The Dirt on Certified Organic

This week’s Dishing the Dirt answers the question, “Why are there not more Certified Organic vendors at the markets?”

First, let’s establish the official lingo. There’s a distinction between organic practices and being Certified Organic – little o versus big O. Unless a producer has been granted approval (and paid fees) from a USDA-approved third-party certification body, they can not legally mark or advertise their products as Organic or Certified Organic. Certified Organic producers you will find at Central Farm Markets include Spiral Path Farm (Bethesda, Westfield), Bending Bridge Farm (Bethesda), Toigo Orchards (all markets) and The Mushroom Stand (Bethesda).

What is “Certified Organic”?

Certified Organic produce is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMO), or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

To use the Certified Organic logo, producers must be certified by one of the 48 domestic USDA-accredited and authorized certification operations or use imported materials from 32 certification bodies located in foreign countries approved by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) or the 21 foreign governments with specific organic trade agreements with the U.S.

While most of this sounds simple in practice, in reality it can be onerous, especially for new and beginning and small-scale producers who would much rather be devoting their time and resources to growing food instead of paperwork.

The Challenges

The first hurdle to becoming Certified Organic is the Transition Period – a 36-month time-frame in which producers must follow all the regulations, keep all the records and pay all the fees without the benefit of using the Certified Organic designation and the ability to charge accordingly, thus increasing the likelihood of operating at a loss.

This brings us to the second hurdle – money. Organic certification costs the farmer money every single year. The certification body charges not only annual fees based upon formulas of application fees, certification fees, site-inspection fees and a percentage of sales, all of which adds up to thousands of dollars every single year. Add to that number resources allocated to paperwork, the added expenses of a Certified Organic supply chain and costlier, more labor-intensive agricultural practices. It starts adding up quickly.

Many customers ask for Certified Organic meats, however, for a producer this means starting with Certified Organic animals (breeding or young), using only Certified Organic feeds which routinely cost more than twice that of non-certified, have the land where the livestock is raised certified and have the livestock processed at a Certified Organic slaughterhouse/processing facility, so few and far between many organic livestock producers must transport their animals several hours away and book their animals several months in advance. Plus, if an animal becomes ill or injured, medicating it automatically removes it immediately from being sold as Certified Organic. And here’s the rub, if a farmer is raising multiple species, each species of livestock must be certified. Similarly, so must the processor. Given the stringency of the guidelines, for smaller producers/services the investment in fees, ongoing paperwork and logistics doesn’t often pencil into profits for small-scale producers who direct-market to their customers.

Why do it?

There are many reasons producers go the extra mile to obtain organic certification along with other third-party certifications validating their production practices, such as Certified Forest Grown, Certified Gluten-free, Certified Kosher, Certified Grass-fed and Animal Welfare Approved, to name a few. Many of Central Farm Markets’ vendors utilize organic practices but forgo certification, especially those who only sell direct to their customers.

“We grow beautiful food. To us, that means food produced with integrity, care for the land and for the people who grow it,” says Audrey Fisher-Pedersen, co-owner of Bending Bridge Farm, which has been Certified Organic for ten years.

In addition to the extra effort to adhere to rigorous standards and third-party inspections, Pedersen added, “It’s damn hard. Organic methods are genuinely more difficult to use successfully.” She cites row covers to protect tender plants from insects instead of spraying chemical pesticides. “Row covers cost us thousands of dollars each year for the product itself. Plus, they are labor-intensive to apply to crops and remove for cultivation and harvest.”

When asked what the largest hurdles to having more Certified Organic producers are, Lucas Brownback of Spiral Path Farm, now in their 25th year of certification and second generation, immediately responded with “money and paperwork”.

“Though costly, we believe in the standards that the certification implies, and we are willing to make that investment,” said Brownback.

Toigo Orchards has been a staple of the farmers market landscape in the mid-Atlantic region for over twenty-five years and has been a founding vendor at all Central Farm Markets. Although the original orchards are not certified, throughout the years they have worked diligently to battle production challenges by using organic methods such as integrated pest management (IPM). With the construction of their state-of-the-art greenhouse, Toigo Organic Farms now produces Certified Organic vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

Owner Mark Toigo witnessed the growing demand for Certified Organic and has come to where he is through much trial and error. “It’s not an easy undertaking and you have to have the right people who genuinely care,” said Toigo who strives to do a better job at what he is trying to do.

Certified Organic is much more to these farmers than just a label, a standard, a certification – it is a belief, a way of life, a philosophy.

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