ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In February, Barack Obama signed into law a new Farm Bill, a piece of legislation passed every five years that was likened by the president to a “Swiss Army knife” and covers a range of issues that go beyond agriculture to health and nutrition, conservation, food stamps and more. According to a March 20 press release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 2014 bill allocates $11.5 million from the federal budget to help share the costs of organic certification with the states. This allocation is a large increase, up from $1.425 million in 2013.
The organic industry is booming in the United States. Figures from the USDA’s National Organic Program show that the number of certified organic farms in the nation topped 18,513 in 2013, up more than 200 percent since 2002. This impressive increase gives only a partial picture of the growth of sustainable agriculture in the U.S. An uncounted number of farms follow alternative sustainable practices or even organic ones, but choose not to go through the official USDA organic certification process.
Some of these farmers adhere to alternative labels like Certified Naturally Grown, which bills itself as “the grassroots alternative to certified organic.” However, these alternatives are small in number. CNG has just 700 members—less than 4 percent of the number of USDA-certified organic farms. Many farmers follow organic practices but don’t receive official certification. Still others go through with certification but remain ambivalent about the certification system.
The choices of these self-proclaimed sustainable farmers about what practices to follow and which certifications to receive offer a unique perspective on the future of organic and sustainable agriculture in the U.S. More than just stories of individual choices about shouldering the time and monetary costs of the certification process, these decisions give insight into what might be gained, or lost, with the booming growth of certified organic agriculture in the U.S.
Richard Andres of Tantré Farm has grown organic greens and vegetables in Chelsea, Mich., for 21 years. He was first certified with a Michigan organic label until the USDA label came into force in 2000. Andres explains that the original intent of the farmers who worked for a federal organic label was to establish organic as a recognized form of agriculture. The ensuing regulation frustrated many farmers, who either found the complex requirements burdensome or feared that the weaker than desired standards would damage the integrity of organic agriculture.
Andres can see both upsides and downsides to the federal organic label’s development. USDA certification allows farmers to sell through a wide variety of vendors while still assuring the end-consumer about some positive growing practices. For crops, this means that the plants have not been treated with sewage, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides or genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs. Some organic farmers go beyond the bare minimum by also composting, controlling soil erosion and managing the water cycle of their farms.
But there are also many negatives with the USDA organic standards, Andres says. “At this point, it is expensive and it is time-consuming.” Besides, he notes, just because a type of agriculture is called organic does not necessarily make it less extractive or industrial than conventional agriculture. For example, organic farmers can use manure from concentrated animal feeding operations or will use large amounts of petroleum or water in production.
Tomm Becker of Sunseed Farm in Ann Arbor says that although Sunseed follows all the USDA organic practices with its greens and vegetables, he has chosen not to go through the USDA organic certification process. For Becker, the label is not necessary when he is able to explain his farming methods to his customers in more detail. Without the label, customers ask more questions about the growing practices, which opens up more opportunities for personal connections with them. “Organic can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” he says. “When we don’t fall back on that term … then we actually have to educate.”
This allows Becker to go beyond the basics. “We find it really rewarding for people, for them to understand that it’s managing a whole ecological system out there.”
At the same time, Becker acknowledges that this more comprehensive communication is limited when the farmer does not sell directly to the consumer. Right now, Sunseed is small enough so that Becker can talk to a large number of his customers, but as Sunseed grows, USDA certification may be the best way to send a message to customers shopping in more conventional retail outlets, he acknowledges. It’s a challenge, though. “There is not enough room on the shelf for everyone to be telling their story,” he says.
It was for similar reasons that, after four years in business at farmers markets and through community-supported agriculture, Alex Cacciari, co-owner of Ann Arbor’s Seeley Farm, chose to get certified. She wanted to be able to reach a bigger audience through retail and grocery stores. “The USDA symbol is a really readable symbol for customers,” she says. “There are still customers out there who grant a lot of value and who have a lot of allegiance to that organic label.”
Still, Cacciari is concerned about customers’ understanding of what the USDA organic label means. One grocery buyer, whom Cacciari had assumed would better understand the organic label, recently inquired if Seeley Farm had considered applying for the non-GMO label. In spite of the fact that doing so might improve sales, Cacciari refused. Certified organic farmers cannot use GMOs, which means that everything that is organic is already non-GMO. Cacciari’s worry is that labeling a product both organic and non-GMO would lead to more misunderstandings about organic standards.
It’s not certain if the growth in the organic sector will undermine farmers’ attempts to educate consumers about the complexity of sustainable and ecological growing practices. Many of the farmers interviewed see the mandated organic standards as a good first step, but only a small part of the sustainable management of a farm.
Andres, the organic pioneer, is a pragmatist and admits that it is hard to follow ideal organic practices when the larger system may incentivize a lower standard. He noted that one element of true sustainability is economic. “Ultimately, I had to pay the mortgage on this place,” he says. “So I guess I do the best I can to strike a balance.”
Farmers like Andres, Becker and Cacciari, and the individual stories they tell about going beyond the USDA organic guidelines, may help guide consumers and shape the market for organic food in the future.