We get this question a lot at the farmers’ market.
There’s a reason that our vendors don’t have labels claiming that their products are organic, even though some use organic farming methods. Using the term “organic” on labels is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture. Yes, that isn’t a misprint. Although the FDA usually reigns supreme concerning labeling on foods and food packaging, the USDA oversees anything related to the production of the food, so they regulate organic certification.
The process is time consuming and can be costly, depending on the certifying agency used and size of the operation. Up-front fees can be over $1000; even more if a farmer is certifying poultry or livestock. Some of the up-front fees can later be reimbursed through a USDA cost sharing program, but that is only if the organic certification is approved. Of course, certification is only required for farms that sell more than $5,000 in organic products each year. However, if the farm makes or produces a product and wants to claim that it or its ingredients are organic, the final product must be certified.
The process and determination of certified organic can be a bit convoluted too. For example, if a vendor at our market combined several certified organic ingredients to make an organic granola, the vendor could not make any organic claim on the granola’s packaging without certification, even if all ingredients are certified organic. Per the USDA website,
Organic claims include any use of the word “organic” (alone or referring to specific organic ingredients) or the USDA organic seal.
A more appropriate question…
These hurdles are not outside the scope of some of our vendors. In fact, many use sustainable farming practices, including things like no-till and crop rotation. However, if certification isn’t required, and in many cases it is not, the benefits of going through the process do not outweigh the costs. A better question to ask our vendors might be, “What sort of farming practices do you use?” or “Do you use pesticides or herbicides?” As customers at our market, get to know the vendors who are growing and producing your food. They’ll welcome your questions.