USDA Organic and the Farmers Market

USDA Organic and the Farmers Market

In recent years the green USDA certified organic label has begun appearing just about everywhere. A trip around my local supermarket provides me an opportunity to buy everything from apple juice and milk to chicken and cheese. As a consumer that tries to buy organic as much as possible, especially for my kids, this has a high convenience factor. As more and more of these big retail chains develop their own organic product lines the price differential should also begin to decrease making it more and more affordable.

All well and good you would think until you take a walk around my local farmers market, the birthplace of the organic farming movement. Out of two dozen farm stands only two are USDA certified organic with the others carrying signage proclaiming they are California Certified Farmers or All Natural or Pesticide Free or some other catchy slogan. It is quite likely that all these farmers are meeting the same USDA standards but are unable to meet the criteria necessary for certification. The reason is simply that the certification process is an arduous, time consuming exercise which is hugely cost ineffective for many of these producers. Each fruit or vegetable or herb or nut must be tracked almost daily from seed to sale. Water reports, soil reports, means and methods must be fully documented to be viewed at any time by USDA inspectors. Considering that many of these small producers may have a hundred or more items they produce in any given year it makes it almost impossible to achieve.The California Institute of Rural Studies estimates that the turnover amongst organic producers is approximately 20% a year citing regulatory paperwork and certification fees as the main issues.

Unfortunately, the USDA standards are all we have at the moment that give us a pretty rock solid guarantee that something has been grown without any additives, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones etc. In recent years several other standards have appeared including Certified Naturally Grown which uses the USDA standards but does not require the mountains of accompanying paperwork. Inspections of farms are done by members themselves although they cannot inspect the farm that had inspected them.

In a nutshell, I think that although the USDA certification is a good thing, its demands may exclude the very people it was originally designed to support. Myself, I have very little faith in the actions of the USDA or the FDA and believe that a relationship between you and your food producers is more important. I have visited the farms where I get my produce and I am fairly certain how it is grown and trust the people who bring it to market. It doesn’t have the little green label on it but its organic to me.


This article was written by Jon Whitehead a parent and concerned citizen
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