton, hemp, and flax also tend to be much more durable.

Certified organic products do in fact tend to be more expensive than regular groceries and personal supplies; this is why The OGS offers their delivery program at a discounted rate to assist with the added costs of the certified organics. The additional expenses are due to the labour intensive growing and processes, as well as the lengthy procedure it takes for producers to become certified organic. Customers recognize the need to prioritize their health and sustain the longevity of their planet in today’s environment, however, financial matters are also important to consider. Laura understands that if it’s between choosing to pay the heating bill and taxes or buying certified organic, people are forced to make a decision, and therefore she does not judge anyone. “I only wish to offer the best that I can with the knowledge that I have, so that they can at least have the choice!” says Laura.

“True organic means only 1 thing – that it is certified by an accredited organization that has met the standards that promote true environmental sustainability for our soil, water, air and ultimately ourselves,”
– Laura Kozloski

The Organic General Store operates from Tuesday-Sunday between 10am-6pm. The Antique studio is open from 10am-5pm.