"Certified Organic"? What's That?

Does a USDA label say it all, or are there comparable, even better, non-certified options?

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Sarah Voiland photo

For health-minded shoppers, a trip to the farmers’ market or supermarket produce aisle can be a confusing experience.

Should you stick solely to foods bearing a “USDA certified organic” label? What if those potatoes sit next to a sign announcing that they’re “no-spray,” or the farmer selling you blueberries tells you that she uses “integrated pest management” to control insects? Are locally grown non-organic items a better choice than organic ones shipped from hundreds or thousands of miles away? And what exactly does the label “natural” mean, anyway?

It’s not just consumers who wrestle with the question of whether certified organic is the only way to go, or if there are comparable, or even better, non-certified options.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2008, there were 12,941 certified organic farming operations in the U.S.—over 3,000 more than two years previously, and almost double the number in 2000. Those operations accounted for 4.8 million acres of farmland, up from 2.9 million in 2006 and 1.7 million in 2000. And while the USDA doesn’t have available more recent figures, it’s safe to assume that those numbers have grown substantially over the past five years.

Still, the Northeast Organic Farming Association points out, many new farmers—even those who eschew herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers and the like—are opting not to get organic certification, raising the possibility that the increasing emphasis on locally grown might be eclipsing organically grown. The issue is so relevant, in fact, that NOFA will host a debate on it at its annual conference, to be held Aug. 9 to 11 at UMass-Amherst. (See below for more details.)

The debate will take on the local-versus-organic question; look at what, exactly, organic certification means and how it’s changed over time; and consider what it means for the organic movement if more and more farmers who are sympathetic to its ideals nonetheless opt against formalizing their commitment to the practice. And while the debate’s primary focus is on farmers—it’s titled “Is organic certification right for you?”—the topic has important implications for consumers as well.

 

For Ryan Voiland, co-owner of Red Fire Farm, there’s no question that organic certification is worth the effort.

Voiland, who began his farming career as a middle schooler growing produce in the family garden, has had USDA certification since 1995. Since 2001, he’s been farming at Red Fire, which has fields in Granby and Montague. He’ll be one of the panelists at the NOFA debate, representing the pro-certification side.

“I really believe in the philosophy of organic growing,” Voiland said. As a farmer, he said, he wants to produce food that doesn’t harm the people who eat it or the land it’s grown on. “Those things are important to me and to the way that we wanted to do things from the beginning.”

That includes getting USDA certification. For a product to be sold with a USDA organic label, it must meet certain standards; for instance, crops cannot be irradiated, or have been grown using genetically modified organisms, synthetic fertilizers or certain pesticides. In the case of organic livestock, farmers must feed the animals organic feed, eschew antibiotics and growth hormones and adhere to certain animal welfare standards.

To become certified, a farm must undergo an evaluation by an independent certifying agency approved by the USDA. Farmers submit detailed documentation showing what they grow, what substances are applied to their land and what farming methods they use, among other things. After that, an inspector visits the farmland to ensure that the methods described are being followed. Farmers must renew their certification annually, by submitting updated records and undergoing another site inspection.

Farmers pay an initial application fee, as well as inspection and annual renewal fees, plus a yearly assessment on their sales. The total costs, according to the USDA, “vary widely depending on the certifying agent and the size, type, and complexity of your operation” and “may range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.” Once certified, farmers can qualify for financial assistance through a USDA program that reimburses qualifying growers up to 75 percent of their certification costs.

That process—the paperwork, the on-site inspection, not to mention the cost—can feel too daunting to some farmers, even those committed to organic principles. Each year, Voiland submits a binder hundreds of pages thick, detailing his crop rotation schedule and pest management plan, documenting soil and water testing results. He also pays about $2,000 in total fees. But, he maintains, it’s worth it.

What’s involved in the documentation required for certification “are not unreasonable things for a farmer to be keeping track of,” Voiland said; in fact, a well-run operation should already be keeping those records and plans, he said. “So that argument doesn’t hold much water with me.”

Nor does Voiland consider the cost of certification to be unreasonable. In fact, he said, having that certification helps his bottom line, by demonstrating to consumers that the food they’re buying meets strict organic standards and therefore is worth more than other products that don’t come with that guarantee. In wholesale situations, it’s especially important, Voiland added, since the farmer can’t directly explain his growing practices to consumers, as he could at a farm stand or through a farm-share relationship.

 

Of course, farmers don’t need to get USDA certification to use organic growing methods; some opt instead to explain to consumers that they grow organically without the government certification. But, Voiland said, “As a certified organic grower, I kind of have a problem with that, because there’s no certification that these growers are following all these details necessarily.”

Some farmers, he said, might take “short cuts”—for instance, avoiding synthetic fertilizers or pesticides but using conventional, rather than organic, seed—but still charge prices comparable to certified-organic growers. Or farmers who sell eggs might charge more because their chickens are pasture- raised, even if the birds’ diet includes feed made from genetically modified corn and soybeans. “It’s not really fair in the marketplace to farmers who are doing everything they can to use organic,” Voiland said.

Some farms, he noted, will tell consumers, “‘We’re organic but not certified.’ That’s legally not something they should be saying.” Such farmers might point out the specific organic methods they use—avoiding chemical fertilizers, for example. But to imply that they’re fully organic if they’re not is unfair to farmers who’ve taken on the work and expense of becoming certified, he said.

Certification also helps boost the larger organic-growing movement, Voiland said: the more acres of farmland that are certified organic, the more likely that resources will be allocated to support organic farming, from Farm Bill spending to academic research grants.

“If everyone out there is growing [genetically engineered] conventional corn, then they’re probably going to focus their resources on that,” he said. “As we get more [certified organic] acres, people take organic more seriously.”

 

Justine Denison and her husband, Brian, have owned their farm in Schaghticoke, N.Y., just north of Albany, for almost a decade. “Denison Farm is fully committed to organic agriculture,” they announce on their website, adding, “We follow the national organic standards.” But Denison Farm is not certified organic by the USDA.

Justine Denison will also be a panelist at the NOFA debate on organic certification, representing the “con” side. But her position on certification is a lot more complicated than that would suggest. “I am not opposed to it. I’m all for it, she said. In fact, she added, “Every day I yearn to be USDA-certified.”

So why isn’t she? Like a lot of farmers who opt out, it comes down to the time and effort it would require. “Taking care of the business has been the primary focus,” she said.

Before moving to New York, the Denisons spent 16 years farming conventionally in Maine. Over time, they began to see, and feel, the negative effects of those farming methods.

“There we were in beautiful Maine, and we had nitrates in the well,” Denison said. The couple and their daughters all experienced health problems they connected to chemical use on the farm, with Brian, who does most of the field work, the most affected. Those problems prompted their move, in 2005, to New York, where they bought land that had already been farmed using organic methods.

“It was a big transition,” Denison said of their switch from conventional to organic farming. “In some ways, we’re just getting our feet on the ground.” The farm is primarily a Community-Supported Agriculture, or CSA, operation, with 500 household members buying yearly shares of the produce. The Denisons also sell at two farmers’ markets and to some local stores.

“We farm uncertifiably organic, and we do it for real personal reasons, so we’re really careful about what we do,” Denison said. And because their business model puts them in direct contact with their customers, particularly through the CSA, they can communicate that easily, in a way they couldn’t if they were wholesalers.

“We can explain exactly what we do,” she said. CSA members can look around the farm, peek into the seed cabinet, check out the nutrients and supplements added to the soil. “I can tell them exactly what we spray, what we put in the soil,” said Denison, who also publishes a newsletter for members.

Every winter, Denison said, she and her husband talk about applying for USDA certification. “Then something comes up”—this past winter, Brian needed back surgery. And, she noted, the bulk of the application work would fall to him, since he does the growing on the farm.

While the Denisons already keep extensive farming records, translating those records into a USDA application “is easier said than done,” she said. “Every farm does their farming differently.” And while maintaining certification after its initial granting might not be too burdensome, she added, “starting from scratch” is a daunting prospect.

Denison Farm is part of an alternative certification program called Certified Naturally Grown, or CNG. A national organization based in Brooklyn, CNG says its standards are based on the USDA’s National Organic Program. CNG farmers, according to the group “don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”

CNG describes itself as a “much-needed complement” to the USDA program, “tailored for direct-market farms selling in their local communities.” Such farms, it says, “often find the [USDA’s] heavier paperwork requirements are not a good fit for their small-scale operations. CNG enables these farms to get credit for their practices while showing some accountability to their customers.” It’s also a lot cheaper; CNG asks livestock and produce farmers to pay between $110 and $200 a year for certification.

Denison makes sure her farm’s Certified Naturally Grown symbol is prominently displayed on its website, at its farmers’ market stands and in its CSA materials, “so people can see what we are committed to, what are our values.” Still, she said, she knows there are times when her business would benefit from USDA certification—for instance, when competing against conventional growers who charge the same as farms that use organic methods. A few years ago, Denison conducted an informal poll of shoppers at the farmers’ market and found that the vast majority assumed, wrongly, that all the sellers there used organic methods. “The conventional growers are absolutely getting a free ride on this,” she said.

Having a USDA label on her produce, she said, could help set her apart. “With us not being [USDA-] certified, we do muddy the waters.”•

 

The debate “Is Organic Certification Right for You?” takes place on Saturday, Aug. 10, at 7 p.m. at the UMass Campus Center Auditorium. The debate is open to the public and does not require registration for the full NOFA conference. For more information about the conference, which runs from Aug. 9 to 11 on the UMass- Amherst campus and includes several events that the public can attend without full registration, go to www.nofasummerconference.org.

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