Dear Tom –
This is more a consumer question than a farmer question. How can I tell which farmers are organic at tailgate markets? I want to support local but I am also concerned about chemical sprays on my food. Thanks.
— Faye from Haw Creek
Dear Faye –
Thanks for your question. Since our banner at the market advertises certified organic, we often hear similar questions. It’s awkward for me to talk about other growers’ practices but I do encourage customers to ask each farmer directly. This column describes how I do it when I am shopping at a market outside our area.
The National Organic Program (NOP) was established in 1990. It pulled together dozens of sets of rules into a consensus document and collected public comments on the rules. The expression “NOP Compliant” means that a farm practice is consistent with that set of rules. A particular spray or fertilizer can be approved, prohibited, or approved with restrictions under NOP rules. An independent nonprofit organization reviews materials compared to the NOP rules and maintains a list of approved products. This OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) list is a good guide for growers and consumers about which materials meet organic standards.
Farmers seeking organic certification submit a plan to one of several certification organization which are licensed by the US Department of Agriculture to certify farmers under the federal organic rules. That organization reviews each farmer’s 20 to 50 page application for consistency with the National Organic Program. When their review is complete, the office staff sends an inspector to the farm to resolve any questions and to serve as the eyes and ears of the certifier on-site. Any issues raised by the inspector are resolved by the certification organization. If the farmer successfully completes this process, their farm is certified organic and a certificate is issued. Unannounced inspections are allowed. Inspectors periodically collect produce samples to be tested for residues of prohibited materials. Farmers repeat this process annually to maintain certification.
Certification typically costs between $500 and $1000 up to much more for large farms. It takes about a week of my time to prepare the application, to host the inspection, and to respond to comments. The NC Department of Agriculture provides grant funds that will cover up to 75% of cash costs. Certification cost us about $200 after grant assistance.
Many farmers use their own version of organic which is often called “using organic practices.” They cannot advertise their products as “organic” unless they are certified. One exception is farms that have “organic” in their farm name such as Bob’s Organic Produce. Those farm names are allowed with or without certification if that farm name predated the National Organic Program. Reasons that growers give for not seeking certification include: time and expense, record keeping, federal involvement in farm operations, and not needing certification since their customers trust the farmer. In my experience few farms that are not certified follow the national rules exactly. For example, we are required under NOP rules to use cover crop seed that is certified organic. Most uncertified growers do not go to that extra trouble and expense. That particular rule may or may not be important to you as a consumer.
If a farm stand does not have a sign indicating that they are certified organic some questions below may help you decide if their produce is “organic enough” to meet your needs. Please be courteous with inquires. A few questions in connection with a purchase are usually fine, but an extended conversation may need to happen outside market hours. Interfering with other customers, blocking the view of the stand, or creating a line of other customers should be avoided, since the farmer is trying to make a living during the relatively brief market hours.
Consider these questions:
- Is your produce certified organic? Do you use organic practices?
- Are you (the vendor or sales representative) involved in growing the crop? Do you know about seed sources, sprays, and fertilizers? (They should.)
- What pests or diseases affect this crop and how do you manage them? (Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides may be organically approved but most are not. Ask about the OMRI list to see if they know what it is.)
- What soil supplements or fertilizers do you use on this crop? (Raw manure should not be applied to organic crops less than 90 days before harvest. Most organic soil supplements are on the OMRI list.)
- Do you use crop rotation?
- How do you increase organic matter in your soil?
- Are you growing on former tobacco land?
- How do you stay current with changes to the organic rules?
Very general responses may be cause for suspicion such as:
- No sprays on our farm. (Exceptionally rare, even on organic farms.)
- Nothing on it that’s not organic. (DDT is an organic compound. Is that what they mean?)
- Better than organic. (Why do they believe that? How are their practices different?)
- I don’t know. (Why not? Can they find out? Who should you call that does know?)
Some markets are considering keeping a record of the practices of each grower at the market. Check with your market director to see if your market provides this information.
Other green labels exist that we will discuss in future newsletters. These include:
- Certified naturally grown
- Appalachian grown
- Organic ingredients (value added foods.)
Organic livestock production involves different challenges. That’s a future topic also.
When in doubt, ask the grower. Most farmers are understandably proud of their produce and eager to share more information about why they grow the way they do. Happy shopping and thanks for your interest in organic and for supporting local farmers.
Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.