'Organic' certification gives farmers a tough row to hoe
The growing season is in its last throes on Hana Newcomb's Northern Virginia farm. In one of the final harvests, workers pull carrots, leafy kale and verdant collard greens from rows flanked by mounds of hay or sheets of black plastic, both chemical-free ways to suppress weeds.
In fact, no crops here have been treated with pesticides, herbicides or chemical input of any sort. But you can't call what's produced on Newcomb's Potomac Vegetable Farms "organic." That word has been tightly regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2002.
"We were certified organic for 13 years, before the federal government got involved," says Newcomb, who now calls her farm's produce "ecoganic" as a way to encourage customers to ask how it was grown — or, even better, come see for themselves. "We are still doing everything the same way, but just aren't getting certified."
Across the USA, many small-scale farmers do not feel the need to become certified organic, even if their method of farming would meet or exceed federal standards. It's a phenomenon that can be credited in part to the eat-local movement and the explosion of farmers markets, where consumers can meet, ask questions of and even visit the people who grow their food. Many locavores feel they don't need a third-party certification for something they've seen with their own eyes.
"My customers put faith in me to provide them exactly what I say I'm growing," says Polyface Farms' Joel Salatin, a poultry, beef and pork farmer in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley who was featured in the film Food Inc. and who wrote Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People and a Better World. "Polyface is open to any visitor, unannounced, 24/7/365 … unescorted. That's our credibility."
Indeed, having credibility in the community is how these farmers are able to make ends meet. Many do all the farmwork themselves, while keeping the books, selling at farmers markets and getting the word out. Maintaining paperwork required to be USDA certified organic is more than many can handle. Salatin says he would need another full-time staffer.
Some farmers "are no longer playing the organic licensing game due to its onerous bureaucratic qualities," Salatin says. "And it does not address many of the important variables — like techniques for soil fertility, weeding and employee treatment — so charlatans receive credentials along with true-blue producers."
Still, not all small farmers opt out. Take Katie Kulla of Oakhill Organics, a 17-acre family farm outside Portland, Ore. She and her husband, Casey, sell organic seeds, and they must comply with USDA rules to use the "O" word.
"Every year, I have to make the decision all over again," Kulla says. "I don't think the restaurants we sell our vegetables to would care at all if we were not certified. They care about the quality."
Brian Leitner, executive chef and co-owner of Nettie's Crab Shack in San Francisco, agrees, saying the big issues are how something is produced, where it's produced and that it's produced sustainably: "Knowing who is growing your product is key."
But how is a non-certified-organic farmer to market a product? Like Newcomb and her "ecoganic" crops, many create terminology. At Polyface, Salatin has come up with catchy terms including "salad bar beef" and "pastured poultry." Proponents of certification would argue that unregulated terminology leaves the consumer uncertain.
Back in Northern Virginia, Newcomb scans her 7 acres. "The organic certification process serves the needs of large-scale farmers who ship their products and can't be in touch with the people who are buying them," she says. "When you live where your market is and sell to your neighbors, what more could you ask for?"