It may be the dead of winter, but it’s sunny and warm in Southern California and the farmers' market is in full swing. Rows of stalls offer seasonal squash, apples, and root vegetables. Meanwhile, brightly colored banners declare nearly every vendor not just organic, but Certified Organic.
Smit Orchards is one of those vendors. The Central California-based farm’s apples and cherries come certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the leading trade and certification organization in the country. According to Mat, who works the register at the Smit Orchards stall, that proof of certification makes a world of difference for customers – and in turn, makes a difference for vendors and producers. It’s a trend that has been growing strongly over the past few years, no doubt spurred on by a rising concern among the general public over food safety standards.
“People want to know what’s in their food,” concurs Jane Wade, Development Specialist at CCOF. “Organic Certification is the only food system that actually has standards, regulations, requirements, and organizations like the CCOF that ensure you’re meeting those standards and requirements.” In short, Organic Certification is a simple way of providing consumers with an awful lot of information about what they’re buying.
That is not to say that obtaining organic certification is simple. To the contrary, organic certification is a rigorous process filled with strict guidelines meant to bring farms up to code with organic standards dictated by the USDA.
“There are different requirements depending on what you’re doing,” says Wade. “If you’re growing on the ground, your soil has to be without prohibited materials for at least three years. You must be planting organic seeds or starts, and you must be using organic growing methods – that means crop rotation, maintaining the fertility of the soil, and not using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The main idea is to keep the poison out of the food, and at the same time to maintain the strength of the growing system by maintaining soil fertility.”
Those three years are not years that go unchecked: farms are expected to draft an Organic System Plan and keep extensive harvesting and planting logs, keeping track of everything from schedules to any time fertilizers or other inputs (USDA organic standards-approved, naturally) are used. The rules can even extend to physical restrictions like how many feet away a farm’s crops are from a neighboring farm using conventional methods – and farms are also subject to frequent visits from inspectors to make sure that everything is up to snuff. If an error is made or evidence of unapproved chemicals is uncovered, farms are sent back to square one to restart the three-year process.
Then there is the cost. When done through the CCOP, the certification process starts with an initial $275 application fee. After that, each inspection can run several hundred dollars. Once a farm passes muster and is officially certified, it is subject to yearly fees that can run into thousands according to the CCOP’s Gross Organic Production Value table. “People always want to know why organic fruit costs more,” remarks Audrey, who works at the Smit Orchards stall alongside Mat. “It doesn’t cost more to grow organic fruit – it’s because of getting them Certified Organic.”
It’s a process that can be frustrating to farmers who use organic methods but aren’t as interested in the costly financial barriers and red tape standing between their crops and organic certification, or others who have been derailed from the three-year organic plan by persistent pests or other complications. It has led some to begin searching for an alternative to official organic certification through labels like “sustainable.”
“’Sustainability’ is where you grow organically but you don’t pay the certification fee to be certified organic,” notes Mat. “Then it leaves you that window where you can spray to get rid of pests or whatever is going to ruin your crop as a last resort kind of deal. That’s a new term that they’re trying to get passed – it’s like a new style of growing.”
But Wade points out that, by definition, such terms lack the kind of concrete information that a Certified Organic seal of approval provides. “You can label a product as ‘natural’ or ‘sustainable,’ but that only means what you say it means,” she notes. “When you have to have your product certified in order to label it ‘organic,’ you are saying that it meets very specific requirements and standards and regulations and that there’s someone backing that up. Your certifier, whose name is also on your label, is backing up that you’re meeting those requirements and that you continue to meet them over time.”
And ultimately, providing that customer satisfaction is precisely why so much of the farmers' market crew ends up making the effort necessary to certify their products. “I think legitimacy is the main thing,” says Mat. “It’s kind of interesting. People want that little sticker.”
Interested in having your own products certified organic? Visit CCOF.org for more information on how to start the process.