My Problem with Organic Certification

A couple of weeks ago I was representing the farm at a local food fair. I was chatting with a retired gentlemen I knew, whom we shall refer to as Mr. Celeriac, and a woman came up to the two of us with the purpose of saying hello to Mr. C.  After exchanging pleasantries, Mr. C introduced the woman (whom we shall refer to as Madame Greene) to me as the owner of Edgewater Farm, and the first thing out of her mouth  after “Hello” was “Are you Certified Organic?” to which I had to reply “No, we are not.”  The silence was deafening, and I was on the receiving end of a look that I can only assume is normally reserved for convicted pedophiles.  This situation was so uncomfortable that poor Mr. Celeriac felt he had to come to my defense by trying to explain all the things that we do on our farm that are organic and sustainable, and the good work that we do with the local food pantry. Madame Greene seemed unmoved, unflappable and certainly uninterested in finding out any more about Edgewater Farm. After a few minutes of direct discourse with Mr. C and no further acknowledgement of my presence, she moved on.

It grated on me at the time, for it is not the first time I, my family or employees have experienced that kind of response.  For the sake of making it easy for Americans to make certain decisions about their food choices, the USDA has come up with the Organic Certification Program and a little green sticker that differentiates products from USDA Certified Organic farms from everything else.  So all food choices become, at the point of purchase, either Organic (a good thing) or non-organic or conventional (a bad thing, or at the very least, not as good a thing as Organic). This rubs me wrong. The label and certification grants people  (like the sanctimonious Madame Greene) the ability actually to dismiss any further discussion of food production, by over-simplifying the discussion and reducing farming practices to “good” and  “bad” as determined by a little green sticker.

The last thing I would hope to convey to anyone is that because I may use a conventional chemical in my management practices (as exemplified by our spraying the tomatoes with  “conventional” fungicides which incidentally saved us from about a $35,000 crop loss during the late-blight outbreak of 2009) is the impression that I am against organic farming. (That aforementioned $35,000 crop loss would have been pretty much assured if I were certified organic, because some of the materials I use on the tomatoes are EPA-registered for tomatoes but are not OMRI listed.)  I certainly am not in any way against organic practices, and I am as familiar with J I Rodale, Arden Anderson and Louis Bromfield at Malabar Farm as anyone.  I admire any farmer who is good to his land and who can make an honest living farming without outside income, be he or she conventional, organic, or any shade between the two. We have farmed trying to utilize organic practices when and where applicable on this farm since long before it was trendy and long before the USDA got into the certification business.   I  find it irritating when people just simply buy into the fallacy that the little green USDA “Certified Organic” sticker automatically signals to them that 1) no sprays have been used, 2) there is less carbon footprint because it’s organic,  and 3) it’s completely “sustainable.”

Going to back Madame Greene, I would have welcomed from her a response of “Oh, Edgewater Farm is not organic? Why wouldn’t you want to be?”  Then maybe I could have told her why we don’t qualify for certification. Then we could have had a discussion about the declining profitability of  offering PYO Strawberries and how we feel the use of conventional chemical fungicides plays a part in allowing us to continue offering Pick Your Own.  Or, that in fact, we frequently choose to use the same biological OMRI-certified insecticides and fungicides that are available to Certified Organic farmers.  And how land base, green manuring and crop rotation at our farm works. Or how  our IPM program of pest management in our greenhouses precludes the use of prophylactic spraying by using beneficial insect  releases. Or maybe that buying my lettuce in season makes more sense than buying organic lettuce  with a huge carbon imprint from California. Maybe I could have persuaded her to consider all the organic practices we do undertake and why.  Then, after our discussion, she might well still have determined to buy organically-certified product, and I would have respected that decision.

How farmers arrive at how they manage their farms is a complex, thought-provoking discussion that we farmers constantly have amongst ourselves and at meetings. It is a discussion with no simplistic “correct way” or  “incorrect way”  answers.  At least Madame Greene wouldn’t have bought into the media hype surrounding the little green organic sticker, without having the discussion and going to the effort of putting some real thought into it. And maybe she could have reserved her glare for a real pedophile.