For Farmers, When is Being Certified Organic Worth it?
People pay extra to buy food with the official USDA organic label on it. In order for those green beans or that gallon of milk to get that label, the farmer that produced has to be certified with the USDA.
In order to get that certification the farmer has to provide a large amount of documentation, including disclosing everything that’s put on their fields and a comprehensive farm plan.
Organic certification make more sense for some farmers than others.
John Curtis owns Barefoot Gardens just outside of Macomb. He characterizes his operation as a “market garden” and advertises what he grows as grows as garden fresh, locally, grown and chemical free but not organic certified.
He said with the amount of work he has to do, he doesn’t need “any more bureaucracy to deal with.”
He also said that some of the requirements when it comes selecting seeds could be especially challenging for him.
Curtis said at Barefoot Gardens he grows over 300 varieties of vegetable, berries, herbs and flowers including 40 varieties of tomatoes alone.
“Now if I was doing organic certification I would have to have documentation that I had searched for an organic seed source for every one of those varieties,” Curtis said.
Western Illinois University Sustainable Agriculture Professor, Joel Gruver agreed, and added that it can quickly become a complicated process to document.
“Just the paper trail of having documentation of every variety where you obtained it, and if was not organic you have to indicate that you searched for organic” Gruver said. “You have to show that you looked at three different companies for something comparable and were not able to find it. Then you have to have proof that it’s non GMO, not genetically modified, and that the seed was untreated.”
He said if a store like Whole Foods would want to sell Curtis’ food as organic he would need to be certified. Gruver said that for farmers like Curtis whose members travel to his farm and know him personally, certification isn’t as important as it is for grocery stores.
Gruver said 50 billion dollars of food is purchased in Illinois and only a very small part is purchased directly from farmers.
He explained that grocery stores aren’t going away and for consumers separated from how their food is grown, certification is important.
“Local and organic fit well together but local probably is even more important to the rapidly growing consumer base that is interested in buying from farmers in their communities,” Gruver said. “They’re more interested in it being a farmer that’s local to them than it is specifically a farmer that has gone through certification.”
Curtis said that his customers, whom he refers to as members, come to his farm and ask him questions about his methods and the produce he grows.
“Since I’m dealing with local people and people who know me and during the growing season see me every week I don’t think that organic certification is necessary,” Curtis said. “I think member certification is actually more powerful and more important.”
Professor Gruver added that organic certification is about adding value to the crops the farmer produces. He said certification is a way to prove that added value, but he said, Curtis doesn’t need a stamp to prove that added value because his members can see if for themselves.