This article appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette on Monday, April 25, 2011.
Finding out how your food is grown isn’t easy, unless you ask those you are buying from. Finding out how “organic” a product may be is even more difficult, especially at area farmers markets, since there are so many standards.
While it seems simple enough to either be organic or not, developing and enforcing regulations for organic foods can be problematic. There are some parts of the system, including cost, that are causing small, local farmers to choose alternatives to organic certification.
“Organic is such a gray area, and there are no teeth in the law,” said Sandy McNees of Bear Foot Farm, a 20-acre farm in Paw Paw. “Until enforcement catches up with the NOP (United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program) standards, we’ll bow out of it and go ‘natural.’”
Natural, not organic
Being “natural” to Kim and Sandy McNees means they will continue to produce their vegetable and pork products in the same way they have for the past 16 years under the rules of NOP and its predecessor, the Organic Foods Production Act. The only difference is they won’t have to pay about $1,000 per year for certification fees, paperwork, inspectors and certified organic seeds.
“There are so many people jumping on the bandwagon for organic that we are in the hole (financially) before the season starts if we pay for certification,” said McNees. “But not all of these people are certified organic nor are they paying the costs involved in being organic.”
The NOP regulates the entire organic industry, including those certified and not certified, said Sam Jones-Ellard, public affairs specialist at the USDA. Violators — those who claim organic status without meeting standards — can be subjected to civil penalties up to $11,000 per violation and organic producers can lose their certification or not be able to sell their product until the certification process is completed.
However, McNees’ experience with USDA-contracted inspectors is that they only check on organic producers and vendors to make sure they are following NOP guidelines.
She said this system also is structured more for big national or international companies rather than small local farmers. That allows some vendors at a farmers market to say or imply they are organic without having to prove it with paperwork.
In 2010, the USDA received 185 complaints worldwide, said Jones-Ellard. And more than half of those complaints dealt with operations that were labeling their product as organic without certification. There was no data available on U.S. or Michigan complaints.
Blue Dog Greens in Bangor has been certified organic by nonprofit Oregon Tilth since 2002 and will continue to seek certification, said Dennis Wilcox, a partner at the farm.
The farm sits on land that formerly belonged to Maynard Kaufman, who followed organic agriculture methods since 1973 and was one of the founders of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance.
“Customers recognize certified organic right away,” he said.
Wilcox admits it costs a lot of money to be certified organic, but said the state of Michigan offers a cost share for farmers up to 75 percent.
“You apply for it and present receipts (of your sales),” he said. “It’s real easy.”
However, he hopes the state’s budget cuts don’t scuttle this program.
Now that Bear Foot Farm is “natural,” McNees decided to use the money she used to pay to be certified organic to expand both the amount and variety of produce she grows and to enlarge her pork operation.
Another difficulty for small, local organic farmers is finding affordable organic seeds.
About 70 percent of the seed industry is controlled by large multinational corporations that produce conventionally-grown non-organic seeds, according to a report from the USDA.
Both Wilcox and McNees buy from seed companies that take the “Safe Seed Pledge.” These companies offer untreated, non-GMO seeds and hybrids. They also “support agricultural process that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems, and ultimately people and communities.”
McNees switched from buying 50-pound bags of certified organic russet or red potato seeds that cost $90 each plus shipping to buying 50-pound bags of untreated, non-genetically- engineered seeds that cost $16 each and can be picked up at a local seed store.
Seed variety is an issue, too, she said. Safe seed companies may have 20 to 30 choices for tomatoes versus only six choices for organic tomatoes.
While the McNees have chosen to go natural and Wilcox will remain certified organic, other area farmers have turned to an alternative known as Certified Naturally Grown (CNG). This is a label especially designed for small-scale producers who sell locally and directly to their customers.
CNG standards are just as strict as the USDA’s NOP, but they differ from the government- run program in that CNG minimizes paperwork and certification fees are between $50 and $175. CNG also uses an on-site peer-review inspection process and performs unannounced pesticide residue testing. Growers may use an easily-identified label for their products just as organic growers do.
Carrie Young of Young Herbs and Produce in Portage uses the CNG label primarily because it only costs her $75 per year instead of a minimum $500 to be certified organic. She is one of several CNG farmers in the area.
Young has had her three-acre farm since 2006 but this will be the third consecutive season that she has been producing CNG produce.
CNG farmers inspect each other in a cooperative arrangement called Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) that is utilized by 10,000 farmers worldwide. In this way, they are able to develop a sense of community and support, Young said.
“We’re not in competition with each other, we are collaborating with each other. In today’s business world, that’s a unique and important model.”