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To Certify or Not To Certify? Pondering the Organic Question

December 13, 2011 |

Over the last two decades, the organic label has graduated from cameo appearances on supermarket shelves to full blown supporting actor taking up whole sections of major supermarket chains. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), sales of organic food increased nearly six-fold from 1997-2008 making organic food a $20 billion industry. Americans clearly are paying more attention to how their food is produced.

However, many small producers are choosing not to pursue organic certification, even though they plan to employ organic practices, due to costs and labor intensive practices. Their alternative? Direct contact with customers, transparent practices, word of mouth, and good old-fashioned trust.

“Whether it’s cost, or they don’t believe in the system, or they think that direct communication is better anyway, there are certainly lots of organic producers who are opting for transparency,” said Anthony Nicalo, co-founder and CEO of Foodtree, which provides an alternative to USDA certification through a mobile and web application that connects producers directly with consumers.

It remains to be seen how many customers are willing to shift their trust in a vetted certification program to the word of individual food producers.

The USDA certifies organic producers around the world through nearly 100 independent certifying agents that inspect farms, issue certificates, and carry out regulation. Farmers must produce and maintain records of an “organic systems plan” that describes and keeps record of all aspects of the operation from pest management, to fertilization methods, to product sourcing. Producers are responsible for costs associated with certification and must invest work hours into maintaining sufficient records for recertification.

The USDA offers subsidy programs, which assist producers converting from traditional to organic farming and reimburse up to $750 towards certification costs each year.

Still, some producers chose direct communication over the USDA badge of approval.

Conversations on online message boards for farmers are filled with accounts of small farms, once certified organic by the USDA having opted to forgo the recertification process.

Higher Ground Farms, a rooftop farm in the planning stages in Boston, has no plans to apply to the USDA. “The certification I don’t think is necessary for us,” said Stoddard. “People are going to know us and are going to know what we’re doing. That’s our philosophy.”

The USDA’s approach creates “almost a philosophical difference between some organic farmers and the actual organic certification,” Nicalo said. For instance, the organic systems plan calls for a planned schedule to treat the soil. He said that many of the farmers that register with Foodtree routinely test their soil on an ongoing basis and base their treatments on real data.

Nonetheless, many consumers demand certification and many farmers still find the USDA stamp of approval invaluable.

“Despite the fact that we do not fully agree with the current federal standards and handling of the program and the monopoly the USDA now has on the O word, we have stayed within the certification for our vegetable production,” said Jean-Claude Bourrut, assistant director of Natick Community Organic Farm in Massachusetts.

He added that for producers engaging in direct contact with their consumers, either through farmer’s markets or community-supported agriculture programs, certification may not be necessary. “It’s a question of trust. If your customers trust you, know what your commitments are, what your practices are, you can skip the certification.”

Establishing a dialogue between producers and consumers requires an investment of time from both parties. For many busy families, trips to local farmers’ markets and conversations with producers do not fit into the weekly schedule. For a busy mom scanning rows of eggs at the supermarket cold case, grabbing an organic carton may be easier than trying to determine the difference between the natural and cage-free varieties.

Market shelves overflow with items labeled natural, a term with no legal definition. Producers choosing to make promises about their practices without the certification to back it up risk falling into this kind of ambiguous category, and potentially leave consumers confused about their options.

USDA spokesperson Soo Kim says organic certification ensures transparency. She notes that “organic” has been legally defined, unlike many other labels found in the supermarket, and certified producers agreed to adhere to vetted standards that are available online. Consumers can trust that a qualified professional has inspected and verified the practices used by organic certified producers, she added. In that sense, a little green sticker declaring USDA certified can carry a sense of comfort and security.

Kim said that the USDA offers consumers a certain level of accountability that no individual producer could offer on their own. “Enforcement is a huge aspect of what the National Organic Program does,” said Kim. “So if there are any cases of suspected or alleged violation…USDA can actually take measures against them.” Civil penalties for violations can be as high as $11,000 per violation.

In the end, consumers will vote with their dollar.

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