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The Challenges and How Consumers Can DIY

[This article was previously published in the summer issue of  The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

Farmers markets are in full swing. Whenever possible, we urge consumers to support certified organic farm vendors first. But not all small-scale farmers choose to certify. To help determine if these non-certified farms still meet your standards, Cornucopia released our Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Organic Certification Guide.

Many local farms who sell direct to consumers, either at markets or through CSAs, have chosen not to go through the organic certification process. In some cases, the challenges and obstacles inherent in the certification process are prohibitive and do not serve small farmers.

While Cornucopia advocates unequivocally for organic foods and organic farmers, it is important that we recognize and explore these issues within the certification process. Michael Losonsky, the owner of a small organic vineyard in McMinnville, Oregon, spoke with us to help us understand his situation.

Losonsky noted that increases in certification fees in 2019 amounted to around 10% of his gross income and between 40 and 50% of his net income. Incurring this cost each year is not sustainable for his small organic farming operation.

Cost-share programs are often touted as the solution for cash-strapped, small farmers by both certifiers and the USDA itself. Such programs reimburse fees associated with the costs of organic certification for some farmers. However, there are some serious problems with cost share programs.

First, the program is competitive. Farmers have to apply, and if an application is delayed for legitimate reasons, the funding for the program may run out, leaving those farmers without recourse. In addition, since the program only offers reimbursement, applicants must absorb all of the up-front costs of certification themselves at the risk of being denied.

Losonsky and many other small producers agree that the program would be far more useful if these costs were funded directly—so that the application process was affordable at the front end—rather than through a reimbursement, cost-share program that has the potential to run dry.

In addition to the cost-share program, many small farmers take issue with the fact that some accredited certifiers do not scale their certification costs based on the size of the farm.

In these cases, a small farm would pay the same fees to get certified as a farm ten times the size. In addition, farmers take issue with a lack of transparency among certifiers about fee scales. Many farmers have even complained of undisclosed costs in their final bills.

With all of these issues, in addition to the infiltration of industrial organic products into the marketplace, many small-scale farmers with high ethical integrity standards are choosing not to certify organic at all.

While buying locally produced AND certified organic guarantees the most authentic, nutritious, and sustainable food, this may not always be an option for consumers. Cornucopia encourages eaters to educate themselves.

Asking the following questions at your market, CSA, or retailer can help guide your purchasing toward the healthiest choices for your family and the environment.

“Who grew this food?” Producer-only farmers markets feature vendors who sell items which they themselves produced. Other market models allow vendors to resell produce they bought wholesale.

“What is in season right now?” Some farmers may be selling produce that is not local, while others use hoop houses or heated greenhouses to bring produce to market out of season.

“If not certified, how was it grown?” Claims of “no-spray,” “chemical-free,” “natural,” or “grown using organic methods” are subjective. Synthetic fertilizers, agrichemicals, and spraying of field borders are possible. Learn about management of soil fertility and weed, disease, and pest controls.

“Do you use OMRI-approved products? If not, what do you use?” Organic Materials Review Institute products are authorized for use under the National Organic Program’s standards.

“How do you control pests?” Biodiversity, wildlife corridors, beneficial insects, proper spacing, and crop rotations all minimize pests. Organic-approved pest control products are available; ask for product names and see if they are OMRI-listed.

“How is disease managed?” Fertile soil, rich in organic matter, managed using crop rotations, cover crops, and composted animal manures will resist diseases. Organic-approved fungicide used can be checked for OMRI listing.

“How do you control weeds?” Organic farmers will tolerate some amount of weed pressure, as long as their crop’s yield is not threatened. Organic strategies used to control weeds include using cover crops, mulching, cultivation (tilling), and/or hand weeding, in smaller operations.

“How is livestock managed?” Organic standards require access to the outdoors/pasture and prohibit confinement. Mobile coops for chickens and, for cattle, one cow or less per acre are good standards. Non-organic grain is likely GMO and contaminated with agrichemical residues.

“How is animal health managed?” Organic production relies on disease prevention and bans most veterinary medicines and antibiotics. Many non-certified farmers are not knowledgeable as to which alternative therapeutic approaches are acceptable under the National Organic Standards.

“How do you manage parasites?” Maintaining a closed herd, quarantining sick animals, and sanitization measures minimize exposure to disease and parasites. Sustainable stocking rates, intensive rotational grazing, and the use of multispecies grazing are helpful practices to help break the life cycles of internal parasites. Parasiticides allowed in organic production are on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

“What is the origin of the livestock?” Were the animals managed organically from the last third of gestation and born on the farm, or were they purchased from an auction, a practice not allowed under the organic standards?

“Can I visit your farm?” Visiting a farm is one of the primary ways to verify that the farm is operating with integrity and meets organic standards. Some farms even offer “work for produce” exchanges, which is a great way to become more intimately familiar with your farmer’s practices.

Farmers markets and CSAs offer meaningful ways to access some of the best food in your community. Please visit Cornucopia’s DIY Certification Guide to identify authentic produce and ethical farmers at your market when certified organic is not available.

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