A Farmer’s Perspective on Organic Labels

We’re following up yesterday’s post on the extra benefits of organic food with a contribution from Alison Wiediger of Au Naturel Farm near Bowling Green. Alison and Paul were early adopters of organic farming and give some further details here on why a farm would choose to use or not use the organic label. Read on for more from Alison!

'USDA Organic label' photo (c) 2008, nikoretro - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

What does that “Organic” label mean?

Why doesn’t my favorite farmer use it?

Farmers markets everywhere continue to add to the diversity of their offerings.  This growth is a wonderful outcome for consumers and farmers alike.  Local food not only tastes better, but is fresher, typically more nutritious, and the money spent at a local farmers market helps boost the economy of the entire region.

However, with diversity also comes complexity.  Just what do the labels farmers put on their products mean, and how can the educated consumer use them to better their shopping experience?  Let’s look at the label Organic.

Organic is a label that describes a production method.  The short definition is production that doesn’t use synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, or other agricultural chemicals.  It depends upon natural inputs such as compost, cover crops, and animal manures for fertility.  The rotation of crops, trap crops, predator insects, disease resistant varieties, and other methods are often used to control disease and insects.  When spraying is necessary, approved non-chemical sprays are used. If an animal product, such as meat, milk, or eggs, is being labeled organic, the animal must have been fed certified organic feed for a specified period, its entire life in most cases.

Many farmers grow this way.  However, the only farmers allowed to label their products as organic are those who choose to have their farm certified as organic under the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) rules.  The only exception is for those who sell less than $5000 of organic product annually, and even then they must be registered with the state in Kentucky.

Does that mean that if the produce isn’t labeled organic, it is grown with chemicals?  Not necessarily.  A farmer may grow using organic methods, but decided not to certify his farm.  So, to be certain, you can always ask how the produce you are buying has been grown.  This assurance that you can ask the farmer exactly how any product has been grown is one of the main strengths of shopping at “producer only” markets.

Why would a farmer growing without chemicals choose NOT to certify his/her farm as organic?  It seems to make a lot of sense to do the certification, rather than having to go through a long explanation of growing methods with interested/concerned customers.  I can’t answer for other farmers, but I CAN talk about why we made the decision to not certify.

First, before the national program, many states, including Kentucky, had organic certification programs.  There were many differences in requirements from state to state.  Those differences were one of the justifications for a national program—so everybody grew by the SAME set of rules.

Our farm was one of the first certified in Kentucky.  In fact, our farm number was 028, so I guess we were the 28th certified.  It was very nice to be able to label our produce as Organic.  Most everybody recognizes the label as desirable. We remained certified organic until the National Organic Program took over.  At that time, as with many new programs, folks were scrambling to interpret the rules.  We looked extensively at the forms that were going to be required for our state, and the paperwork burden was intimidating.  We analyzed our market, and decided that most of our customers knew us well enough that no longer having the organic label would not impact our sales.  But the required paperwork would impact our already small amount of “free” time and we did not think the return would be worth it—for us.

As the program has matured, the paperwork, although still intimidating (the application in Kentucky is 17 pages), has become much more reasonable.  Each year, we revisit our decision.  So far, we still are not at a place where we think the effort would increase our sales enough to “jump in.”  If we were starting out, selling to a new market, selling to a wholesaler who required it, then it would be a different conversation.

However, the consumer still must be aware.  If you KNOW your farmer and are confident of their growing practices, the label isn’t necessary.  But many growers don’t always understand what organic means.  I have heard “sure I’m organic, 10-10-10 fertilizer is all I use,” and “I only spray if I have to!” and “I didn’t spray that crop (but my neighbor did it for me).”

So the organic label is important if you want to avoid food grown using chemicals.  As a consumer, I am glad products labeled organic are all produced under the same set of rules.  I can choose “certified organic” and be reasonably confident of the way the food was produced, especially when buying from a store or a market where I don’t know the farmers.  And, as a farmer, well, there’s always next year to “think” about doing that paperwork!


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Author:Alison Wiediger

Alison Wiediger and her husband Paul were among the first Kentucky farmers to gain organic certification in the early ’90s. They have continued their visionary approach to farming by always thinking outside the box of normal farming conventions. They led the way for other farms in Kentucky with high-tunnel production, growing food throughout the winter as well as unconventional crops like ginger. They have shared their knowledge by authoring a book on high tunnels as well as speaking around the country on the topic.

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