Justine and Brian Denison say they adhere to all the growing practices required for organic certification, yet if they label their beans and tomatoes “organic” at the farmer’s market, they could face federal charges and $20,000 or more in fines.
Because the Denisons chose not to seek organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Denison Farm, which has been under organic management for more than 20 years, is banned from using that term. So they and hundreds of other small direct-marketing farms across the country have adopted an alternative label: Certified Naturally Grown.
Started by a group of organic farmers in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley as a backlash against federal takeover of the organic program in 2002, Certified Naturally Grown has expanded over the past decade to include more than 700 farms in 47 states, executive director Alice Varon said.
“Certified Naturally Grown is tailored for direct-market farmers producing food without any synthetic chemicals specifically for their local communities,” Varon said. “It’s a particular niche of the agricultural world. It’s not in direct competition with the national organic program.”
Many small farmers previously certified organic by an independent organization have declined to participate in the federal program. They voice a variety of objections: extensive record-keeping requirements; fees that can amount to 6 percent of a small farm’s gross sales; and philosophical objections to joining a monolithic government-run program that also certifies huge operations that ship produce across the country.
“We have noticed over time that more and more farmers — often, younger farmers — who appear to be following organic practices don’t bother to get certified,” said Jack Kittredge, co-owner of a certified organic farm in Barre, Mass., and editor of “The Natural Farmer,” journal of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. “My major concern is that sometimes, unless you’re certified you’re not even aware of some of the problems,” such as calling livestock organic even though the animals eat feed containing genetically modified crops.
Atina Diffley, an organic farming consultant and author in Farmington, Minn., said alternative labels create confusion for customers. She said there are only about 13,000 USDA certified organic farms out of 2.2 million farms, and more organic farms are needed to bolster the movement’s impact on national farm policy. “When farms have an alternative certification, they’re not counted,” she said.
Sam Jones, spokesman for USDA’s organic certification program, said the agency doesn’t comment on guidelines other than its own and doesn’t take a position on whether alternative labels cause confusion. But he noted that growers are required by law to get federal certification if they want to sell their product as organic. Jones said USDA has a new program called “Sound and Sensible,” aimed at reducing paperwork and other burdensome aspects of certification.
Ryan Voilland, co-owner of the certified organic Red Fire Farm in Granby, Mass., said the certification fees and paperwork aren’t a big burden. He grows 100 acres of produce and has gross sales of about $2 million, and pays $2,000 a year for certification, of which $750 is returned in a federal rebate program. The premium price for organic produce far outweighs the fee, he said.