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Organic certification: Is it worth it?

Why certify?

By Katie Kulla

After many years of training and saving, in 2006 my husband and I started our own small CSA-based farm, Oakhill Organics.

When we began our farm we knew we wanted to be able to use the word “organic” to describe our naturally grown vegetables. However, as of the 2002 National Organic Program (NOP) Final Ruling, this word is USDA regulated so that only certified producers and processors can use it in their marketing. Knowing those rules and knowing we wanted to officially be known as “organic” growers, we quickly filled out the paperwork to become certified by Oregon Tilth.

We could have just as legitimately chosen to not be certified and use different words to describe how we grow (“naturally grown” or “poison free”), and we know many small farmers here in Oregon who have gone that route without problem or negativity.

However, a growing number of non-certified growers seem to express hostility toward the word “organic” and their inability to legally use it — negativity perhaps best typified by their use of the phrase “beyond organic” to describe their practices. The claim has been increasingly common in media coverage of small farmers as well — perhaps most famously in Michael Pollan’s descriptions of farmer Joel Salatin in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

While some might not think twice about the phrase “beyond organic,” I have been bothered by its use and its significant implications. When my husband and I discuss the organic label with our customers today, we hear that many people think organic “doesn’t mean anything anymore,” or that they’re worried the meaning is being diluted, but they’re not sure why. I have to wonder how much of their confusion and cynicism can be attributed to the “beyond organic” phrase and the subsequent criticisms of the USDA organic program that often accompany its use.

The nature of the phrase is itself strongly negative: it positions the speaker above “organic.” However, it is also a value statement lacking specificity. The vagueness of the claim lends itself to confusion rather than clarification. Considering that many people find themselves overwhelmed by choice at the grocery store or market, the addition of yet another choice—a vague one at that—only serves to further complicate the matter.

Personally, I don’t find that the phrase adds substance to the discussion of how to grow or eat. Each time I hear “beyond organic,” I wonder: what does it really mean? As someone familiar with the NOP Rule, I would assume that it means the farmer grows 100 percent in compliance and perhaps feels they make greater strides towards sustainability than the NOP officially mandates.
But in my experience with farmers who claim to be “beyond organic,” they sometimes skip NOP requirements. Less commonly, some of these growers’ practices are not actually compliant with organic growing principles (such as using conventionally grown livestock feed in Joel Salatin’s case). More commonly, some non-certified growers will skip the mandate to have a written organic plan and keep records of field applications, seed purchases, yields, etc.
In pointing out the ways some of these growers are not perfectly compliant, I’m not attempting to start a “holier than thou” argument. Actually, “beyond organic” is quite the “holier than thou” statement in and of itself. It only has meaning in opposition to “organic,” and its use directly comments and passes judgment on other farms.

There are many reasons why farmers choose against organic certification, however, the question remains whether it is responsible for such growers to verbally define themselves in opposition to certified-organic growers. If a farmer chooses to market without the “organic” label, then perhaps the responsible move would be to speak clearly of her own farm’s practices rather than verbally disparage others’.

Unfortunately, I have noticed that many “beyond organic” growers are often exceptionally vocal—at the very least, they receive more press coverage. Books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma and No Impact Man highlight “beyond organic” growers and give them a loud platform for their complaints about organic certification. In this coverage, you’d hardly know that small certified-organic growers like us even exist today.

Often these “beyond organic” growers are not well informed about certification and consequently misrepresent the process and create more confusion about the organic label.

I am certainly not an expert, but I have been through the annual certification process four times now. With that experience, I feel compelled to respond to users of the phrase “beyond organic” by directly addressing some of their most common anti-certification complaints. While I can’t address every specific incorrect statement about organic certification and standards, perhaps these few important points may help clarify the process for bewildered consumers or other small growers deliberating certification.

“Getting certified is annoying and requires too much excessive paperwork.”
Admittedly, getting certified can be annoying, in the same way that applying for college or for a business loan can be. You have to work with an organization made up of diverse people and provide lots of written documentation of your practices. The NOP Rule requires farmers to have a written plan accounting for the major issues inherent in any farm system: weed pressure, fertility sources, and pests. Also, farmers are required to keep records of harvest yields, sales, seed purchases, and inputs.

As new growers, however, we ultimately found the process to be positive. We’ve met some amazing, knowledgeable and committed individuals through the process. Also, I look at the list of required recordkeeping and wonder how any of this could be anything but valuable to a farm system, even beyond certification purposes.

Furthermore, if there is ever a question of how we grow, our farm has established an audit trail demonstrating our compliance with organic standards. I think that these records will prove invaluable as the public becomes increasingly concerned with food quality and safety.

If you, as a farmer, find starting the certification process daunting, then talk with your local certifier, Oregon Tilth or otherwise, about the possibility of a tutorial class or a mentorship with another certified grower.

“I don’t need a third-party certifier—my CSA members can see how I grow for themselves.”

In a direct-marketing relationship a customer can have a more intimate knowledge of how their food is grown, however, that same customer may not necessarily understand what he sees in a vegetable field or chicken yard—his area of expertise likely lies elsewhere. Certainly, it is romantic when a direct relationship inspires eaters to trust a farmer’s claims, but it is also naive to cite the average untrained eater’s trust as wholly equivalent to organic certification.
An organic inspector is an experienced, trained professional who can see details in a farmscape that the average eater simply cannot. An inspection is a rigorous process (albeit, not a perfect one) that affirms our choices as farmers and guarantees our eaters that our actions match our claims.

“Certification is expensive—I don’t want to pass on the costs to my customers.”
“Expensive” depends on your perspective. As first year growers in 2006, our initial certification costs through Oregon Tilth totaled $531. This is a considerable sum, but within months of certification we applied for and received a $400 reimbursement payment from the State of Oregon as part of a federally funded program. The reimbursement brought our certification cost down to $131. Divided between our first year’s 50 CSA members, the per-share cost represented an insignificant $2.50 (less than 0.05 percent of our $475 2006 CSA season price). Since then, our gross income and our certification fees have both gone up; however, we have continued to take advantage of the partial reimbursement program whenever it is available.

“I don’t need the government to tell me whether I’m organic.”
This is of course the perennial objection to the NOP: some farmers just don’t want the government involved with their farm and resent the USDA’s regulation of the word. I appreciate this sentiment and respect people who genuinely disagree with government regulations, however, I more often encountered people who support government regulation of industries other than their own.
Personally, I can’t ask the governmental eye to look at big business without also letting it look my way too. Our farm submits to a voluntary regulation in order to ensure that a word loaded with significant meaning is being protected.
None of this is to imply that the current system is perfect, but consider the alternative: an unregulated word usable by anyone as a marketing boost, regardless of a product’s origins.

We should remember that federal regulation of the word “organic” exists to protect farmers and consumers. It protects organic farmers by keeping “fakers” from stealing our rightful share of the market, and it protects consumers by providing assurance that organic claims have been validated by trained persons.

Thus, participating in a voluntary regulation in order to preserve the meaning of an important concept seems like a minor concession. Unlike some of the current proposed mandatory food safety regulations, the organic certification process is very accessible, affordable and doable for farmers of all scales.

“Organic certification has been co-opted by big business,” or, “Organic doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Seeing some organic processed foods at the store makes me cringe. Regardless of its final food value however, big business organic products begin with whole, organically grown ingredients. There are farmers behind these foods, whose fields have been inspected by certifiers and who must employ non-conventional practices, such as crop rotations and considering soil health.
That doesn’t mean that big business organics is perfect nor desirable. But it’s a start. Even with big business in the game, “organic” does mean something—to explicitly or implicitly state otherwise to our customers misrepresents the significant differences between organic and conventional growing. No matter how sloppy or business-minded the farmer of a 1,000-acre organic beet field may be, he still can’t plant genetically modified beet seed, use synthetic fertilizers, or spray herbicides on his field—he will necessarily have to employ organic solutions in their place. The difference is a significant win for the natural environment and for eaters.

I would also say that big business’s use of the organic label should provide more incentive for small growers to become certified-organic. If we don’t think it’s right for “them” to claim the word, then “we” need to reclaim it—over and over again.

“Organic” began with small farmers, and it is up to small farmers to keep it there. Of course, big business wants their share of the action: people want to buy organic food. Big business will continue to lobby for less rigorous organic standards … is any of this unexpected? And, would any of this be “better” without the USDA regulation of the word and its meaning?

At Oakhill Organics, we think of certification as our farm’s vote. In the ongoing debate about organic standards, the voice of small farms will be more powerful if we are an integral part of the system. In the next big debate, I want to be able to stand up and say, “I am a certified-organic grower, and I support sustainable standards.”

I acknowledge that I am still a relatively new farmer with only limited experience and perspective. However, my perspective is that of a young grower, looking forward to a future in organic farming. As I look into that future, I find myself concerned about the value of the word “organic.” To me, sustainable farming involves many elements, including the language we use to describe it.
So far, “organic” has miraculously come to define more or less the practices it originally described. And, even with regulation, farmers can obviously grow using organic principles regardless of whether they choose to be certified and use the official label. But, I worry that with some farmers using negative phrases like ‘beyond organic’ we could lose a valuable word in internal conflict and public confusion.

In the end, preserving our right as small growers to define “organic”—and the practices it signifies—will require us to compromise some, participate a lot, and, yes, possibly even get certified.

Katie Kulla and husband Casey operate Oakhill Organics, a CSA farm in Dayton, Oregon. Read more of Katie’s writings at:


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